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Up-Close Reading: Tackling Complex Text

By Shari Edwards on January 9, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5

Last week during a reading comprehension lesson, my 2nd graders were arguing with each other . . . and yelling at me!

Really! It’s the truth, but . . . maybe not what you imagined.

It all started when I was about to introduce A Toad for Tuesday, a book that would be the jumping-off point for my winter/animal survival unit. I had handed my class a short passage from it with no introduction or clue about its origin. After a few cold reads on their own and some marking of unfamiliar words, my 7- and 8-year-olds transformed from passive readers to enthusiastic text detectives! Their passion for the task was evident as the discussion started.

That's when the arguments began! Well, actually, it was a lively debate that would make any teacher proud.student discussion

"They can't be people, they live under a stump!" vs. "He was washing the dishes! Animals don't do that!"

"It must be December: look at the snow in the 3rd paragraph!" vs. "It snows in January, too!"

My students were participating in a close reading activity when these conversations happened. If you would like to replicate this scene in your own classroom, read on!

What Is Close Reading?

student with magnifying glass"Close reading is a careful and purposeful rereading of a text," according to Dr. Douglas Fisher of the NCTE. It’s an integral part of the Common Core Standards, and the CCS expectation is that by the time a student reaches college age, they will be able to attack complex text and break it down for absolute understanding. By the end of 5th grade, students are to be comprehending literature at the high end of the 4th/5th grade complexity band, which would be around 1000L, independently and proficiently. That kind of skill won’t happen overnight, so . . . we all have a lot of work to do!

It seems students have gotten used to teachers doing some of their work for them. We front-load them with vocabulary lessons, background knowledge, and introductions. That’s good practice as part of the instruction they receive, but our students need to also experience and get accustomed to struggling with rigorous text, independently.


Choosing Textgirl reading with magnifying glass

The expectations from the Common Core are that students will learn to attack a passage at the top of their complexity band by 3rd and 5th grades. When I choose text for my 2nd graders for a supported comprehension activity, I choose text that has a Lexile ranking of 600–800L. Measuring the text takes just a few minutes. Use the Lexile Analyzer on the Lexile.com website. Copy and paste the text into Notepad and save it. Then go to the analyzer and browse for your file, and click submit. The Lexile rank and other helpful information appear on the next screen.



student discussion

  • Hand students text on paper so that they can mark on it as they reread.
  • Teach students to mark and number the paragraphs.
  • As they read it through the first time, have them put a dot under each word they can’t figure out.
  • Have students reread and mark words that they can read but not define.
  • Discuss who, what, when, where, and why, one at a time as a class.
  • Ask students to refer to the text any time they are explaining their viewpoint (e.g., “In the third paragraph . . . ”)
  • Ask questions that force students back into the text for answers.
  • Sometimes I break out the magnifying glasses to make finding clues fun!
  • Take time to wonder and marvel with them at their findings!

text with marking





Sample 2nd grade text from A Toad for Tuesday

Sample intermediate text from MLK Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham jail"

Great strategies for teaching close reading

Suggestions for supporting students as they grapple with complex text



Just Reflecting . . .

students raising handsClose reading instruction has become one of my favorite parts of teaching reading. My students are excited to know that they CAN attack difficult text with success.

It's building confidence in them as readers and in me in knowing that they will be prepared to meet the challenges of the coming years.






How are you preparing your students for the rigors of the Common Core Standards?

Do you have a favorite close reading strategy to share?

Comments (9)

The information was great! Thank you! Now I need some help in choosing good reading passages for K-5 students. Any ideas?

Hi Cheryl!
I enjoy picking selections from books that we will be reading in class soon after. Depending on the skill I am emphasizing, I choose passages that give some information while leaving some questions about what will happen next. The passage I chose from "A Toad for Tuesday" had descriptive language to help us infer about the characters and setting. Determine your main purpose (the skill or concept) and read the book until you come to a paragraph that presents good opportunities for students to encounter the skill.

Thanks for sharing! What specific questions did you ask your students to encourage such a lively debate? Did you just ask them the questions and let them discuss or did they have to answer them independently in writing first? Thanks!

I kept my questions very basic for this activity. I asked who was talking, how many characters, who they thought the characters were, and where they were.

Thanks for sharing, I love this concept!

You're welcome, Alice! I hope you have many chances to use it this year!

Thanks Meghan! It seems to be working with my students.

Hey Shari - I shared this with my school. We did work all this week on close reading and our reading coach loved your ideas! Thanks!


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