The Seven Rules of Close Reading (beyond the Common Core)

The Common Core reading standards promote close reading of text, and they provide learning goals that “outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade.” What they don't do, however, is describe what close reading is.

While the standards outline the learning goals so students properly identify and understand “key ideas and details” or “craft and structure,” the authors of the standards note that “[t]he Standards should be recognized for what they are not as well as what they are.” Among those things the standards are not, “[t]he Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”

So how should teachers teach close reading, given that the Common Core and other standards provide the learning goals? I submit we need to teach students how to read closely by highlighting and modeling the seven habits of expert readers. To help you do just that, here are Seven Rules of Close Reading, which you can use to teach your students what they need to do to read closely and to learn more from text.

1. Limit distraction.

Be disciplined about reading to learn, which means shutting down the distractors before they distract you. Sit in a quiet space and turn off or silence all the things that are going to try to steal away your attention. Of course, this has become increasingly difficult as technology advances, since more immediate gratification is almost always close at hand, possibly even on the device on which you are reading this right now. In my experience, even listening to music with vocals while reading makes it more difficult to learn.

At the same time, the source of possible distraction is also the source for more information to promote understanding and learning (See Rules 2 and 4 below), but only if a reader is disciplined about remaining focused on reading and researching to learn.

2. Take your time.

Your goal is learning, not finishing, and you can’t rush learning. At Actively Learn, our T-shirts say: “Stop Skimming, Start Learning.” This is because it takes time to understand what an author means and to fill gaps in your knowledge. Looking up words and references you do not understand is critical to understanding, and it will add depth and wonder to the 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 really is a myth. If you need confirmation, try to hold two simultaneous and meaningful conversations. Though it seems we are multitasking successfully when we glance away briefly from the book or article we were reading to answer a text message or to check the latest stock prices or scores, we are actually breaking our connection with the book or article. It takes time to rebuild this connection--to wade back into the sea of names, ideas, and references the text holds and to remind ourselves of what it all means. Reading to learns involves juggling a small universe of names, references, and ideas. If you reach for your phone while your mind is juggling all this information, everything that was connected in your short-term memory falls apart, and it takes time to get started and organize all of this information again. A moment of multitasking takes many moments to recover from, so even an instant of distraction will interfere with comprehension, retention, and analysis.

4. Think about why this text is important.

You have to ask yourself questions as you read, and the best way to ask yourself questions is to take written notes, in the margins of the actual or electronic text (see Rule 5). Here are a few questions you can ask as you read:

  • Why am I reading this text? What’s the goal of this exercise?
  • What words, references, or concepts in the text do I not know, and what’s the best way to fill these gaps?
  • What’s the main point of this passage?
  • What do I know about the author to explain why she wrote this passage in this way?
  • Have I seen this idea or argument before?
  • For informational texts, what evidence does the author offer in support of her claims?

5. Write when you read.

You can’t learn deeply from text without writing about what you’re reading. Take notes about the most important points in the text, and why they are important, what they remind you of, how they connect, and what questions they raise in your mind.

Be organized about your notes, so you can read and understand them when you go back to them, and so you can write some more about them after you go back to them to wrestle again with the same points, their importance, connections, and what they reveal. The more often you send this information back through your brain, and the more you assemble and disassemble it in your mind and in your writing, the more you will learn.

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

Reading in a sustained way enables you to think about how what you are reading connects to what you just read, what you already know from other sources, and what you need to learn, as you read. Reading with stamina means better thoughts, notes, and meaning making. To go deeply into a text, and to take the text deeply into your mind, requires your full attention for an extended period of time, as the mind will only search long-term memory, seek to fill gaps, and successfully build connections if the text has time to penetrate and occupy the mind. To commit one’s full attention for an extended period of time requires not only discipline but also stamina, which comes from practice and the belief that reading will reveal important things that you will remember and find useful.

At the same time, to stay fresh it is important to take short breaks between your 15 to 30 minute reading sessions, to let your mind cool down.

7. When possible, practice reading as a social activity.

You learn more when you ask yourself questions while you read (Rule 5). You also learn more when you have an opportunity to discuss what you have read, and what you have written about what you have read, with others who have also read about the same subject, or have read the same author or text.

In conclusion, this is how great readers read to learn. And this is how your students can become great readers. It is time-consuming and effortful, but once they start reading this way, they’ll never again be happy with simply skimming.

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