Addressing the differing needs of students can make teaching reading a daunting task. Students are expected to have a deep understanding of what they read and provide answers grounded in text. One way for students to interact with the text is through close reading, which can become a powerful classroom tool for fiction and nonfiction texts across grade levels.
Setting the Stage
At the beginning of the year, each component of close reading is highly structured, but as the year progresses, students work more independently. Close reading begins with setting a purpose. I set the intention by telling the class, “We are going to read to find the main idea. The main idea helps us determine what an article is about.” When learning how specific animals adapted to their surroundings, for example, we identified the main idea with the simple phrase, “how animals adapt.” Writing the purpose at the top of the page helps students focus attention toward meeting a clear objective.
Once a purpose is set, number each paragraph of the article to allow students to cite their sources and track their reading. As a prereading strategy, students can make predictions about what the text is going to be about based on context clues like the title and pictures.
Developing the Skill
When reading, students can use pencil marks to annotate the text. Initially, color-coding annotation provides visual cues for students. A common key for the color coding can be presented as a visual at the front of the classroom so that the whole class uses consistent marks.
At the beginning of the year, we read the text together—first for fluency, or, as I told my students, to “get [their] mouths familiar with the words.” Then we read the passage again with the goal of finding key terms such as numbers, dates, and names of places. Together, we mark the key terms with a blue box, and I explain why we are making this mark.
I devise a mini-lesson on the importance of each key term. When we encounter a word in bold, we discuss how bold words have a specific purpose. When we read an article on weather, we discussed how headings use bold print. This print in bold serves as a clue to let us know the topic of each paragraph.
Other key terms may be notes by dates. When we read an article about Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to go into space, we used dates provided in the text to sequence her life using sticky notes. Students wrote down the date and the event that occurred. This helped students understand how a text works to provide a logical flow of information.
After reading the passage together, students reread it independently and put a box around unfamiliar words. I ask students to share unknown words with the class and mark them on my own text. Their feedback informs what vocabulary I can teach in an upcoming lesson. The words that need to be retaught are often content specific and essential for students to understand. After noting the vocabulary I want to revisit, we define the meaning of the text.
Following the independent read, we read the passage again as a class, pausing to annotate. I model my thinking during reading by pausing and noting, “I have not heard the word ‘extinction’ before. I wonder what it means.” We then put a question mark by the word. As the year progresses, some of the steps can be combined, and students may begin to annotate the passage earlier in the process. Strong readers may complete this task by themselves or work with peers who need support as long as clear expectations are put in place. Annotating text encourages students to slow down and have meaningful interactions with their peers. When students are not racing to find an answer, they can critically explain why their answer makes sense in the context of what they are reading.
Encouraging Critical Questions
Finally, the students answer questions I create about the text. To make sure that readers of all levels can participate, the questions should range from simple, such as “What is the title of the article?” to more complex, such as “Who is the audience for this article and why?” I ask specific students for responses. To deepen comprehension, students can engage in discussion around what they have read. For example, when learning about character traits, students were asked to show what the protagonist thought, said, or felt, while rooting their responses in evidence.
Later in the year, students can begin to develop their own questions to ask their peers. Remind students that the answers need to be supported by evidence in the text. A trading card format engages students in the questions. Students write a question on an index card and give it to a partner at their table to answer. This simple activity allows students who hesitate to answer questions aloud to participate. Sometimes I collect the cards at the end of the period and use one of the questions as a “do now” when students enter the classroom for the next period.