Teacher to Teacher: Close Reading – What It Means for a Writer
By Lynne R. Dorfman
Writers make choices, make changes, and make meaning. It is clear that writing is a tool for thinking. Writing is thinking written down (Zinsser, 1988). Writing, in fact, is the most disciplined form of thinking (Murray, 1984). Educators everywhere are talking about close reading, the instructional practice of asking students to critically examine a text through multiple rereadings. But what does close reading mean for a writer?
It makes sense that these “close read” selections should not be too long. Students need the time to read and reread the text, time to formulate questions and/or respond to questions that guide their thinking, and time to have a rich conversation with others about their thinking. This interaction time is crucial. Douglas Barnes (1976) contended that “learning floats on a sea of talk.” Indeed, James Britton (1970) stated that “talk is the sea upon which all else floats.” Close reading selections of picture books, short stories, poems, and articles make good sense. Writers do the same thing when they are getting ready to write. They choose one or several mentor texts, often familiar to them through a read aloud or independent read, and study the passages that will help them do one or several things such as writing a good lead or a satisfying ending, or providing insight into the organizational scaffold that will undergird the piece they are about to compose. After they draft (or sometimes before they even put pencil to paper), they will have one or several conversations with peers and/or their teacher. This discussion will serve to stir the thinking and possibly offer ideas for revision. Finally, at the close of writing workshop, students are asked to offer their reflections. What did they try? How did it work for them? When will they use this craft, organizational scaffold, and so on, again?
As writers, we are both problem-solvers and decision-makers. We first create texts as writers, and then we criticize them as readers. Throughout these processes we are giving our texts a close read. We carefully read mentor texts to study informational and narrative text structures, notice a craft we may choose to imitate, feel the rhythm of the author’s words and the mood it creates for the reader, and ponder over the impact of the words carefully chosen to carry the writer’s ideas – perfect words in perfect places. This close read for the writer is well worth the effort. Students become increasingly more sophisticated and better equipped to write in different forms and genres, vary their sentence lengths and patterns, and produce texts that are satisfying for the target audiences.
We move from the close reading of mentor texts to the production of our own text. We have discovered through our close reads that writing is a powerful tool to help us learn how artists, mathematicians, musicians, scientists, and historians think, to learn about the world in which we live, and to learn about ourselves. As writing teachers, we know there will be a great deal of variability in students’ confidence, abilities, styles, and approaches. Process-oriented teachers know students need regular and frequent practice in a variety of writing types (modes). Frequent practice in close readings of mentor texts are worth the time. Students are able to reflect on how they can use what they’ve studied and learned from the mentor text to write a piece independently, often choosing the focus for the piece and even the form without a teacher’s help. Take, for example, Michelle’s poem written for Valentine’s Day. Although most of her classmates chose to imitate poems in Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O’Neill or “February” from January Rides the Wind by Charlotte Otten, Michelle continued to search for other mentor texts and found a perfect fit in “Lullaby” by Eve Merriam. Merriam talks about the color purple as the soft color of the sky just before night falls:
Michelle drafted her poem, pausing to read and reread Merriam’s work. After several revisions to include the element of rhyme and several attempts to include other crafts she had been studying such as the use of alliteration to appeal to the reader’s inner ear and the use of hyphenated adjectives to give specificity and originality to a piece of writing, Michelle shared this poem:
By Michelle (Grade 5)
Pink as a puppy’s nose
Pink as the polish on your toes.
Pink for the day
When Cupid appears.
Light and lovely,
Dazzling and dainty,
All day long.
It is important to note here that Michelle would have never written this poem without a careful study of a mentor text. The fact that her teacher encouraged and welcomed such exploration is key. Close reads in writing workshop provide opportunities for silent collaboration between the student writer and the mentor author. As a student examines a mentor text, he chooses what “fingerprint” he would like to lift and imitate in his own writing. Eventually, he revises in ways to make this craft, convention, or organizational structure something he will use again and again. Close reads in writing workshop provide the gentle nudges to move our students forward as writers. They will grow in both sophistication and confidence, taking risks and trying out new strategies, formats, and craft moves – surprising and delighting their audiences. How wonderful when a student reads his final draft and thinks: “WOW! I wrote this…I actually wrote this!”
Lynne Dorfman is a Co-director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. She enjoys writing, reading, and spending time with friends and family. Lynne is currently working on a new book on formative assessment with Diane Dougherty for Stenhouse Publishers. She hopes to receive lots of feedback next year from the PAWLPers in Print Writers’ Group!