Close Reading with Teenagers
The ability to read complex text independently and across all content areas is critical to the development of literacy skills and a key component of a student’s preparedness for college and a future career. Moreover, current research suggests if children cannot read complex text with understanding, they will read less in general.
But close reading is hard. And teenagers, in general, are not deeply motivated to practice it. In fact, in their world of text-free and text-light videos, podcasts, and tweets, it appears close reading is becoming a lost art. With so many digital distractions, it’s easier for children to visit a social media site than sit down with a complex text and give it their full attention.
The quandary facing teachers is how to motivate teenagers to want to read closely and carefully for comprehension. In this article, we’ll examine how the first step is selecting the right text.
3 Measures of Text Complexity
What makes a text complex? Is it sentence length? Background knowledge required? Stamina needed to get through it? Teachers must understand text complexity before they can select texts that are appropriately challenging for their readers.
Here are three factors used to determine the complexity of text:
- Quantitative factors: Most readability formulas factor in word length and frequency of use, sentence length, and number of syllables. But teachers have learned that quantitative factors don’t go far enough. While they may be useful in initially screening text for its suitability, they don’t address a key question: Will the student be motivated to read it? Compare a 1099 tax form and a Powerball ticket. Both have the same Lexile score, but which would students be more interested in reading?
- Qualitative factors: It’s important to analyze content. Although a readability measure may be quite low, the content may still be challenging. Text structure and organization must also be considered. A text that leads readers along with such words as first and next or includes organizational features such as headings and subheadings may be easier to read.
- Visual supports: Photographs, tables, and other graphic elements don’t make a text more or less difficult. A visual support tied to the main part of the text can be helpful. But if it’s ill-designed, it can lead to confusion.
Characteristics of a Reader
Just as these three factors serve as a guide in the selection of complex text, so can an evaluation of the reader’s language proficiency, background knowledge, and experiences. For example, a learning disability will affect how a student processes text. Formal academic learning will affect a reader’s ability to comprehend challenging text. In addition, different family, social, and economic experiences may not have adequately prepared a student to understand the meaning of a text.
Both the factors that make a text complex and the characteristics of the reader must be taken into consideration when selecting proper text. Even so, some students are not equipped to engage in deep understanding beyond a defined content area. When teachers consistently implement close reading across all content areas, students will become better able to tackle complex texts and, in turn, will become better readers.
For a deeper look at what literacy instruction looks like in not just English class, but in history, science, and math classrooms, check out SDE’s webinar Developing Literacy Skills Across All Content Areas (Gr. 6–12), by author and literacy expert Katie McKnight, PhD.