Close reading

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Close Reading is the term given to any and all methods used to help a reader analyze and discover meaning in a particular text, which lead to deeper comprehension (noun)

In literary criticism, Close Reading describes the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.

The technique as practiced today was pioneered (at least in English) by I.A. Richards and his student William Empson, later developed further by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century. It is now a fundamental method of modern criticism. Close reading is sometimes called explication de texte, which is the name for the similar tradition of textual interpretation in French literary study, a technique whose chief proponent was Gustave Lanson.

According to [1] [The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)]: Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details. It also enables students to reflect on the meanings of individual words and sentences; the order in which sentences unfold; and the development of ideas over the course of the text, which ultimately leads students to arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. (PARCC, 2011, p. 7)


Close reading was first practiced as a form of literary criticism by Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893-1979). But, Fisher & Frey (2012)[1] remind us that “the practice of close reading is not a new one, and in fact has existed for many decades as the practice of reading a text for a level of detail not used in everyday reading” (p. 8). Buckley (2011[2]) explains that “as English teachers, we have to empower all our students to use texts to construct and represent meaning skillfully, because by every measure, it gives them a better chance at having a better life” (p. 3). She goes on to say that “all students deserve a chance to learn how to demonstrate their ambitious exploration of text” (p. 29), a notion supported by Fisher & Frey (2012) when they remind us that “close reading should be accompanied by purposeful, scaffolded instruction about the passage” (p. 8).

Literary close reading and commentaries have extensive precedent in the exegesis of religious texts, and more broadly, hermeneutics of ancient works. For example, Pazand, a genre of middle Persian literature, refers to the Zend (literally: 'commentary'/'translation') texts that offer explanation and close reading of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The scriptural commentaries of the Talmud offer a commonly cited early predecessor to close reading. In Islamic studies, the close reading of the Quran has flourished and produced an immense corpus. But the closest religious analogy to contemporary literary close reading, and the principal historical connection with its birth, is the rise of the higher criticism, and the evolution of textual criticism of the Bible in Germany in the late eighteenth century.

Close Reading and Common Core State Standards[edit]

With the advent of the Common Core State Standards, there have been several instructional shifts for English/Language Arts.

Common Core State Standards expect students to read and comprehend at a very high level. Close reading allows students to comprehend the very obvious details in the text, but also helps them see the subtle details in text that they would most likely overlook.

According to [Revised Publishers, ’Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3 – 12] [2]: The Common Core State Standards place a high priority on the close, sustained reading of complex text, beginning with Reading Standard 1. Such reading focuses on what lies within the four corners of the text. It often requires compact, short, self-contained texts that students can read and re-read deliberately and slowly to probe and ponder the meanings of individual words, the order in which sentences unfold, and the development of ideas over the course of the text. Reading in this manner allows students to fully understand informational texts as well as analyze works of literature effectively.

Novels, plays, and other extended full - length readings are also provided with opportunities for close reading. Students should also be required to read texts of a range of lengths — for a variety of purposes — including several longer texts each year. Discussion of extended or longer texts should span the entire text while also creating a series of questions that demonstrate how careful attention to specific passages within the text provide opportunities for close reading. Focusing on extended texts will enable students to develop the stamina and persistence they need to read and extract knowledge and insight from larger volumes of material. Not only do students need to be able to read closely, but they also need to be able to read larger volumes of text when necessary for research or other purposes.

Given the emphasis of the Common Core State Standards on close reading, many of the texts selected should be worthy of close attention and careful re-reading for understanding. To become career and college ready, students must grapple with a range of works that span many genres, cultures, and eras and model the kinds of thinking and writing students should aspire to in their own work.


A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight.

To take an even more extreme example, Jacques Derrida's essay Ulysses Gramophone, which J. Hillis Miller describes as a "hyperbolic, extravagant... explosion" of the technique of close reading, devotes more than eighty pages to an interpretation of the word "yes" in James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses.[citation needed]

In an academic setting, students read the given text at least three times. During the first read students read through the text to get the gist of what the text is about. During the second read students dig into the text and focus on analyzing the meaning of a passage of text at the word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, and passage level.

Thus exploring the author’s craft and how specific words and phrases make meaning. They mark up the text and highlight it based on criteria from their teacher. During the third read students use evidence in the text to determine and support an answer to a question. This is the step where students are asked to take their comprehension to the next level.

See also[edit]



Buckley, E. M. (2011). 360 degrees of text: Using poetry to teach close reading and powerful writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (Jan. 2012). Engaging the adolescent learner: Text complexity and close readings. Newark, DE: IRA.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. (2011). PARCC model content frameworks: English language arts/literacy grades 3–11.

Common Core State Standards instructional shifts for English/Language Arts:

External links[edit]