This is the first part of a two-part look at close reading: Challenges | Strategies

In this era of more demanding standards for all students, close reading has become a common exercise for students in various grade levels. For English language learners — generally defined as students who are not achieving academically due to the level of English language proficiency accessing complex, grade-level text can be especially demanding.

Difficulty and challenge, however, should not dissuade us from helping all students, including English learners, read and access complex, grade-level text. Scaffolding, a key concept when working with ELLs, will need to be utilized at varying levels in order to help overcome some of the challenges students face with close reading of complex text.

Defining close reading

Close reading is the careful reading, rereading and interpretation of text. During close reading, students pay close attention to words, syntax, and how and why ideas unfold in a particular order. The students focus on the author's message and purpose. Through this analysis, students draw conclusions and make decisions about the meaning of the text.

Close reading requires students to be actively engaged in the reading process. While many teachers are familiar with teaching comprehension strategies, some researchers believe the participation in the process of comprehending text rather than the strategy itself is what increases student comprehension of text. So, while teaching ELLs comprehension strategies can have some benefit, the true benefit of teaching these strategies is the application of them while actually reading.

Close reading should not be done with all text. In fact, short, robust texts should be chosen for the close reading process. Novels or even short stories may not be appropriate choices for close reading. Excerpts of novels, articles, primary source documents and articles are all appropriate candidates.

Challenges ELLs face with close reading

The close reading process

When beginning the process of close reading, familiar text can be used to teach the process. This, however, should only last until the students know the process. Careful selection of text is critical when teaching close reading to ELs. The text should be robust, complex and related to the subject area being studied.

Text complexity

English learners, like all students, must be given opportunities to grapple with complex, grade-level text. Text complexity is determined by a number of factors, including word and sentence difficulty, as well as the complexity of the subject matter and ideas.

The process of close reading, while challenging, can be scaffolded using text that is written well above the instructional level of English learners. It is important to remember that complex text that students will closely read is only a fraction of the text students should access. English learners, and all students, should still have access to and should read a variety of texts that may be more closely matched to the students' proficiency levels.

Background knowledge

While all students have a wealth of experiences when they come to school, English learners may lack prerequisite background knowledge when they begin a unit of study. English learners may have arrived in our schools with interrupted formal education, may have arrived recently, or may have missed important concepts and knowledge due to their lower English proficiency levels.

Whatever the reason, missing or incomplete background knowledge on a topic may hamper the comprehension process. This can be especially problematic when reading complex text, as the author may have made assumptions about the readers' critical background knowledge. Choosing texts in which the author has not presumed previous knowledge on the subject can be helpful in comprehending complex text.

Academic language

Complex, robust text will have a considerable amount of academic language and complex text structures. English learners in particular will need additional instruction and scaffolding to access this text. This may include the domain specific vocabulary of the content area being studied, the general academic vocabulary in the text, and an analysis of the sentence structures, metaphors, figurative language and other challenging aspects of language use.

In the second part of this article, we'll explore some strategies to support ELLs in the close reading process.