Stop Close Reading

For a while now, middle school and high school English classes throughout the nation have been teaching something called "close reading"--with varying degrees of success. "Close reading" is about taking a chapter, a page, a paragraph, or even a single sentence, and picking it apart to extract meaning or see what the author is doing. It's a vehicle for teaching students about cadence and imagery, hopefully leading youthful minds to appreciate the complexity of authors' thoughts.

We should end it. Students almost universally hate close reading, and they rarely wind up understanding it anyway. Forced to pick out meaning in passages they don't fully grasp to begin with, they begin to get the idea that English class is about simply making things up (Ah yes--the tree mentioned once on page 89 and then never again stands for weakness and loss!) and constructing increasingly circuitous arguments by way of support. (It's because it's an elm, and when you think elm, you think Dutch elm disease, and elms are dying out--sort of like their relationship, see?)

So what would happen if we ditched this sacred teaching technique? For starters, we could help students read more. Close reading has been behind the trend of reading fewer books, but reading them more slowly. What the attentive reading proponents ignore is that many students are in danger of failing to see the literary forest for the trees. Speeding things up might make it easier to grasp--and appreciate--the overall arc of a book, while allowing the opportunity for real connection with the characters and plot. You can't do that at the pace of a chapter a week.

Furthermore, aiming for fifteen books a year, rather than five, might expose the students to more good literature (immersion in quality prose being one of the best ways of learning writing) and increase their chances of finding a book they like. There would still be plenty of opportunity to point out metaphors and similes. We'd also have more time for grammar, rhetoric, and composition--the building blocks of the language we're supposed to be teaching. If the goal of an English class is to improve students' grasp of language, introduce them to great literature, and--hopefully--get students excited, then there's really no downside to this approach. With 12th grade reading ability in depressing straits nationwide, we've certainly little to lose.

If a few students really want to do close reading, they can do it as an elective or jump in head first in college. Otherwise, let's chuck the concept. We gain nothing by teaching kids to hate books--and hate them s-l-o-w-l-y.


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