The Secret to Close Reading Success

Wait a minute… if you hand out a study guide and ask students to find the answers in the textbook, that doesn’t count as close reading?

That is what some of my high school teachers did. They had stacks of ’em. Finish one ditto and they would whip out another. Classwork and homework simply became a scavenger hunt — scan topic sentences, search for dates or figures, guesstimate where an answer would be — and you didn’t have to really read. The work was predictable, routine, and easy.

But did deep understanding occur? Were we learning?

Peter C. Brown, author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, would say no.  He believes that “mastery requires both the possession of ready knowledge and the conceptual understanding of how to use it.”

A good memory equipped me with ready knowledge, but neither the worksheets nor the fill-in-the-blank quizzes and multiple-choice tests challenged me to conceptualize my understanding. I never achieved mastery because the reading activities never ventured past recall entering the deeper sphere of critical thinking.

Enter the Common Core State Standards

Launched in 2009, the standards were the result of efforts by state leaders, including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states.

It sought to define what students are expected to know and understand by the time they graduate from high school (college and career readiness) as well as address the expectations for elementary school through high school (learning standards).

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which required benchmark tests in certain grades, the Common Core Standards demanded learning behaviors and outcomes.

“The standards are designed to build upon the most advanced current thinking about preparing all students for success in college, career, and life. This will result in moving even the best state standards to the next level…The Common Core focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.”

One of its key shifts was to move student reading beyond factual recall. Every teacher, regardless of discipline or grade level, was now a reading teacher.

“The reading standards focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information, arguments, ideas, and details based on evidence in the text. Students should be able to answer a range of text-dependent questions, whose answers require inferences based on careful attention to the text.”

Here is one example of the close reading that is expected from the Common Core:

Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information. Likewise, students are able independently to discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions. They build on others’ ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood. Without prompting, they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials. They build strong content knowledge.

That is way more serious and more strenuous than the work I was doing in high school.

That is the reason the standards were designed. Too many students in too many classrooms were falling behind. It appealed to a simple logic — raise the expectations and you will raise the results.

When the standards first came out, the question that many teachers wanted to know was, what did it look like?

How do you help students become “engaged and open-minded—but discerning—readers and listeners…. and work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but also question an author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning?”

To develop complexity, the answer lies in simplicity.

Three questions is all you need.

The Secret to Close Reading Success

  1. What happens?
  2. How does it happen?
  3. Why is it important?

Students need order and structure to clarify what they are reading. They need a progression to develop higher-level thinking. The three questions achieve that.

They are open-ended to allow for flexible thinking and creativity yet focused and directive to steer them down a logical path.

These are the three questions I have repeated over and over regardless of the course or student ability. It has worked time and time again in my AP Literature and Composition class as well as in my remedial studies program.

Here’s an in-depth explanation of the purpose of each question:

  1. What happens?

This is the literal foundation. It is not interpretative. It is what the text says explicitly.

If you use Bloom’s taxonomy, it is knowing what is presented overtly. In literature, it is identifying things such as who the characters are, what the setting is, what conflict exists, and what transpires in the plot. When applied to non fiction, it is recognizing and selecting the important events, ideas, and information in a text.

  1. How does it happen?

Now it is time to move past the explicit and dive into the inferential. How does it happen is a question of technique or design.

When students closely read fiction and poetry, they are questioning the impact of literary elements. When they examine nonfiction, they are examining cause and effect, comparison and contrast, the development of ideas from the general to specific or how information is arranged from least to most important or vice versa.

  1. Why is it important?

Finally, it is time to ascend and take students thinking to a high level. This question encourages students to evaluate an author’s intention and effect.

“Why is it important?” is a way for students to assess the bigger picture. After recognizing “what” happened and inferring “how” it happened, it is time for students to analyze “why” it matters.

It might contribute to the development of a theme. It might overturn a false assumption. It might be an argument.


The best way to convey how important these three questions are to the development of close reading skills is to put them into play.

I have applied the three questions to two poems. One is an Emily Dickinson poem, Success is Counted Sweetest, and  model how a high school student might use the three questions to achieve a close read of the text. Then I apply the three questions to Carl Sandburg’s Chicago, and do a close read, modeling how middle school students can sharpen their analytical skills. .


Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed.

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest need.


Not one of all the purple Host

Who took the Flag today

Can tell the definition

So clear of victory


As he defeated – dying –

On whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Burst agonized and clear!

— Emily Dickinson


High-School Level Interpretation

  • What happens?

In this poem the speaker is reflecting on success, and to do that, focuses on those who never succeed. In stanza 1 it mentions that to comprehend it, you need to feel it’s absence.Stanza 2 states that not of of the victors can tell the definition of success. Finally, stanza 3 continues the idea of stanza 2, saying that the one who lost — the defeated — knows it better than the victor.

  • How does it happen?

The important devices the poet uses are uses symbols, diction, and paradox. the idea that seems self contradicting but contains a possible truth is that success is best understood by those that never succeed. This is reinforced through diction and symbolism. “Purple” connotes royalty; the robes of kings and emperors were dyed purple. It is not the winners on the battlefield that know victory, it is more the loser.  Diction is crucial in the last stanza. The loser feels agony because it is “clear” that he is “distant” from the sounds of triumph. This use of the word “distant” is literal and metaphorical because not only is he geographically removed from it, it is distant from his knowledge.

  • Why is it important?

The sweetness of success is best understood by those have feel its absence the most. Implicitly, it argues that victory do not have as deep an understanding as those that fail or are denied access to success. This is best exemplified by the dying soldier that has “won” this knowledge through the painful experience of defeat and with his death.

Here is another look at how the three questions can unlock meaning in poem for middle schoolers.


Hog Butcher for the World,

  Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

  Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

  Stormy, husky, brawling,

  City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.

And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,





  Building, breaking, rebuilding,

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,

Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,

Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,


Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

— Carl Sandburg

Middle school level interpretation

  • What happens?

A person talks about the industrial aspects of Chicago such as its manufacturing, agricultural and transportational importance. The speaker then discusses some of the darker aspects of the city such as its corruption, crime, and poverty. Finally the poem ends with a list of all the qualities and things that the city should be proud of.

  • How does it happen?

The poet uses a lot of personification. Stanza 2 shows many of the human qualities that the city possesses. It is “wicked,” “crooked,” and “brutal.” It is also, “Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil.” The poet also uses some metaphors, like when he says that the city “is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities.”

  • Why is it important?

The use of personification is important because it creates an emotional relationship for the reader with the city. We see it as a living, breathing thing, capable of hurt, pride, growth, and loss.


While some may say that the three questions are too simplistic, I know from experience that the last thing students need is a 10-15 point checklist of things to do while they are reading. It disrupts the reading process, and instead of stimulating independent thinking it stifles it. That is because it narrows a student’s analysis to a pre-determined path. The three questions are broad enough to allow for differences of thought while being constructive enough to generate deep thinking.

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5 thoughts on “The Secret to Close Reading Success

  1. This will not motivate a student to learn or read. Children and high school students will learn to read and function well if they are reading what is interesting to them. Learning can be fun. A lot of smart people learned reading and vocabulary from comic books, science fiction, and girls like fairy tales, adventure and gothic romance. Vampires are fun too. They are programing the learning criteria for robots. Logical, but not effective.

  2. Brian, I appreciate the simplicity of the questions you use and the way you’ve demonstrated their application.

    I would agree that many people learn to read from comics, science fiction, etc. and the great thing about these questions is that they apply to a broad range of texts–including those texts that are not traditionally “school” texts.

    Also interesting is that I can guess that different students may address these questions in different orders. A student may have a gut reaction about the importance of a text “Why is it important?”, then go back to the “What happens?” and “How does it happen?” questions in order to justify or explain his/her answer.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Brian, I have another set of questions that you and others may find useful. I believe the original attribution belongs to Mortimer Adler who shepherded the University of Chicago’s Great Books program. He suggests three types of questions that can easily be used to stimulate discussion of any text: (1) Questions of Fact. These questions can be answered by looking at the text. The answer is right there on the page. (2) Questions of Interpretation. These questions require inference, but I find it useful to say, “You can’t find the answer in the text, but you can find the evidence for an answer. You have to put the pieces together. Often, questions of interpretation begin with “how” or “why.” (3) Questions of Evaluation. These questions apply the text to the real world. Adler would say something more like, “These questions evaluate the truth of what you have found in the text by comparing it to your experience.” My students were reading “The Lottery” today, and a student asked, “What are the black boxes in our lives that give us license to keep practicing illogical and dangerous traditions?” A big question for a sophomore.

    All of this to say, I appreciate your questions because they do something different than Adler’s three questions. Your questions get more into how authors and text do what they do. I will definitely try leading some class discussions using more your approach to see how they work first hand. This is the first step for me before I teach them to students. I have to know what they do and how they work in order to help my students. Thanks for sharing. I hope Adler’s questions will be useful to your or someone else.

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