Should Students Be ‘Close Readers’?

Special to The Courant

I really wanted the theme of this column to be "Why 'close reading' is stupid and is bad for our kids."

Parents and educators are picking sides and many have declared that students should be devouring lots and lots of books of different genres, rather than spending time focusing on and analyzing a chapter of a book, or a paragraph, or just a sentence, which is what close reading is all about.

I wanted to agree with those who say that young people will become turned off by rereading and examining bits of text because it's totally boring. They make sense: Encourage students to develop a love of reading by exposing them to all sorts of writing.

But last week, when a new Bon Iver song was released, I found myself rereading and examining the lyrics, as I have been doing since the only place to find song lyrics was on the inside of a record album cover. It feeds into my love of words and uses a part of my brain that would otherwise go unused. I'm not so good at writing poetry but I do like to try to figure it out, like a puzzle.

And when used in this way — with poetry or historical documents or particularly interesting and beautiful phrases — close reading has its place.

A high school junior I know completely dislikes reading, so when I asked him about close reading I was expecting a negative review. But he says he actually doesn't mind it, because his analysis can't be wrong. He can state what he thinks the passage means, and because it's his own opinion, there's not necessarily a wrong answer. Plus, he adds, "it's better than reading a whole book."

As a freshman at UConn, I took an English class and made a friend whose name I can't remember. He and I had an ongoing bet: If the professor ultimately concluded that the meaning of a poem or a line of text actually meant something about love or sex, my friend would have to buy me a Snapple lemonade. The professor likely just had a dirty mind, but we did have a good time trying to argue our alternate, nonsexual meanings.

For younger readers, close reading seems to be a reasonable tool to aid in learning the meaning of specific words. But in terms of using close reading as a way to determine comprehension, my teacher friends say it's not cool. As we learn to read, they say, we need to read a complete section to learn to discern what's important and figure out the big picture.

"Children need to read in abundance," one teacher friend says. "Quantity, not quality is important in elementary and maybe even in middle school. "Engagement is everything. Kids now have so many distractions competing for their attention. They need to be able to choose books they love and read those."

Just as I haven't gotten into the book I'm now reading because I read about three lines and fall asleep, students can't get into a story if they're only reading a sentence a week.

We all want to be exposed to different types of reading. If my book (and wine) club read just one book a year instead of 10, we'd miss out on those great books that we wouldn't have discovered on our own. Kind of like drinking the same wine all year.

It sure would be great if every kid couldn't wait to crack open a new book each week but that's just not how all kids roll. So keep the silly and purposely non-grammatically correct Junie B. Jones books coming (which require no close analysis of text) and save the occasional use of close reading for the few times a year that the words are so brilliant that they deserve a second look.

Teresa M. Pelham is a writer living in Farmington. She is the author of the children's books "Roxy's Forever Home" and "Roxy and Her Annoying Little Brother, Stuey." For information or to schedule a school visit with her Certified Therapy Dog, go to roxysforeverhome.com.

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