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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Close Reading in Secondary Classrooms: A 21st-Century Update for a 20th-Century Practice

  • Author(s): Catterson, Amy Koehler
  • Advisor(s): Pearson, P. David
  • et al.

Close reading is an enigmatic term with a simple definition: special attention to texts. Key shifts in the Common Core State Standards have led to a renewed interest about close reading instruction among researchers and practitioners of K-12 education. Close reading is particularly salient in secondary settings, where calls to raise text difficulty and increase literacy instruction in the disciplines have placed new demands on middle and high school teachers. But even though close reading is now widespread in secondary classrooms, there is very little research to date on close reading instruction. As such we still do not know how these practices will affect students’ reading skills and motivation.

In this dissertation, I offer three article-length contributions to the research base on secondary close reading instruction. First, I synthesize practice-based research on close reading instruction with the aim of identifying best practices for close reading in secondary classrooms. I then present two empirical articles that address gaps in the research literature on adolescent close reading instruction.

In chapter 1, previously published in Adolescent Literacies: A Handbook of Practice-Based Research, P. David Pearson and I offer a vision for a 21st-century close reading pedagogy. This vision was influenced by a historical account of close reading’s place in adolescent classrooms over the past 75 years and a review of research on secondary close reading instruction. We argue that a 21st-century close reading pedagogy must encompass considerations of the reader and his or her sociocultural contexts, accept digital and everyday texts as candidates for close readings, and include purposes for reading beyond knowledge building. In light of these goals, we suggest five principles of adolescent close reading instruction: background knowledge, authentic reading and writing, metadiscursive awareness, critical literacy, and dialogically organized discussion.

In chapter 2, I draw on the principles of close reading instruction outlined in chapter 1 to co-design tests of close reading instruction with a high school chemistry teacher. In this formative experiment, I tested the effect of background knowledge activation on amount and types of questions written about a scientific article; I also tested whether allowing students to choose texts to read about a scientific issue affected the amount of information written on that topic and their motivation to read. In a challenge to Common-Core-era recommendations that background knowledge should be held at bay when closely reading texts, I found that students who had their background knowledge activated with pre-reading activities prior to closely reading an article wrote more argument-generating questions than students who did not engage in pre-reading activities. I also argue that students who were able to choose a text to read closely about a scientific topic online recorded as much accurate information about that topic as students who were assigned a text to read by their teacher.

In chapter 3, I explore an understudied area of close reading instruction: students’ everyday digital close reading practices. This article is an ethnographic case study of students’ out-of-school digital close readings and their teachers’ approach to digital close reading instruction in the classroom. By comparing these two realms through the lens of cultural historical activity theory, I am able to surface tensions and synergies that may lead to recommendations for close reading instruction that leverages students’ existing funds of knowledge about digital literacies. Specifically, I found that when teachers designed digital close reading instruction in the service of promoting student-directed learning, it aligned well with students’ goals when they performed everyday close readings of digital texts at home.

Together, these three chapters suggest new directions for adolescent close reading instruction and research. In chapter 4, I synthesize across the three articles to highlight common themes and conclude with ideas for future research and lingering questions about the nature of close reading.

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