Close read. Text code. Annotate.
Whatever you call it, you know what is–the highlighting and color coding in a novel or an article that basically killed any enjoyment that may have come from the reading, right?
And yet, even though we know no one likes to stop in the middle of the action to take a note on characterization, text coding can be a valuable tool. It forces meta-cognition: students have to think about their thinking, which is just about the most difficult skill I can think of.
When I went to high school, it was easy to spot the honors and AP students. They walked around with classic novels, probably written by old white guys, practically exploding with post-it notes and rainbows from all the highlighting they’ve done within the pages. I remember highlighting examples of tone, mood, foreshadowing, characterization, plot development–all color coded accordingly. This task became routine over my four years; it was expected in honors and AP English courses that you would highlight until you dreamt in technicolor and the protocol never really wavered. The regular course students would smile and nod at your novel, before saying, “Yeah, we watched the film in class.” They knew their choice had saved them from the pain and torment of endless annotation.
I wonder, though, why the highest achieving students were the ones forced to prove their knowledge of basic literary terms over and over. Through this exercise, I certainly came to appreciate an author’s ability and style better (Wow, Mary Shelley is really great at mood!) and I definitely began to pinpoint these writing tools faster as I read. But nothing was ever done with these highlights. Eventually your teacher checked off that you did it, it went in like a test score, and, maybe, if you chose to write a paper on a character, those characterization highlights would prove useful later.
Meanwhile, in the regular class, they watched the Odyssey for the third time.
Now, I don’t mean to diss my alma mater. I love(d) that school and grew greatly from it. But why deny lower ability students the same tools and strategies that more advanced students get? And why have higher performing students, who will do any dog and pony trick for an A, perform the same task over and over?
I work in a school where the reading levels can vary greatly. I’ve had a handful at a college reading level, but most fall very short of grade level, even all the way down to second grade reading level. I have special ed and ELL students. For the most part, we would never dream of handing them a novel, and saying close read it. Except, that’s just what I did.
This past school year, I chose to start teaching Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (I swear I will make it required reading in this district, lol). It’s the biggest book I’ve ever attempted to read with my students of varying abilities. It’s also the most dense in relation to big ideas to talk about. Because Thomas is so skilled in capturing real life and true dialogue, I knew comprehension wouldn’t be much of a problem with this novel. I wanted my students instead to focus on those big ideas–what is Angie Thomas trying to say with her writing, and do you agree with her?
But that timeline was a problem–it’s a lot of book to cover, meaning too much class time will be taken up with reading. There won’t be time to transfer all the beautiful quotes in this novel to various graphic organizers. That’s where close reading came in.
Tip #1: Have a Goal
Students, especially the ones prone to only doing the bare minimum, need to see the point. Reluctant readers or those below grade level are not going to want to do whatever you ask for no reason. They need to have a goal that makes sense to them. This goal is best I think when it is both a learning target and final product combined.
For example, for The Hate U Give in my class the final summative assessment was a round table discussion in small groups with other staff members from the building (the librarian, instructional coach, etc.). Before we even started reading the novel, the students were given copies of the questions they would be asked to discuss on discussion day–each question correlated to a major theme in Thomas’s novel. An expectation for their responses was to have textual evidence, so as they read, students were asked to highlight quotes related to each question/theme.
Instead of having something broad to look for (can you really expect anyone to highlight every instance of characterization or tone throughout a book?) I was having student narrowly focus in on just the quotes and passages they would need for their final discussion. Students understood why they were highlighting (even if they weren’t thrilled about it).
Tip #2 Be Specific
Tell students what to look for, and how to mark it. For my class, students knew they were looking for quotes that helped them answer the five questions or touched on the five key themes we were analyzing. They had copies of these questions in their reading journals. The questions were also projected onto the board every day we read for quick reference.
I also told the student exactly what color to highlight each idea. This color key was on the board every single day and projected with the questions during reading. I also reviewed our procedures for marking important quotes every day before reading, and reminded them how important having these quotes was going to be for their final discussion.
Tip #3 Scaffold
My students were panicked. Close reading is hard because there is no right answer. This makes students incredibly uncomfortable. Free thinking is hard. We read the first chapter together. I told them not to worry; if they felt brave and confident enough to highlight or leave a note, they could, but I would give them some examples.
When we finished, my students already had a lot to say (I mean, if you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean). In addition to marking the themes, I also encouraged students to note places where they made a connection. We started there. Students shared parts of the first chapter that were relatable (sneaking to a party you weren’t supposed to be at, the slang they used, Starr’s love of sneaker, unfortunately, being at a party when gunshots went off, etc.).
Then I pointed them to the theme of hate, and a few confident students got us started by suggesting broad scenes (the fight, the gunshots). I opened up my book and showed them how I found what I thought was the most important sentence or two of each scene. Then I highlighted these lines in front of them (I did this under the doc camera, so they could watch me do it). I wrote a note on a post-it that connected the quote to the theme and placed it next to the highlighted passage. Many students copied exactly what I did and that’s ok. There are 400 more pages for them to make their own notes!
Students caught on to what I wanted them to do quickly, although their confidence was slower. For the first week or so of reading, I modeled and showed them what I found. After every reading, I asked students what they had thought was important enough to highlight. We had great conversations–is this quote related to this theme or that? Do we see a symbol developing here? It will take time; don’t be afraid to model and reteach.
Tip #4 Encourage Them and Use High Quality Feedback
If you think it’s important, then it’s not wrong. At least, that’s what I told my students. If they could match their chosen quotes to a theme and include a note explaining why/how it’s important, they got full credit. I only expected 3-5 high quality quotes for about every 75-100 pages–a feat far too easy with Thomas’s masterpiece (high quality to me meant the quote was highlighted in a color that made sense and had a post-it next to it explaining how that quote ties in with the larger thematic questions). I set expectations low for grading purposes to ease their anxiety about “getting it wrong.” In the end, their annotations only went into the grade-book for 5 formative points, a drop in the bucket in my class. Every time I checked their annotations, however, I left post-its with highly detailed feedback.
Sometimes it was “C’mon, you can do it. I can’t help you if you don’t try” when students turned in blank books. Some students felt comfortable highlighting, but not actually leaving notes with their ideas. For these students, I offered general questions that could apply to pretty much anything (Why would Angie Thomas include this quote in the book? What does Angie Thomas mean by this? Do you agree with the author here?) to get them started in noting their ideas. For more advanced students, I encouraged them to take their thoughts further (how does this show Starr’s evolution as a character?).
Grading each novel only took a couple minutes, but it was wonderful to be able to leave high quality feedback with each student and watch them improve over the course of the novel. In the future, I might try conference with students one-on-one to more thoroughly explain my responses.
Tip #5 Supply the Tools They Will Need
This is perhaps the hardest tip because you can’t necessarily do it yourself. I am always in favor of teacher’s using as little of their own money as possible (this job shouldn’t cost us money). However, many students just won’t do the work if there are simple obstacles in front of them like not having a blue highlighter. I am lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive principal and to work in a relatively small school. For this upcoming school year, he agreed to buy me books for each of my students to keep and all the highlighters and post-its I need. I think seeing the amazing engagement from doing this unit spoke for itself!
If you can’t find the funding you need, you can ask students to buy their own copies or bring in their own supplies. Some might. But I would also look to other avenues. Teachers are excellent bootstrappers, but donorschoose is always a great first step.
Once you have the supplies, make sure you have a place for students to store them and keep them organized. Trusting students with one book, one stack of post-its, and five highlighters each almost gave me a nervous breakdown, but the only thing that went missing was one highlighter cap (later recovered). I gave students everything they needed in a jumbo Ziploc bag. One Day One, we put our names on the book, the reading journal, and the Ziploc bag itself. I made it very clear that everything should remain in the bag and the bag should stay in the room, unless they had gotten super behind in the novel.
All in all, if you give your students purpose, have high expectations, and help them navigate their failures, I think you’ll be surprised by their insights while text coding. After looking at their notes and highlights, I learned a lot more about my individual students–especially where they wrote down connections to the text. My advanced students were not limited to the abilities of others. They could write as much as they wanted about the topic. Meanwhile,the regular check-ins helped me guide my struggling readers. Remember, if you are going to close read a whole novel, make sure it has value. It can’t just be for the sake of tradition or to keep students busy. If you value the work, they will too.
Need a place to get started? You can get all of my The Hate U Give materials here, including the reading journal pictured above. The journal is designed to work with close reading exercises perfectly.
Looking for other strategies to increase student engagement? Try authentic assessments!