Volume II, Issue II

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Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.



Close Reading of Complex Texts

“Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are” is true enough,
but I’d know you better if you told me what you reread.

– Francois Muriac

The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts expect students “to read increasingly complex texts with growing independence in order to reach college and career readiness.” We know from research that the complexity of the texts our students are currently reading is significantly below what is required for them to achieve that level of readiness. The Common Core is built on the expectation that students will interact with appropriately complex texts in order to expand their knowledge and language skills. Students are required to read texts beyond their current grade level and have extensive opportunities to read grade-level complex text. To inform text selections, the Common Core defines the level of text complexity at which students need to demonstrate comprehension for each of the grade levels.

Genre is another important focus of text selection with the Common Core. In grades K-5, the standards require a balance of fifty percent literary and fifty percent informational text, including English Language Arts, science, social studies, and the arts. The informational texts selected should build a body of knowledge within and across grade levels. In grades 6-12, the shift is towards substantially more literary nonfiction. This would include essays, editorials, speeches, opinion pieces, and primary source documents. Literary nonfiction texts should emphasize arguments or informational text structures rather than literary nonfiction that is structured as stories (e.g. memoirs or biographies).

How is Text Complexity Determined?
The complexity of text, or amount of challenge presented in a text, is the result of the interaction of a number of factors. When selecting complex texts, consideration should be given to the quantitative and qualitative measures, as well as the strengths and needs of the reader. Considering one factor in choosing a text is not enough. For example, what may appear to be simple text with a few short sentences may in fact be complex in that it contains unfamiliar content, abstract ideas, or the need for high levels of interpretation. On the other hand, a lengthier text may in fact be less rigorous because it has repetitive information, very little figurative language, a predictable plot, or basic language.

Most quantitative reading formulas calculate reading levels by using factors such as word length, frequency of use in English, the number of syllables, and the length of sentences. Well known quantitative readability formulas include Lexile and Degrees of Reading Power. The appeal of a quantitative measure is the ease with which the numbers can be calculated. While quantitative factors give some guidance for selecting texts, they exclude other important considerations like content and the reader.

Factors To Use in Determining Text Complexity

  • Readability measures such as word length, frequency of use in English, number of syllables, and length of sentences
  • Unfamiliar content
  • Abstract ideas
  • Figurative language
  • Sophisticated themes
  • Text structure
  • Reader proficiency
  • Historical, geographical, scientific, and literary references


Quantitative formulas only rely on what can be counted in the text, and don’t provide information about other important aspects like the content, or how the text is organized. One qualitative factor is the analysis of content in a text. A readability measure on a text might be low, but the content can pose significant challenges for the reader. For instance, the text may have historical, geographical, scientific, or literary references that require the reader to have and draw on prior knowledge. Another qualitative factor is the richness of meaning and purpose in the text; sophisticated themes, abstract ideas, and complicated language can make the text complex.

Text structure is also a qualitative factor. How the text is organized, along with the organizational features that support comprehension, are important considerations when looking at complexity. Text structures may be narrative and follow character(s) through a plot, informational, or expository. Other structures include problem and solution, compare and contrast, sequencing, cause and effect, and proposition and support. The number of visual supports in the text is also a qualitative factor.


The language proficiency of readers impacts their ability to understand text. Our students who are English language learners not only have to attend to the meaning or message of the text, but they have to make sense of an unfamiliar language. Students with disabilities may need to be provided accommodations or additional support. Finally, motivation plays an important role. If a reader is highly motivated to read something, even challenging text, it becomes more accessible because the reader is willing to persevere.

What is Close Reading?
Close reading is the deliberate and careful reading of a high quality, complex text. It requires students to think and understand what they are reading. While reader’s experiences and memories help them understand a text that is complex, the Common Core requires that students draw evidence from texts and provide evidence-based written responses to questions. The reader’s prior knowledge, while not relevant for an evidence-based response, should not be ignored when making meaning of a complex text. It is through close reading and thinking that students learn how to provide evidence and justification to their answers. Readers are continually encouraged to go back and find evidence “within the four corners of the page.”

While all students need to learn how to access complex texts, some will need more scaffolding than others. Struggling readers need supplementary opportunities to read texts they can comprehend independently. For instance, students who enter third grade and are lacking decoding skills still need texts that are at their level so that they can practice the foundational reading skills necessary to decode, read fluently, and comprehend. These readers may also need support with fluency and vocabulary. However, despite the challenges they may have, they should not be denied the opportunity to engage in close reading, thinking deeply about texts, participating in meaningful discussions, and gaining new knowledge from reading texts. To help these students access the text, have them to listen and follow along to a recording or to someone reading it to them in person.

Questions to Consider When Selecting Texts for Close Reading

  • Will this hold the reader’s attention?
  • Does the text contain enough support for the reader or will it frustrate the reader?
  • Is this text of interest to the reader?
  • Has the reader had success with reading like this before (e.g. topic or genre)?
  • Does the reader have the prior knowledge needed to understand new information in the text?
  • Is this text more complex than previous texts read by the reader?
  • What additional supports would be needed for students with limited English or learning difficulties?

A Protocol for Close Reading*

Select a text.
In order to support students in a wide range of reading levels, texts that are short in length should be used for close reading. It may be a passage from a longer text, a poem, or a page from a novel. Students may identify the passage themselves, or a teacher can choose the passage for students to read. By using short texts, students can read and re-read to analyze, question, uncover meaning, and discover new information. To balance this use of short texts for close reading, students should also independently be reading longer texts in a range of genre in order to gain stamina and persistence as readers.

Establish the purpose for reading.
It is important for teachers to clearly communicate to students what type of text they are reading and what they are expected to learn from the text. How teachers direct the purpose will impact how the students read the text. For instance, in a non-fiction text about monarch butterflies, telling students to read to “Ask and answer questions about the obstacles the monarch faces on its migration to Mexico,” is very different from telling students to read “To focus on the words and phrases in the text that describe the monarch’s journey.” Of particular importance when setting the purpose for reading is to not share too much information that “gives away” what is in the reading. Students need the opportunity to grapple with the text and apply strategies to make meaning. Similarly, the text introduction should not give students too much information that would allow them to participate in class discussions without having read the text at all.

Have students read independently “with a pencil” and note confusion.
As students are reading complex text, they should have a pencil in hand so they can annotate the text. Students should be marking places of confusion, questions they have, new vocabulary they have encountered, or places where prior knowledge is required. In addition, students may also make connections that extend from the passage used for close reading to other passages from the text. Allow students with limited language proficiency or disabilities that would make it difficult for them to read the text independently to listen and follow along to a recording or to someone reading it to them in person.

Let students talk with a partner to check understanding.
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s research tells us that children construct knowledge using their own experiences along with knowledge shared with them by others. These social interactions keep them from being passive learners. By sharing their ideas, our students are exposed to different interpretations and learn to actively revise and develop their thinking. These conversations also help students to generate the supporting evidence necessary to substantiate their claims.


Students Reading

Students in Kristin Thrash’s third grade classroom at Mendon Center Elementary, Pittsford Central School District, New York, have a conversation about the notes they took during a close reading of an excerpt from Beezus and Ramona, by Beverly Cleary.






Monitor students’ understanding.
Teachers should read the text they have selected for close reading a number of times and pre-plan their think-aloud prior to presenting the text to students. In addition to thoughtful planning, it is critically important to gather assessment information about the places in the text where the students are confused. In addition to conferencing with students, another way to gather this information is to read the notes students are jotting during the independent reading of the text. By doing so, the teacher can be sure to emphasize and support those strategies in his think aloud.

Use shared reading and model thinking aloud.
The teacher should read the text twice for students. The first time, the teacher reads the text from beginning to end without interruptions. During the second reading, the teacher stops to share her thinking in response to the text.

Modeling should include ways the teacher has used prior knowledge, solved unknown words, and applied strategies when meaning was breaking down. The teacher’s think aloud should also address any confusion the students had as they were independently reading and annotating their copies of the text. During the think aloud, the teacher may also invite responses from students who may have seen the text in a different way.

A Think Aloud example based on Raising Yoder’s Barn by Jane Yolen at www.justaskpublications.com/ccss-sbe.htm

Engage students in completing text-dependent questions.
text-dependent questions require the reader to go back into the text to gather evidence, knowledge, and insights. These are questions that can only be answered by referring to the text, not on prior knowledge alone. These questions do not require information from outside the text. In order to answer text-dependent questions, the reader is expected to read and re-read to gain meaning and provide evidence.

Well-designed text-dependent questions are purposefully crafted, and begin with a focus on specific words, details, and arguments, then question the impact of those details on the whole text. Questions move beyond what is explicitly stated in the text to requiring students to make inferences using evidence from the text. The sequence of questions should not be random, but rather build to a greater understanding of the meaning of the text.

When teachers are crafting text-dependent questions, they should first consider key understandings from the text. The questions should lead the reader to an understanding of those big ideas. The first questions should be written in a way that gets readers back into the text, and be specific enough to help students successfully answer them and feel confident. Subsequent questions should focus on accentuating key text structures and vocabulary that connect to the key understandings of the text. Finally, questions that follow should focus on the portions of the text that are the most difficult to understand due to the language used or inferences required.

There is a preponderance of research on ways to scaffold questions and help students find the answers to those questions. Raphael and Au provide the strategy Question/Answer Relationships (QAR) that teaches students how to determine what types of questions they are being asked. Recognizing these four types of questions enables students to find the answers.

  • Right There: Literal questions where the answers are found directly in the text, usually in a single sentence. Students can rely on the language used in the question, because very often the same words used in the question are found in the text.
  • Think and Search: Questions where students must gather evidence from multiple places in the text to answer the question.
  • Author and You: Questions based on information in the text, but that also require the reader to merge what is in their background knowledge with evidence from the text to make meaning. The student has to have read the text in order to be able to answer the question.
  • On My Own: Questions that require the student to formulate an opinion based on experiences and evidence from the text.

Text-dependent Questions Aligned with a Close Readng of Rosa by Nikki Giovanni

  • Right There
    Where did Rosa seat herself on the bus? (in the neutral section where blacks or whites could sit) Who is she sitting next to? (Jimmy’s father)
  • Think and Search
    What words and phrases did the author use to describe Rosa’s thoughts about the conflict on the bus? (she was not going to give in to that which was wrong, thought of others who stood tall for civil rights, felt tired of putting white people first, thought about her mother and grandmother who would want her to be strong)
  • Author and You
    According to the text, how did the lives of blacks change as a result of Rosa’s actions? (there was no more segregation on buses or in schools, blacks and white were treated as equals, blacks dignity was preserved, blacks felt a sense of pride for what they had accomplished, blacks grew together as a community)
  • On My Own
    Using evidence from the text to support your answer, what conclusions can you draw about Rosa?

Protocol for Close Reading Template

  • Select a text
  • Establish the purpose for reading
  • Have students read independently “with a pencil” and note confusion
  • Let students talk with a partner to check understanding
  • Monitor students’ understanding
  • Use shared reading and model thinking aloud
  • Engage students in completing text-dependent questions
  • Ensure that students complete culminating assignments

If students are engaged in reading two texts simultaneously for a close reading, then text-dependent right there, think and search, and author and you questions should be written for each text separately. The on my own question would then ask the reader to synthesize both texts in his answer.

Ensure that students complete culminating assignments.
In their culminating assignment, students should pull together the key ideas and understandings they gleaned from completing the close reading and the text-dependent questions. A culminating assignment should involve writing and be completed by the students independently.

In summary, what makes a text complex depends on its quantitative and qualitative factors, as well as the experience of the reader. These complex texts transcend many content areas and genre, and many students need support in order to comprehend them at a deep level. The act of close reading requires students to re-read in order to have meaningful dialogue and to answer text-dependent questions. By giving students the opportunity to read complex texts closely, they are prepared to answer more complex questions using evidence to support their thinking.

*Access the Protocol for Close Reading Template
and a Think Aloud example
based on Raising Yoder’s Barn by Jane Yolen in the Just ASK Resource Center.


Resources and References

Beers, Kyleen and Robert Probst. Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 2013.

Cleary, Beverly. Beezus and Ramona. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1955.

Fisher, Doug and Nancy Frey. “Text Complexity and Close Readings.” Engaging the Adolescent Learner. International Reading Association. January 2012.

Fisher, Doug, Nancy Frey, and Timothy Shanahan. “The Challenge of Challenging Text.” Educational Leadership. March 2012.

Giovanni, Nikki. Rosa. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Co. 2005.

Raphael, Taffy E. and Katheryn H. Au. “QAR: Enhancing Comprehension and Test Taking Across Grades and Content Areas.” The Reading Teacher. International Reading Association. November

Rutherford, Paula. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications. 2010.

Yolen, Jane. Raising Yoder’s Barn. New York: Little Brown. 1998.

This link includes a brief video interview and transcript with Dr. Douglas Fisher about close reading and the Common Core.

This page links to a guide for creating text-dependent questions.

This link defi nes deep reading and text-dependent questions. It also includes a video of a high school English teacher leading a text-dependent analysis of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

This link includes close reading exemplars from grades 3, and 6-12.


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Please include the following citation on all copies:

Clayton, Heather. “Close Reading of Complex Texts.” Making the Standards Come Alive! Volume II, Issue II, 2013.  Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2013 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.