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In this lesson you will learn what it is to read closely. You will explore strategies and techniques for close reading a text, including highlighting anything that is surprising to you and asking and answering questions about the text.

What is Close Reading?

We’ve all had experiences in which we’ve read a text and then had no idea what we just read. We may have read the words, the phrases, understood the structure of complete sentences, paragraphs and pages. But, what we didn’t understand was what the author meant to say to us, why it was important, and how it added anything at all to what we knew, what we believed, and what we thought. That is because we were reading passively; simply letting the words wash over us without actually thinking about what the author intended.While this way of passively reading is useful in reading that new murder mystery, it is not useful if we want to understand an author’s ideas. For that, we need close reading.

Close reading is re-reading a text carefully, and with purpose. It is becoming actively engaged in what we read by paying close attention to the words, the ideas, the structure, the flow, and the purpose of the text, in order to really think about what the author said, and compare it with what we know, what we believe, and what we think.

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But how do you become a close reader? To begin your close reading:

Read the text

Focus simply on understanding what the words mean and what the work means as a whole. Pay attention to your own responses. If you find yourself getting angry or bored, ask yourself why. Are there too many details? Not enough? Is the writer a bigot? Liberal? Conservative? Jerk? It’s possible, too, that you’ll find yourself ‘wowed’ by a text. Or that some particular detail seems to reveal the solution to a problem that you’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Again, pay attention to your responses.Read any difficult parts several times. Read them out loud, slowly, deliberately. Difficult parts will be easier the second or third time through.Pay close attention to any repeated images or words.

Annotate the text

Read through the work again, this time taking notes.

annotating a text
  • Underline words you think are important
  • Highlight anything that is surprising to you or that raises a question in your mind.

  • Ask yourself and write down your answers to the following questions:
    • What is the first thing you notice about the text?
    • What is the second thing?
    • What mood does the text create in you? Why?
    • Which words do you notice first? Why?
    • Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why?
    • Does any image in the text remind you of anything? What? Where? What’s the connection?
    • What is the sentence rhythm like? Short and choppy? Long and flowing?
    • Are there any repeated words or images within the text? What is the effect of that repetition?
    • How might any of the objects in the text represent something else?
    • Do any of the objects, colors, animals, or plants appearing in the text have unusual meaning? What about religious or biblical importance?

Use the margins of the text to make a note of any additional questions, connections, or contradictions you find in the text.Then, write down the important ideas in the text, any pages you might want to return to, and quotes that may be helpful to your understanding.Reading in this way – marking the text while re-reading it several times – forces you to pay closer attention.

The more closely you can observe, the more original and exact your ideas will be.

Lesson Summary

Remember, close reading is figuring out the text by paying close attention to the words and ideas in the text, and your responses to them; to see how they connect, and contribute, to what the text says, how it says it, and what it means to you. Some specific techniques you can use in close reading is to annotate the text, reread difficult parts and pay attention to your own responses to the text.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve finished the lesson, you should be able to:

  • Explain what close reading is
  • Recall and utilize several tips for close reading

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