A few days ago I read this post by Anthony Schmidt, which familiarized me with the concept of close reading (I had actually come across this term earlier, in one of my philosophy classes back at uni, but I’d never thought of applying it in an L2 classroom). Some days later, I was rummaging through my half-forgotten computer files when found some stories I had once downloaded for later use. I happened to come across this story (originally seen on this blog), which I thought would be perfect for my teenage students at that point. The whole story revolves around a complicated relationship and it’s quite sad, but it’s of great educational value, I think.
To be honest, at first, I wasn’t sure what to do with it (apart from just getting my students to read it). However, then I remembered Anthony’s post and an idea occurred to me. I made 18 copies of the story (each story is 3 pages long). It’ll become clear later why I deliberately copied each page on a separate sheet of paper. Anyway, I put the stories into separate folders to keep them nice and neat (making 54 copies for just one activity is, to my taste, quite a waste of paper so I wanted to make sure I’d be able to recycle them a lot!).
Each student got their own folder with the three pages in it. I asked them to take out the first page only. They had to place the rest of the story face down. I did this for several reasons: I wanted to keep them in suspense throughout the reading activity. Also, I wanted to make sure that the fast readers were not too far ahead of the others and that the slow readers had plenty of time to read at their own pace without feeling too stressed out (and eventually disturbed by those who had already finished).
Now, back to the idea of close reading. Anthony Schmidt wrote in his post that close reading is a technique or approach to reading instruction that takes a deep analysis of a text in order to gain a thorough and precise meaning of its ideas, form, structure, and so forth. I decided to try a light version of close reading because after all, I teach kids at a secondary school.
Before I let the students resume reading, I asked them lots of random questions about the story (the first page only!). I elicited some general thoughts, speculations, and predictions. We also discussed some of the grammatical structures used in the text as well as vocabulary items.
Then I told the students to look at the next page. The plot thickened there. When everybody had finished, I asked more questions. There’s a very important twist at the end of the second page, which is absolutely crucial to the overall understanding of the message of the story. I was a bit worried that my students might not quite get the point but I was totally amazed at the answers I got.
I let them read the final part (page 3). More questions popped up and more amazing answers emerged. We tried to read between the lines whenever possible. Finally, I asked them to have a short chat in pairs – just to share feelings and observations.
I had prepared most of my questions about the text in advance and I must say that I really liked the planning stage. Judging by the number of points I had come up with, the story is a wonderful source for language learners and I can only recommend it.
I should stress though that keeping your students in suspense and constantly firing questions at them will make the activity rather intense so you should expect your students to get tired at some point. When you feel this is coming, speed things up a little. Leave out the questions which are not vitally important from your point of view. But you should definitely have some closure before your students leave the room. Ideally, they’ll keep chatting about the story on their way out. 🙂