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Close Reading: A Refresher

You already know to read closely. You probably do it all the time, in class and when you are reading on your own. Still, it's worth reviewing the steps readers can use to interpret complex texts, particularly since you will very likely teach this skill to your own students. In addition, on the certification exam for secondary English, you'll be asked to close-read two passages, one literary and one informational, and prepare brief written responses that address the questions posed by the prompt.

Why Do We Use Close Reading?

It's worth considering why close reading is a valuable skill, given that it is time-consuming and somewhat labor-intensive. The goal of close reading isn't to uncover the “hidden” meaning of the text, to crack open the fortune cookie and read the message inside. Instead, close reading encourages you to slow down and really think about the choices the writer made, things like the word choice and figurative language, that enrich your experience as a reader. Reading more carefully will help you to arrive at fresh insights and understand how literary texts work more clearly.

Steps for an Effective Close Reading

The more you practice close reading, the less likely it is that you will consciously think through each of these steps. But I think these general guidelines will help you get started, especially when analyzing passages you find difficult.

Step 1: Choose your passage.

Sometimes your passage will be assigned to you, but sometimes you'll be tasked with choosing what portion of a text you want to focus on. You'll want to choose a section that you understand well, with words that stand out to you and literary/stylistic elements you can identify. You'll also want to pick a section that you think is important to understanding the text as a whole so that you can explain how your close reading illuminates the entire text, not just the small portion you have focused on.

Step 2: Read and summarize.

Before you can look beyond the surface of the text, it's important to make sure you understand what's happening in the text on a literal level. Read the passage, then summarize it in one or two sentences. It's a smart idea to include this very brief summary in the paragraph or essay you produce to help your reader to contextualize your close reading.

Step 3: Re-read and annotate.

Close reading means re-reading more than once. When you're getting started, it's a good idea to get all your ideas down on paper-- you can prioritize once you've thought everything through. Here are some things you can do when you annotate a literary passage:

  • Highlight, circle, or underline word choices that stand out.
  • Identify the mood of the passage. How does it make you feel?
  • Write any questions that come to mind about the author's choices in the margins. (If something seems weird to you but then you can unravel how this weirdness works, you've got a great start for a close reading.)
  • Identify any literary elements (similes, personification, rhyme, etc.) that you notice in the passage. (See the Glossary of Literary Terms if you need a refresher!)
  • Identify the author's tone: Should you be reading this passage as serious and straightforward? Satirical? Angry? Answering this question is really important for avoiding misinterpretation.
  • Note any patterns that you see, in punctuation, word choice, sentence structure, etc.

Step 4: Prioritize and unpack.

By the time you finish annotating your passage, you'll probably have marked up lots of interesting details. But an effective close reading isn't simply a long list of details accompanied by brief interpretations. In a close reading, your goal is to say more about less-- you're more likely to arrive at significant insights by spending a lot of time and attention on a few details than by giving a cursory look at many. Once you've chosen which details you think are most significant, spend some time unpacking them, thinking about how they contribute meaning to the passage. Every detail you discuss will need more than one sentence of unpacking. No hard and fast rules apply, but generally if I don't see at least three or four sentences spent on a detail, I find myself looking for more analysis.

Step 5: Put it all together.

It's smart to start your close reading paragraph or essay with a claim that sums up the results of your analysis. (If you are answering a specific question or responding to a prompt, your claim should address the demands of the assignment.) After that, discuss and unpack your details, being sure to connect them to one another and to your claim with transitions. At the end of your analysis, make clear how your close reading illuminates issues you see as central to understanding the text as a whole.

Start Practicing!

The best way to get better at close reading is to practice doing it. You can do this informally, as you read for class, or formally, working through each of the steps above to craft a polished paragraph or two. (If you'd like someone to look over your work and offer suggestions, come see me in office hours!) It's important to be able to close-read fiction, poetry, and informational texts. Below, you'll find an example of each you can use to practice. Once you've practiced on your own, click the blue links. They'll take you to sample close readings of these passages, walking you through my thinking step by step.

Sample poem: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “A Psalm of Life” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173910)

Sample prose passage: from Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

(A bit of background: Douglass, a slave in Maryland, finds himself working under a fierce overseer named Covey. Tired of being abused, Douglass decides he will stand up to Covey, and the result is a brawl between them.)

Bill said his master hired him out to work, and not to help to whip me; so he left Covey and myself to fight our own battle out. We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me half so much. The truth was, that he had not whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn't want to get hold of me again. 'No,' thought I, 'you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.'

This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed
forever when I could be a slave in fact. I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.”

 

To write this guide, I consulted the following useful sources:

Close Reading of Literary Texts, Read Write Think, http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/close-reading-literary-texts-31012.html

Close Reading of a Literary Passage, Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/reading_lit.html