Closer Reading: Just What You and Your Students Need!

Closer Reading Grades 3-6: Better Prep, Smarter Lessons, Deeper Comprehension
By Nancy Boyles
(Corwin, 2014 – Learn more)

Linda-Biondi-120Reviewed by Linda Biondi

Closer Reading Grades 3-6. I have to tell the truth. First truth: I had to read the title of Nancy Boyles’ book several times to make sure I was reading it correctly.

Second truth: I wasn’t sure what “Closer Reading” was. Third truth: I started thinking. “Oh, no. I hope this is not another strategy I need to teach my students.”

My fear was whether this book would be a book that dissects reading in such a way that implementing its ideas might destroy a child’s love of reading. I’m pleased to report that my fears have abated. Ms. Boyles’ book is a masterpiece in teaching the art of reading and helping students become lovers of the written word.

closer reading biondiIn the words of the author, the goal of the book is to “go beyond a description of strategies to apply to close reading. Rather, it shows you how to teach the art of close reading – with each chapter designed to take you one step closer to that goal.”(p.10) I fell in love with the book as soon as I read the words “to teach the art of close reading.”

What is the art of teaching? According to Mark Van Doren, it is “the art of assisting discovery.” Sir Ken Robinson reminds us that teaching is an art form. It’s not a delivery system. I don’t know when we started confusing teaching with FedEx. Teaching is an arts practice. It’s about connoisseurship and judgment and intuition.”

Making time for reflection

This book is not a sit down, read, and then “do” book. Boyles takes us on an interactive journey. She challenges us to examine our past and current teaching practices and how we can apply what we are learning to make our “best practices” even better. At the end of each chapter is a set of reflection questions that can be used for a professional learning community, book club or individual. For example, in the first chapter, she challenges the reader to:

  • Think about the population of students in your classroom or in your school. If they continue progressing at their current rate, what percentage of them do you think will be ready for credit-bearing college courses by the time they leave high school? Discuss your thinking.
  • In what ways has this chapter changed or clarified your understanding of what you thought close reading to be?
  • Discuss to what extent you think your current literacy program or curriculum supports close reading. What is the evidence?
  • What else do you need to know about closer reading in order to move forward with it? What questions do you hope the remainder of this book will answer?

A richly resourced guide

I loved Boyles’ style of writing. In fact, when you are reading the book, you begin to feel as if you are participating in a virtual, interactive close reading workshop.

For example, as she begins to explain the Instructional Shift in close reading, she relates to the reader, “The first order of business when planning a close reading lesson is to find a good text – more specifically, a good complex text.” Remarkable as well are the resources that are included in each chapter, such as the ones in Chapter One, Closer Reading: Closer Than What? Happily, these are also available online at Corwin’s companion site for the book, so I can share examples here:

Figure 1.2. When You Introduce a Complex Text During an Initial Close Reading Lesson: How the Literacy Block Supports Deep Understanding of Content

Figure 1.3. When You Reread a Complex Text During a Follow-Up Close Reading Lesson: How the Literacy Block Supports the Reinforcement of Comprehension Skills and Strategies

Figure 1.4. When You Introduce a Complex Text During an Initial Close Reading Lesson: Understanding the Focus on Deep Comprehension of Content

Figure 1.5. When You Reread a Complex Text During a Follow-Up Close Reading Lesson: Understanding the Focus on Reinforcing Comprehension Skills and Strategies

In addition, in order to assist the reader in recognizing the shifts found in the Common Core, the preface to each chapter summarizes the Instructional Shifts Before and With the Common Core Skill or Strategy Lessons. The explanation is concise with examples to elaborate the shift.

   <—  Instructional Shift  —>
Before the Common Core With the Common Core
Scaffolding after reading: After reading, students were typically tasked with writing response to a question objective: What is the theme? What trait did the character demonstrate? And so on. Scaffolding after reading: After close reading, students are tasked with producing both oral and written responses, synthesizing and integrating information from multiple print and non print sources.

There are many well-written books about close reading in the marketplace, and many “not so great books” out there too. As educators, we are always pressed for time—time to grade, write lessons, rethink lessons, differentiate lessons, and so on. This book doesn’t waste your time. Another selling point is the ability of the reader to be able to do a first read for content and then visit the book doing a “closer read.” I noticed that as I revisited the book, I found sections to “flag” ” as a reminder to review a chart, lesson, or resource.

Step-by-step across content areas

I am fairly new to close reading. Although I have taught close reading lessons to my students, I know that I need to perfect my craft. Nancy Boyles does an exceptional job introducing the reader to the “whys” of close reading and an equally impressive job teaching the reader the “hows.” Example: Using Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, M’am” as a mentor lesson plan, she guides the teacher through the creation of this lesson, step-by-step, leaving the reader feeling empowered and confident. (You can preview portions of this book at Google Books.)

I have found ways to apply the concepts in Boyles’ book not just in Readers Workshop, but also in social studies, science and math. Truth be told, we need to teach the “reader and the reading” (p.10), and sometimes to teach the students that reading is not a race but a journey. Just like in the fable, “Hare and the Tortoise,” the moral is “slow and steady.” Our students need to slow down, engage with the text in differing ways, and reflect as they read.

After reading Closer Reading, Grades 3-6, I felt more confident as a teacher implementing close reading in my classroom. Her style of writing and use of visuals, charts, graphic organizers and hints provides the teacher with a virtual “guide on the side.” I would recommend this book to teachers, coaches, administrators, and teacher preparation classes.

It’s a book that I know that I will be referring to in my teaching, professional learning communities, and teacher workshops. Hats off to Corwin Publishers for publishing another professional book that accomplishes the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

►Read an article by Nancy Boyles here at MiddleWeb: 10 Steps to Closer Student Reading.

Linda Biondi is a fourth grade teacher at Pond Road Middle School in Robbinsville, NJ, and a long-time Morning Meeting practitioner. She’s also the recipient of several educational grants, a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project and a participant on the NJ Department of Education Teacher Advisory Panel. She recently shared her thoughts about the Common Core at the NJ SDE website.



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