Mastering Close Reading: A Smart Literacy Strategy for Secondary Students

Close reading is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to build understanding and engagement in your content area. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 1–Mastering Close Reading.

Close reading is a simple and smart literacy strategy for secondary students to use to build understanding and engagement in your content area. This week of the 6 Smart Strategies for Student Success PL Series is all about Strategy 1–Mastering Close Reading.

What is Close Reading?

Close reading is several readings of a complex text to go beyond comprehension and reach the level of interpretation and analysis. Close reading asks the reader to explain what the text says and how it says it. For example, how do word choice and tone impact what is being communicated?

Why it’s a Smart Literacy Strategy for Secondary Students

If reading a news article about a politician apologizing for an error, the politician might be quoted as saying, “Mistakes were made.” A student might point out that the meaning of the statement is that the politician made a mistake. That is what’s being communicated. Looking at word choice, the student could point out that by choosing to use passive voice (“were made”), the politician hasn’t assigned blame for the mistakes. Blame is deferred and word choice impacts meaning in that way.

In looking at the text that way, the student is analyzing and interpreting. That’s what we want them to do in our classes and beyond.

So how can we get them there?

Mastering Close Reading

The World History Project 1750 to the Present has a free template called “Three Close Reads.” You can download it on their website and use it as a tool to implement close reading. Khan Academy uses this strategy with articles curated by topic, also freely available online. I use this template in my classroom and it can be modified for other subjects.

It’s basically a chart with four sections to fill out:

  1. A Guiding Question.
    A guiding question is imperative because it focuses students. Without focus, it’s much easier for students to become lost in the reading. The question anchors them.
  2. Read 1: Skimming for the Gist
    Looking at the title, headings, subheadings, and skimming over the paragraphs allows students to have an idea of what the text is about. A general idea prepares them to dig deeper.
  3. Read 2: Understanding the Content
    This is when students pay attention to word choice, claims, and evidence.
  4. Read 3: Thinking Conceptually
    This is essentially when students make connections. How does the text connect to the time it was written, their lives? Did it change or reinforce their perspectives?

The first couple of times you use it, try modeling the process like this:

1. Preview the text. As you do, discuss your thought process. Your work should be visible to the students, so you have a few options to make that happen:

  • Print the Three Close Reads template and the text you’re reading. Use a document camera to share what you’re writing on a screen with your students.
  • Project the text and the template on a Promethean Board. Use a browser extension, such as
  • Annotate: Web Annotations with Screen Sharing (available in the Chrome Web Store), to mark directly on the documents within your web browser.

2. Fill out the “Overall question or idea to think about as you read” section with an overarching guided question you’ve come up with in advance. Khan Academy has guiding questions for its curated articles. I have standard guiding questions that I pull from to guide most historical readings. Think about what you’d use in your subject. Here are mine:

  • What words or phrases give away the author’s perspective or purpose? Why do they have this effect?
  • How does the time and location of this text’s creation impact what the author is saying? Are there important historical events that may be influencing it? Find specific examples that reflect this.
  • Who is the audience this author is targeting? Find specific examples that lead you to this conclusion.

3. Talk aloud as you read “Reading 1: Skimming for Gist.” Fill out the chart and actively speculate.

4. Talk aloud and annotate (highlight and define new vocabulary in the margins, highlight major claims, highlight and summarize details and evidence to support those claims in the margins) as you work through “Reading 2: Understanding Content.”

5. Talk aloud, annotate, and return to your guiding question as you work through “Reading 3: Evaluating and Corroborating.”

Using the gradual release model, the next step should be doing a close read collaboratively as a class or in small groups, followed by monitoring and supporting students as they do it independently.

A close read can be extended into a debate, a Socratic Seminar, or even remediation to encourage students to apply what they’ve learned. I’ve got a Socratic Seminar Template for you in my free resource library. Here’s a fantastic debate structure you can implement.

A structured debate is a smart strategy for extending close readings. Follow this link to see a structured way to implement one in the classroom.
A Socratic Seminar is a smart strategy for extending close readings. Follow this link to get a free template for implementing one in the classroom.

Think about how you can use this smart strategy in your classroom to improve student literacy. I’d love for you to reach out and let me know how you plan to use it in the coming year.

Don’t forget to come back next week for the second literacy strategy, note-taking.

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