The Key to Close Reading

A Guest Post by Barton Keeler

I am not an expert in close reading but have tried a variety of methods and approaches.  What I discovered is that when I have a great essential question everything goes well – kids are engaged, they’re diving deep and thinking creatively.  In fact, if my question is good enough I don’t need much else. My essential question works best if it contains the three following components. Every great essential question should be:

1. The Question Should Be Open-Ended and Ambiguous

I really think this is the key to engagement.  If the reading’s purpose is a simple matter of “finding the answer” then students tend to disengage because the assignment becomes something little more than a comprehension worksheet.  I usually introduce the concept of close reading with an activity I call “active viewing,” using a classic episode of the “Twilight Zone.” The episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” works really well.  (This is the episode where Robert Wilson (William Shatner) boards an airplane and witnesses a gremlin on the wing tearing up the plane.) Students fold a piece of paper in half creating two columns labeled Sane and Insane.  As I show the episode students are tasked with looking for evidence that the protagonist is “sane” (column A) or “insane” (column B). This episode works well because there is plenty of evidence on both sides and several facts can be used as evidence for both depending on how they’re used.  I have viewed this episode at least 30 times and still…each time I wonder if I got it right last time…and I sit, engaged, looking for more evidence. Every year I use this assignment at least one student finds something new or brings up a new piece of evidence that I had overlooked. I usually wrap up the assignment with a discussion/debate and have students write a paragraph laying out their own argument by marshaling the best evidence offered and explaining away the best evidence to the contrary.  A deliciously ambiguous reading/viewing coupled with an open ended question will provide an opportunity for students to really dig in to the text.

2. The Question Should Be Either/Or  

This is especially true for beginners or struggling readers. When I have my students take out a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, I simply ask them to gather evidence from the reading that A is the case or B is the case.  Students then jot down all the facts that support A being true and all the facts that support B being true. For example, when my freshmen read “The Cask of Amontillado” I ask them to find evidence that A) the narrator is sane or B) the narrator is insane.  I will always have a few students that want to come up with their own theory which is fantastic, but for most students this is sufficient to get them to read and reread and examine the evidence in the text.

3. The Question Should Be Heavy

Serious questions are engaging questions. The question should cause the student to ponder life’s great questions and ultimately cause them to question their worldview.  This isn’t mandatory but I find that these types of questions really lend a sense of urgency to the task. When reading Frankenstein, I challenge my students with the question:  Who is more human, Victor Frankenstein or his monster? I like this question because it forces the student to question what it mean to be human. Ultimately it is asking what they believe the nature of man to be.  Is it good or evil?

Not every reading lends itself to a question with these three characteristics but when it does, I find a definite increase in student engagement and productivity.  

Barton Keeler teaches high school English in central California.

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