Historical Thinking = Close Reading (Sometimes) of Complex Text

TriangleI have been reading and thinking quite a bit about text complexity in the last couple of weeks in preparation for a series of workshops on the subject. Inevitably, when talking with teachers about text complexity and the expectation of the Common Core Learning Standards that students will read text at a certain level of difficulty, I am finding that the issue of close reading also comes up. Although certainly related, complex text and close reading are NOT the same thing. The complexity of a text has to do with a number of quantitative and qualitative factors, including the reader and the how the text is being used. (Appendix A of the Common Core Standards has a good explanation.) Close reading is one way of reading text—any level of text—to dig into the layers of meaning that the text holds. Here is one definition of close reading from Implementing the Common Core

State Standards: A Primer on “Close Reading of Text by Sheila Brown and Lee Kappes, October 2012:

Close Reading of text involves an investigation of a short piece of text, with multiple readings done over multiple instructional lessons. Through text-based questions and discussion, students are guided to deeply analyze and appreciate various aspects of the text, such as key vocabulary and how its meaning is shaped by context; attention to form, tone, imagery and/or rhetorical devices; the significance of word choice and syntax; and the discovery of different levels of meaning as passages are read multiple times.

Close-ReadingClose reading can be done with highly complex text, but if you are introducing your students to the process, it probably makes sense to start with a text that is shorter and more accessible. In other words, if your task is going to be more difficult, start out with an easier piece of text. Once students have the idea of constructing meaning from text through close reading then you can gradually challenge them with more difficult text, including most primary sources. I have used a “Quotable Quotes” activity in my workshops that might be useful as a place to start with close reading with your students. While I have used this as an opening activity to get people talking and meeting other workshop participants, my secondary goal is to have people begin to read and think about history and what it means to “do” history. The quotes are short—most are one sentence long—and even the most straight-forward quote is open to multiple interpretations. The quotes I use are general quotes about history, but you could narrow the focus and use quotes that pertain to a certain time period, event or concept that your students are studying, such as the Civil War or the presidency. This is also a good activity for collaborative pairs of students to share their thinking. You can guide students’ close reading by posing questions for each successive reading and discussion such as:

  • Who is the author (or speaker)? Does that matter?
  • What is the author saying?
  • How does the author say it? or How does the author use certain words?
  • What was the author’s purpose in saying this?

Close reading of quotes is a way for your students to uncover the layers of meaning with text that is shorter and less intimidating than jumping headfirst into Washington’s Farewell Address. Give it a try and let me know what you think!


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