5 Tips for Content Area Close Reading Success

close reading upper elementary

The transition from reading during a language arts block to reading in the content areas is quite challenging for upper elementary students. Fourth and fifth graders are still figuring out the layout of informational text, using context clues to decipher content-specific words and recognize the structure of the text, all while trying to understand the complex content in science and social studies articles. 

Oftentimes, when faced with an informational text or textbook chapter, my fifth graders forget that they are actually supposed to be reading and instead just peck and hunt for content information they need to answer a question. By doing this, students are just glazing over the reading material and gaining very little to no understanding of the content. 

This is why I have found that direct instruction of close reading strategies in the content areas is a must, especially for upper elementary students. 

So what is Close Reading?

Close Reading is the “thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on finding significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the texts’ form, craft, and meaning. It directs the reader’s attention to the text itself.” (Burke, Beth: A Close Look at Close Reading

Though close reading strategies support the anchor standards of reading informational text found in the Common Core State Standards, it also reflects the good reading practices we want from our students whether you follow the Common Core Standards or not.  
By utilizing close reading strategies, you will help your students to understand the text deeply, ultimately helping them to answer text-dependent questions and make inferences to develop their own critical stance, and most importantly, understand the overall meaning of what they have read. Test-ready questions or no questions, we want students to develop their own critical stance and gain a deep understanding of the informational texts that they are reading.
The time spent teaching reading and writing expectations in the content areas will go a long way to help your students understand, infer, and reflect on what has been read all year long. This is critical as students get older and begin to prepare for middle school grades.  

The following tips have helped my students practice good reading and writing strategies during content-area lessons and truly understand what they read.

1. Close Reading Anchor Charts

5 Tips for Content Area Close Reading Success

I love anchor charts! 

I love making them, displaying them, and sharing them with my students to help them succeed. When crafted correctly, anchor charts are mini-teachers ready to support your students when they are working independently.  As upper elementary teachers, it is easy to assume that students know what we mean when we say read and answer these questions. After moving from third to fifth grade, I found myself guilty of this the first few weeks of school. I realized quickly that even though my students were older and had a few years of close reading instruction, I needed to teach my expectations of close reading and written responses, especially since now students were switching classes and experiencing true science and social studies periods. 

With direct instruction on WHY we close read and HOW TO close read, students began to take ownership of their independent reading. These anchor charts helped my students so much, that I made smaller versions of them to keep in their content area journals. This allowed them to refer to the strategies we discussed in class while they were independently working at school and at home, too! Grab a FREE sample of my close reading anchor charts below.

Teacher tip: Don’t limit your anchor charts to these ideas or your own ideas, ask the students to share their ideas and add them to your class anchor charts!

2. Get Professional

5 Tips for Content Area Close Reading Success

When it comes to annotating the text students of all ages need direction and a little motivation, too. To motivate my students we call close reading their "professional work". With professional work, comes professional tools. By presenting close reading activities as their “job” to do when reading, students feel grown-up and professional. 

Simple tools like: 

  • clipboards
  • different colored highlighters
  • colored pencils
  • post-it notes 

will help to motivate students immensely! You can easily create close reading tool kits for your students using materials your students find motivating and placing them in buckets, baggies, or inexpensive pencil pouches.  When it is time to close read, they can grab their kit and get right to “work”. The tools in their kit remind students that reading in the content areas is not a time to glaze over the material, but rather work hard, read carefully, and dig deep for meaning.

Teacher tip: Collect students' close reading toolkits after each use to help them stay tidy and last longer.

3. Get Purposeful

5 Tips for Content Area Close Reading Success

When instructing students to annotate the text, be sure that your directions are purposeful. I have three sets of directions for annotating text in my classroom. Too many expectations or tasks can be overwhelming, even for upper elementary students. 

Here are my annotating expectations MUSTS:
  • Circle new and unknown words (during the first read)
  • Use the left margin to record important facts and information found in the text
  • Use the right margin to record your own ideas that you're developing and inferring as you read the text
I have found that these three expectations are just the right amount for my students. After a few lessons of modeling, these expectations students are ready to work on their own. Be sure your annotating expectations are clear, purposeful, and practiced together before sending students off to use them. You can grab the checklist I use with my students for FREE below.

Teacher tip: Laminate student size annotating anchor charts and keep them inside students' close reading toolkit for easy access while they work.

4. Differentiate the Good from the Bad

teaching close reading

Okay maybe it’s not good from the bad, but when it comes to close reading students must be able to differentiate fact from opinion as well as differentiate interesting information from important information.  

Help students understand the difference between interesting and important information with a direct instruction lesson annotating an article together. Create a t-chart on chart paper and label one side interesting information and the other side important information. To help my students separate the two, I say that if it is important, it supports the main idea, calling attention the M in important. As you read the article together, stop and have students share ideas, and add it to the t-chart. This activity will not only help students differentiate between interesting and important information, but it will also help with their annotating skills as the important information is the information that would be recorded in the left-hand margins of the articles they read.

Believe it or not, upper elementary students STILL need lessons on facts and opinions and distinguishing the difference. Many students think that because something is typed out in black and white in the document that they are reading makes it a fact. Students need instruction and practice on pulling out opinions from the materials that they are reading, especially opinions by experts in the articles that they read as sometimes those are implied in the reading. By doing this, students will be able to better craft their own opinions about the information that they are reading. 
Try this organizer for FREE HERE to help your students differentiate between fact and opinion. 

5. Work Together

When my students are face to face with new close reading 
material, (book, typed text, or article) there is always that initial excitement and glow in their eyes! They love to scan ahead and look for new words, photographs and text headings in anticipation of what is to come. If your students are like mine then you know that the initial excitement fades before they get around to reading the text for the all-important third time. To help combat that loss of enthusiasm, I like to mix up close reading activities with a twist in my classroom that we call the “2 + 1 Reading”

This strategy does require that each student read the text three times, but instead of working independently for each of those three reading, students read two times on their own and then use that last reading time to buddy up and read with their close reading partner. This strategy has not only brought life back into each of the three readings, but it allows for rich and meaningful reading discourse, too. Students are eager to share their text-markings and notes with their partners. Students also build reading comprehension confidence after reading with a peer, helping them to complete text-dependent questions and reader response activities on their own. 

Grab a FREE graphic organizer students can use during 2+1 Reading Strategy below.

When it comes to close reading strategies in the upper elementary classroom do not assume that students know what to do. Always take the time to teach and make your expectations clear to your students. Remember, the time you invest in teaching students how to close read will benefit your students greatly.

Grab the FREE resource mentioned in this post:

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