Helping Students Tackle Complex Texts with Close Reading

Tackling challenging texts is an overwhelming task for most students, even for strong readers. Close reading is an effective instructional strategy to help students interact with complex texts and gain deeper understanding of them. Close reading could also empower students to become strong, independent readers of highly complex texts (Sisson & Sisson, 2014). However, what exactly is close reading and how can we implement it in our classroom? In this article, close reading and how to conduct a close reading lesson with essential elements will be explored.

What is close reading?

According to Lapp et al. (2016), “close reading is an intentional, methodical instructional approach to deeply analyzing a text in order to uncover, engage with, and interpret its meaning” (p. 3). That is, close reading is an instructional strategy which enables readers to comprehend a text more deeply by reading it strategically multiple times. While reading a passage more than once, students can understand what the text says, how it works and what it means. Close reading is for all students, regardless of their reading ability. Both struggling and advanced readers could benefit from closely reading complex texts, and significant improvement in reading proficiency was found for both groups of readers (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, 2012).

Elements to implement close reading in the class

The focus of this article will be how to design and implement a close reading lesson by using four essential elements: short complex texts, multiple reads, annotating, and text dependent questions.

Short complex texts

Selecting short, complex texts is the most essential element to effectively teach a close reading lesson. Short texts can help students not be overwhelmed by their length, especially when students are required to read them multiple times. Unlike simple texts, complex texts are worth rereading for layered meanings, and students will not comprehend all the main points right away. The Common Core Standards suggest three factors to measure text complexity: qualitative, quantitative, and reader and task (National Governors Association and Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). The Common Core Standards state that qualitative measures include levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands. Quantitative measures are readability measures and other scores of text complexity. The last measure focuses on reader variables, including students’ motivation, knowledge and experience, and task variables, including the complexity of the task.

Multiple reads

Students need to read a text multiple times to reach a deeper understanding. Teachers need to set a different purpose for each read. For the first read, students will gain a general understanding of a text by learning what the text says. Since students solely grasp what is directly stated in the text, they will only achieve surface comprehension for their first read (Sisson & Sisson, 2014). For the second read, students will explore how the text works by analyzing the author’s craft and organizational patterns. Students will reach an intermediate comprehension by closely examining the author’s vocabulary choices, text structure or text features (Sisson & Sisson, 2014). For the third read, students will know what the text means by making inferences or connections with other texts. Students will then achieve a core comprehension (Sisson & Sisson, 2014). If needed, a fourth read works as well. Since there are multiple ways to do close reading, please determine which one works the best for learners in the particular context in which such reading tasks are implemented.


During each read, students need to have a specific purpose while annotating a text. Annotation can help students focus on important parts of a text and further analyze it. I teach my students to use the symbols below to annotate a text:

o   Draw a star next to key ideas.

o   Write a ? next to unfamiliar words, phrases and confusing sentences.

o   Write an ! next to surprising information.

o   Draw a heart to indicate favorite parts.

o   Write a C to make connections.

o   Write an E to represent text evidence.

Text-dependent questions

Text-dependent questions serve two purposes. The first purpose is to support students to achieve a higher-level understanding of a text. Text-dependent questions can urge students to reread and delve more deeply into a text in order to find answers. The second purpose is to assess students’ comprehension of a text. I instruct my students to use the following graphic organizer to write down their answers to text-dependent questions. The graphic organizer can help teachers instantly know in which parts of the text their students are confused or with which they need further help.

For more in-depth examples of asking text-dependent questions and designing a close reading lesson, please refer to the recording of my webinar: “Helping Students Tackle Complex Texts with Close Reading.”


Lapp, D., Moss, B., Grant, M., & Johnson, K. (2016). Turning the page on complex texts:

Differentiated scaffolds for close reading instruction. Solution Tree.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School

Officers. (2010). Common core state standards.

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. (2012). PARCC model content

frameworks: English language arts/literacy grades 3–11.

Sisson, D., & Sisson, B. (2014). Close Reading in Elementary School. Routledge.

Author: Hsu-Ping Tuan

Hsu-Ping Tuan received her M.A. in TESOL through the PK-12 program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She also holds an M.S. in Brain Science from National Yang-Ming University, Taiwan. She was awarded the Teachers College, Columbia University John F. Fanselow Award for developing outstanding ESL materials. She is a certified ESL/ENL teacher in New York State, and has extensive teaching experience in the US and Taiwan. She dedicates herself to adapting ESL curriculum for students in EFL contexts so that students can achieve better learning outcomes. She is also interested in integrating the latest research findings of neuroscience and English teaching to facilitate students’ learning. Currently, she trains teachers for publishers and delivers talks on flipped learning for universities in Asia.

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