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An Obituary for Close Reading

By Dave Stuart Jr.
Even students mourned the death of close reading.

Even students mourn the death of close reading.

Close reading, one of the most ubiquitous terms of the Common Core literacy era, passed away yesterday evening. Ironically, its death is mourned by the very teachers (myself included), administrators, coaches, consultants, and authors who killed it through overuse. In its final hours, close reading lay on its deathbed and reflected on its meteoric rise to stardom and similarly rapid decline to death, content in the knowledge that in classrooms, blogospheres, publishing houses, and convention centers around the nation, its name would live on, even if not its actual meaning.

In its final moments, close reading asked that those who mourn it devote themselves to studying the cause of its sudden demise, a disease known as buzzwordification.

Buzzwordification: What we know about the disease

Buzzwordification is a universally recognized disease, yet its causes and cures remain unknown. (<–Click here to tweet that.) In the case of close reading, symptoms began when it was mentioned in the very first phrase of the very first of the 32 Common Core literacy anchor standards, R.CCR.1:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Some doctors believe close reading’s fate as a buzzwordification casualty was solidified at the time the standards were drafted; others claim it was when entire books (and gargantuan blog posts [<– that links to my own blog post! *Pokes fun at self*]) began devoting themselves to close reading, most notably Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, and close reading’s personal favorite, Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts–and Life. All of these sources and hundreds more elevated close reading from being an academic term to being something like a transcendent demigod.

Indeed, transcendent is the perfect adjective for close reading. At the height of its battle with buzzwordification, close reading meant something different to every mouth that uttered it; to some, it was simply re-reading a text, while to others, it was “marking up” the text; some preferred close reading with lenses, while others did it with signposts; and while some sought to limit close reading to words on a page or a screen, others applied it to things as diverse as video games, conversations with friends, and even life itself.

In its final stages, buzzwordification dispatches its victims when the connotative scope of a term becomes impossibly broad, rendering accurate, meaningful communication with the word improbable (for an example apart from close reading, consider the edu-term “essential question,” which passed away when it became synonymous with simply writing words on a whiteboard each day and placing a question mark at the end of the words).

Hope for a cure

Although nearly all cases of buzzwordification have thus far proven terminal (the only exceptions being those cases in which the term went into a nearly comatose, dormant stage for decades or more), doctors are optimistic that a cure is possible.

First, doctors are quick to point out that simply hating all buzzwords — as many veteran educators are wont to do — does not cure buzzwordification, nor is it in the best interest of students. Indeed, in the case of close reading, the basic practice of intensively grappling with a text needs always to be a part of the literacy classroom, and this means teachers must develop the ability to instruct students in this practice.

Secondly, administrators must be careful not to give bonus points, consciously or otherwise, to educators who use buzzwords fluently. What matters in student achievement has much less to do with the label applied to an instructional practice than the instructional practice itself. In the case of close reading, does the teacher model higher-order reading for kids? Does he or she show wisdom in intentionally choosing appropriately complex texts for close examination? The answers to simple questions like these should be the basis for evaluative points.

Finally, buzzwordification will only cease to plague education when all of us learn to laugh at ourselves once in awhile 🙂 I pray this post is received in the light-hearted nature in which it was written, and that together we can continue our pursuit of what matters most in teaching kids to flourish in the long-term.

I hope you’re having a good summer so far.

Much love to you, colleagues.

Yours,

Dave

PS. If you would like to add anything to this obituary or create one for another victim of buzzwordification, please leave a comment below.

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40 Responses to An Obituary for Close Reading

  1. franmcveigh June 17, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    Dave,
    I would love to read your obituary for “text-dependent questions” as that phrase is NOT even included anywhere in the CCR anchor or grade level standards!
    Thanks!

    • davestuartjr June 17, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      Fran, that would be a good one! I’m guessing that stems from EngageNY’s “text-based questions” shift, maybe? Wherever it comes from, you are right!

    • davestuartjr June 23, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

      Fran, just started reading UnCommon Core, and there’s an awesome chapter against close-ended, text-based questions. Thought of you 🙂

  2. megan June 17, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    I’d like to see the word “inclusion” receive a death sentence. Why is it that some kids need “permission” (an IEP) to be “included” with their peers??

  3. Marge June 17, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    I know you said not to freak out, but I did when I was told I needed to change how (along with what) I taught to make sure we did close reading. Silly me. All I had to do was stop calling everything “literary analysis” and start using the right buzzword.

    • davestuartjr June 17, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

      Yep — you got it! Gotta speak the language, Marge!

    • pdexiii June 18, 2014 at 7:35 am #

      Even scarier: someone with the authority to tell you such was clueless about what you do in your classroom; urgh.

  4. Susan S. June 17, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

    I cringe at the teachers in training videos who say, “Today we are going to do close reading.” Is it really too much to ask that teachers model precision in language and habits of mind? How about, “Read this piece more closely…”? Seeing teacher after teacher in numerous videos say “do” close reading makes me wonder if our profession will ever rise above compliance level practice and enter into authentic relationships with students and curriculum for a greater purpose than observance of the “activity du jour”.

    • davestuartjr June 17, 2014 at 8:26 pm #

      Susan, you are so right — and also so convicting. I’m pretty sure I did the “do a close reading” thing multiple times. I wonder, with you, if we’ll rise out of the muck of compliance level practice — it’s going to take thoughtful, honest, habitual inspection of how we talk and teach.

      • Susan S. June 18, 2014 at 9:11 am #

        I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but language is knowledge. I believe that when my practice is firmly grounded in relationships among teacher-text-students, the “doing” comes naturally. Of course we are going to read more closely because it’s how we interact with each other, the text and I–the students and I–the students and the text. We speak to each other, and that involves some pointed moments of reading, asking questions, discussing, etc. The sum of learning should be greater than its parts, and drawing attention to the parts seems to detract from their power to enlarge.

        • davestuartjr June 19, 2014 at 8:22 am #

          That is pretty philosophical! My observations of students (granted, they are limited by both my experience and my biases) seem to suggest that students need and appreciate me breaking things down into parts. I do agree that the sum of learning should be greater than its parts, however — just not that drawing attention to the parts is deleterious to that greater aim.

    • Rachie B July 13, 2016 at 7:25 pm #

      Love this article and I couldn’t agree more!! Your sarcasm and tongue and cheek humor is terrific!

  5. S Buhner June 20, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    I would like to see an obit for “doing STEM, STEAM or STEML”! Please forgive me, but effective teachers of math, science, art, engineering, technology, & literacy have always used good pedagogy! Do we really need an acronym to teach any better?!?!

    • davestuartjr June 24, 2014 at 11:46 am #

      S, you will have to write that one — I am pretty much STEM illiterate. Let me know what you do because I love learning through satire 🙂

  6. kimmyms June 22, 2014 at 10:00 pm #

    Loved this. Could we also have an ending to the term intentional. Anither common phrase this year was that our PLCs and lessons must be focused and intentional. Really!?! As if we aren’t intentional in reaching a goal when they’re planned? Glad for summer!

    • Toni Lockhart June 24, 2014 at 8:49 am #

      Your students are very fortunate to learn in a place where you DO set goals for them and you are already instinctively “intentional” about what you do with your students. Unfortunately, as a school improvement specialist, I work in SO many schools where that simply isn’t the case. There may even be some teachers like that in your building, which unfortunately set the tone for the PLCs, instead of differentiating for what teachers might want or need to know. Enjoy your summer, and thanks for reminding me that there are folks like you out there!!! 🙂

      • davestuartjr June 24, 2014 at 11:54 am #

        Toni, I completely believe what you’re saying. I wonder, though, if part of the problem of this lack of intentionality is that we have gotten away from clearly communicating, again and again, what it is that our schools/courses/grade levels should be aiming at, beyond something as mind-numbing as a test score at the end of the year? I cannot imagine how frustrating it must be for you to grapple with the widespread confusion and dismay and dysfunction out there. Godspeed as you continue your journey!

  7. kimmyms June 22, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    *another

  8. rachelwasserman2013 June 23, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    It is very sad when what we post on our walls and boards matters more than what comes out of our mouths. My late father was a school principal for 40 years — he said that any administrator worth his/her salt could tell within ten minutes if substantive teaching was happening in any classroom. Today, in my district, the evaluation form for teachers is pages long, and still covers mainly superficial topics.

    • davestuartjr June 24, 2014 at 11:39 am #

      Rachel, you are right — it is sad when superficial checklist items win out over the holistic picture that makes “substantive teaching.” We have to fight for the soul of teaching. Observable checklist items aren’t bad — it’s just that we can’t be married to them. Legalism kills the heart of the law. Great administrators will think beyond the evaluation form and still be like your dad, even in today’s increasingly toxic edu-environment.

  9. katebrown June 23, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    How about doing away with the use of the term LITERACY in all its current forms, i.e., L as a stand-alone noun and/or as part of a phrase such as information(al) L, numeric L, financial L, media L, visual L, alphabetic L, digital L … and the rest? Go ahead … come up with a definition of L or L combined with an adjective … Right, you can’t. So how are we supposed to teach and/or achieve something so difficult to define, quantify, qualify, or whatever to our own or our students’ satisfaction or the satisfaction of the people who sign the checks? And yet, isn’t that what we’re suggesting people do — teach it, achieve it, and/or pay for it, albeit no one can tell you exactly what it is? Isn’t this part of what’s wrong with the whole thing, that we’re striving to achieve something we cannot even cogently define? Let’s start at the beginning; let’s make sure we all know what we’re doing and let’s all get rowing in the same direction. (btw, I agree with you about STEM, STEAM, STEML … the Cliff’s Notes version sounded find, but did anyone bother to read and analyze the original?)

    • davestuartjr June 24, 2014 at 11:22 am #

      Kate, you just blew my mind — I’ve never heard of half of those Ls.

      You hit on one of my most common refrains in my classroom, in my school, in my workshops: we have to know where in the heck we are going; we have to accept that we will never achieve what we cannot even cogently define. Administrators need to redundantly and explicitly define what success as a school looks like. I vote for aiming at promoting the long-term flourishing of kids — create assessments backwards from that goal.

    • rachelwasserman2013 June 24, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

      Kate Brown, your comments on the plethora of “literacies” are spot on! My own school district now explicitly includes directives that teachers need to address almost all of the “literacies” you mention — specifically digital literacy, visual literacy, numeric literacy, financial literacy, and media literacy — but nowhere are these “literacies” explicitly defined! Just another way for bureaucrats and administrators to demonstrate that they are on top of educational needs. Sigh.

      • katebrown June 25, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

        Rachel (and everyone who is reading this), do you watch “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey? It’s the story of Frank Underwood (Spacey), a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district and the House Majority Whip, who, after getting passed over for a “sure” appointment as Secretary of State by his close friend and buddy, the newly-elected president, decides to exact his revenge on those who betrayed him.

        I’m just at Season 1, Episode 5 and at the moment, the Honorable Representative from the venerable state of South Carolina is creating a new federal education policy to “help out his good friend,” the president, and the president of the country’s largest teachers union is … well, I’ll let you see how all that goes down for yourself. .

        Anyone who has worked in a public school in any capacity over the past 10-15 years and seen local, state, and national standards; assessment testing; teacher evaluation; CCSS; NextGen; NCLB; lexile scores; IEP’s; tenure; union v. non-union; charters … and the rest each live through its glory days MUST watch at least Season 1 of this show! As I found myself saying aloud repeatedly during last night’s episode, “Can this possibly be true? Could this possibly be how things happen? Is this really how little they think of the kids, of us … have they no conscience at all?”

        As the credits say, it’s not true, but it’s darn sure based on enough that we do know to be true to be a frightening eye-opener to the way things might happen!

        Gotta give it a look, folks!

        • davestuartjr June 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm #

          Kate, that is a great, disturbing show. Kevin Spacey is awesome in it. Lots of food for thought there, too, as you say!

  10. Reagan Miller June 23, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    I love this article! I am sharing with my colleagues in educational publishing. Our wholesalers and distributors encourage the use of these buzzwords in marketing materials and seem to feel the buzzwords are more ˆmportant than even explaining the content of a book.

    • davestuartjr June 24, 2014 at 11:02 am #

      Reagan, the saleable nature of buzzwords are a leading cause of buzzwordification’s high mortality rate, I think. Thank you for caring enough to read this post! I would love to hear more about your perspective as someone in the edupub world — it’s got to be a constant struggle finding the balance between creating material that will sell and actually creating stuff that’s truly useful and valuable.

  11. Adrianna Brumbaugh June 24, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    I would like to add the word “rigor” to the obituary. So many have defined it in different ways, it no longer means anything.

    The principal asks, “Does your lesson have enough rigor? Well, that depends. Would you like to know the cognitive level as per Bloom’s or Webb’s, the authenticity of the task, the level of personalized differentiation, the amount of independence involved, the written element, the vocabulary involved, the text lexile level, the type of stem questions, the assessment value, the creative problem solving required, the synthesis of common core standards, the amount the student struggles, or how may parents call to voice concerns about the assignment?

    • rachelwasserman2013 June 24, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

      Adrianna, your comment on “rigor” went right to my heart. I too have heard this buzzword applied to everything and every subject, but it has never been explicitly defined. At my school teachers are expected to incorporate every point you mentioned in every assignment/lesson — while keeping parents content and comfortable! Your post was a welcome reminder that my friends and I aren’t the only ones struggling with unrealistic expectations.

      • davestuartjr June 30, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

        It is truly nationwide, Rachel/Adrianna. This is why we have to resist the freak-out — if we take these things too seriously (buzzwords, etc), we will go crazy, and our kids will, too.

        At the end of the day: Are they learning? Could they be learning more? Am I helping them prepare for a flourishing future? These are my basic questions as a teacher.

    • kad4 July 7, 2014 at 10:35 am #

      Adrianna-
      Loved your comment! I was recently asked by a local district to do a one day PD session on “rigor.” Of course it took several conversations to discover what they meant by that and what they really wanted. It was frustrating to say the least. Everybody wants rigor, but nobody knows what it is!

    • Theresa December 6, 2014 at 12:04 am #

      I always thought “rigor” sounded like something that needs a prescription-strength antibiotic.

  12. Jenni Aberli (@JenniAberli) June 24, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    I love your posts. And yes, it was taken in the light hearted in the nature in which it was intended. Thanks for keeping it real

  13. Maryjane June 24, 2014 at 10:53 pm #

    I believe you mentioned Close Reading’s cousin in the penultimate full paragraph of the obituary, that is to say, Higher Order. The favorite child of Bloom’s taxonomy, Higher Order took its place many steps above its ugly step-siblings: Remember, and Understand being the least favorites, unworthy of consideration in many classroom objectives. Both Remember and Understand have long been the first playmates of many students, even though they were hard to get along with.

  14. Janedoe June 25, 2014 at 7:54 am #

    May we add “fidelity” to the list? We are endlessly encouraged to implement this program and that program with fidelity. Shouldn’t someone check the meaning of the word fidelity?

    • davestuartjr June 25, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Yeah, I’d say we have a problem when the term means “the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.” When teaching becomes something we think we can copy or reproduce with exactness, it might not be teaching anymore!

  15. davestuartjr June 26, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    Hi all,
    Just wanted to make clear, in case anyone didn’t pick up on it, that this post wasn’t intended as negative, but rather as light-hearted. If you want to see what it reads like when a guy has to digitally place his foot in his mouth, check this out.

  16. Jennifer Lynn Ringo May 12, 2016 at 10:50 am #

    I re-read this again (not very closely, mind you) now that “grit” has replaced “close reading” as the hot new thing. Best advice ever: “What matters in student achievement has much less to do with the label applied to an instructional practice than the instructional practice itself.” Thanks, Dave!

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