Close Reading: A Guide for Students

Last week, I shared with teachers The Seven Rules of Close Reading. This week, I've distilled those rules to create a close reading guide for their students.

Dear Students,

The whole point of reading for school is to learn something important. To learn, you should do these seven things every time you read.

1. Limit distractions.

  • Work in a quiet, comfortable space with room to work.
  • Silence all the things that are going to distract you, and put them out of your line of sight (e.g., phone, messaging app, social media, videos).
  • If you're going to listen to music, pick an album, playlist, or station and stick with it (multitasking is a myth, see Rule 3).

2. Take your time.

You can't rush learning. It takes time to understand what an author means and to fill gaps in your knowledge. Take the time to look up words and references you do not understand, and it will add depth and wonder to your reading experience. Anything you skip is a missed opportunity for real learning, and you’ll likely run into that word or reference in the near future anyway, so you might as well sort it out now.

3. Do not multitask.

Multitasking is a myth. Though it seems you're multitasking when you look away quickly from your assigned reading to answer a text message or to check the latest news or scores, you're actually breaking your connection with the text, and it takes time to recover. So, multitasking makes learning take longer.

4. Think about what you read.

To learn, you have to figure out what the text means and why the text is important. You do this by asking yourself questions as you read, and by looking up what you don't know. Here are a few questions you can ask as you read:

  • What is the author trying to say?
  • What words, references, or concepts in the text do I not know?
  • What do I know about the author that explains why she wrote this?
  • Have I seen this idea or argument before, maybe in something we read earlier for this class?
  • In non-fiction texts, what evidence does the author offer to support what she's saying?

5. Take notes as you read.

You can’t learn deeply from text without thinking about what you’re reading, and the best way to think about the text is to take notes as you read. What you're trying to do in your notes is to answer the questions you're asking as you read (see samples in Rule 4). You can do this in the margins of the book (if you own it), on note paper (if you don't), or in your electronic reading software (e.g., Actively Learn).

6. Read for sustained periods of at least 15 to 30 minutes.

Reading in a sustained way helps you learn. To make sure you're reading with stamina, use a stopwatch. When you start reading, start the stopwatch. If you move your eyes from the text, stop the stopwatch. When you've hit 15 to 30 minutes of honest reading, take a break for a couple of minutes. Then, go back to reading.

7. Talk to your friends.

You learn more when you have an opportunity to discuss what you've read with others who have also read about the same text. So, whenever you get a chance, talk to your friends about what you've all read for class. Ask them what part of the text made them think the most, or their favorite line from the text, for example.

In conclusion, great readers follow these seven rules so they learn when they read. It takes more time and effort to learn, but once you start reading this way, you’ll never be happy just skimming.

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