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Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts on Close Reading (PODCAST)

Choice Literacy

Franki Sibberson chats with Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts about close reading in this 30-minute podcast. Chris and Kate are the authors of Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts -- and Life from Heinemann. Chris blogs at http://christopherlehman.wordpress.com/ and Kate blogs with Maggie Beattie Roberts at indent.

A full transcript is available below the player.




Franki Sibberson:  You've both done a lot of work with close reading as it relates to the common core.  Can you talk about your understanding of the idea of close reading?

Chris Lehman: Sure.  This is Chris here.  I'll get started on this and Kate, if you want to add in, too.  Close reading isn't something that's new in the world.  I think the Common Core standards have brought it back into the conversation. 

When Kate and I were doing research on our book and working in classrooms on close reading, one place we went to was trying to understand how are people defining it?  Where does it come from?  I think one of our images of close reading is monks up in a cloister somewhere, reading religious texts.  People studying the work of their faith, looking at texts from whatever religion it might be and trying to understand by studying the words what some higher power is trying to say to them.  I think that's one image of it. 

Another, as we looked over the decades of close reading work, I think one big place that a lot of the conversation now draws from is around the 1940's, there was a group at universities that were trying to find a way to teach students to do literary criticism.  These were students who were studying poems and plays and novels, and really working on how to be critics.  That research, which some people coined "New Criticism," was a lot about ways of studying texts and looking at them and, sort of in the same way as those monks, trying to understand a message that the text said.  Those new critics talked a lot about how it's important to study the words on the page, to try to black out any of your own misinterpretations or interpretations, your ideas that you were bringing to it, and really just trying to look at the quality of the words on the page, the quality of ideas that were being presented. 

Around that same time, there were other literary critics doing the same thing.  Louise Rosenblatt is from that era, as well.  She, in this conversation, was saying well, part of what you have to do when you study texts is think about yourself.  That everything we read is an interaction with us and the book, and everything we look at has to do with us, as well. 

During that period there was a lot of debate over what's the right way to approach studying a text?  What's the right way that we can teach university-level students to really criticize what's going on?  What's interesting is that went out of fashion for a while, the big push to ignore everything that you think yourselves and just really study the words on the page disappeared a bit.  However, that idea of reading something closely and really studying the parts of it really stuck around until, like you mentioned, Franki, today, where the Common Core standards have brought this conversation back. 

I think what's interesting to Kate and I, I think to a lot of people, is that the standards themselves don't say you have to do it.  There's nowhere that it really says you must close read if you're going to be "standards aligned.”  Instead, there's language throughout the standards that, I think for some people, harkens back to those ideas.  I think it's Standard 1 that says "read closely.”  It doesn't say close reading, but it says read closely, be able to cite evidence, cite things from the text. 

Throughout the standards, they talk about interpreting and analyzing words and phrases, and analyzing structure, and assessing point of view.  So, there's language throughout the standards that suggests this careful, close, thinking a lot about what a text says.  But really, I think it's important to say, too, nowhere does it say you have to.  Some of the conversation that's come since the standards, like the publisher's criteria that Dave Coleman and Sue Pimentel put out, or some other materials that other organizations are talking about, some people believe that, "Well, to be standards aligned, you must do this particular practice all of the time.” 

Really, I think Kate and I see it as what it really is, as one way of looking at a text.  Probably not the only way, but one way that you can really carefully look and study. 

Franki Sibberson:  I love that whole history piece and how you really dug in.  With this close reading thing back in the conversation, how do you think a focus on close reading and the common core conversation will change reading classrooms?

Kate Roberts:  I think that, building off of what Chris said of where we've come from with close reading, I think one of the shifts is how we define it right now.  If in the past it felt like it was -- and you hear this phrase talked about a lot -- if it was really focusing on the four corners of the text, how do we make sure that we also bring in our own experience and our own ideas?  If I think of how it's gonna change reading classrooms I first have to think, what is it exactly, right?  When we were searching out that definition that was gonna lead us in our work, we really liked Doug Fisher's general interpretation of close reading as being a careful and purposeful rereading of the text, and that it is all about the interaction between the reader and the text.  On some level, that doesn't necessarily change our reading classrooms as that definition, that we read something carefully, that we have a purpose, that we interact with the text.  But we knew, in our studying of the history of close reading, that it was asking for something a little more focused. 

Which kind of led us to Kylene Beers and Robert Probst's work in Notice and Note, where they taught us to think about when you're gonna stop in a text and do some close reading, which felt like a really important question to have some answers to.  Also, what angles can we take when we're doing that work?  One thing I think that's changed a little bit is this conversation of when in a text should I stop and dig deep, and do some of that careful and purposeful rereading?  The other thing we noticed is that it really is, at the end of the day, about making careful observations and interpretations of those observations. 

That came partially from Patricia Kain at the Writing Center in Harvard University, who started talking about how she started thinking about it in terms of steps.  What steps can we take when we're doing close reading to make sure that we're both making sure we have our own interactions with the text, but also have a purposeful reread of it?  Where we came to through that is that in some ways, all of this is to say that in some level, close reading in and of itself won't change a good reading classroom much at all.  I think we're all doing close reading if we're doing good reading work.  There's no new invention.  But we do think that there is a need to focus specifically on close reading as a skill, and think of that as a skill in and of itself that might help students to become more independent in analyzing texts deeply. 

One of the things that we started thinking about was when kids, if we've answered to some degree when we might stop in a book and do some close reading, the next question that plagued Chris and I was, how are they gonna do that?  One answer is, I can model that.  But another answer is, we want to make sure that we're giving kids some really concrete clear steps to do close reading work so that that becomes a structure in the classroom, a close reading structure that then turns into a habit, something that kids get used to doing.

Franki Sibberson:  That's really smart, a conversation with the kids.

Kate Roberts: Yeah.  And ultimately that we want them to be independent.  That we don't have to necessarily focus in on this concrete structure because it's so ingrained in them.  But as Chris said, even so, we see it in terms of changing the classroom as being part of a multi-faceted responses reading class.

Chris Lehman:  Could I add to that that I think the one hand is first of all, there's some interpretations of close reading instruction in classrooms as it becomes the only thing that you do in classrooms.  The teacher rifles text-dependent questions at students until they somehow, I don't know, through osmosis, figure out how to do this themselves.  That really, we come from a tradition of strong balanced reading instruction that has direct instruction and lots of student practice through our work at the Reading and Writing Project, and I think we see this as being the same thing.  Like Kate says, it's a piece of a way that we instruct students, but ultimately, you only get good at the things that you do.  So, a large portion of this is our kids reading books themselves and practicing these strategies, as well. 

One piece to add onto all of this as well is we started with the idea of reading closely and what does this look like in text.  But the more work we did, the more we worked together, we worked with teachers around the country in their classrooms and worked with our fabulous editor and friend, Toby, one thing that kept coming up was the question of, why?  Why on earth would anyone do this other than 'cause someone says you should?  Why would you want to do this? 

We were trying to reach beyond just books.  When in your life do you do things like this?  Part of what we came to is really realizing that you close read many things in your life.  The things that you care the most about tend to be the things that you read the most closely.  You know your favorite pair of jeans inside and out, and you know the look that your child has on their face when they're unhappy and you know what to do about that.  You know your favorite vacation spot.  When you admire something, you know the details of it really intimately. 

So, when we think about our great reading classrooms around the world, that's what books are.  Books are the things that people and teachers and students know the ins and outs of, and look really carefully at.  Even that, as well, we feel that close reading is a piece of that.  It can give you a structure or a method to look really carefully at books.  But frankly, to look really carefully at other things, too.

Like, what kind of language is happening in your room when friends are talking to each other, and you can study the word choice behind that.  What's the structure of your day in your classroom?  You can study those structures and make new decisions about them. 

I think it's just as Kate said.  On the one hand, we don't think this is really changing much at all.  The strengths of really responsive and practical reading instruction where kids practice a lot, I think, should remain, are there to remain.  I think it's highlighting pieces of that and providing this additional set of strategies for kids to dig more into the things they care deeply about. 

Franki Sibberson:  That's smart. 

Kate Roberts:   So, I think -- oh, go ahead, Franki.

Franki Sibberson:  No, go ahead.  Did you have something to add?

Kate Roberts:   I was going to add that I think you can think about it in both directions, too.  We can love something and therefore, we read it closely.  But also, the act of reading something closely, whether it's a flower or an expression or an article, can also cause you to love it.

Franki Sibberson: Right.  I love your thinking on this.  My mind is moving really fast.  You've touched on this, and this is a good lead-in, but close reading is causing a lot of people to worry that we as teachers are going to really kill books and the love of reading with kids because we'll analyze books to the point that kids will hate them.  How do you respond to these concerns?

Chris Lehman:  Number one, yes, that could happen. 

Franki Sibberson: It's possible.

Chris Lehman:  Yeah, it's entirely possible.  I think through anything, it's totally possible.  Probably because it's possible, it's important that we recognize that.  We know the potential is that we close read books to analyze them and murder them.  That could happen.  So, it's being aware of that and making a decision not to do that. 

I think of Donna Sampman when she writes about reading instruction in middle school and she says something like, there's always that point of the year where you've had kids jot about their reading and do Post-Its, or notebook jottings, then midyear they throw their hands up in the air and they say, "I don't want to do this any more.  I hate this.  It's killing reading.  I don't like it.  I don't enjoy this.” 

Donna's advice to that is, she said on the one hand, you have to think about purpose.  You have to think, what is it that we're aiming to do here?  She'll craftily say to her middle-schoolers, "Well, it's school, and you show your work in math, so we're gonna show our work here, too.”  But then, she'll help them think more about purpose.  She said through that process of helping them think about why you do it, she also reminds herself of why. 

When it comes to jotting, I think it's the same thing with close reading.  She'll say, "A purpose of this one is so that we're able to look carefully at our own thinking.  We're able to analyze the way we think about books and the way we think about life, and writing those things down helps us to study it and think more carefully about it.  Only when we're aware of patterns in our lives or patterns in our thinking can we really aim to change those or build on those.” 

I think that's the one thing with close reading is thinking well, what is our purpose here really?  If our purpose is compliance, if it's, "Well, someone told me I'm supposed to do some close reading work," then the chance is our students will start to feel like they’re doing this out of compliance as well, and we will kill books.  There's a good chance it'll happen.  But I think if instead we're thinking well okay, our purpose here is to look closely at things, to admire them and then, like Kate said, to see interesting, amazing, beautiful things that we didn't before.  So, we hold that as part of our purpose. 

If our purpose is to move beyond ideas we had the first time, I think that allows us to not push so far to one right answer, but instead to push to multiple answers.  I think one practical way of approaching that, some of the work that Kate and I were doing, is really trying to think how do we teach structures, but still put the majority of thinking and the majority of conversation in the laps of kids?  It didn't feel comfortable, but it also didn't feel like we were learning much when we were the ones controlling the conversation totally.  When we were the ones saying, "I'm gonna point to the word that seems important and I'm gonna ask you to talk about why that word is important and then I'm gonna tell you why it was important," it seemed like we weren't learning anything and we felt dead.  If instead, you're constructing close reading experiences where you're offering kids a way of looking at a book. 

So, you're like, "One way we can reread is to look for words that an author chose, and we can go back and gather them up.  We'll gather a whole bunch of words that seems like this author chose on purpose, and then you and your partner can take that big bunch of words that you chose together and look at them and figure out, is there a tone that this author has in these words that you didn't realize before?  Is there a point of view that the author has that you didn't realize before?  Now, talk about it.” 

When we give that over to kids, it's their idea-making, it's their practice, but it also isn't this, "I'm the sole bearer of the right answer.”  Many times they're inventing the right answers that we didn't know before.  So, I think the idea here is if you start with what your kids need first, if you're first looking at them and seeing where are their strengths, what are their needs, and then providing lots of opportunity for them to talk and write and share about those interpretations, not only will it not kill books, it won't kill your classroom.  It'll help you grow.  If, on the other hand, you start with compliance or you start with "complex texts," if you're not starting with kids, you're already in trouble. 

Franki Sibberson:  What can teachers do then -- you've talked about what you guys have been doing -- to really start to change this conversation about close reading, and move it to a more positive conversation?

Kate Roberts:   I think one thing is -- and this relates to not killing books and killing the reading classroom -- to really think about what we mean about texts and where we close read in our life.  Chris and I have hinted at it of thinking about our lives as something we can read closely.  But also, kids are surrounded by more texts now than they have been at any time in human history.  It's just not always on the written page.  There are places where we can have a lot of fun doing close reading work before we even get to a story or an article or a poem, or alongside of those texts.  Thinking about a song that is popular or controversial right now.  We tend to lean towards studying Justin Bieber closely because, of course, why wouldn't you?

Chris Lehman: Why not?

Kate Roberts:   What we find is that kids perk right up -- and honestly, not even kids, teachers.  When we work with teachers and start looking at songs and thinking about, what words does this author use to get their ideas across?  Let's reread it a few times and see if this kind of close reading can help us to have a much more interesting potentially sophisticated idea than we started off with.  Part of it, I think, is branching out from it always having to be the written text and thinking about the texts that we're surrounded by, that kids are surrounded by, that our culture is surrounded by that really deserve a close read. 

I will say that when Chris and I have done this work, and when we've done it in classrooms with teachers and kids, there are a lot of hidden messages that come out when we look at ads and songs and shows and what have you that we miss if we don't take a second and look a little closer.  We found that by doing that, it really opens it up for us to think, oh, close reading is about having more interesting ideas.  But it's not just about doing something that we think English majors are supposed to do.  It's stuff we all can do on texts. 

I think the other side of that is for me, I know that I had to start, when I was ready to transfer it to text and stop listening to Justin Bieber for a moment, it was about really trying it myself first and finding the power of having a structure for close reading and seeing what it did for my reading, seeing how it deepened it and made it really more engaging, so that really it becomes the opposite of killing a book.  It resurrects some of the books that might even feel a little on its last legs.

Franki Sibberson:  So fun.  Close reading is fun.  I love this. 

Chris Lehman: Who knew?

Franki Sibberson: I know! It's amazing.  How do you see close reading really, the habits changing when you think about moving from first grade to twelfth grade?

Chris Lehman:  That's a really good question.  I think on one hand -- and this is a conversation we've had with many people.  Lucy Calkins was talking a lot about this early on as close reading was being spoken about more and more and in some ways, I think the jury's out on exactly how and when you should begin this practice, if you define it in a particular way.  If you think of the way a lot of people have been talking about close reading, it tends to be this analyze words, analyze structure, really look at parts of the text. 

I'm not sure -- and I don’t think anyone's really sure -- developmentally, when should this begin?  We felt great with fifth grade, and then we started trying this with fourth grade and felt pretty good with fourth grade, and then third grade, we're starting to figure that out, maybe.  That's the one hand.  The other hand is quite honestly, I think K, one, two, maybe even up into early three, kids are close reading.  They're doing the basics of it.  They're rereading over and over again.  They're looking for patterns inside of a text that make sense.  They're really trying to piece together understanding. 

My daughter's just ending her kindergarten year, and I think when she's reading her little A, B, C, D books, she's doing the practices in a slightly different way.  But the general habits of looking closely at something and rereading, like Kylene and Bob talk about, they're doing that.  On Twitter not too long ago, there's a principal that had written and said, "I'm trying to help a colleague of mine that has to do close reading for first grade as a presentation.  What should I say?”  I think I wrote back, "Don't.  Leave them alone.”  I think it's mostly just the idea that they're already doing those practices.

Franki Sibberson: Naturally they do that.

Chris Lehman:  Right.  Exactly.  So much of those grade levels are doing this really careful reading and trying to build understanding from it.  Then, I think past that, the standards offer somewhat of a pathway that I think we largely agree with and find helpful.  It seems like grades three to maybe five, maybe end of four up into five, the standards really are about noticing, seeing that things are there.  The kind of close reading work that you're doing then, part of it is helping kids build this feeling that authors choose words, and so we can look at those words.  Or that when authors describe something, there's a million ways they could describe it. 

I think of Katie Wood Ray talking about, you study an author's craft by thinking what's there and what's not there.  There's a bazillion ways you could describe a spider.  How did this particular author describe this spider?  I think in three, four, five, the standards suggest a lot of noticing, and I think it's the same thing.  I think we'd agree with that, too, that a lot of your work is that. 

As you move up into higher grades, like probably moving through fifth grade up into six through twelve - and it's not to say that fourth graders can't do a version of this -- but as you get higher, the standards seem to be much more about analysis.  You’re trying to notice the way a novel is structured.  What are the parts of this novel?  Then, you're going back to analyze it.  Maybe analysis is figuring out why it was structured that way, what message it was trying to send, maybe is there a particular bias or point of view?  As you move up into upper grades, the close reading, it seems like it moves even more beyond noticing into more towards really trying to analyze the purposes behind the decisions that were made, or why they're there. 

I think the thing that tends to be true everywhere is kids can do lots of different kinds of work.  I think the standards provide that beginning, middle and end progression, but it doesn't mean that fourth graders -- and we've done this.  Fourth graders can figure out, what tone is there behind these word?  But I do think it's helpful to think of it in that way, that early on it's about paying attention more and realizing that these are things you can talk about.  Whereas, you move up into upper grades, it becomes a bit more about analysis than --

Franki Sibberson:  I love that continuum.  That makes a lot of sense.  The kids naturally doing it when they're young.  They do, when you stop and think about it.  The subtitle of your book alone made me rethink close reading.  That subtitle of your upcoming book, Lessons for Analyzing Texts -- and Life, makes me think your thoughts on close reading are about more than helping teachers meet the Common Core.  Can you share your thinking about that, and how you came to that subtitle?  I know subtitles change, so -- but I know it's an instant --

Kate Roberts:  Oh no.  I think we're pretty committed to this one.

Chris Lehman:  It went through many drafts to get to this.

Franki Sibberson:  I know it lends into your thinking, though. 

Kate Roberts:  I think partly we're in love with that subtitle because of the life aspect to it.

Franki Sibberson:  It says so much about your thinking.

Kate Roberts:   Yeah.  I think it goes back to that through line of, how do we do this in a way that engages kids?  How do we do this in a way that engages us as teachers?  How do we not kill books?  I think of it as there are four ways that we think about that subtitle. 

One is really knowing that close reading is something that we do already.  It's not the Common Core that came up with close reading.  It existed during the time of monks reading religious texts.  This is something that we can lean on that we, as humans and readers, we have this in our bones.  We know how to do it. 

The second thing is thinking about it as more than getting the right answer.  I think the Common Core does this nicely, is emphasizes kids doing critical reading and critical thinking as opposed to filling in a box.  Thinking of analyzing texts as really being about deepening our own ideas.  The other thing we think of is that the plural of the word texts.  We can look across certainly narrative and non-narrative texts, but we can also branch out and again, look at different media, the kind of texts that kids are surrounded by and that we're surrounded by, and make sure that we're really living as a close reader of the texts we're surrounded by. 

The big thing for Chris and I was the way that this study has changed our life is in thinking about, how do you close read your own experience in the world?  If we even take just the idea of word choice.  I can analyze a text for why an author chose the words they did, but then what does it look like if I spend a day or an hour with a friend and really examine the kinds of words that I choose, and the effects they have on people?  We see it really as certainly we want to analyze texts, we want to become more powerful and more independent in those moves. 

We also really want this to be connected to the lives that we lead, and that for both of us, when we were talking about the people we really like, our friends and family and figures in the world, that we really enjoy people who pay attention.  Who pay attention to things.  Who have a story to tell.  Who have a focus.  While close reading might not automatically -- the Common Core might not be telling us to do that exactly -- we feel that that is a nice takeaway from doing that work.

Franki Sibberson:  I love it.  You guys have really given me a lot to think about just in the last 20 minutes about how I’ve been thinking about close reading, so I'm sure you're giving the whole world a new way to think about this, which is wonderful.  It's really exciting and fun, as you said.  Thank you so much for your work on this.  It's really helping so many people. 

Chris Lehman:  Thank you, Franki.

Kate Roberts:  Thank you, Franki.



Choice Literacy