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.

Building Your Students’ Relationship with Poetry

Poetry should be powerful. As William Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” — yet often, as we introduce our upcoming poetry unit to our students, their groans seem to imply anything but enthusiasm. Somehow the link between poetry and passion has been severed and replaced with a sort of anxious bewilderment. Is this a symbol or just a hill? Is the theme this or that?

This bewilderment, I would argue, is a direct result of a lack of personal connection to poetry. Poetry is the “language of the soul.” It taps into the very essence of human experience and – at least as of yet – all of our students are human and thus should be able to find at least one poem they can relate to. How do we guide them to such a poem? I’m glad you asked: through a student-led thematic exploration of poetry.

Introducing the Assignment:

At the start of the unit, I work on introducing relatable poems to my students. John Updike’s “A Dog’s Death” or Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables” are often favorites of my students. I seat them in groups and have them complete a “poetic carousel” activity, where each student reads a different poem, analyzes it, passes it on to the next student, and then debates its interpretation. It’s a lot of fun and it peels back a lot of the stress my students feel surrounding poetry; they often independently begin to make connections to their own lives. 

Then I introduce students to some of my favorite spoken word poems on Youtube and we talk a bit about the power of poetry. We talk about what makes a poem powerful and worth reading. Before introducing the assignment, I may mention my own favorite poem (“On His Blindness” by John Donne, which has some personal relevance due to my own battle with chronic illness) and how poems encapsulate pieces of the human experience and moments of human comfort that might not be conveyed otherwise. 

Finally, then, I challenge them to think of themes that are significant in their own lives: for some, it might be nature; for others, it might be the loss of a family member; and for others, it might be coming out. Regardless, I ask them to find something personally significant. 

The Assignment Itself:

Students are then tasked with finding ten poems that relate to their topic, writing a poetic précis for each poem, and then presenting how each poem deals with their topic in various ways. 

My students loved this. It allowed me to connect with my students in a deeper way, but also allowed them to connect to poetry. It’s easy for us as teachers with standards to cover to neglect the emotional connection students feel to a literary work, but the emotional connection is often the most powerful part. It’s what allows our students to become readers of poetry. 

Prepping AP Literature Students for the Dreaded Q1 and Q2 Essays (Reading and Comprehension Strategies for AP Literature Students)

Last year after AP scores were released, Trevor Packer made a shocking observation: the AP Literature and Composition scores nationwide in 2018 were the lowest they’ve ever been.

Trevor Packer’s analysis of the 2018 AP Literature and Composition Scores

What had led to this cataclysmic decline? Mr. Packer offered a variety of theories: It was the result of too much nonfiction in the earlier grades, too little student reading, too much of a focus on novels rather than short excerpts of text, etc.

Finally, Trevor Packer noted that close reading (the primary skill tested on the AP Exam) had declined and – while I disagreed with his assertions that we should teach less novels (blasphemy to a lit-loving English teacher) – I realized the way that I was teaching novels had to change. I needed to equip my students with better reading strategies in order to build their reading comprehension and their understanding of the nuance of specific passages of text.

Thus began my quest to revolutionize the way I dealt with close reading, comprehension, and reading strategies in my AP Literature and Composition classroom.

Strategies for using grammar as tool for AP Literature students

Approach #1: Leverage Syntax as a Comprehension Tool (specifically in regards to poetry)

The first strategy I tried was using grammar as a tool to enhance reading comprehension. I remembered when I encountered Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in college. For some reason, the king’s syntax just did not mesh with my brain and I knew I had to take an active approach to my reading comprehension, so I circled the subject of each sentence and underlined all “describing words” referring to the subject an it helped.

With my AP students, we did the same thing. We read some complex Shakespearean poems and boxed in the subject and predicate, which helped, but didn’t go far enough. My students struggled to identify where Shakespeare’s ideas began and ended, so I had them go through and place a box around the entirety of the sentence. As simple as it was, this really helped and my students began to ask for more, similar strategies to comprehend complex texts.

Overview of reciprocal teaching as a reading strategy and comprehension-booster for AP Literature and Composition students.

Approach #2: Model strong comprehension strategies using a model and then give students the opportunity to lead.

I had never heard of the “Reciprocal Teaching” comprehension strategy until recently, but it has already made such a big influence on my teaching this year and has already really helped my students.

First, you introduce students to the method by modeling the process: I began by handing my students an excerpt of To the Lighthouse with a fake AP Prose Analysis prompt and then had them predict what the passage would be about. This primed them to consider what was significant in the passage and what they should be looking for. They realized they were looking for information about a complex relationship and some hypothesized that the relationship might be related to the lighthouse itself.

After this, students read the text and prepare to paraphrase the text. I have the students do this section out loud and use it as a lead in for them to make observations about the text, then guiding them through the analysis process, asking them to consider structure, selection of detail, figurative language, and tone. As students made observations, like “she uses a simile to compare Mrs. Ramsay to nature,” I asked them deepening questions, like how the connotations of the word choice impacted meaning and why Woolf would choose to include such a comparison.

Then, once we’ve debriefed on the passage, comes the exciting part. I ask students to “teach” their peers a passage like I did, through asking guided questions to help their peers comprehend the text. Students study their assigned passage in groups, research and anticipate possible areas of confusion, and formulate questions that will guide their peers to meaningful answers. It’s metacognitive magic and it does wonders for their comprehension!

Approach #3: Still in progress…

Beyond these strategies, I’m continuing to research and come up with ideas on how to meet my students where they are. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, leave them in the comments below. I would love to hear what you do?

Interested in seeing some of these strategies in action? Check out the following paid resources on my TPT store.

Poetry Reciprocal Teaching Resources

Host Your Own Poetry Slam (Strategies to make poetry engaging)

One of my favorite adventures I had with my students last semester was our end of the semester poetry slam. In my experience, students are not always the most excited about poetry. Although many times they may be obsessed with creating rhythms and rhymes for their own songs and raps, they seem to believe that poetry belongs in a land of hoity-toity literature that they want to spend their entire lives trying to avoid, which is a bit of a shame if you ask me. Holding a poetry slam this year, though, seemed to alleviate much of their negative feelings about poetry, and students have been asking if we can hold another poetry slam ever since.

Below are some ways to spice poetry up and prepare your students for their own poetry slam:

  1. Poetry Sneak Peek: The day before we started our “Poetry Rocks” project (where they’d write poetry about rocks — get it!? Aren’t I punny?) I had my students watch free verse poems performed by spoken word artists.  My kids loved it and I think it broke down a lot of their presuppositions about poetry. For the rest of the week, they kept on looking up poems of their own and sharing them with me. It was a very nice way to start the project off.

The video embedded above seemed to be my students’ favorite and they looked up other poems by Prince Ea on their own afterwards. It has a nice environmental flair, which is nice for my English/Science class, but the way he presents his work engages students immediately.

2. After getting them hooked on more modern poetry, transition into other classic poems: 

After our first day where we watched spoken word poems together, we began transitioning into some other great poems, as well. Nicki Minaj has a great reading of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou, which my students really enjoyed. Afterwards, I had them do some activities reading and analyzing “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou, “I Too” by Langston Hughes, some of Richard Wright’s haikus, and “Sonnet 18” by Shakespeare.

3. After exposing them to classic poetry, have your students use other poems as mentor texts for their own poetry. As my students prepared for the poetry slam, they would read a poem (perhaps on of Wright’s haikus), study the structure and the literary devices, and use it as a model as they wrote their first haiku. It’s a way to make poetry a bit more real and engage them in some higher level thinking and analysis. It gave them a purpose for their studying.

4. Make sure they know that they can (and should) be silly and creative when presenting their poems: On the day of the poetry slam, I had a student come up to me and ask if it was alright if he read his poems “in a silly way, like the guys on the video.” I said, “Of course. That was why I showed you the video.  I want you to be silly and creative and vary your voice inflections as you present.” Although I (mistakenly) assumed that my students realized after watching the “poetry sneak peek” videos that poetry slams are supposed to be funny and challenging and creative, my kids didn’t realize that they could make their leap in the way they presented their own poetry. Make sure that your expectation is clear, because, if it is, it will be the key to a much more enjoyable poetry slam, as it was in my case. Which leads me to my next point…

5. Consider having smaller “practice poetry slams” before the real one: I wish I had done this before my poetry slam in December. Sometimes when you’re doing a two or three week project, you can have a very fun, exciting plan for the way your students are going to present, but if they aren’t entirely sure how they’re going to present or that they can be funny and ridiculous when they do present in the first week of the project, they can lose momentum fast. Consider coaching one or two students to present the way you want them to and to present at the beginning of class so that students know what’s expected. Or, possibly even better, write your own poem and present it to the class in a dramatic fashion. Make sure that students never lose sight of “the end in mind.”

6. Last, but not least, make the poetry slam into an occasion: Bring food and snacks so that students know that it’s a celebration. If you have a classroom microphone, let the kids use it. Teach them how actual poetry slams and readings work, and how often people snap after poetry is read. Make your kids excited to present all of their hard work to the class.

Happy poetry writing!