Close Reading that Sticks: Teaching for Transfer

Analyze structure, sight text evidence, interpret words and phrases, compare points of view, analyze and develop ideas and themes. These phrases are found repeatedly in schools, professional literature, and standards of learning. We are on strategy overload for teaching our students to engage in close reading, yet there is little conversation about ensuring that these strategies are transferring to our readers as they work independently.

And if they're not doing it independently, then why are we teaching it?

I've outlined a few tips that I've found help ensure our teaching of close reading strategies "sticks".

Tip #1: Don't underestimate the importance and necessity of literal comprehension (...but please don't stop there!).

Close reading is a vehicle for deep, analytical understand of texts but so often teachers are forgetting to take time to teach and assess whether a student has a basic understanding of the plot. They're quickly jumping into higher order questioning and many children are left behind. Pressley & Brock (2002) argue that this literal foundation is essential if students are going to begin to evaluate or critique specific phrases and summarize ideas within a text. Without an understanding of the text that is solidly grounded in what the author has written, children will struggle immensely to develop any kind of analytical interpretation.

Nancy Boyles (2013) encourages teachers to get students to ask themselves four basic questions as they read:

  • What is the author telling me here?

  • Are there any hard or important words?

  • What does the author want me to understand?

  • How does the author play with language to add to meaning?

While these questions are rather low on Bloom's Taxonomy, they'll give the reader (and teacher) a good dipstick as to whether they are processing the text.

You'll find that once you empower your students to ask themselves these questions (you don't need to be the one doing it for them!), they will easily transition to asking themselves the more thought-provoking questions you've taught them. And once children are monitoring their basic comprehension and pushing themselves to think about deeper issues in a text, they are truly reading closely.

Tip #2: Allow yourself to become a moderator in your discussion of text.

Many of us have experimented with whole-class conversations using accountable talk and now we've fused this with lessons on close reading. The tendency is to model close reading strategies, ask higher order thinking questions, and elicit responses. We refer to these question and response sessions "discussions" but too often the interactions are teacher-student-teacher.

In order to facilitate a true discussion or debate with the goal of communicating thoughts and creating new ideas, we must teach (and then allow) our students to interact with each other. Try letting three or four students speak before you chime in. It can be tricky and awkward at first, but you'll be able to see the progression of ideas that develops when children are left on their own train of thought. They start realizing that their teacher's voice will not always be there to encourage them or correct them and they begin to do these things for themselves.

To truly teach close reading for transfer, we must explicity teach and model strategies, but then pull back. Let our students take the reigns. And if the lesson fails miserably, analyze the students' areas of growth and need, and go back to the drawing board tomorrow!

Tip #3: Close reading should go hand-in-hand with writing.

Always being asked to write about reading will squelsh even the most avid reader's desire to pick up a book, but in order to teach for transfer, we must occasionally give children space to write their thoughts. This does not need to be a formal literary or argumentative essay (although in upper grades it should be progressing that way), but rather a space where children can write down an idea, elaborate on it, develop it or scratch it completely.

Children (and adults!) remember the beginnings and the endings of lessons. If your lesson ends when the discussion of a text ends, there's nothing solidifying your work for your students. By asking them to sit and write, they are able to solidify not only what they thought about a text, but also the process for close reading.

For those students needing a bit more scaffolding, provide them with prompts like:

  • What did you notice the second time you read this text that you didn't notice at first?

  • How does the author's use of certain words affect your understanding of the text?

  • What does this part of the text cause you to understand about the rest of the text?

  • What does this part of the text cause you to understand about the greater human condition?

Notice that these prompts are not text-specific. In order to teach for transfer, we need to provide students with general prompts that they can use with any text.

Give these strategies a try. With deliberate teaching and cognizance that we need to be getting our students to closely read withour our immediate attention, we are on the path to teaching for transfer!


Pressley, M., & Block, C.C. (2002). Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices. New York, NY. Guilford.

Boyles, Nancy. "Closing in on close reading." Educational Leadership January 2013: 36-41.

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