Is Close Reading a complete fraud?

Dec 10, 2015 by

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Perhaps not entirely. Any method, no matter how silly, can be used as a change of pace. Let’s stipulate that variety is often a stimulus.

Here’s the chief, if ironic, benefit of this bad method. Make kids wallow for half-an-hour in something unpleasant (for example, how to prepare taxes) and many will beg for anything half-way interesting. Please, teacher, let us read a novel. Please!

Otherwise, Close Reading is almost a perfect fraud. At least, that’s my conclusion.

David Coleman, the pusher behind Common Core, stresses the importance of reading difficult, even impenetrable writing. The justification is that children will learn drilling skills that can be applied to even the densest texts. The problem is that these skills are hard to learn, even for adults, and the skills are not necessarily transferable. Meanwhile, as children struggle to learn these sophisticated skills, they won’t be learning much else. Education will come to a stop in the killing fields of difficult text.

Keep in mind that Close Reading is a literary concept originally introduced at the college and graduate level. People studying Shakespeare should be able to analyze his words. But this activity is like skiing on black diamond slopes. You don’t put beginners on those slopes.

The obvious sophistry lies in claiming that what’s good for adults is good for 10-year-olds. Is that ever a sensible way to approach the teaching of anything? It’s like suggesting we let 10-year-olds have a few drinks and a condom, and start learning about sex.

Here, very quickly, are some of the many additional reasons why you don’t want to bother with Close Reading:

The main way you encourage children to read is to give them lots of stuff they enjoy. You reward them with a carrot; you don’t hit them with a stick. Typically, once children learn to read, they seek out things they like. (Don’t get literarily pretentious or politically correct; let them read what they like.) What matters is quantity. We want children to read lots of words, so they learn to read effortlessly and with pleasure. Then they can be encouraged to look deeper and deeper.

The big problem with Close Reading is that it limits the amount of words children read. They will be wallowing in words they hate for long periods of time. Count up the words they are asked to read. The total will be low, as will the amount of pleasure. Progress will be slow.

Another big problem in Close Reading is that it will tend to disguise the fact that many children can hardly read. If everybody’s reading the same small bit of text, it won’t be immediately obvious that some children can read the passage in 10 seconds, some in 30 seconds, and some not at all. But the slow readers will pick up the gist from repeated readings and from other readers. The illusion will be created that all these children are reading at an acceptable level.

One of the techniques they use in Close Reading is to maneuver children toward a so-called consensus. At the end, if a student says the answer that everybody is supposed to reach, the teacher says, good, you can read. The truth might be that the child can’t read at all. Progressive educators love any excuse for leveling and social engineering. But in this particular case, we need to know who is falling behind so we can help them.

Traditionally, children read about heroes. Somebody just came out with another Charles Lindbergh biography. People of all ages can read about Charles Lindbergh forever. He was the most popular person on the planet because he did something almost inconceivable. As you explain his heroics to children, they learn about technology, history, geography, transportation, and perseverance. Children need heroes. (I think David Coleman is deliberately conspiring to make sure they hear mostly about government bureaucrats.)

Now, what is text that might be worthy of Close Reading? How about the Gettysburg Address? How about the opening of the Declaration of Independence? How about any really good poem? If you read such items 10 times you will probably have memorized them, perhaps for life, and that’s a good thing. But imagine reading tax instructions 10 times. You might end up memorizing it and that’s a waste of brain cells.

Let us look at another evil result of Close Reading, particularly when applied to so-called informational text. Traditionally, children were encouraged to read the so-called great works, both poetry and prose. In this way way the child is introduced to culture, art, critical perspectives, etc. What is a poem? What are the hallmarks of great writing? Point is, if you are going to make a child wallow in something, let it be something worthwhile that will broaden the child’s mind.

Here’s still another sinister aspect of Close Reading. The teacher is supposed to be completely passive (that’s the constructivist blueprint in general; what it mainly does is retard education). Remember that most of these kids can hardly read and know very little. How productive will their independent research be? Wouldn’t it be more productive to give these kids lots of background knowledge quickly? Graduate students probably already know personal stories about famous authors. But children don’t. The way famous people looked when young, where they grew up, what kind of jobs they had – all of that is interesting. If Edgar Allen Poe was a bit of an alcoholic and a brooding eccentric, that makes him more interesting for many people. If The Raven made more money than any other poem ever published, that’s a common-sense justification for telling students about this poem.

Here’s yet another way you can feel a con. The phrase “close reading” is now being applied to things other than words. Take a good look around your backyard—that’s what a detective would do if a crime had occurred there. But why refer to this activity as “close reading”? Not surprisingly (to me, at any rate), the New York Times engaged in an effort to downplay literacy: “Closely reading any text, whether written or visual, requires that students proceed more slowly and methodically, noticing details, making connections and asking questions…..We’ve selected 10 photos from The Times that we’ve used previously in our weekly “What’s Going On in This Picture?” and that have already successfully caught students’ and teachers’ attention.”

You see the drift. Close Reading actually shuts people off from enjoying good writing. And then, more and more, it moves children away from writing altogether. The children will learn to read pictures! Their report cards will show an A in “reading.”

Bruce Deitrick Price’s education site is Improve-Education.org. (His four new novels are presented on his literary site Lit4u.com)

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