Introduction to Close Reading Strategies

(The following text incorporates language and ideas from Lindsay Reckson, Alyssa Harad, and Phillip Barrish at The University of Texas at Austin Department of Rhetoric and Writing.)

Beyond superficial reading, close reading techniques help you read actively and critically. In college, you are asked for deeper connections and comprehension with complex texts.

"Close reading" is the ability to devote intimate, informed attention to the language and details of a text. What a text says cannot be separated from how it says it.

In high school classes, students usually are trained to read for "what the author is saying," sometimes pausing to note "symbols," "foreshadowing," "metaphors and similes," and words that convey "tone." Reading on the college level requires skills to "digest" large amounts of text into manageable chunks, to extrapolate it, meditate on it, shuttle back and forth between it and larger contexts.

First, slow down. Students are often deeply surprised by just how slowly it is possible to read and just how much they discover when they do read slowly. Again, once students discover the insights that can result from this process, they find it both pleasurable and empowering.

The following represents one effective way to break down the close-reading process. These steps may seem overly mechanical, but they show that reading, at its best, is a recursive process, a form of discovery that involves going back and back again to the same lines.

  1. Paraphrase: This step focuses on what standardized tests call "reading comprehension" and is intended to make sure that you grasp some basic information about the text at hand. Who is speaking here, and to whom? What is the setting? What is the topic of the passage or poem? If a passage is part of a larger text, at what point in the work does it appear? Especially in works from earlier periods, what forms of grammar or syntax might be confusing? What words need to be looked up in the dictionary?

  2. Observations about language and form: This is where the slowest, closest reading occurs. It is the step that may be least familiar to you, and many of you may instinctively try to jump to step three, interpretation. Don't do that. The governing question here is "How?" How does the passage express or convey meaning? Rather than answer that question directly, students must first collect observations about language and form. Here are some details you might look (and listen) for:

    • Repetition: Do you recognize any repeated words, phrases, ideas, images, colors, or sounds? Can you identify any patterns? Does the passage itself repeat something you've seen elsewhere in the text? What about grammatical and syntactic features (repeated use of verbs ending in "ing," an abundance of adjectives, mostly short and simple sentences, lots of long and complex sentences, etc.)?
    • Figurative language: Where do you see examples of metaphor, simile, synecdoche, hyperbole, personification, or other figurative devices? In each case, what gets compared to what?
    • Sound: Read the passage aloud and/or listen to one or more audio versions. Can you hear any alliteration, rhyme, assonance, consonance? Does the feel of the language change at any point in the passage and, if so, how?
    • Genre: Does the work in question belong to an identifiable genre whose history or conventions may influence the way we should read it?
    • Allusion: Does the passage make reference to another (earlier or contemporary) text, to a historical event or figure, or to other significant cultural works (paintings, photographs, etc.)? Timelines and other reference tools may be useful here.
    • Ambiguity and difficulty: Are there words or phrases that might be interpreted in a number of ways, or whose meanings may have changed over time? Does the dictionary reveal additional meanings or connotations of words that may be relevant? Do you notice any odd or seemingly irrelevant details (for example, a strange choice of wording, a non sequitur, or anything else that strikes you as unexpected)? Does your sense of the meaning change as you move through the passage or poem? Is there anything in the passage that just doesn't make sense to you?
  3. Analysis and interpretation: How does what you observed in Step 2 affect (i.e., deepen, raise questions about, shift or change) your understanding of the passage? Do you understand better how the author has conveyed her or his meaning? Do additional meanings or implications or ambiguities become visible? How about contradictory meanings – allowing one to begin complicating, even reading against, the overt meaning of the passage? There are many "right" things to say about a text but also some wrong (or unsupportable) ones.
  4. Generating an analytic or interpretative claim: This step raises the "So what?" question. Here, you should ask what is the most significant or interesting insight yielded by the patterns of language and detail you have analyzed? How does that insight change or enrich your understanding of the passage? By this point, a student should be able to see – and say – something that she didn't see, or saw only partially, the first time through the passage. If you were to write a paper based on your new interpretative claims, the evidence used to develop the paper would be drawn from the observations and analysis generated during Steps 2 and 3.