by Kathy G. Short, University of Arizona
The Common Core State Standards put a major emphasis on the close reading of texts, recommending that students find and cite evidence in the text as they discuss key ideas and details, craft and structure, and knowledge and ideas. Text analysis is viewed as bringing rigor to reading with an emphasis on higher level critical reading skills. Any text read to or by students is used for instructional purposes, to teach something. If students respond to a text by talking about what it reminds them of from their lives, teachers are to steer students back to the task and ask them to talk about what the story is about—to get the details and to support their statements by citing evidence in the text. Text-dependent questions and evidence, not connection, are valued.
The issue is not misinterpretations of close reading by educators but misunderstandings of reader response in the standards themselves. The assumption of the writers of the standards is that reader response does not include text analysis and stays at a simple level of personal connections that does not lead to critical thinking. Although reader response does begin with personal connections and interpretations, readers are then encouraged to move into an analysis of their responses through dialogue based on evidence from their lives and the text to develop their interpretations. Rosenblatt (1938) reminds us that first we need to respond as human beings, to share our experiences of that story, before we use the text to teach. Literature was not written to teach a strategy but to illuminate life. The first questions we should ask are, “What are you thinking? What connections did you make?” instead of “What was the text about?” These personal connections and responses are essential, but not sufficient, as readers then need to dialogue about their interpretations, critiquing those interpretations and examining whether they are supported by evidence from their lives and the text. Our first response to a text should not violate the nature of the text itself as an experience of life. The second response can then move into close reading of that text.
Teaching something from a text should come after personal response and dialogue, after readers have a chance to see that text as significant. That teaching should focus on one aspect of a text or one reading strategy. Beating a text to death with skill after skill is counterproductive—the reader walks away determined never to return to the text again and with little retention of the skills. By choosing one text structure or reading strategy, teachers provide a focus for students to explore and come to understand without destroying the text. It’s much more useful for students to examine one or two significant metaphors in a particular work of Shakespeare, for example, than to identify every metaphor in that work.
These issues are particularly significant in global literature where readers need to read critically, which requires both personal response and text analysis. If readers are only engaged in text analysis, as recommended by the CCSS, they do not learn to question the text itself and the assumptions about society on which the text is based. They circle around within the text, engaging in evaluation but not critique. When readers engage in both personal connection and text analysis, they move between perspectives to critique and challenge what exists in society and to examine who benefits as well as to imagine new possibilities (Friere,1978). We need to go outside the world of the text to challenge that world and bring the text back to our lives to challenge our views and ways of living. Encouraging readers to only engage in close reading keeps the text distant and separate from our lives—we read as spectators instead of immersing ourselves in experiences that connect us to and take us beyond our lives.
The focus on close text-based reading in CCSS returns us to narrow definitions of what and how students read. History indicates that this type of textual criticism, known as ‘New Criticism,” has turned off many generations of students because it lacks purpose, meaning, and connections to ideas and issues that students care about. Many of us have painful memories of sitting in college English classes, struggling to come up with the “right” interpretation of the assigned text and taking a text apart piece by piece, destroying our interest in and enjoyment of that text. Our connections and thinking were not valued and we saw no relevance for that reading in our own lives. Rosenblatt provided a powerful indictment of this approach to literary analysis in 1938 and her critique remains valid today. We do not need to choose between personal connection and close reading; the choice is not either/or but both. The risk of ignoring that choice is another generation of readers who avoid reading as painful school work, instead of meaningful life work.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.
Rosenblatt, L. (1938). Literature as exploration. Chicago: Modern Language Association.
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