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Strategies for Teaching Close Reading

    strategies for teaching close reading

    Mitigate, Motivate, Model, Mission, and Master:

    As English Language Arts teachers, we want our students to love reading. Very few will argue that. We want our students growing as critical thinkers: life-long readers and learners who question what they take in and who know how to decipher between fact and fiction. We want them to find the greatness in books and love them as we do. 

    Yet, somewhere between elementary school and high school, we tend to see students lose their love of reading, which often makes the task of participating in close reading feel like punishment to them. The word “annotate” becomes cringe-worthy for their young minds.  

    So how do we inspire our students to stay engaged through this task so that by the time they leave us at the end of the year, they are masters of close reading and annotation? 

    (Yes, it CAN happen.)

    WE HAVE THE POWER to take our students on a close-reading journey that will capture their interest and develop their critical-thinking skills. We simply need to go about it in a strategic, creative way. By using smart strategies and scaffolding, we can build confidence within our students as they read, and we can and will create successful close readers. 


    We need to acknowledge the elephant in the room: many of our students are either bored or irritated by reading. As awful as that makes us feel, we simply must own that fact. Many question WHY they must read at all. Obviously, it is our job to remember this as we lead them toward embracing the concept of close reading and annotating. It is not an easy task, but it is worth it.  

    It’s important to remind students that they already have some of the tools for this journey. They have been building this skill for most of their educational careers when they listened to their teachers read aloud to them, read the same text multiple times (re-reading), and answered critical-thinking questions as they read. You are simply guiding them through the next steps until they master the concept.  

    Reassure them that as you take them deeper into this process, you will start small and help them through. Furthermore, reassure them that they will not have to do close reading on everything they read in life. It is reserved for complex texts and/or interpreting texts (which they will be doing a lot of in your class).

    Always reiterate the WHY!  

    Remember that we complete close-reading activities because close reading is a life skill we use often, even without thinking about it. Reading an email from a superior, an article for work research, or a manual about assembling a product often has us re-reading and “putting the pieces together” to ensure we have all the information we need. 

    Lastly, we must remind them of the WHY each time we conquer a new text. Have a focus, concept, or essential question for them each time. Keep it on the board or somewhere in the room, and continuously go back to that WHY to show them how they are getting to the answer. 


    We need to motivate our students before we immerse them into a text. Students will perform better while reading if they know a bit about the material AND if they are (at least somewhat) interested or excited about it.

    It is best to have students doing the work here, but not all students will be ready to do so. Regardless, build the anticipation as you move toward reading the text. Give them background information; or better yet, have them become detectives searching for information about the author, time, and place of the piece. 

    Get them “on the case” as soon as you begin and guide them toward finding answers as to WHY this piece was written. This, in and of itself, can be motivating. It can also be extremely helpful as they read the text and understand the context (and hey, cross-curricular inclusion comes in handy here…wink, wink!). 

    Be creative right from the start with activating strategies and anticipation guides. 


    Begin your close-reading journey with short texts such as short stories, poems, nonfiction articles, or essays. Make sure the texts are not too easy, yet do not delve into complex readings right away. Easy is not always a bad thing for students at first because it builds their confidence!

    As you work through the first couple of texts, MODEL for them what you do when you complete the task of close reading and annotating. Slowly scaffold the concept so that it does not seem as daunting. 

    Also, alert them to the focus of their reading for the specific text, begin with just one or two concepts and then grow from there as the students master the techniques. For instance, you can have them begin by focusing on characterization of the protagonist or how the author sets the atmosphere. Then, as you model how to closely read and annotate, you can show them HOW to look for and mark up a text for said concept. 

    • If possible, photocopy the text so that they can mark it up as you model close-reading techniques and have them follow what you do. 
      • For differentiating this process, you can have questions already written on the sides of the text for those who need adaptations or for your struggling readers.
    • If photocopying the text is not an option, arm them with POST ITS. Ask them to bring in their own or provide them with a set, whichever you are comfortable with doing. (Placing these in the budget each year, if you can, is quite helpful.)
    • Alternatively, for the tech-savvy, create a video of yourself completing the task and share it with the students. Pre-load them with the information before they get to your class! 

    After reading the text at least twice (perhaps once together and once independently):

    • Place the text on a projector/smart screen (if possible), and as you read the text aloud to them, model how you would mark up the text/annotate and check to see that they are following your lead. (If you do not have access to this kind of technology, you could walk around the room as you model or create groups and work at each station for a bit.)
    • Take the text section-by-section and/or paragraph-by-paragraph. 
    • Show the students how to “TALK TO THE TEXT” ANNOTATE. 
    • Write your thoughts in the margins (or on Post Its), underline, question, highlight, etc.
      • When we teach our students to annotate, we can give them a list of markups that we would like to see. Have them keep the list beside them as they read and use as they annotate.
      • OR, we can let them get creative. Think about it; we live in a world where texting and emoticons are something with which students are quite familiar. Let them know that they can use their own abbreviations as they annotate. Let them be creative in their markups (within reason, of course). If their annotations make sense and match what you are looking for (they have noted characteristics of the protagonist, etc.), let them take the lead on how they annotate. This autonomy goes a long way.
    • As you annotate in front of them, don’t forget to THINK OUT LOUD. Talk it out. Make sure they can hear your thought process. Ask them questions. Bring them into the conversation you are having with the author.

    Once you have modeled the concept of close reading, you can move on and give them the mission of completing the task independently. 


    When it is their turn to work independently, continue to be creative. Here are some ideas:

    • Continuing to have them act as detectives searching for evidence is always fun. (You could even buy/make some old-style detective hats for them to wear while reading. Or, have them bring in a favorite hat to wear.) Tell them they are interrogating the author for questions about whatever concept you focus on for the text. For instance, why is the author using similes? What does the author say that describes the characters? What is the author trying to tell his/her audience?
    • Having them working in pairs to help each other as they navigate through close reading and annotating is both motivating and helpful as you scaffold the material. This can be a big confidence booster. (Also, remember that there will be those who will want to work alone. You can either allow that to happen or remind them that in life we must learn to communicate with others. No matter the job/career, we NEED to learn to work with others.) 
    • Giving them a set of questions and having them look for the answers is yet another technique that works well, especially right in the beginning of their independent work. This can help them focus just a bit more on what to look for and may alleviate some fears. As you continue to work on different texts, slowly take away this option as they feel more comfortable. 
    • Working one page at a time, and then reviewing, can keep their attention and support their confidence as they will probably question if they are completing the task correctly. 


    By the time the end of the year comes around, your students should be masters at close reading, at least for their grade level. Don’t let up on them. While you do not want to make every single reading a close-read, do it often enough, even if it is just with shorter texts, so that they are confident in their ability to closely read and annotate a text. 

    There is a fine line between scorching their love of reading and enticing them to read more and more. As ELA teachers, we are forever seeking to grow our students into voracious readers. It’s the goal of teachers around the world. Therefore, let’s make sure we create close-reading lessons that will keep our students motivated to become masters at it. 

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