Doug Fisher, a San Diego State University professor and education expert, talked with Edthena CEO Adam Geller about how to do close readings effectively, whether teaching in-person or online.

Watch the video above or read the transcript about close reading below. And if you’re looking for more from the expert, here are all of our interviews with Doug Fisher and blog posts about Doug’s educational insights.

Close reading can still happen in different types of teaching

– Welcome to #PLtogether lounge talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena the professional learning platform for teachers that strengthens the relationships that teachers have with each other and with their students. Today, we’re talking with Doug Fisher. He’s a professor at San Diego State University but he’s also a former classroom teacher and still a classroom teacher who knows a lot about teaching literacy. He teaches right now, a high school English class. Doug, thanks so much for joining us.

– Of course. Good to see you. Thanks for the invitation.

– Absolutely. What we’ve been talking so far kind of in the bigger picture realm, pandemic teaching and working through some of those things but at the end of the day people know your name because you’re a literacy expert. So I wanna tap some of that knowledge and I as a former science teacher, I’m gonna be learning from you here ’cause I’m coming into this with like the shallow end of the pool’s level information. So I wanna talk about cloze reading versus close reading because I’ve heard those two terms but I guess let’s define them so that we can talk about how they’re changing as part of pandemic teaching.

– Awesome. So cloze with a Z, cloze reading is an assessment tool that we use to estimate the student’s current reading proficiency. So generally there’s a bunch of procedures to do. Generally, you take a passage, you knock out every fifth or seventh word and you have the student fill in what words should be there. And there’s a scale you can create to say this passage was in that student’s range of understanding so the student approximate seventh grade. Close reading is a very old process. It’s been around for a really long time. It’s become more popular in the last decade again. Close reading is a process where you inspect a text and you go back to that text a few times to figure out what it’s saying. It’s not where the teacher tells you what the text says or it’s not a easy to read texts where the meaning is obvious. So the process of close readings usually students are annotating, they’re underlining, they’re circling the writing margin knows they’re reading it a second time. They’re talking with their peers because there’s big questions we’re trying to go on. We tend to think of a journey of close reading starting at the literal level. Like, what are the right there things in this text? We moved to the structural level. How is that text working? What are those moves that author made? Why this word versus that word? Why this text structure? Why this literary device? And then eventually we moved to the inferential level. What is this text meaning? So for the student’s side, we say this what does the text say? How does text work? What is the text mean? It’s a journey we go on in complex pieces of texts. You said science teachers so I’m having a very recent classroom observation. The students were reading an excerpt of Darwin on natural selection, super complicated pieces of texts. And the teacher wasn’t giving it up. That kids have to go back based the questions. What is he saying about this. More structurally how’s he arguing? Why is he using we all the time? Why did Darwin in that section say, we know, we know. It was really interesting watching the students unpack this piece of text that is very old and that has been challenged. And then at the end they got to read two counter-arguments to natural selection. It was so fascinating to watch students grapple with it rather than having a teacher say, okay, here’s what this one says, here’s what this one says, done.

– So you mentioned you did this in a recent observation. You saw this in a recent observation which means there must be a place for this strategy of close reading in a setting that’s not in a classroom. So, I guess help us envision a little bit more crisply what does that look like to facilitate that type of discussion in an environment that is not face-to-face.

– Awesome. So the key is rereading and asking questions as students talk about, they interact with their peers. So I’ve seen it done a couple of ways. This teacher use breakout rooms. So they would have a couple of questions move a breakout room, and literally like three or four minutes back into the whole room, back to a breakout room. I’ve seen other teachers take a fishbowl approach where they identify specific students to join the fishbowl. The rest of the students in the class are using the chat function and the reaction buttons. So I’ve seen it a bunch of different ways. Ideally in my mind, students have the text in print because these are complex pieces of text. And despite the rhetoric around this the research is pretty clear when the text is complex the brain prefers paper. And so we do provide some readings to the students where they’re gonna actually write on them and reread them and talk about them even in the pandemic. So ideally for close reading, they have a print version. Although we do see some lessons that are electronic and they’re working. So they’re in those texts, they’re rereading them, they’re talking with partners and the teacher is taking them on on that journey from some very literal questions to more inferential to more of meaning making. What does it mean there?

– This, again, reveals my lack of personal experience with this technique but you mentioned the physical text. Are there kind of skills for how to mark a text that teachers should be learning and then teaching their students? Because it feels like there’s something more than just knowing how to ask the rich questions about the text.

– Yeah. So in general I would say there are three foundational annotation marks that students should know how to do. And if you do it across classes or across grade levels it actually develops as a habit over time. So we generally would say have students underlying things that are important and if they underline it they should consider paraphrasing or quoting from that ’cause they said it was important. Circle words or phrases that are confusing or unclear. It forces your brain to monitor, am I understanding this? And then third write margin notes where you summarize and synthesize. So you’re keeping track in your own words, summarizing and synthesizing. After those three, let students mark the text in ways that work for them. Do they want to write a question in the margin? Great. Do they want to put an exclamation on the margin? Great. There’s other things they can do in the world of annotation, but if they have those three habits their minds will engage with the texts. What’s important, that’s central ideas if you will. What am I not understanding, monitoring and then summarizing and synthesizing.

– And also I’m just thinking about that important kind of, you know, footnote you offer which is if you can give them the printed text, try and get them the printed text. For educators out there that are watching this and thinking my students don’t have printers think creatively about your district print offices and other things that are getting mailed and do some planning ahead. Doug, we’re almost out of time and I wanna make sure that I ask you our extra credit question before we go and that question is, what’s something that’s changed for you during the pandemic that you hope will continue after life goes back to well, whatever comes after the pandemic style of life that we’re all in right now.

– Oh, great question. So, I think it would relate to assessment. And I think it for me, it relates to students learning to self-assess. I think that’s my big learning is can I teach students can I provide them tools to monitor their own progress where I’m not sitting in judgment where a student can say, he doesn’t like me, she doesn’t like me, you know, whatever. They externalize that where they’re saying, here’s what I see in my own work. My teacher agrees with me here, my teacher disagrees with me here. So that’s what I hope to take back to school when we returned physically and not to forget is that students own their data and we should teach them how to self-assess.

– And here’s some echoes there of making sure that you walk into that learning environment redefining that engagement spectrum. I feel like that’s something I learned today that I’m again, hearing echoes of that kind of version of the future there.

– Can say one more thing on this?

– Oh, absolutely.

– I would just like to say to teachers, you know I never said this is easy. It’s just what we were dealt and I promise you someday those kids you’re teaching, they’re gonna come back to you and they’re gonna ask you that question you love so much. Do you remember me? Yes. I remember you. And that kid’s gonna say to you teacher, you were my teacher in COVID-19. Thank you so much for not giving up on me. Hold that in your heart every day. That’s why we do this. We make a difference.

– Very true, very true. Well, Doug, thank you so much for being part of #PLtogether. If you’re watching or listening to this and wondering what we talked about before and what I was referencing related to student engagement spectrums, make sure to head to for the rest of this interview as well as many more. Doug Fisher, thanks for being part of PLtogether.

– Thank you so much for the invitation.