My Favorite Strategy for Building Student Close Reading and Comprehension Skills

One of the essential skills for being successful in AP Literature is close reading. To succeed on the AP Exam, students have to be able to find patterns, notice symbols, and make meaning of an unfamiliar text, completely independently of their ever-so-wise teacher.

Yet, as I think back on the start of the last three school years, this is the very task that students seem most unsure of. They’re anxious because how can they possibly know for sure that the bonsai tree mentioned in that poem is a symbol; how can they possibly guarantee that the author structured the text as a frame narrative for that purpose? Much of what we must do as AP teachers is help them test the waters and build the sort of structure and prerequisite knowledge they need in order to be successful.

How I Teach Close Reading: Reciprocal Teaching

When my principal (and educational role model) first suggested that I try reciprocal teaching with my AP students, I vastly misunderstood just what reciprocal teaching was. I assumed that it was giving students a task and having them teach their peers– sort of like a jigsaw activity, I suppose — but I was at a complete loss at how it might build student comprehension or understanding.

I was so wrong.

Reciprocal teaching was – hands down – the most revolutionary approach I had ever considered adding to my teaching toolbox. The first day I tried it, my students were singing its praises. It helped my students grow leaps and bounds and gave my students the agency they needed in order to be successful.

Step #1: Make Predictions

Basically, reciprocal teaching is a structured approach to analyzing a text. Students start by looking at the text and making predictions: these predictions might be based off the work’s title, the cover, the opening lines of a chapter, or even a prose or poetry analysis essay prompt. Regardless, asking to do this enables them to monitor their own comprehension and understanding as they work through a text.

Step #2: Clarify Areas of Confusion

As they read the text, have students mark any areas of confusion and then, after reading, have them take some time to clarify areas of confusion, whether they are questions about historical context or definitions of unfamiliar words

Step #3: Summarize

This is simple, but incredibly effective. Have students summarize what the text they’ve just read is about.

Step #4: Question

This is my favorite part of reciprocal teaching. Once students have predicted, clarified, and summarized, we begin to delve into the so what of it all. We focus on why the author chose to structure the text the way that he or she did; we consider why the author chose to use that particular metaphor when describing a character and why their choice might be significant.

Put simply, we take some time to analyze all of the key elements suggested in the 2019 AP Curriculum Framework: character, structure, perspective, figurative language, and setting. Then, we tie it all together and consider how each of these elements impacts the overall meaning of the work as a whole.

How do I teach this?

To ingrain this process of looking at a literary text into my students’ psyche, I use the “I do, we do, you do” approach to reciprocal teaching.

To more deeply ingrain this process of looking at a literary text into my students’ psyche, I use the “I do, we do, you do” approach to reciprocal teaching. Each time, the classroom arrangement is structured like a socratic seminar: we all sit in a circle and share our observations, but the level of teacher involvement varies each time.

I do: The first time we use reciprocal teaching as a class, I lead the discussion. I ask students to predict what a short passage (1-2 pages) is about; then, I give them time to read and I have them mark areas of confusion. We then work through those areas of confusion together, using dictionaries and phones to find the answers we need.

Afterwards, I have a student summarize what they’ve just read, but it isn’t until we get to the questions that I really start modeling the process. I give students a graphic organizer with question categories and I let them know that in future discussions they will be the ones designing the questions. I ask them pre-prepared questions based on each category, like “How does the author structure this text?” and then, after they respond, follow up questions, like “How does the use of that frame narrative impact our understanding of Joanie as a character?” and “How does that impact the meaning of the work as a whole?”

The key is to keep asking the students why until they can cogently explain the author’s purpose in an insightful manner. This challenges students and allows them to delve into the text in a deeper manner.

We do: The next time, I give the students a little bit control over the discussion. Everybody is given a graphic organizer so that they can come up with questions about character, structure, perspective, figurative language, and setting as they read and everybody is expected to come up with insightful questions.

We predict, clarify, and summarize together. When we reach the question portion, students introduce their own questions rather than just responding to mine, yet it’s still important that I am hands-on at this point in the process. As students ask their questions and others respond, I prompt them to think deeper about the text and why the author makes the choices that he or she does. By the end of the discussion, students are often beginning to ask the “so what?” question themselves.

You Do: Finally, students arrive at the independent portion of the reciprocal teaching process. I still have students discuss their questions as a class (I always love whole class discussions), but I don’t ask quite as many follow-up questions and I start grading students on the questions they prepare and their responses.

I usually assign students a section, a character, a symbol, or a chapter from whatever book we’re currently reading in class and have them work through this process. This allows us to focus on close-reading while still working with the novel as a whole and keeps students even more engaged.

Final Thoughts

I use this process whole class, but this could easily be used for literature circles or small groups. You could have students work through the text in small groups and film the process using a tech. tool like flipgrid, or have them record their responses in an answer log. However you choose to use this, this is a highly effective tool for engaging students in discussions and deeper reading.

Related Resources:

Looking for more resources on Reciprocal Teaching? Consider checking out the resources below.

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