Choosing Excerpts from Informational Texts for Close Reading
By Sunday Cummins, Literacy Consultant
Close reading of an excerpt of informational text is an instructional approach that moves students toward a deeper understanding of a text. There are many purposes for close reading. Students may be reading to understand the author's craft or to identify a central idea or to learn important content related to an unfamiliar concept. The tricky part of using this approach with our students is finding excerpts of informational text that are worth rereading and analyzing.
Ideally, close reading happens as part of an integrated unit of study that incorporates the use of a thematic or topic-related text set. Because the texts in the set are thematically or topically related, close reading of an excerpt from one text can help students gain a better understanding of other texts in the set as well.
This can be daunting. My suggestion is to simply start with one well-written text--whether it is part of a unit of study or not.
Here's an example of what I might do to plan close reading with an excerpt from The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle (2012).
1. Read the whole text and consider what might be important for students to understand well after reading or listening to this text. This will be your purpose for close reading.
When I read The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs, what struck me was how the scientists (as well as other community members) involved continuously asked questions about what was happening to the frogs and how they could save them. They sought out answers through research, observation, and experimentation. They consistently evaluated what they were learning, developing explanations or solutions. This is just one main idea in the text. I decided to choose an excerpt that would reveal this idea.
2. Choose an excerpt that provides insight related to the purpose for reading.
In The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs, I chose an excerpt from about midway through the book. To do this, I flipped through the pages, searching for a short excerpt that would "get at" what I wanted the students to understand. I considered a few before I landed on this one:
What Else Could Be Killing the Frogs?
Next, Lips looked closely at the dead frogs she found. She wanted to see if their bodies had anything in common. Most of them had patches of peeling skin. All frogs shed and replace their skin from time to time, but this was more peeling than normal. Lips knew how important a frog's skin is to its health. She wondered what was making their skins peel. Maybe that was killing them. She sent a number of the dead frogs she collected to another pathologist. He took samples of each frog's skin. He looked at them through a microscope. Once again, the pathologist saw strange sacs. (p. 15)
3. Study the excerpt so you can guide students during a close reading.
As I reread and studied the excerpt from The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs, I noticed the following:
- In the first three sentences (beginning with Next, Lips looked closely), the primary scientist on this project, Karen Lips, engages in the practice of observation.
- In the following two sentences, she considers what she already knows about frogs -
All frogs shed and replace their skin from time to time, but this was more peeling than normal. Lips knew how important a frog's skin is to its health.
- Then Lips asks a question - She wondered what was making their skins peel.
- She follows by seeking out another scientist's (a pathologist's) expertise on frogs.
- When the pathologist takes samples of each frog's skin and looks at them through a microscope, he is engaged in the practice of asking questions, making observations and evaluating what he sees - strange sacs.
As I studied this excerpt, I began to think about key words and phrases I would want to write in the margins as we read the excerpt closely: observes, thinks about what she already knows, asks questions, seeks out another scientist, more questions, more observations, evaluation. This language will help students answer the purpose for close reading (stated as a question).
There's generative value here as well. I can choose another excerpt of text or create a set of similar texts, and, as students read, hopefully, they will begin to recognize that the scientists in their books are engaged in similar practices.
4. Try close reading of this excerpt with students.
After we have read and enjoyed The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs (Markle, 2012), I would place this excerpt on the document camera or project on the interactive whiteboard. The students would have copies of the excerpt as well. (Reading aloud this book and engaging in close reading will take more than one lesson.) I would post the purpose for close reading, on chart paper or on the dry erase board: As part of their investigation, what do the scientists do to find an explanation for the dying frogs?
I would lead the students in a shared reading of the whole excerpt and then line-by-line, we would analyze the content, consistently referring to our purpose for close reading. What are we learning about what scientists do? I would do some of the thinking aloud, but gradually pull the students into a shared think aloud.
Sunday Cummins is the author of Close Reading of Informational Texts: Assessment-Driven Instruction in Grades 3-8 (Guilford, 2013). For more information on close reading of informational texts, visit Sunday's website Experience Nonfiction at www.sunday-cummins.com.