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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 20

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    EL Education

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How can I get students more engaged during close reading? 


Regular practice with complex text and its academic language is a big—and important—instructional shift of the new standards. We want to acknowledge from the outset, however, that reading complex text through close reading (or close read-alouds in the primary grades) is not a universally loved practice. Many teachers complain that it is tedious or boring for their students. Others feel that it is rigid and doesn’t account for students’ individual needs.

We hear you, and we agree that close reading/read-aloud can be all of those things, but it doesn’t have to be and certainly shouldn’t be! Close reading/read-aloud should be about helping students read texts that are stimulating and exciting because they are challenging and sometimes mysterious and because the texts contain information that students really want to understand. It should be about building students’ skill to read with greater independence. Often students need help unlocking complex text because it is too complex for them to read on their own.

The purpose of close reading/read-aloud is not to march students through a tedious set of steps, but to hand over the keys so that they can unlock the texts on their own. That is the ultimate goal.

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.


What Happens during a Close Reading/Read-aloud Session?

In our curriculum, we include Close Reading/Read-aloud Guides that walk you through the sequence of sessions on a particular complex text from beginning to end. These guides are backward-designed from a clear understanding of what knowledge and skills students should build as a result of reading the text and of the challenges the text presents. The primary goal of close reading/read-aloud is deep understanding of the text (or a particular part of the text) and how it relates to the module topic as a whole. Remember, we don’t ask students to read closely just for the sake of reading closely; we do it to give them access to knowledge.

Close reading/read-alouds include certain elements that are the same, no matter the text:

  • Setting purpose for the close reading/read-aloud (often through a focus question that drives students’ thinking as they read/listen)
  • Giving students an initial sense of the text through a “first read” (or read-aloud)
  • Lifting students to greater understanding of the text through a carefully crafted series of text-dependent questions
  • Working with vocabulary in context during close reading/read-alouds
  • Engaging students in discourse about the text
  • Supporting English language learners and others who may need additional scaffolding
  • Synthesizing understanding of the text

In order to answer the question posed in this post, we’re going to focus in on the fifth bolded bullet above. As new questions come in we will no doubt hit on other elements on this list over time. 


Engaging Students in Discourse about the Text

Text-dependent questions are not necessarily answered by students putting pencil to paper in order to independently answer each question or by teachers asking the class and calling on students ready to answer. You will find that at all grade levels, all close reading/read-alouds are designed so that students engage in some kind of discourse about the questions in each session. Often brief protocols, like Back-to-Back and Face-to-Face, are used as the structure for that discourse.

Brief protocols that have the same purpose as total participation techniques (i.e., to get all students thinking and talking) are used frequently to engage all students in responding to text-dependent questions. What follows are a few common brief protocols used during close reads/read-alouds in the curriculum:

  • Think-Pair-Share: This protocol promotes productive and equitable conversations in which all students are given the time and space to think, share, and consider the ideas of others. It ensures that all students simultaneously engage with the same text or topic, while promoting synthesis and the social construction of knowledge.
  • Back-to-Back and Face-to-Face: This protocol provides a method for sharing information and gaining multiple perspectives on a topic through partner interaction. It can be used for reviewing and sharing academic material, as a personal “ice breaker,” or as a means of engaging in critical thinking about a topic of debate.
  • Pinky Partners: This protocol is a fun way for students to find a partner to engage with concerning a question. They raise their pinky in the air and find another student to link pinkies with.

In this video, primary students learn and practice the Think-Pair-Share protocol, which is a simple way for all students to get a chance to think, talk, and learn from others. Students first practice with an easy question from personal experience, and then move on to one that is text based. This video is narrated by students and can be shown to students to help them learn this simple routine for productive conversations.


Brief protocols promote greater engagement from students. They are also highly supportive for English language learners (ELLs) or for those who might struggle with complex text. Close reading/read-aloud is by design highly scaffolded and supportive, as students move slowly and deliberately through text. And the use of brief discussion protocols gives them plenty of opportunities to talk about the text with their peers, which helps students to solidify their understanding of vocabulary, syntax, and meaning and to articulate their ideas.

Note that more in-depth protocols, such as Science Talks or Socratic Seminars, may be used to bring students deeper and deeper into a text; however, these protocols are not frequently used during close reading/read-alouds. This is because protocols are designed so that teachers can use them with any text. And because close reading/read-alouds are text-specific, asking students to look closely at words and sentences in the text itself, protocols may be a useful early step but overall have more limited use. 

In addition to brief protocols and total participation techniques, there are myriad other ways to increase students’ engagement with complex text. Many of these are suggested in the Close Reading/Read-aloud Guides. Others you may choose to add based on the needs of your students.

  • Movement: Physically “showing” understanding of vocabulary words (e.g., “show me slither”), circulating to analyze text excerpts or images, standing in groups to chart their analysis of the text
  • Drama or role-play: Acting out events or ideas in a text in small groups or as a class
  • Physical manipulation of text: Manipulating excerpts of the text (e.g. mystery quotes, sorting evidence into more or less relevant)
  • Sketching: Making a quick drawing to show a key idea in the text or communicate ideas
  • Annotating text: Writing in the margins or placing a sticky note with a note or visual to answer a question or explain the gist of a section of text
  • Text-coding: Using symbols to indicate reactions to the text (e.g., a question mark for questions, a check mark for connections)
  • Color-coding: Using various colors to indicate different aspects of a text’s structure (e.g.,highlighting key details in yellow or painting the focus statement in a model essay green)

Close reading/read-aloud will be a challenge for many students. It is rigorous cognitive work. There are a few things about the design of our close reading/read-aloud sessions that will help make these important literacy-building experiences effective and engaging for all of your students:

  • Students are reading compelling and worthy texts that they will want to dig into.
  • The sessions are short (20 minutes), and they don’t happen every day.
  • Students are not just reading independently, they are talking to each other and, especially with primary-age students, they are drawing, role-playing, and otherwise creatively and actively interacting with the text.
  • The questions and activities in the close reading/read-aloud represent a line of inquiry that leads students to an understanding of the text most would not have come to on their own. Close reading offers all students access to the kind of experience those of us who love to read often take for granted. For many, this will be the first time they know the excitement and satisfaction of unlocking the deeper meaning and beauty of the words on a page.

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: ELcurriculumblog@eleducation.org.