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The Art of Close Reading (Part Two)
Linda Elder and Richard Paul
In the previous article we introduced the idea of close reading, which is reading with an emphasis on:
In this article, we discuss the art of engaging a text while reading. To read closely, students must get beyond impressionist reading. They must come to see that simply deciphering words on a page and getting some vague sense of what is there does not translate into substantive learning. Instead, they must learn that to read well is to engage in a self-constructed dialog with the author of a text. Really good reading requires close reading. It requires one to formulate questions and seek answers to those questions while reading. It requires connecting new ideas to already learned ideas, correcting mistaken ideas when necessary. In other words, close reading requires specific intellectual work on the part of the reader. This article briefly elaborates the nature of this intellectual work.
Avoiding Impressionistic Reading and Writing
Whatever knowledge the impressionistic mind absorbs is uncritically intermixed with prejudices, biases, myths, and stereotypes. It lacks insight into how minds create meaning and how reflective minds monitor and evaluate as they read.
Thinking About Reading While Reading
One of the most important abilities that a thinker can have is the ability to monitor and assess his or her own thinking while processing the thinking of others. In reading, the reflective mind monitors how it is reading while it is reading. The foundation for this ability is knowledge of how the mind functions when reading well. For example, if I know that what I am reading is difficult for me to understand, I intentionally slow down and paraphrase each sentence. I put the meaning of each sentence that I read into my own words.
If I realize that I am unsympathetic to an author’s viewpoint, I suspend judgment about the text’s meaning until I have verified that I truly understand what the author is saying. I strive not to commit a common mistake that some readers make in reading: “I don’t really know what this means, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong!” Instead I try to accurately understand the author’s viewpoint while reading. I attempt to enter that viewpoint, to be open to it as much as possible. And even if I don’t agree fully with the author’s view, I appropriate important ideas whenever possible. I take command of the ideas that I think are worthwhile rather than dismissing all the ideas simply because I don’t completely agree with the author’s view.
Engaging a Text
Books Are Teachers
In reading the work of others, you enter their minds. In coming to terms with the mind of another, you can come to better discover your own mind — both its strengths and its weaknesses. To read your own mind, you must learn how to do second-order thinking — how to think about your thinking while you are thinking from outside your thinking. But how do you get outside your thinking?
To do this, you must recognize that there are eight basic structures in all thinking. Whenever we think, we think for a purpose within a point of view based on assumptions leading to implications and consequences. We use concepts, ideas and theories to interpret information (data, facts, and experiences) in order to answer questions, solve problems, and resolve issues.
When we come to understand these eight basic elements, we have powerful intellectual tools that enable us to think better. We understand that whenever we reason about anything whatsoever, these parts of thinking are inherent in our mind’s operations.
Thus when you read, you are reasoning through the text; you are reading for a purpose, using concepts or ideas and assumptions of your own, making inferences, thinking within a personal point of view. At the same time, the text you are reading is the product of someone else’s reasoning. You therefore recognize that embedded in the text is the author’s purpose, the author’s question, assumptions, concepts and so forth. The better you are at understanding your own reasoning within your own perspective, the better you can understand the reasoning of others. The better you understand someone else’s logic, the better you understand your own.
When you can effectively move back and forth between what you are reading and what you are thinking, you bring what you think to bear upon what you read and what you read to bear upon what you think. You are able to change your thinking when the logic of what you read is an improvement on what you think. And you are able to withhold accepting new ideas when you cannot reconcile them with your own. You realize that you may be wrong in some of your beliefs.
The Work of Reading
No one would expect to know how to repair an automobile engine without training, involving both theory and practice. If you learn to “read” without understanding what good reading involves, you learn to read poorly. That is why reading is a fundamentally passive activity for many students. It is as if their theory of reading was something like this: “You let your eye move from left to right, scanning one line at a time, until somehow, in some inexplicable way, meaning automatically and effortlessly happens in the mind.”