Using Close Reading for Academic Texts and Writing

When thinking of reading approaches, what does the word “approach” mean? It means the way something is viewed. It can also be taken a bit more literally to mean how close we get to a text. Are we looking at a text holistically? Are we looking for global themes or ideas? Or are we getting more local, reading for a deeper meaning, looking at word choice, the purpose of phrases or sentences, and how small claims add up to bigger ideas? This type of close reading, one way to approach a text, has been gaining momentum in US K-12 contexts and Freedman (2015) looks at how she uses it to approach texts in university.

Leora Freedman, from the University of Toronto, describes a 300-level university Asian Studies class (taught by Janet Poole), consisting of domestic and international students and their approach to reading academic texts, especially theoretical texts from authors such as Foucault, de Certeau, and others. This course was organized around close reading, “a simplified method of reading sections of a text iteratively and critically” (p. 263). It was argued that such an approach would benefit all students, and both L1 and L2 readers have difficulties with academic texts.

The approach in this course relied heavily on modeling, paraphrase, thinking aloud, and questioning. The course instructor would choose sections of the text that contained key ideas. She would then paraphrase the section, helping students understand the academic vocabulary and expressions. She would analyze statements, look at ambiguities, look at author purpose or perspective, or contrast a statement with something earlier or by another author. In addition, individual words and phrases were analyzed for how nuances of meaning depending on context, purpose, or perspective. After students were familiar with this process, the instructor gave students a worksheet to help them approach texts in the same way, following ideas of close reading:

  1. Organization of points: What seems to be the author’s persuasive strategy? Is it convincing?
  2. Author’s theoretical tendency: Is it stated or unstated? What are the author’s underlying assumptions? What evidence do you see for this?
  3. Quotations: What is their purpose? Are these sources credible? 
  4. Comparisons: How is this idea treated in other texts on this subject?
  5. Diction: Why has the author used one word rather than another? How would changing the diction of a sentence change its meaning?
  6. Terminology: What disciplinary vocabulary is used here? How are these words used differently in other texts?
  7. Details: What is the significance of this detail? How does it relate to the larger purpose of the text?
  8. Numerical data: Why is it here? Could it be interpreted differently? Is it believable? 
  9. Transitions: Where do you see transitional words or phrases? What logical connections do they suggest?
  10. Relationship of parts to whole: How does this passage relate to the overarching purpose of the text or its overall argument?
  11. Further implications: When you reflect on a particular statement, how does its meaning change? What can you infer, even if it’s not directly stated?
  12. Remaining questions: What questions are not answered by this passage or text? Did the author intend to answer them?

(Reproduced from Freedman, 2015)

The instructor moved from reading to writing by explaining (through think aloud) how students can use concepts and readings in their own writings. This part of the course focused on critical thinking and reflection, which was seen as an important starting place for writing.

The author offers anecdotal evidence that this approach does in fact improve students’ reading and writing abilities. This evidence comes from other colleagues in the department who have these students after completing Poole’s course.


In a previous Research Bites post of mine, Leki argued that reading does not have to be an individual activity. Rather, there is more benefit to the social (de)construction of texts. By working together to read, paraphrase, and question key aspects of a text (following some of the principles of close reading) we are more likely to engender really good critical reading behavior in students who typically do not read at a critical or academic level. He approach to dissecting a text, paraphrasing, looking at context, looking at the polysemy of vocabulary – all of these are critical skills. This article shows how they can be tied together in a way that is scaffolded and which easily transfers to writing.

(Academic Reading Circles is another great method that employs many of these close reading strategies.)

References

Freedman, L. (2015). Using close reading as a course theme in a multilingual disciplinary classroom. Reading in a Foreign Language, 27(2), 262. [link]

[Note: This Research Bite was originally published on AnthonyTeacher.com]

Featured image by ZapTheDingbat

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Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at anthonyteacher.com. Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

2 thoughts on “Using Close Reading for Academic Texts and Writing”

  1. Thanks. Really useful bite. I read the original article too because of seeing this post (I guess part of the point of this site) and will apply this approach to our 1 or 2 reading tasks on our pre-sessional EAP course.

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