by Barry Lane
Closed reading, not to be confused with close reading, is the essence of most reading tests and a big reason literacy curriculum is boring to students and teachers. To assess reading comprehension, well-meaning (and even more well-funded) reading experts devise various schemes for measuring a student’s ability to think exactly like themselves. These experts think they are measuring comprehension, but they are re- ally measuring a sort of tactical compliance. I learned this from my friend Kenny.
Kenny at 10 years old
Today Kenny is a lawyer, but in sixth grade Kenny took a reading test and found himself getting angry at the way some test questions were worded. He especially hated the question “What’s the best title for this story?” He decided to write a letter of inquiry to the testing company. He told them in his letter that questions like those are opinion questions and are no different from asking, “What’s the best soft drink, Coke or Pepsi?” Students have the right to pick any of the four multiple-choice answers because they are being asked their opinion. Kenny went on to say, “I am not stupid. I know the answer that you want me to choose. I just want to know why your opinion needs to be my truth. If you were honest, you would pose the question this way: What do you think we think the best title for this story is?”
The testing company replied with a six-page letter complete with graphs, charts, and data refuting Kenny’s point. Kenny was surprised and little puzzled at how seri- ously they took a challenge from a ten-year-old. It appears the testing world has a lot invested in proving there is one way to comprehend a text. And that was decades ago, when high-stakes tests were not mandated and most schools used achievement tests as a low-stakes assessment to evaluate schools and students in a general way. Kenny is now a deputy attorney general in the state of New Jersey, and his job is to protect the rights of abused children. I believe he started training for this job in sixth grade.
Closed reading is a type of subtle bullying, which only the most precocious children, like Kenny, seem to understand. To most children, it is simply following the rules and doing what you are told to find the correct answer. The work of Louise Rosenblatt and others has proven that reading is interactive, that twenty students will draw twenty different subtle meanings from the same text. Though there may be a central idea to glean from a piece of writing, how each reader does this is unique and complex—and not the simple act of extraction that test-prep culture promotes. Students must connect personally with what they are reading. That connection does not come after they have read, but rather it is ongoing. It begins the moment a student reads the first sentence.
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼When children are drilled from an early age into thinking all reading is just about searching for the author’s main ideas inside the four corners of the text, they stop trusting their own instincts—their curiosity shuts down. They become “closed readers” who shrug their shoulders when asked for their opinion or ask shyly, “Do you want me to look in the book?”
The only cure for closed reading is to create choice-based reading programs in our schools, where students can find their passion as readers. Professional books like Donalynn Miller’s The Book Whisperer (2009), Penny Kittle’s Book Love (2012), Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book (2015), or Nancie Atwell’s classic In the Middle (2014) are great places to start. Turning kids into avid readers awakens their instincts and tunes them into the multifaceted meaning. These readers will excel on the monolithic test without being swallowed whole by its limited worldview. In the words of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris from their book Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency (2014), children can “lean in to the text on the page” and lean out to find their own perceptions Reading is unique and complex—and not the simple act of extraction that test-prep culture promotes.
Real reading assessment cannot be standardized because it involves close observation from a knowledgeable and caring teacher who knows what reading is. Read Thomas Newkirk’s classic, The Art of Slow Reading to find the antidote to the Sad Art of Closed Reading.