Close Reading Is Close to a Con

A key component of the blitzkrieg known as Common Core Standards is something called "close reading."

This is an educational activity that children are supposed to engage in.  They will not merely read; they will read deeply and profoundly, like professors.

"Close reading" is not a new term.  "The technique as practiced today was pioneered (at least in English) by I. A. Richards and his student William Empson, later developed further by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century[.] ... Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text." 

College students majoring in English literature know they must try to dive deep into famous works of fiction and nonfiction.  Of course, at that point in their lives, the students have read 50 books -- probably 250.  They are fast, relaxed readers.  The surface of the text is like the surface of a lake for a powerful swimmer.  These people are ready to plunge to deeper levels.

Hold on, says the Education Establishment.  "[C]lose reading can't wait until 7th grade or junior year in high school.  It needs to find its niche in kindergarten and the years just beyond if we mean to build the habits of mind that will lead all students to deep understanding of text."  

Caution: now entering an alternative reality.

A serious problem at this point is that more than half our fourth graders are not proficient readers.  Same with our eighth-graders.  You cannot expect these children to do "close reading" because they cannot, in any real sense of the word, do "reading."

Let's pause for a moment and consider what should be going on.  Reading is like learning to ride a bike.  You have to be on the bike for many hours, riding over streets, grass, and curbs, until you are comfortable and riding for pleasure.

Children in elementary and middle school need quantity, not quality.  Schools should use every trick to seduce children into reading lots of books.  Such books do not need depth.  It's enough that they have a good story or engaging information, and that children say, "That was fun.  I want to read another one."

For hundreds of years, there were books written especially for children -- for example, the Hardy Boys or the Bobbsey Twins.  Children who are devouring such books at a rapid rate can be encouraged to read more complex texts, and to read them more deeply.  Unfortunately, such readers are the exceptions.

Many Americans, even college graduates, never reach the level of reading for fun.  Millions can read in some technical sense, but the whole process is hard work.  They do it on the job, if they have to.

NPR's "All Things Considered" reported: "Fewer and fewer Americans are reading for pleasure. That's the conclusion of a study released today by the National Endowment for the Arts. It tracks a decline among Americans of all ages. Here are a couple of the most striking statistics. On average, Americans spend two hours a day watching television and seven minutes reading. And only one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers."

But now, thanks to the genius of Common Core, children who may not have finished one actual book will be parsing and analyzing like a literary critic at the New York Times

According to a Common Core website, "[e]ssentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension. Close, analytic reading stresses engaging with a text of sufficient complexity directly and examining meaning thoroughly and methodically, encouraging students to read and reread deliberately. Directing student attention on the text itself empowers students to understand the central ideas and key supporting details." 

This is patently unlikely for average kids.  Their pulses will not quicken.  A lot of this "deep comprehension" sounds boring even for literary types.  Kids will never know that literature was created to be entertainment.  

Some of the recommended text are clearly not what an ordinary person would curl up with on a rainy day: speeches by Martin Luther King, a Shakespearean play in the fourth grade, and the Constitution.

David Coleman, master of the Common Core and characterized as one of the "Ten Scariest People in Education," has launched a crusade against literature and narrative.  Instead, he wants children to marinate in dreary, informational text.  Males especially will suspect that "close reading" is merely another chapter in the war against boys.  Coleman embraces insulation installation manuals, presidential executive orders, environmental programming, and federal reserve documents.  In short, tough, dull text, probably with a PC spin.  But in the real world, people read for story and beauty, or hardly at all.  Dramatic stories are how we draw young people inside books. 

There is also the question of culture, as in a shared experience.  Who would want to share the fatuous, acultural experiences that Coleman is foisting on the schools?

One recalls that in New Math, children were supposed to learn matrices, Boolean algebra, and base-eight.  What could be the purpose of this absurd leap into adult academic activities?  For one thing, it probably intimidates parents.  Are they going to admit they don't know what Boolean algebra is? 

Close Reading seems to me like teaching Boolean algebra to fourth-graders -- pretentious and inane.  New Math did not teach math.  It's a safe prediction that Close Reading will not teach reading.

In sports, if you take children up an expert slope and turn them loose, you may end up in jail.  But in education, you can put children in an uncomfortable, hopeless situation, where they can never really succeed, and you get a grant or a promotion. 

Here's more shtick on an education website: "Reading Packs provide teachers with a resource that promotes careful analysis of text while building 21st Century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Students contemplate a Key Question as they participate in self-directed, small-group, and whole-class discussion following their independent reading of engaging passages on a common topic...The Teaching Tips also provide teachers with pointers for serving as discussion facilitators as they help students reach consensus on their answer to the Key Question."

Notice the phrases "small-group" and "whole-class discussion" leading to "consensus."  It's possible that children murmur and stumble through text as part of a group but never engage in anything legitimately called close reading. 

So, we are told, the walking wounded of the typical public school will be led to the literary promised land.  People who cannot read a few paragraphs out of the newspaper without major mistakes will magically become college- and career-ready, thanks to Close Reading.

Isn't this just too creepy and unrealistic to be taken seriously?  Alas, no.  Common Core, as described earlier, is a blitzkrieg, a massive 2,000-mile front advancing across the United States, twisting arms and throwing cash in all directions.  Common Core is being forced into life the same way ObamaCare was -- much more a political maneuver than a welcome societal outcome.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his site

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