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How to Do a Close Reading

Close reading engages with the formal properties of a text—its literary devices, language, structure, and style. Popularized in the mid-twentieth century, this way of reading allows you to interpret a text without outside information such as historical context, author biography, philosophy, or political ideology. It also requires you to put aside your affective (that is, personal and emotional) response to the text, focusing instead on objective study. Why close-read a text? Doing so will increase your understanding of how a piece of writing works, as well as what it means. Perhaps most importantly, close reading can help you develop and support an essay argument. In this guide, you'll learn more about what close reading entails and find strategies for producing precise, creative close readings. We've included a section with resources for teachers, along with a final section with further reading for advanced students.

Close Reading Fundamentals

You might compare close reading to wringing out a wet towel, in which you twist the material repeatedly until you have extracted as much liquid as possible. When you close-read, you'll return to a short passage several times in order to note as many details about its form and content as possible. Use the links below to learn more about close reading's place in literary history and in the classroom.

"Close Reading" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia's relatively short introduction to close reading contains sections on background, examples, and how to teach close reading. You can also click the links on this page to learn more about the literary critics who pioneered the method.

"Close Reading: A Brief Note" (Literariness.org)

This article provides a condensed discussion of what close reading is, how it works, and how it is different from other ways of reading a literary text.

"What Close Reading Actually Means" (TeachThought)

In this article by an Ed.D., you'll learn what close reading "really means" in the classroom today—a meaning that has shifted significantly from its original place in 20th century literary criticism.

"Close Reading" (Univ. of Washington)

This hand-out from a college writing course defines close reading, suggests why we close-read, and offers tips for close reading successfully, including focusing on language, audience, and scope.

"Glossary Entry on New Criticism" (Poetry Foundation)

If you'd like to read a short introduction to the school of thought that gave rise to close reading, this is the place to go. Poetry Foundation's entry on New Criticism is concise and accessible.

"New Criticism" (Washington State Univ.)

This webpage from a college writing course offers another brief explanation of close reading in relation to New Criticism. It provides some key questions to help you think like a New Critic.

How to Choose a Passage to Close-Read

When choosing a passage to close-read, you'll want to look for relatively short bits of text that are rich in detail. The resources below offer more tips and tricks for selecting passages, along with links to pre-selected passages you can print for use at home or in the classroom.

"How to Choose the Perfect Passage for Close Reading" (We Are Teachers)

This post from a former special education teacher describes six characteristics you might look for when selecting a close reading passage from a novel: beginnings, pivotal plot points, character changes, high-density passages, "Q&A" passages, and "aesthetic" passages. 

"Close Reading Passages" (Reading Sage)

Reading Sage provides links to close reading passages you can use as is; alternatively, you could also use them as models for selecting your own passages. The page is divided into sections geared toward elementary, middle school, and early high school students.

"Close Reading" (Univ. of Guelph)

The University of Guelph's guide to close reading contains a short section on how to "Select a Passage." The author suggests that you choose a brief passage. 

"Close Reading Advice" (Prezi)

This Prezi was created by an AP English teacher. The opening section on passage selection suggests choosing "thick paragraphs" filled with "figurative language and rich details or description."

How to Approach a Close Reading

Now that you know how to select a passage to analyze, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the textual qualities you should look for when reading. Whether you're approaching a poem, a novel, or a magazine article, details on the level of language (literary devices) and form (formal features) convey meaning. Understanding how a text communicates will help you understand what it is communicating. The links in this section will familiarize you with the tools you need to start a close reading.

Literary Devices

"Literary Devices and Terms" (LitCharts)

LitCharts' dedicated page covers 130+ literary devices. Also known as "rhetorical devices," "figures of speech," or "elements of style," these linguistic constructions are the building blocks of literature. Some of the most common include simile, metaphor, alliteration, and onomatopoeia; browse the links on LitCharts to learn about many more. 

"Rhetorical Device" (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia's page on rhetorical devices defines the term in relation to the ancient art of "rhetoric" or persuasive speaking. At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to several online handbooks and lists of rhetorical devices.

"15 Must Know Rhetorical Terms for AP English Literature" (Albert)

The Albert blog offers this list of 15 rhetorical devices that high school English students should know how to define and spot in a literary text; though geared toward the Advanced Placement exam, its tips are widely applicable.

"The 55 AP Language and Composition Terms You Must Know" (PrepScholar)

This blog post lists 55 terms high school students should learn how to recognize and define for the Advanced Placement exam in English Literature.

Formal Features

"Literary Devices and Terms" (LitCharts)

In LitCharts' bank of literary devices and terms, you'll also find resources to describe a text's structure and overall character. Some of the most important of these are rhyme, meter, and tone; browse the page to find more. 

"Rhythm" (Encyclopedia Britannica)

This encyclopedia entry on rhythm and meter offers an in-depth definition of the two most fundamental aspects of poetry.

"How to Analyze Syntax for AP English Literature" (Albert)

The Albert blog will help you understand what "syntax" is, making a case for why you should pay attention to sentence structure when analyzing a literary text.

"Grammar Basics: Sentence Parts and Sentence Structures" (ThoughtCo)

This article provides a meticulous overview of the components of a sentence. It's useful if you need to review your parts of speech or if you need to be able to identify things like prepositional phrases.

"Style, Diction, Tone, and Voice" (Wheaton College)

Wheaton College's Writing Center offers this clear, concise discussion of several important formal features. Although it's designed to help essay writers, it will also help you understand and spot these stylistic features in others' work. 

How to Annotate a Passage

Now that you know what rhetorical devices, formal features, and other details to look for, you're ready to find them in a text. For this purpose, it is crucial to annotate (write notes) as you read and re-read. Each time you return to the text, you'll likely notice something new; these observations will form the basis of your close reading. The resources in this section offer some concrete strategies for annotating literary texts.

"How to Annotate a Text" (LitCharts)

Begin by consulting our How to Annotate a Text guide. This collection of links and resources is helpful for short passages (that is, those for close reading) as well as longer works, like whole novels or poems.

"Annotation Guide" (Covington Catholic High School)

This hand-out from a high school teacher will help you understand why we annotate, and how to annotate a text successfully. You might choose to incorporate some of the interpretive notes and symbols suggested here.

"Annotating Literature" (New Canaan Public Schools)

This one-page, introductory resource provides a list of 10 items you should look for when reading a text, including attitude and theme.

"Purposeful Annotation" (Dave Stuart Jr.)

This article from a high school teacher's blog describes the author's top close reading strategy: purposeful annotation. In fact, this teacher more or less equates close reading with annotation.

How to Improve Your Close Reading

Looking for ways to improve your close reading? The articles, guides, and videos in this section will expose you to various methods of close reading, as well as practice exercises. No two people read exactly the same way. Whatever your level of expertise, it can be useful to broaden your skill set by testing the techniques suggested by the resources below.

"How to Do a Close Reading" (Harvard College Writing Center)

This article, part of Harvard's comprehensive "Strategies for Essay Writing Guide," describes three steps to a successful close reading. You will want to return to this resource when incorporating your close reading into an essay.

"A Short Guide to Close Reading for Literary Analysis" (Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center)

Working through this guide from another college writing center will help you move through the process of close reading a text. You'll find a sample analysis of Robert Frost's "Design" at the end.

"How to Do a Close Reading of a Text" (YouTube)

This four-minute video from the "Literacy and Math Ideas" channel offers a number of helpful tips for reading a text closely in accordance with Common Core standards.

"Poetry: Close Reading" (Purdue OWL)

Short, dense poems are a natural fit for the close reading approach. This page from the Purdue Online Writing Lab takes you step-by-step through an analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

"Steps for Close Reading or Explication de Texte" (The Literary Link)

This page, which mentions close reading's close relationship to the French formalist method of  "explication de texte," shares "12 Steps to Literary Awareness."

How to Practice Close Reading

You can practice your close reading skills by reading, re-reading and annotating any brief passage of text. The resources below will get you started by offering pre-selected passages and questions to guide your reading. You'll find links to resources that are designed for students of all levels, from elementary school through college.

"Notes on Close Reading" (MIT Open Courseware)

This resource describes steps you can work through when close reading, providing a passage from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for you to test your skills.

"Close Reading Practice Worksheets" (Gillian Duff's English Resources)

Here, you'll find 10 close reading-centered worksheets you can download and print. The "higher-close-reading-formula" link at the bottom of the page provides a chart with even more steps and strategies for close reading.

"Close Reading Activities" (Education World)

The four activities described on this page are best suited to elementary and middle school students. Under each heading is a link to handouts or detailed descriptions of the activity.

"Close Reading Practice Passages: High School" (Varsity Tutors)

This webpage from Varsity Tutors contains over a dozen links to close reading passages and exercises, including several resources that focus on close-reading satire.

"Benjamin Franklin's Satire of Witch Hunting" (America in Class)

This page contains both a "teacher's guide" and "student version" to interpreting Benjamin Franklin's satire of a witch trial. The thirteen close reading questions on the right side of the page will help you analyze the text thoroughly.

How to Incorporate Close Readings into an Essay

Whether you're writing a research paper or an essay, close reading can help you build an argument. Careful analysis of your primary texts allows you to draw out meanings you want to emphasize, thereby supporting your central claim. The resources in this section introduce you to strategies suited to various common writing assignments.

"How to Write a Research Paper" (LitCharts)

The resources in this guide will help you learn to formulate a thesis, organize evidence, write an outline, and draft a research paper, one of the two most common assignments in which you might incorporate close reading.

"How to Write an Essay" (LitCharts)

In this guide, you'll learn how to plan, draft, and revise an essay, whether for the classroom or as a take-home assignment. Close reading goes hand in hand with the brainstorming and drafting processes for essay writing.

"Guide to the Close Reading Essay" (Univ. of Warwick)

This guide was designed for undergraduates, and assumes prior knowledge of formal features and rhetorical devices one might find in a poem. High schoolers will find it useful after addressing the "elements of a close reading" section above.

"Beginning the Academic Essay" (Harvard College Writing Center)

Harvard's guide discusses the broader category of the "academic essay." Here, the author assumes that your essay's close readings will be accompanied by context and evidence from secondary sources. 

A Short Guide to Writing About Literature (Amazon)

Sylvan Barnet and William E. Cain emphasize that writing is a process. In their book, you'll find definitions of important literary terms, examples of successful explications of literary texts, and checklists for essay writers.

How to Teach Close Reading

Due in part to the Common Core's emphasis on close reading skills, resources for teaching students how to close-read abound. Here, you'll find a wealth of information on how and why we teach students to close-read texts. The first section includes links to activities, exercises, and complete lesson plans. The second section offers background material on the method, along with strategies for implementing close reading in the classroom.

Lesson Plans and Activities

"Four Lessons for Introducing the Fundamental Steps of Close Reading" (Corwin)

Here, Corwin has made the second chapter of Nancy Akhavan's The Nonfiction Now Lesson Bank, Grades 4 – 8 available online. You'll find four sample lessons to use in the elementary or middle school classroom

"Sonic Patterns: Exploring Poetic Techniques Through Close Reading" (ReadWriteThink)

This lesson plan for high school students includes material for five 50-minute sessions on sonic patterns (including consonance, assonance, and alliteration). The literary text at hand is Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."

"Close Reading of a Short Text: Complete Lesson" (McGraw Hill via YouTube)

This eight-minute video describes a complete lesson in which a teacher models close reading of a short text and offers guiding questions.

"Close Reading Model Lessons" (Achieve the Core)

These three model lessons on close reading will help you determine what makes a text "appropriately complex" for the grade level you teach.

Close Reading Bundle (Teachers Pay Teachers)

This top-rated bundle of close reading resources was designed for the middle school classroom. It contains over 150 pages of worksheets, complete lesson plans, and literacy center ideas.

"10 Intriguing Photos to Teach Close Reading and Visual Thinking Skills" (The New York Times)

The New York Times's Learning Network has gathered 10 photos from the "What's Going on in This Picture" series that teachers can use to help students develop analytical and visual thinking skills.

"The Close Reading Essay" (Brandeis Univ.)

Brandeis University's writing program offers this detailed set of guidelines and goals you might use when assigning a close reading essay.

Close Reading Resources (Varsity Tutors)

Varsity Tutors has compiled a list of over twenty links to lesson plans, strategies, and activities for teaching elementary, middle school, and high school students to close read.

Background Material and Teaching Strategies

Falling in Love with Close Reading (Amazon)

Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts aim to show how close reading can be "rigorous, meaningful, and joyous." It offers a three-step "close reading ritual" and engaging lesson plans.

Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Amazon)

Kylene Beers (a former Senior Reading Researcher at Yale) and Robert E. Probst (a Professor Emeritus of English Education) introduce six "signposts" readers can use to detect significant moments in a work of literature.

"How to Do a Close Reading" (YouTube)

TeachLikeThis offers this four-minute video on teaching students to close-read by looking at a text's language, narrative, syntax, and context.

"Strategy Guide: Close Reading of a Literary Text" (ReadWriteThink)

This guide for middle school and high school teachers will help you choose texts that are appropriately complex for the grade level you teach, and offers strategies for planning engaging lessons.

"Close Reading Steps for Success" (Appletastic Learning)

Shelly Rees, a teacher with over 20 years of experience, introduces six helpful steps you can use to help your students engage with challenging reading passages. The article is geared toward elementary and middle school teachers.

"4 Steps to Boost Students' Close Reading Skills" (Amplify)

Doug Fisher, a professor of educational leadership, suggests using these four steps to help students at any grade level learn how to close read. 

Additional Resources for Advanced Students

Like most tools of literary analysis, close reading has a complex history. It's not necessary to understand the theoretical underpinnings of close reading in order to use this tool. For advanced high school students and college students who ask "why close-read," though, the resources below will serve as useful starting points for discussion.

"Discipline and Parse: The Politics of Close Reading" (Los Angeles Review of Books)

This book review by a well-known English professor at Columbia provides an engaging, anecdotal introduction to close reading's place in literary history. Robbins points to some of the method's shortcomings, but also elegantly defends it.

"Intentional Fallacy" (Encyclopedia Britannica)

The literary critics who developed close reading cautioned against judging a text based on the author's intention. This encyclopedia entry offers an expanded definition of this way of reading, called the "intentional fallacy."

"Seven Types of Ambiguity" (Wikipedia)

This Wikipedia article will introduce you to William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), one of the foundational texts of New Criticism, the school of thought that theorized close reading.

"What is Distant Reading" (The New York Times)

This article makes it clear that "close reading" isn't the only way to analyze literary texts. It offers a brief introduction to the "distant reading" method of computational criticism pioneered by Franco Moretti in recent years.