The What, How, and Why of Close Reading

whathowwhy.pngI begin class by with a short story. An extremely short story, in fact —it’s called “The Birthday Party” and it’s only three paragraphs long. Reading it with a class is an opportunity to see what my students do when they are asked to do a close read. We’ve trained them well in English classes over the past few years — they grab a pencil or pen because they are ready to annotate.

Close reading is a valuable skill, but how can we teach it so it becomes meaningful work? What are the strategies we can give all readers so that they will be successful not just at reading passages on tests, but also while thinking critically about what they read as adults?

I read about a strategy that Brian Sztabnik uses. He asks his students to answer three questions. The following strategy is based on that. Here’s his blog post.

What, How, Why

I break down the task of close reading into three steps. I call it the what, how, and why of close reading. Close reading consists of analyzing these three components:

What do you notice?

How were you made to notice it?

Why are you noticing it?

Here’s how it works.

Step 1: What do you notice?

The first step is What do you notice? When reading a selection I ask students: what do you know to be true? If we don’t know what happens in a passage, we can’t analyze the rest. Then we move on to things that they saw that they had to figure out (in other words, inferences they’ve made.) They know these things to be true as well, but they had to read between the lines.

Step 2: How were you made to notice it?

The second step is How were you made to notice it? This is when we examine the nuts and bolts or the author’s writing. What literary devices does the author use to call your attention to what’s important? If I have an especially adept group, we might look at how syntax and diction call our attention to certain things.

Step 3: Why are you noticing it?

The final step is Why are you noticing it? Why did the author create this piece? What was their goal? What about human nature did they want to illuminate for us, perhaps?

Begin with a picture

I like to start with a picture to get the ball rolling. Adrian Tomine has some wonderful New Yorker covers that are perfect for this task. Here’s the one I use, but there are plenty of others. I project this image on the screen and give them a photocopy of the image to annotate.

At first I don’t give them any direction other than to annotate the image, writing down everything they notice. I want to see what they do when I don’t give them specific guidelines, open to the possibilities of whatever the picture reveals to them.

After five minutes of annotating we proceed to step one: I ask them to tell me what they know to be true. We cover the basics of the image: there’s a man and a woman reading the same book. They are looking at each other. They are riding a subway. There’s a guy listening to music. It doesn’t take long to get all the basics.

We then move on to step two: I ask them how they were made to notice it. I begin by asking them what the focus of the image is. They all know it’s the man and the woman reading the same book. I ask them how they were made to see that. Eventually some details of the craftsmanship of the image emerges. The books are both white (and they are the only white objects in the picture). The faces of the man and the women are the only faces visible. They are framed by the windows of the subway cars.

I then tell them the title of the picture (“Missed Connections”) and then move on to step three. I  ask them why the author made this image. What’s the story the artist is telling? I resist giving them my interpretation, because I’m much more interested in what they have to say at this point (I have my own version of the story, but over time I’ve heard lots of plausible theories, so I’m not sure mine is the correct one anymore.)

Moving on to a short story

After we’ve looked at the image I hand out Katherine Brush’s short story “The Birthday Party” which you can find online (but any one page short story will do.) We repeat the process. The students annotate the story, just seeing what they notice.

I then ask the same question — What do you know to be true? Brush’s straightforward prose makes the details easy to pick out. Then we move on to what they have to figure out, such as: what kind of restaurant is it? What else do you have to figure out because of the point of view? We don’t really know why the man is upset about the birthday cake, or any of their backstory for that matter. We just have to make guesses based on what the narrator observes. But at this point we are thinking about the how — the elements that Brush includes to tell us what’s going on between them.

Finally, I ask them why this story was written. There doesn’t seem to be a moral here, so I lead them to think about what the author might be saying about particular types of people. Many of them get to “some people don’t like to be surprised”  and I often throw out that perhaps the story is about how we never really know what goes on behind the scenes in a relationship we observe from afar.

Final Steps

At this point I’m ready to turn them loose on a longer short story. My favorite story to start of the year is “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant because there are several opportunities to isolate a few paragraphs to look closely at what’s going on.

And other good follow up strategy is to give them a piece of non-fiction, such as an editorial from a newspaper. The method is the same: What is the author writing about? How does the author make his case? Why is he writing about it?

Final Thoughts

We want our students to leave our classroom with the skills necessary to be good readers and thinkers. Close reading gives them the strategies they need to reliably perform this skill in a variety of settings.

Learning should be fun! Check out my Teachers Pay Teachers store for fun resources like the ones you see below.


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