How to Close Read Poetry or Prose: 5 Steps
Updated: Oct 28, 2022
Close reading may be the most important skill taught in an English class. It’s the heart and soul of what we do: uncover the world of ideas and feelings that exists underneath the first reading, our first impression. We ask students to spend some time really taking in every word, phrase, and sentence they read. We break the text into parts and then put it back together. Students slowly peel back the layers of meaning by interpreting the use of figurative language, grammatical patterns, and sounds. If the passage comes from a novel, students think about the narrative voice, point of view, the tone of the speaker, and the context of the passage. Close reading is a process that uncovers both the true beauty and the complexity of language. Year after year I shake the same poems with my students, and more and more ideas and feelings come out of them.
To get to the bottom of the meaning of a poem or prose passage, students should consider the following steps of close reading:
1. Read, then highlight and paraphrase the poem or passage.
On the first reading, students internally make basic sense of what’s going on in the text. This includes defining unknown words; they can’t go anywhere if they don’t know the dictionary definition of all the words in the passage. They should also underline or highlight what they consider to be a few of the most important (or confusing) moments. If the passage is from a novel, students should establish the context of the passage and take it into consideration when interpreting the meaning.
2. Informally write down the main idea or topic of the passage.
Some major ideas should pop out to students right away. They should jot down whatever topics come to mind like fear, imagination, or love. Later, they will revisit these first impressions and come up with a more developed reaction.
3. Identify and interpret specific literary techniques.
This step can be one of the more difficult parts of the process of close reading, so students should quickly pick a few lines with figurative language that they will analyze when they contribute to the class discussion or write their essay. Students shouldn’t try to find all the literary techniques in the passage, just the ones that contribute to its main meaning.
4. Identify and interpret any thematic or ideational patterns.
This is where students look for surprises, suspense, irony, elaboration, introductions, and conclusions. Where does the passage start and where does it end? They might find parallel structure or repetition which usually indicates the development of ideas or images. Any teacher will agree that there’s a real joy that comes from connecting various parts of a passage with circles and lines.
5. Create a formal argument.
Students finally bring all their thoughts and feelings together to write an essay or practice writing a thesis. I like to stress that the thesis is just the beginning of the essay, where they explore all the ideas in the passage, not just one.
Close reading helps students understand the sequencing and logic involved in writing. It teaches them that great writing takes a lot of mental effort and deliberation, but it also shows them that they too can engage in the same creative and expressive process.
English language arts teacher
Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers