Close-Reading and How it Can Help You

Since I’m now teaching a college composition course, I thought (well, really my husband thought) it would be a good idea to incorporate some of the methods and topics I am teaching to my students to (un)E. So today’s post will reflect the first thing I’ve been teaching to my students—close reading.

Close reading is when you slowly and deliberately take apart a text, word by word, sentence by sentence. This is especially helpful for things you may interpret—poetry, short fiction, etc. However, it is also helpful for essays in which you may struggle to understand the meaning. For my class, the first close-reading exercise we did was with a literary piece, the second was with a theoretical.

For literary pieces, I suggest using a few different colored items for annotating your text. One color may be for “loaded” words (i.e. words that may have alternate meanings). For example, the word “costumed” may mean to wear a costume, but there is also an element of disguising or hiding something. Interpretive words can be key to understanding alternate meanings to a text. Interesting phrases or sentence structure may go in another color. Ask yourself, “What makes this different? Why did this stand out to me?”  Lastly, any structural, point of view, or larger schemes of patterning could go in a different color.  Of course, you don’t HAVE to use different colors, but it tends to be helpful for us “visual learners” out there. Once you compile this information—of words, sentences, and structure—start thinking about the implications those three things could have.  If you have a word that has multiple meanings, how do the alternate meanings alter the text? If there’s a sentence that sticks out to you, how does that sentence emphasize the text? Lastly, how does the structure of the text support the point the author is trying to make?

For theoretical pieces, I again suggest different colors. However, this type of close-reading is less about reading for interpretation, and more about reading for comprehension and deep understanding. Words you don’t know should be defined. Sentences that are key points should be underlined in one color and supporting points should be underlined in another color. This helps you fully understand a text. Once you understand what the author is claiming, you can pull out more material to help you write an essay.

Close-reading is probably the best first-approach you can take to better understanding a text. If you take the time to define, analyze, and really think about the text in front of you, this can certainly give you more material with which to write papers. Of course, this method does have its drawbacks: since it tends to be time consuming, you cannot really perform a true close-reading with longer texts. Good luck!

Posted in Academic Advice.