An Extended Post on Coaching Inductive Close Reading in a Distracted Age

“Let’s face it, close reading isn’t often a skill that comes naturally. When our students get a new reading assignment, their first instinct is often to race to the finish line rather than engage deeply with a text.” –Sharon Crowley’s “11 Tips to Turn Every Student Into a Close Reader

Despite the many criticisms of standardized testing, as I look back on my honors and AP English students and their recent assessment challenges, I’m still convinced that teachers should coach all students to get better at independent, inductive close reading with complex texts. Rather than a reductionist testing skill or an esoteric English classroom concern, such close reading abilities are important for helping develop thoughtful young people who will become thoughtful adults.

By close reading, I’m focused on how students independently imagine, extract, and construct meaning from texts. At its best, the process is very inductive as students work with only the text under consideration, drawing on relevant background knowledge, applying observation skills, and making thoughtful connections. Texts for authentic close reading are appropriately complex and challenging, often coming from less familiar times and places than readers are used to.

This notion of close reading has been one of the better features of the Common Core Standards, adopted in 2010, and still integral to my own state’s standards (Colorado). Grant Wiggins 2015 post on “What Close Reading Actually Means” provides a more detailed consideration of the best way to define close reading.

It is good to rein in the definition of close reading a bit. Different conceptions can easily interfere with student mastery of inductive close reading. I’ve found that in many reader-response versions of close reading, the emphasis shifts to focus more on what a students thinks of and wants to think of in term of any given part of a text under study.

Such reckless reader-response approaches can turn into springboards that guide students away from the texts and into non-text dependent discussions and associations. In such malpractice, a text just becomes anything that the readers want it mean. (When reader-response theory wrongly influences students, one might think of Humpty Dumpty who says, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”)

In thinking beyond standards and testing, I’ve found one of the biggest influences on the promotion of close reading coming from early 20th century poets and critics such as Ezra Pound (also characterizing many of the literary critics known as Formalists or New Critics).

In his 1934 book titled ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound aligns reading poetry well with the observation and induction methods of the biological sciences:

"The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one 'slide' or specimen with another. No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish." (17) 

That anecdote is about a post-graduate biology student who wants to learn how to think about biology like the great teacher Agassiz. To his initial dismay, the student is told to just sit and observe the fish, over and over again, over several days.

Eventually his observations feed into better connections and insights about the fish, including the way that it decays throughout the process. Pound reveals the outcome of the learning: “At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it” (18).

Since the early 90s, when I first encountered Pound, I found his argument intriguing, especially since I had defected from a nearly-completed science major in college and shifted to an English and liberal arts focus. I was drawn to reconciling what C.P. Snow called the “Two Cultures” where science and the humanities were considered as antithetical and antagonistic disciplines. For our time, Pound’s approach invites us to consider the compatibility of liberal arts thinking and STEM emphases in education at the secondary and post-secondary levels. Inductive thinking abounds in scientific study and can have a significant role in the humanities.

I fondly remember Dr. Gilbert Findlay’s use of Pound’s approach in a Colorado State University poetry course. Dr. Findlay would frequently provide us with a printed poem and sparse instructions to “Take This Poem and Look at It!” humorously alluding to both Pound and Johnny Paycheck.

It was in applying Dr. Findlay’s approach to poetry that I developed an essay about one of John Keats’ poems. I had read, reread, marked-up, and thought about the poem so many times that I was starting to hear how certain strands of classical music could go with the rhythm and how the poem shifted emotionally and existentially through it’s themes. I was basically in-dwelling the poem as a reader (a very good, greater purpose for close reading).

Amazed at how good of a grade I received on the paper, I spent about half an hour in Dr. Findlay’s office unpacking what I did right. Far more important than any grade or credit, that meditative discipline of close reading has often blessed me throughout the years.

Not everyone has appreciated the Formalist/New Critic approach in its modern manifestations in English courses. Since Pound’s time, many critics have accused the approach of elitism. In his course on “From Plato to Post-modernism: Understanding the Essence of Literature and the Role of the Author,” Louis Markos offers a helpful counterpoint:

"[U]nlike postmodern theory, which is so obscure and jargon-rich that only a small body of elite Ph.D.’s can understand and apply it, New Criticism can be quickly taught, learned, and put into practice by grads, undergrads, and even advanced high-school students." 

Indeed, I found that even the postmodern theorist who taught a critical theory course at CSU rightly desired that his students be adept at practicing close reading. From my more recent learning experiences, I have found that my years of working with Harrison Middleton University’s close reading approach to the Great Books did much to help me really understand the issues that postmodern theory surfaced way back in the 90s. (That also involves issues of background knowledge that I will likely return to in a future post.)

Markos qualifies his support in noting that the New Critical approaches may be a little too harsh on Romantic poetry and its emphasis on feeling. However, I found that the approach is easily adapted to rhetorically considering the emotional associations in texts. Although much of the context so far has examples from poetry, much of what we’ve examined can apply to fiction and non-fiction texts.

In defense of close reading’s value beyond the classroom, I also submit my experience of jury duty a few years back, involving a heart-wrenching case of a fatal automobile accident. The judge had given us a few pages of relevant case law and some brief notes for us to use in deliberation. As my fellow jurors wanted further clarification, they passed on a request to the judge for some further explanation. The judge would have none of that, and he sent back a note that we should just read the texts provided. We were not allowed to access the Internet or other resources. It reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights in Democracy in America about what sort of education we should want for all citizens, especially in case they end up as jury members for a case in which we are the defendant.

Concerning contemporary classroom teaching, Dr. Michael Degen, AP English teacher par excellence, uses inductive close reading approaches with all texts and as the center point of his teaching and coaching strategy. He employs the methods of inductive close reading to help students develop what he calls “analytical voice” in their written and spoken work. In his book Crafting Expository Argument, Dr. Degen explains the centrality of this process:

"This inductive reading process—the movement from observing the evidence in a literary work to drawing associative conclusions about the evidence—is a manner of thinking about the literature, a way of “seeing” as you read, that provides the basis for a thoughtful written analysis." (26)

Since this method gets such brief treatment in his book, I highly recommend Dr. Degen’s workshops for a thorough, first-person encounter to help you understand how it works and how to help students with it.

Additionally, for smaller scale practice, English teachers may benefit from Mastering Close Reading: 99 Practice Passages on Motif, Subject, and Theme, a resource that I’ve recently encountered and find potentially helpful for scaffolding some of the inductive process for struggling students. Side note: One challenge to helping students become better at inductive close reading is providing numerous times when the teacher removes the scaffolding (or training wheels) and encourages the student to dig and take risks with the meaning-making challenges. As with so many aspects of teaching, we want to avoid coddling and crushing students with learning tasks; however, we do want to continually try to work students in appropriate challenge zones of exertion and independence.

Because “close reading isn’t often a skill that comes naturally,” students will be tempted to shortcut or bypass the meaning-making workout that comes with close reading tasks. Students in my school are notoriously gregarious, so they often want to follow what other students interpret texts to say and mean. There is typically an “alpha-student” whom students turn to for hints and handouts about the meaning of any given text. I have plenty of opportunities for students to share their interpretations, but I want them to grow in their individual capacities and confidence as well. For next year, I’ll be planning on coaching the independent workout stages much more thoroughly. Lately, I’m finding self-assessment helpful for emphasizing that work.

Teaching all students to be better at inductive close reading helps them be better prepared for authentic collaborative work. The jury duty experience noted above is but one of many examples. Unfortunately, educators can too often assume that merely offering collaborative learning experiences will build individual skills. As with all efforts at good teaching and learning, one must pursue multiple angles for checking understanding and progress.

Additionally, the availability of online resources often tempts students to shortcut the close reading process. In an ironic moment this year, one student claimed that accessing a SparkNotes summary was a much-needed learning style. (Ugh! Can you hear how that sabotages a growth mindset? One of many problems with the bunk of learning styles theory!) More likely, this was the result of not taking time to process due to a busy schedule and other factors. Again, I see self-assessment helpful in this area by having students reflect on their process work as they go, noting when they used various helps, but after they gave the reading a good try in term of individual effort.

One more recent modification that I’ve made in terms of close reading and thinking about how students read is to encourage them to consider comprehension and meaning-making as involving the imagination. (I think the focus on imagination as part of close reading is something I’ve synthesized from Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s work in You Gotta Be the Book.) So, a good close reading of a text will invite the student to imagine the experience or argument that the author is exploring. Here in the home stretch, I’ve found this very helpful for engaging students and coaching them on some self-assessment of their reading efforts and experiences.

That sense of imagination is important for issues that are beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say for now, one should be careful not to use inductive reading approaches to reduce literary texts to just information–students will definitely do that if you’re not careful. That would miss so much of the larger experiential value of reading literature well.

There is much more to be discussed concerning inductive learning across the disciplines, but that is beyond the scope of this already-quite-lengthy post.

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