Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 2

This chapter is about Common Core style Close Reading, which isn’t something taught in either Well-Trained Mind style classical education, or Charlotte Mason style classical education. This kind of literature analysis on steroids is quite possibly my least favorite activity on Earth, behind washing dishes.

Close Reading is the methodical breaking down of the language and structure of a complex passage to establish and analyze its meaning. Teaching students to do it requires layered reading and asked sequenced, text-dependent questions; and it should end whenever possible with mastery expressed through writing.

Reading Reconsidered

I think this chapter is worthwhile because this style of close reading is tested on major assessments, like the SAT. For example, when I reviewed a Pennsylvanian 4th grade summative assessment, and answered the Close Reading sample questions, I got them wrong because I used my background knowledge, instead of an incorrect answer that corresponded with questionable inferences from the text.

Assessments based on this style of reading are intentionally dumbing down reading comprehension by sticking to only what can be decoded from the “four corners of the text.”

Close reading is how the Common Core ELA standards handle students with poor reading skills, and in turn, makes texts incomprehensible even to the authors. As per Reading Reconsidered, “Close Reading is the tool that allows students to read text that is over their heads”, which begs the question of reading comprehension.

Ironically, the explicit assumption in Reading Reconsidered is that close reading gives students “the ability to wrestle with the most demanding texts, interpret them independently, and understand why and how they mean what they do.” Another explicit assumption is that Close Reading helps students become familiar with genre styles.

In Reading Reconsidered‘s version of Close Reading, the student should explain in writing what the text says and be able how to use the text to answer “text-dependent questions”; there is only one right answer, and it must be found within solely within the words on the page, using multiple reads of a paragraph length snippet of text over the course of an hour or so.

If there is anything better designed to suck the joy out of reading, I’m not sure what it is. Reading Reconsidered breaks Close Reading down into four common steps, “1) contiguous read, 2) initial writing to Check For Understanding, 3) reread with text-dependent questions, 4) final writing.”

What they call “Layered Reading,” is broken down into three types, which can be used independently or concurrently:

  • “Contiguous Read” — just keepin’ on truckin’ through the whole thing, often read aloud in the classroom with the occasional vocabulary word defined as they read
  • “line-by-line read” — just as dreadful as it sounds, answering multiple questions about a single sentence or line of poetry. “Who is they? Is this a good or a bad thing? Why didn’t the author mention _____? Why did the author choose that word?” Of course, even though the author isn’t there to gift you with their insight, and literature professors have been arguing about word choice for centuries, there is only one right answer, and it must only come from the text, not your knowledge of the author or the context in which the text is written, etc.
  • “leapfrog read” — this is skimming to find how the author treated key words or phrases, and then answering inferential questions–only using the text, and there is only one right answer. Reading Reconsidered suggests using this technique as early as second grade.
    • “Where is ___ first mentioned? What is it doing? Is this positive or negative? What is the object of ____? What is the result of ____? What will happen if ____ continues? What’s being described as ____? Give one literal and one figurative reason why the author would describe _____ that way.”
    • “Underline _____. The author chose ____ adjectives. How would the effect have been different if they’d chosen _____? What kinds of things are ____? What is the author implying? Why does the author say ____? What is the object of _____?”
    • “Under the phrase _____. Compare it to ______. The last time ____ was mentioned it was ____? Now we’re sure the author is comparing it to a ____. What is it doing? In your notes, briefly describe the role of ____.”

“Unless the conversation starts with a deep understanding of the specifics of what Shakespeare wrote rather than some generalized proximity of it, the discussion is not an exercise in reading. It is a substitute activity–a philosophical discussion about issues raised in a text…such discussions don’t generally teach students to read deeply.”

Reading Reconsidered

For classical homeschoolers, using literature to engage in the Great Conversation is the point rather than something to be avoided. Particularly for Well-Trained Mind style homeschoolers, reading or listening to “generalized proximity” versions of the text as youngsters allows for deeper reading of text specifics later. It’s arguable that Common Core style Close Reading puts the cart before the horse.

Paraphrase vs Summary vs Narration

Reading Reconsidered distinguishes between a paraphrase (“a restatement of the sentence in simpler and clarified terms that still capture all of the explicit meaning and as much of the connotation as possible” in the same tense, syntax, and POV) and a summary (“a statement about the text from 3rd person POV with simplified language focusing on relevant information.”) Most narrations are summaries, but Reading Reconsidered has a preference for paraphrases.

Text Dependent Questions (TDQs)

TDQs are divided into word or phrase level questions, sentence or line level questions, and paragraph or stanza level questions. All three types can either be questions to establish meaning, or questions to analyze meaning. Reading Reconsidered points out that instructors can switch back and forth between types and kinds of questions and zoom in and out from word choice to paragraph analysis. You’ll note that these are not the typical kinds of questions we use when talking about books we read as classical homeschoolers.

Establishing Meaning

First they offer three types of word or phrase level questions: referent questions (“What is ‘it’?”), denotation questions (“What are ___? What would have to be true for ____ to happen? What might that show about _____?”) and explanation questions (“What does ____ mean? How is it different from ____?”)

Next they offer four types of sentence-level questions: paraphrase questions, key line questions (“What does this sentence tell us about ___ and why is that important?”), reference questions (“Who is ___ talking about?”), and sentence structure questions (“Why does the author _____ at the beginning/end/middle of each sentence?”).

Finally, they offer four types of paragraph/stanza level questions: summary questions, delineation questions (“trace the elements of the argument” or “trace the sequence of events in the narrative”), and finite evidence questions (“Find all/multiple/# of pieces of evidence throughout the section.”)

Analyzing Meaning

First they offer five types of word or phrase level questions: word pattern questions (anaphora, etc), connotation questions (implied meaning based on associations and how this affects meaning or tone), figurative vs literal meaning (Not what, but why and how. “Why personification here? Why a simile comparing to X rather than Y?”), sensitivity analysis (Why this word and not that one?), missing word analyses (“Why wouldn’t the author mention ____?)

Next they offer four types of sentence-level questions: key line question (“What might it accomplish to express the idea with such subtlety? What other similar lines are in the book? Why would the author keep ____ hidden/explicit in this type of work?”), allusion questions (“What is the allusion? Why use it?”), figurative language questions (asks about the meaning of imagery or nonliteral language such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, analogy, etc), and pattern questions (ask about a pattern in structure, syntax, or sound and how that affects meaning).

Finally, they offer three types of paragraph/stanza level questions: paragraph function (“Look carefully at paragraph number __ and ___. How has the author shifted the use of ____ and the degree to which they are using ____? Why are they making the shift? How does this build from ____?”), dramatic irony (difference between their own knowledge and that of characters within the narrative), extended metaphor/allegory question (ask students to trace a metaphor across multiple lines of text).

Global Level Questions

Last, but not least, they offer “global-level” questions for use after Close Reading, to apply insights to a large section of text.

  • convention alignment analyses — compare and contrast to genre styles and how that creates meaning
  • intratextual motifs and discourse — analyze the connection between different parts of a text or how a motif shows up elsewhere in the text
  • intertextual discourse — analyze the explicit or implicit connections between a given text and other specific texts
  • ambiguity questions — analyze what is left unstated or unresolved
  • part-to-whole questions — what role this scene/chapter/excerpt plays in the context of the larger work

Writing About Reading is Not Optional

I can just hear all the classical homeschoolers taking a sharp, in-drawn breath. Yes, Reading Reconsidered insists that students not only write about literature, but also argue about it–but only teacher-approved arguments, of course.

One Ring to Rule Them All

That’s because Reading Reconsidered says that teachers should be “modeling how to ‘argue a line,’ tracing a theme, a motif, a conflict, or an image through the complexity of a text. Teachers are encouraged to be “de-emphasizing certain aspects of the text to facilitate” this process–AKA, ensuring that students write up the right answer “by analyzing specific details from the text” that the teacher has shown them.

Big Little Lessons

Noting that teachers will begin with the end in mind, Reading Reconsidered encourages teachers to march students through this joy-filled process every single day, even if only in 10-15 minute stints of prepared bits like epigraphs, or by accident when students take unplanned detours away from the approved line of argument. Teachers are encouraged to have students re-read bits three and four times, asking TDQs until they come up with the right answers.

I suspect that this is why I ended up reading a play a week during my college-level Shakespeare class, doggedly writing a weekly essay about the “play within a play” in every single week’s reading. And this would be why I don’t read “literature” anymore–only genre fiction and nonfiction.

In Sum

While most classical style homeschoolers will not be running their second-graders through this process–and possibly not even their high schoolers–I think it’s important that homeschoolers understand the concepts behind Common Core style Close Reading.

While college bound students will need to learn genre conventions, typical literature analysis techniques, and all the accompanying vocabulary, like motif and allegory, nowadays they’ll also need to be prepared to deal with the expectation that they are only to write about the approved text, using no outside information to inform their writing, making the correct argument they’re to discern from the way the question is asked. Most will not find this particularly onerous, but it is a hoop they need to learn to jump through.

Reading Reconsidered In the Homeschool—Chapter 1

This chapter is about text selection, something near and dear to the homeschool community.

The authors begin with “The Decline of the Canon.” First, let me say that as a fan of Susan Wise Bauer’s work, I subscribe to her idea that no list of the Great Books is canonical. I also am sympathetic to the idea that there are lesser-known works by authors who were not in positions of power that have been overlooked as possible candidates for inclusion.

After positing that there are “universal and fungible [reading] skills, applicable and applied to almost any text,” Lemov nods to the idea that “reading … depends heavily on knowledge.” So far, so good. Perfectly compatible with Bauer’s idea that:

a classical education follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions

reading has two parts: ongoing instruction in how to read and the actual reading of worthwhile books

The Well-Trained Mind

Next the authors run through what is essentially an argument for classical education without any of the key words. The choice of texts matters, student need cultural literacy, the point of education was the Great Conversation, universal education produces good citizens, a shout-out to the McGuffey Reader, etc–and then stop to emphasize that they’re not arguing for this, of course not, because old = bad.

They stop to discuss Dead White Males, YA fiction, and texts selected less by posited virtues and more by one’s inner child. Noting that the free-for-all text selection allows for more diverse perspectives and voices, but loses shared discourse, the authors point out that “intertextuality” (Adler’s “syntopical reading”) requires texts in common.

With a subtle nod to E.D. Hirsch, Jr., they make the point that Sayer’s “educational capital,” like Piketty’s, accrues to heirs, rather than wider society. Where Jessie Wise writes that “sooner or later, the capital gets used up,” the authors throw in a reference to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Finally, the authors recommend an “internal canon” determined locally, whereas Well-Trained Mind style classical educators tend to rely literature linked to history studies. One reads “classics” because they’re the literature of the time period. A nonsectarian approach to history will necessarily result in a more diverse set of literature choices.

Next, the authors address Lexile scores and leveled texts. Note that there is no quality research for leveled texts. While we all know there is more to a text than its Lexile score (Night by Elie Wiesel is a perfect example), the authors make the excellent point that:

[a well-chosen book] builds students’ knowledge base about books and storytelling in a way that will be useful to them in understanding how texts work, throughout a lifetime of reading

Susan Wise Bauer and the authors agree that books should not be read in snippets–whole books are best. Then, the authors point out five distinct difficulties to overcome when tasking students with “complex texts”–what Sayers would refer to as not “twaddle.”

  • archaic syntax and vocabulary–remedy by carefully scaling up in difficulty. “Pre-complex texts” are listed, with a suggestion to read them out loud, heartwarming to any classical educator
  • nonlinear time sequences, including “unclear timing of an event, shifts in fixity of time, layers of memory, shifts in rate of time elapsing, recurrence of events”–remedy with suggested texts for introducing nonlinear time sequence
  • complexity of narrator, including the idea that the narrator could by lying or hallucinating–remedy with suggested texts for introducing complex voice
  • complexity of story (plot and symbolism)–remedy with intentionally exposing students to such a book.
  • resistant text–remedy with exposure to other difficulties, poetry, and close reading
  • nonfiction–see chapter 3

Where the authors lean on long-term, non-obvious benefits, Bauer quotes Steele.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
-Richard Steele, The Tatler

The fourth part of the chapter points out the scarcity of time to read, not unlike the meme about 960 Sundays from birth to age 18. This is something that I think is less key to classical homeschoolers, who have chosen to have more time to devote to reading good books. Most classical homeschoolers I know are fans of reading deeply and widely.

Like many homeschoolers, the authors say that children can handle reading something that they don’t know if they’ll like, that it’s an advantage to be able to read and discuss books, and that some books matter more than others.

The next bit might as well be an ad for the Well-Trained Mind, in that children learn by reading, especially good historical fiction about unfamiliar cultures and settings. One thing that children can learn is the procession of ideas through the ages, and how different write reference them.

The last section is about how to select texts. This bit is mostly irrelevant to homeschoolers, as it assumes a school wide setting.

Reading Reconsidered in the Homeschool — Intro

Reading Reconsidered is not aimed at homeschoolers, but I think it contains some useful information that classical homeschoolers might want to consider. First, an introduction to who and what this book is about.

Reading Reconsidered’s subtitle is “A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction.” Those of you who wince at the word “rigorous” might remember the Common Core wars and make no mistake, Lemov is all in on the Common Core.

In fact, Lemov got his Edu-Professional-Consultant start under the NCLB regime, called in to turn around schools unable to meet the NCLB standardized testing requirements. In response to the unpredictable quality of the average classroom teacher, he made a virtue of Taylorization in the classroom, complete with video monitoring. While it’s true that factories are more efficient since Taylor and his stopwatch, applying those values to the classroom understandably had serious push back, including accusations of racist practices.

Lemov went on to lead the Uncommon Schools charter network in the “no excuses” style. In fact, all of the authors of this book (Lemov, Driggs, and Woolway) are currently affiliated with Uncommon Schools. No Excuses Schools have been a flashpoint for criticism on many fronts.

relentlessly penalizing students who commit minor infractions: resting a head on a desk, chewing gum, talking during the silent march from class to class (Chalkbeat),

students in third grade and above wetting themselves during practice tests (NY Times),

but fewer than a third of its high school graduates were earning college degrees on time (NY Times)

[and parents said] “I wouldn’t put my dog in that school,” (Jacobin)

Very bluntly, all three of these college-educated, white, education professionals want to send poor (83% low-income), “urban” (94% Black or Hispanic) children to college. Reading Reconsidered is much like Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion in that it’s entirely teacher focused–it’s all about what the teacher should do when teaching reading.

The assumption in this book is that children will attend college, and the overarching goal is to prepare children to succeed at that endeavor

Classical educators will find much that is familiar in this book, and in fact on the second page the authors nod to home educated guiding lights of the 19th century. Immediately rejecting “let them read on their own and hope for the best,” they argue for “the diligent study of reading” through, you guessed it, the Taylorization of teaching reading.

Significant goals overlap with classical education:

The authors point out that college level reading is more difficult because it require reading dense, technical, primary sources and classic literature. Of course, those who classically educate their children already appreciate the value of classic literature and primary sources.

“The old books lay a foundation for all later learning and life.” —David Hicks

Reading Reconsidered spends a great deal of time on “close reading,” which is possibly the academic skill I most despise, and which I will discuss more thoroughly later. However, it’s worth noting that the Well-Trained Mind Academy offers a study skills class that includes close reading.

Later post in this series will discuss Reading Reconsidered chapter by chapter, and discuss its applicability (or not) to classical homeschooling.