An Increased Focus on Close Reading Is Helping Students Build Literacy Skills


Comparing reading trends in the U.S. and Mexico, Peter Smagorinsky, a professor at the University of Georgia, argues in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that states’ focus on “close contextual reading” fails to help students figure out what an author is saying.

“Rather than reading for self-exploration, [students] are reading for information and analysis,” the article notes. Smagorinsky suggests that concentration takes the joy out of reading and prevents students from identifying and relating to an author’s broader message.

“Our information-oriented educational policies consider literature to be a frivolous distraction from learning about facts, facts, facts,” Smagorinsky contends. Education officials, he adds, reduce reading “to a means for testing and sorting.”

However, educators overwhelmingly say the opposite is true. The increased emphasis on close reading is helping students to explore texts more deeply and build the literacy skills they need to be successful in school – and become lifelong readers.

James Dittes, a high school English teacher, says high, comparable education standards have elevated learning to a higher level. “Now, students are demonstrating knowledge in far deeper ways…Students are learning more—they progress faster and with more certainty through the curriculum as writing and literacy have joined to form a two-lane thruway.”

“Contrary to what some skeptics argue, the new standards don’t suck an appreciation for traditional wisdom out of English class,” Meaghan Freeman, a high school English teacher, wrote in The Atlantic last year.

“I went to college and got a degree in English literature. I spent four years reading, talking, and writing about books. I wanted to spend the rest of my adult life teaching kids to do the same. Common Core allows me to do exactly that—and more.”

It’s important to note that non-fiction text requirements are spread across all subjects. The purpose is to help students develop strong analytical reading skills and vocabulary. The emphasis on close reading across subjects “require students to gather evidence” and “create their own understanding of the world,” one teacher explains. “They look much like the work of historians.”

But, to be sure, literature and storytelling are alive and well in English classrooms.

Accusations that states’ standards are squeezing out literature, Mike Petrilli explains, are “total baloney.” Timothy Shanahan, a retire professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, explains, “Depending on how a school is organized, it would be possible for an English teacher to never touch an information text.” A PolitiFact analysis gave such claims a “False” rating.

A report by the Center for American Progress notes that as states now require more nonfiction materials, “students are getting regular practice with complex and grade-level appropriate texts, using more informational texts, and practicing more evidence-based writing…The ELA standards are also influencing the way teachers approach instruction to help students achieve the standards.”

Both the higher education and business communities recognize that strong reading skills are necessary to a young person’s long-term success. States’ efforts to raise academic expectations were informed by that reality. Before, too many students moved through the K-12 system without building the reading comprehension skills necessary for post-secondary success.

Smagorinsky claims close reading discourages students from drawing connections to what they are reading. But that’s simply not true. In fact, as a good teacher will attest, one of the chief purposes of close reading is to better understand the author’s intentions. Likewise, reading for evidence and reading for “self-exploration” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can very well bolster each other.

Reading instruction isn’t a zero-sum game, and effective teachers can help students develop the close reading skills vital for college and career while also cultivating a love of and appreciation for reading by equipping students to examine the connections between fiction and their own lives. In fact, there are specific reading standards that call for students to analyze how an author’s moving or beautiful writing style might impact a reader.

As states have raised academic expectations, they have also sought to help students build the reading and comprehension skills they need to succeed in college and careers – and to develop a love of reading. Contrary to what some skeptics might suggest, that is a step in the right direction.