Thursday, August 18, 2011

An Open Letter to Each Researcher Cited by PARCC in their Support of Close Reading

This is a copy of the email I sent to each researcher cited by PARCC as supporting close reading. I am interested in seeing their replies and will post accordingly with permission.

Dear Professor XXX,

I have been reading the Common Core Standards, PARCCs testing frameworks, as well as the cited research that these two groups list as support for close reading as the "guiding principle of the standards" and central focus of assessment for 60 million children. Frankly I am hoping you can explain how a single way of reading represents the whole of such an embodied act.  I'm a mom with a 12 year old son and the narrowness of this approach (imagine this is it for 13 years) makes more than a bit wary.

This is the paragraph that PARCC provides:

Close Reading of Texts

As noted above, the close reading model is a central guiding principle of the standards and as a result will be a central focus of the PARCC Assessment System. The Model Content Frameworks provide guidance for focusing on the close, sustained reading of complex text. Close reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining its meaning thoroughly and methodically. It emphasizes using texts of grade-level-appropriate complexity and focusing student reading on the particular words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of the author, encouraging students to read and re-read deliberately. By directing student attention on the text itself, close reading empowers students to reflect on the meanings of individual words, the order in which sentences unfold, and the development of ideas over the course of the text — to ultimately arrive at an understanding of the text as a whole. A significant body of research links the close reading of complex text—regardless if the student is a struggling reader or advanced—to significant gains in reading proficiency, and finds close reading to be a key component of college and career readiness.5

And this is the 'research' (not sure all of this actually is research) cited:
  1. Ericcson, K. A., and W. Kintsch. 1993. The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review 100(3):363–406; 
  2. Plant, E. A., et al. 2005. Why study time does not predict grade point average across college students: Implications of deliberate practice for academic performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology 30; 
  3. Ericcson, K. A., and W. Kintsch. 1999. The Role of Long Term Working Memory in Text Comprehension. Psychologia;  
  4. Kintsch, W. 2009. Learning and constructivism. Constructivist Instruction: Success or failure? eds. Tobias and Duffy. New York: Routledge; 
  5. Hampton, S., and E. Kintsch. 2009. Supporting Cumulative Knowledge Building Through Reading. In Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested: Effective Solutions for Every Classroom, eds. Parris, Fisher, and Headley. International Reading Association; 
  6. Heller, R., and C. Greenleaf. 2007. Literacy Instruction in the Content Areas: Getting to the Core of Middle and High School Improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education; 
  7. The Education Trust. 2006. Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground: How Some High Schools Accelerate Learning for Struggling Students; ACT. 2006. Reading Between the Lines. 
Which text that you've written from this cited list would you recommend that I read that might explain why close reading should be the only approach an entire country adopts for all of its public school children? I am thinking about this as quite recently my husband and I were talking about Seamus Heaney's wonderful book, The Spirit Level.  You may have read it. Heaney closes the book with the poem, Postscript.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

I was telling my husband that the closing lines of the poem stopped my breath and did what I suspect the poet might have wanted, caught my heart off guard and blew it open. My husband said how when he read the poem--read it aloud, he recalled a rather cool morning in Ireland when the two of us, much younger than we are now, were motoring about, newly in love, and had stopped in at a pub for a bit of hot tea. He was recalling how soothing that morning had been.

I'm pretty sure we weren't having a 'close reading' lesson when we read The Spirit Level. In some ways we might have been following cummings' adage about feelings being first. I worry that this 'read like a detective' (David Coleman's phrase, not mine) dictum will harm my child, narrow his understanding of the many reasons we read, and above all else will dim his pleasure of the text.

I am curious as to what you have to say as it is your work that is cited in support of such a single method of reading to be exclusively used for all children beginning at age 8 until they exit the system at 17 or 18. I await your response.

Mary Ann Reilly


  1. I have already heard from one of the researchers who explained that he has never heard of the term close reading. Apparently his research did not originate nor can he apply it to the idea of close reading.

  2. Heard from a second researcher who also said that she does not support any single method of reading.

  3. I sometimes wonder at your ability to remain in education when each day must seem like another waiting windmill tilt. I can't tell which appalls me more: the undying myth that one way, one standard, one approach is right and certain, or the fact that a nation of educated "close readers" will leave us with too many botanists and no one left to paint a picture of the forest....

  4. @Michael, it was really disturbing to read all of the standards, frameworks, etc. I recently heard the Common Core "author" ridicule reader response theory - Louise Rosenblatt at a public gathering of educators. It was galling considering her incredible contributions to reading literature. So, I'm thinking you are more positive. I doubt we'll get the botanist.

  5. @Michael - issues such as this one are precisely why Mary Ann and others like her MUST REMAIN in education; if nothing else, it is important that we model for our students constructive skepticism and debate appropriately and in the public forum.

    @Mary Ann - thanks... it is reassuring for those of us in the trenches to know that while we juggle creative methods and content with sometimes misguided standards, that someone is "fighting the good fight"... please continue to share updates such as these.

    Struggling and Juggling

  6. @Struggling and Juggling, thank you for your kind words. We all need to keep on doing what is necessary to bring to light the absurdity of the education plans of the national and for some, state and local departments.

  7. I am barely familiar with what the PARCC is, but I teach honors and IB English at eleventh and twelfth grade. In my school district, the reader/writer workshop model is gospel, which mostly includes reader response theory. What I know is that after years of this, juniors are not prepared to do any kind of close reading that is required in an IB or AP English class. And honestly, when does any college course besides the Contemporary Feminist Lit class ;) ever ask for reader response papers?

    I understand that you are advocating for a variety of kinds of reading to be taught, but I would rather have my students prepared to analyze texts closely than have them read for years and only be able to say what a text reminds them of.

    This is all just to say that Close Reading is important in the study of literature. I've said it here before, Mary Ann, but to me this is just one more reason why we should separate the teaching of literacy from studying literature.

  8. Appreciative of your response Brett and that you are still able to make decisions as a teacher as tow which approaches you may wish to emphasize based on learning outcomes you and hopefully your students seek. That's the main point I am after. Intellectual autonomy must remain viable or we will fail as public institution.

  9. @Brent Westcott, I think you may be short-changing theories of reader response. Good ole' Louise Rosenblatt (_Literature as Exploration_) was pretty clear that an initial response to a text was just that: initial. I'll let her speak for herself:

    "A situation in which students did nothing but give free rein to their reactions, their likes & dislikes, would undoubtedly have psychiatric value.... But the development of literary understanding is a more positive goal....A spontaneous response should be the first step toward increasingly mature primary reactions.... The student still needs to acquire mental habits that will lead to literary insight, critical judgement, and ethical and social understanding" (p. 71).

    I don't see core standards as doing more than conveying the message that there is one kind of knowledge and/or one way of knowing that is correct, thus suggesting that one pedagogical approach is "best."

    Out of this is born that lovely educational convention known as "test prep". Which, in the event that you haven't had the pleasure of "teaching" it, is mostly about learning to read to pick the right answer.

  10. Mary Ann--You are smart to challenge this... there is no paper by Ericcson (sic) and Kintsch. Ericsson (with two "S"es) has a paper about deliberate practice with other researchers. And, their work is not explicitly about close reading anyway. It's a much more high level analysis of readers' cognitive processes. "Close reading" is a term that originated with literary theory at the university level. It appears to be a favored practice for analyzing very complex texts, like Joyce's Ulysses. It is not, however, a tested practice for elementary-age children, or high school readers for that matter.

    Importantly, "close reading" appears to be burgeoning rather than going away. Moreover, PARCC is becoming a bigger and bigger deal--Massachusetts is piloting this year, I understand--and the works cited by the PARCC folks to support their instructional model absolutely do NOT support the claims they're making.

    So, this topic is more than two years old, but it's worth it to keep hammering at it. If you have any influence at all, use it to show policy makers that the emperor has no clothes.