Three Close Reads: A powerful tool for training students to read critically—for life

Three Close Reads: A powerful tool for training students to read critically—for life

By Eman Elshaikh, OER Project Team
Chicago, USA

Whether your classroom is a physical or virtual place, keeping students engaged can be tricky, especially when it comes to reading. But we all know there’s no way to achieve learning unless students are engaged with both the content and skills. The OER Project’s answer to this problem? The Three Close Reads approach. We use this approach across the Big History Project and World History Project courses. It’s a powerful tool for helping students truly engage with texts, and it’s key to helping students practice reading like a historian.

1¾ reads

Now, I know the idea of reading something three times is a pretty scary prospect—especially when it’s hard enough to get students to read something even once. But don’t take the name literally. We aren’t really talking about three close reads of an entire article or video. Instead, the name refers to three parts of one reading experience. Think of it more like three different reads that focus student attention on three different dimensions of a text.

What students will actually be doing is more like 1¾ reads. First, there’s the Skimming for Gist read. This is a quarter read, and you can think of it as a quick skim. Next, students will do the Understanding Content read. This is more like what students usually think of as “reading”—a full read-through of a text. And finally, there’s the “why does it matter?” exercise (we call this Thinking Conceptually in BHP and Evaluating and Corroborating in WHP). This is a half read that allows students to make connections and think big.

Reading like a historian

This dynamic approach to reading keeps students engaged and walks them through the process of reading like historians. Like historians, students will practice homing in on relevant details while keeping an eye on the big ideas. It helps students notice—and direct—what they are paying attention to with each read. This activity helps them manage a ton of detail and take ownership of the text. It empowers students to make decisions about what to pay attention to with each read, and how to interpret and synthesize different parts of a text. The result should be that students become engaged enough to read interactively and feel capable of actively deciphering the meanings of a text—like a historian!

Using Three Close Reads in your classroom

But how should you use this approach in your classroom? Here are five tips from the OER team and our vibrant teacher community:

1.     Get students to buy in

Before you do anything, make sure students understand why they’re using this approach. Get them to buy in! Try asking how many students play a sport or an instrument. Then, ask them how many of them were born knowing these skills. Remind them that like playing a sport or instrument, skilled reading takes constant, deliberate practice. They’ll come to understand the logic behind the task (even if they aren’t thrilled about it at first), which will get them more invested in the process.

2.     Model the process

Now that they’re invested in the process, make sure students understand it. If they think they have to read three times word-for-word, they’ll likely feel intimidated. Start with an easy, engaging read that you can get through in a single session. Read aloud, model the different reads, and give students more independence as they build confidence.

3.     Read around the text

During the first read, give students a chance to read around the text. Historians don’t just dive in and closely read. They feel things out and sniff out information about the author and the historical context. They try to think about the genre of the text and its general form. They come up with questions and predictions that help guide the reading process. This makes things a lot less intimidating, because students feel more familiar before they read. It can also pique their interest and keep them engaged, because they’ve already started noticing things and coming up with questions.

4.     Change it up

Don’t read the same way every time. Texts can vary in their genre, structure, complexity, style, purpose, and content, so it makes sense to change how you approach different texts. Some texts warrant a closer look at vocabulary, while others call for leaning in toward big questions or making connections outside the text. Also, practice reading different ways: aloud as a class, at home individually, in smaller groups, or even splitting up the text into sections. Some teachers use focus groups in order to help students consider how different questions result in completely different perspectives and historical interpretations of a text. This also helps students engage with each other, since they can practice directing their attention collectively in order to grapple with shared questions—or challenge each other to ask different questions.

two groups debating evidence Image from 8.3 Reading, Take 2 in Teaching Big History

5.     Give students the right amount of support

Just as texts are diverse, so are students. All students—from ELL to AP—can benefit from the Three Close Reads approach. To make it most effective, adjust the level of scaffolding you provide. Our articles are leveled (read more about leveled texts here and here), which allows students to take on texts at the appropriate level of difficulty. But you can also vary the level of support as the school year goes on—or even day to day, depending on student needs. If students are struggling, do more reading aloud and modeling, rewording the questions as needed. Another technique is to focus on vocabulary and reinforce networks of concepts. On the other hand, if students are bored, try to integrate other skills, like claim testing or writing activities.

Training for lifelong reading

Engaged reading is at the heart of historical thinking skills—and it has benefits even beyond the history classroom. The Three Close Reads approach is like training wheels for students. And like riding a bike, engaged and critical reading is a skill, not a talent. Practicing Three Close Reads builds that skill, and with that practice, students develop muscle memory. It becomes natural for them to monitor their attention and direct it strategically toward a set of questions that are carried through the reading process—something that historians make into a habit over time. It’s rewarding to observe students internalize this habit and build confidence. The goal is for them to do all three close reads simultaneously. It’s difficult at first, but with time and patience, students will be cruising through the texts without handlebars.

You can learn more about our approach to reading by having a look at Teaching Big History and Teaching World History (Originsand 1750) courses, and you can get more ideas and support in our OER Project Community.

About the author: Eman M. Elshaikh is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K–12, undergraduates, and graduate students in the United States and in the Middle East. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop a curriculum for AP World History.