The current iteration of Close Reading was born of the Common Core Standards, and the Standards are designed to support college & career readiness. What close reading looks like on the college level seems clear. I am imagining students pouring over snippets of Virgil or Faulkner, analyzing word choices, subtle changes in tone and mood, and searching for evidence to support emerging themes.
Moreover, even though the Common Core Standards do not necessarily emphasize the importance of life-long reading, in addition to close reading in college, I can imagine what close reading might look like in an adult’s reading life. When I asked James, one of the people I interviewed for this post, about close reading for his career, he needed some time to consider what this might look like. But he was able to tell me immediately about his personal close reading. He adores Jorge Luis Borges, and says he must read snippets of Borges’s writing multiple times in order to begin to grasp it. He reads once just to get the lay of the land, then again to notice patterns, and often only on the third read does he begin to read to get a sense of the text’s internal logic.
But what I struggled to visualize is what close reading looks like in the workplace. When I am working in primary grade classrooms, it sometimes strikes me that I cannot imagine what these children will be when they grow up, nor can I imagine what jobs will even exist. Instead of training students for jobs, we must train them for the transferable skills they will need for future success. As Tony Wagner posits in the Global Achievement Gap, the abilities to conduct analysis and weigh evidence, skills that are developed by close reading practices, are tantamount to future success. He writes:
“Thus, work, learning, and citizenship in the 21st century demand that we all know how to think—to reason, analyze, weigh evidence, problem solve. These are no longer skills that only the elites in a society must master; they are essential survival skills for all of us.”
With this in mind, I interviewed family members, colleagues, and friends with a range of careers about their reading practices in the hopes of uncovering some universal ideas about close reading. Below are brief descriptions from some particularly interesting conversations.
James, Senior Director of Strategy, Branding Consultancy
In branding, which is related to marketing and advertising, close reading might involve pouring over case studies multiple times, first to get smart on a client or a field, then to consider the kinds of evidence the text contains that might support a particular idea or theme, then possibly to look for bits of insight to color an approach to a pitch or a presentation.
Or, close reading might involve multiple reads of one’s own or a colleague’s work, first looking for diamonds in the rough – hidden gems that might spark new ideas, next looking for quotes that might turn into a message the presenter wishes to convey, and perhaps another time, considering structural elements that would work well in the final presentation.
Lawyers spend thousands of hours pouring over various documents again and again as part of preparing for cases. According to Jennifer, lawyers read the vast majority of documents multiple times, searching for the following:
- the validity of a document and whether it should be admitted as evidence
- evidence to support one side or the other
- flaws in the author’s logic
- sections that might evoke an emotional or otherwise charged response in a jury
Tom, Hedge Fund Manager
Tom’s daily reading often involves closely scrutinizing short texts, such as news articles related to his current holdings, looking for subtle clues that signal shifting trends that might affect major decisions. As he reads, Tom often considers the article’s source and any motivations the author might have for presenting information in a certain way. Tom also studies filings done by companies that are planning mergers, first reading to understand the terms of the merger, then re-reading to look for ways in which the merger might affect his holdings or to collect evidence he can bring to investors to support deals he is working on.
Some patterns I am beginning to notice about close reading in the world:
- The vast, vast majority of close reading in the workplace is informational.
- Multiple reads of a text often are driven less by an outside suggestion of what to look for and more by the reader’s changing goals, uses for, or understanding of the content. Readers often return to texts with very specific lenses once they have studied and developed more knowledge about the text’s topic.
- Readers often consider an author’s stance on an issue or topic and the author’s purposes for creating the text during at least one reading.
- Time sometimes passes between reads of a text: days, months, or possibly years.
- There is often a place where information and ideas extracted from a close reading of a text will go, perhaps a meeting, presentation, report, one on one discussion, etc. At the very least, there least an audience and purpose in mind when conducting close reading.
- Readers choose the texts they will closely read to suit their needs.
Whether or not the reading experiences described above fall under current definitions of close reading, I am uncertain. However, I am certain that studying how people read and re-read portions of texts closely in their professions has taught me much about the implications of close reading as a life-long skill. I am also certain that I will need to continue to study close reading in the world. In their highly-anticipated, soon-to-be-released book Falling in Love with Close Reading, Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman suggest that close reading isn’t just a tool to study texts, it is a tool to study life. The requisite cocktail party small-talk opener, “So, what do you do?” will now take on a whole new meaning for me.
As I await my copy of Kate and Chris’s book, and as I consider what close reading will look like in my own teaching practice, I will keep in mind some of what I extracted from studying close reading in the workforce. Close reading instruction, like all good instruction, should aim to teach skills that are transferable to future experiences, both long and short term, and skills that will serve students well always in their lives, career or personal.