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When you’re assigned to read a text, you’re supposed to take away some big-picture ideas. To get to that broad understanding, though, you should use a method that is all about being detail-oriented. It’s called “close reading,” and it will help you grasp the overall message of whatever you read.

What is close reading?

Close reading is a method that requires you to focus on every detail in a text and operate on the assumption that no detail is in there by accident or for no reason. In Teaching Literature, literary critic Elaine Showalter said that “close reading” is “slow reading, a deliberate attempt to detach ourselves from the magical power of storytelling and pay attention to language, imagery, allusion, intertextuality, syntax, and form.” The idea is to break the habit of reading casually or taking everything in at once and instead form a new habit wherein you examine every tiny element of what you’re reading and question why the author included them.

The method is even included in the United States’ Common Core standards for K-12 education. There, it’s defined as “the methodical investigation of a complex text through answering text dependent questions geared to unpack the text’s meaning.”

Essentially, you’re not just looking at what the text says, but how it says it—and that’s beneficial: Per Literacy in Focus, that means you’ll eventually be able to truly grasp what the text means. Educators have researched the use of the method and found it increases reading comprehension, for instance. Using close reading helps learners understand what a text says, but also why it’s important.

How to do close reading

Close reading involves reading everything twice (or more than twice). On your first read-through(s), you’ll actually do the “close reading,” but on the last one, you’ll apply everything you learned to take away a larger meaning.

When doing close reading, keep notes and mark up the text with highlighters or pens (if you can). Highlight any new words you come across. Pay attention to subtitles and chapter titles. Look for visual aids, tables, or other graphics. Observe the order in which new information is presented. Take note of any groups or people introduced. Consider the intended audience for the work, too: Is it a college textbook designed for students or instruction manual for people already working in the field? Each of these represents a deliberate element of the text and understanding why they’re included the way they are will help you grasp the overall meaning.

Write down any questions these details spark, plus what you think the answers are. Why is that subsection titled the way it is? Why was that piece of information presented before another one? Why was that picture chosen to represent an idea? Also, look up any words or ideas you don’t understand.

On your final read-through, don’t focus on the details as much as the overall message. Use the questions you wrote down, specifics you noticed, and new words and ideas you looked up to enhance what you take away from it.

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