Not in Trouble

A few weeks ago, I received an email from my dean inquiring about an assignment I had given to my students. Before getting too far into the nature of the email or my resulting reflections, I feel some context may be needed.

In the professional block of classes for our teacher candidates, we offer intensive, shortened classes to offer students more time out in their field placements. For me this semester, that meant condensing an entire course on assessment into seven weeks of instruction. Assessment is a pretty expansive topic, so I hit the ground running and use every minute of every class intentionally. It also means that I assign my students readings to tackle before coming to class. Even on the first day of class.

Beyond reading any assigned articles or chapters, I ask my students to complete “Close Reading” assignments which are designed to help them better engage with what they’re reading. I’ve written about these strategies before (see Reading More Closely and Literacy and the Collegiate Student). For the readings I assigned for the first day of class, I asked students to identify a word, a phrase, and a sentence from the readings and write a short paragraph defending their choices. They had to post these to a discussion forum before coming to class. Even on the first day of class.

I choose to have students post these Close Readings to a discussion forum for several reasons. One, I look over the posts prior to class and quickly assess which topics resonated with my students and which topics they misunderstood. Two, I can assess which students actually read to material. Three (and most importantly), the students have contributed to a large discussion forum where they’re all highlighting different aspects of the text. For the motivated student, they can review all of the posts and see how their classmates have processed the readings. This can foster a collaborative meaning making process of some challenging material. Considering the reasons, I feel the Close Reading assignment is an important one for my students to complete. Even on the first day of class.

So, that’s the necessary backstory. Now, let me get into the email from the Dean. The Dean received an email from the university Provost who received an email from one of my students who was stressed about my first day reading assignment. The student felt it was unfair that I gave an assignment on the first day of class. That student’s email prompted the email I received from my dean who was inquiring about my rationale for assigning work on the first day of class.

If you don’t work in a collegiate environment, you might not know what a dean or a provost does. In some ways, a dean’s work is similar to a principal in a high school. The dean oversees the teachers and students within a college. Continuing with the K-12 comparison, if a dean is like a principal, then a provost would be like an assistant superintendent. A provost oversees all of the academic activity across the entire university. Provosts are pretty high up in the chain of command in a university setting. I would argue they almost have as much influence as a university president. So, provosts are really important people in a university environment. And the provost was contacted about my first day Close Reading assignment.

I guess the challenging part for me is that while I’ve been able to explain my pedagogical rationale to my dean (and to all of you lovely readers), I haven’t really been able to explain my rationale to the student, who hasn’t been identified. I’m happy to report that after a quick conversation with my dean, she assured me that I wasn’t in trouble in any way and that she thought the Close Reading practice was pedagogically sound. That was comforting.

The lack of conversation with the student, however, has been unsettling for me. This student is training to be a teacher and I worry about the missed opportunity for a discussion. Given the chance, I’d like to have a chance to outline my pedagogical rationale for the assignment but also to discuss how best to navigate stressful situations professionally and appropriately. Beyond that, I’d also like to explain that some time down the road, they may have a student or a parent who will email the principal (or the superintendent) to complain about their own class and I bet they’ll wish they had the opportunity to clarify their reasoning directly.


Reading More Closely

A bunch of years ago, I blogged about my attempts to address a problem of practice that I had observed in my classes. Across the different levels of collegiate classes I taught, I found that while the majority of my students were completing the reading I had assigned for class, few were ready to really engage in any in-depth conversation about the material. They could restate the content, but weren’t  thinking critically about the material they were reading. At the time, I wrote about working with my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel, to better understand the issue. Jen is a literacy expert and gave my lots of strategies that I could try. After trying out a few different ideas that Jen shared, I landed on assigning weekly “close reading posts” that students submitted to an online discussion board prior to coming to class. I’ve been using the strategies in my undergraduate and graduate classes for the last four or five years and I realized recently that I haven’t revisited the topic here. That dawned on me after a conversation with one of my doctoral students (yep, they do the close reading posts, too). She explained that while she initially hated completing the posts, she saw the impacts of the strategy in her understanding of the material. “It forces me to engage more deeply,” she said. And that’s really the point. When the student asked if she could share them with a few colleagues, I thought maybe I should share them here, with all of you. Just to be clear, these aren’t MY strategies. They’ve been adapted from ideas from Jen and taken from other places over the years. Some have been modified based on student feedback. So, while I’m sharing them here, I didn’t create these strategies and I don’t own these ideas. Feel free to use them if you think it will help your students engage more deeply. You can even share them with a colleague.

Five Sentences

For this close reading technique, students select five sentences from each reading that they feel captures the most important aspect of that reading.  In addition to selecting the sentences, students write a short paragraph description of why they selected the sentences and explaining how each fit with and represents the overall reading.

Know Learn Wonder

While this is typically done in a table form, I modified it a bit for use as a Close Reading Strategy. For each reading, students write three paragraphs discussing what they already knew about the subject prior to reading, what they learned from reading the text, and what they’re still wondering about the subject after reading the text.


Microblogging is based on the Twitter ecosystem.  When using microblogging as a close reading technique, students compose 10-15 comments of less than 140 characters that captures meaningful quotes/content from the week’s readings.  For instance, they can write something like:

  • “Teachers are also irreplaceable due to their impact on students’ social and emotional development.” Zhao p.25 #computersdon’tfeel #teachersarevital

I ask that each microblog include a quote/comment about the assigned readings which is identified by the author and the page number. Students must also include a relevant hashtag (#) at the end.  in this close reading strategy, hashtagging isn’t just for categorization.  The hashtagging process helps to promote higher thinking on the reading and adds additional context to the selected quote or content.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about hashtagging.

”Hashtags are used informally to express context around a given message, with no intent to categorize the message for later searching, sharing, or other reasons. One of the functions of the hashtag is to serve as a reflexive meta-commentary, which contributes to the idea of how written communication in new media can be paralleled to how pragmatic methodology is applied to speech.”

 Hashtagging in this fashion can be witty, snarky or reflective.  Using a single word or a short phrase, the students provide context for the quote. It’s really kind of tricky and requires some higher order thought. Which is one of the reasons I ask students to do it.

Say Mean Matter

For this close reading strategy, students address “What does it say? What does it mean? Why does it matter?”  After they’ve completed the assigned readings, student write three paragraphs

SAY: In the first paragraph, students summarize the big ideas presented in the readings.  What do the authors say? What are the big ideas conveyed?

MEAN: For the second paragraph, students interpret the larger meanings represented in the readings. What do the authors mean? How do we interpret this? What is being communicated “between the lines?”

MATTER: In the last one, students should address why this stuff matters from some assigned role or perspective. Why is this stuff important? What are the implications of this work?


The Sentence-Phrase-Word thinking routine helps learners to engage with and make meaning from text with a particular focus on capturing the essence of the text or “what speaks to you.”  The power of the routine lies in the discussion of why a particular word, a single phrase, and a sentence stood out for each individual in the class as the catalyst for richer discussion.

SENTENCE: In this close reading strategy, students first select a sentence that was meaningful to them and helped them gain a deeper understanding of the text.  They write a short paragraph description explaining why they chose this sentence.

PHRASE: For the second phase of this strategy, students select a phrase that moved, engage or provoked them. They write a short paragraph description explaining why they chose this phrase.

WORD: For the third phase of this strategy, students select a word that captured their attention or struck them as powerful. I explain that the word could appear in one of the assigned texts or emerge across readings.  The students write a short paragraph description explaining why they chose this word.

Sketch Notes

Sketchnotes are rich visual notes created from a mix of handwriting, drawings, hand-drawn typography, shapes, and visual elements like arrows, boxes, and lines (Rohde, 2013). Applied as a close reading strategy, students convert what they’ve read into a visual that graphically displays 5-7 main ideas from the readings. The graphic should explicitly connect to the readings and the connections should be clear to the viewer. Rather than upload text into a discussion forum, students take a photo of their sketch notes and attach them as an image into the discussion forum.

Ten Words

For this Close Reading strategy, students select (at least) Ten Words in the reading that were either new to them or ones that were particularly impactful. I explain that students should select words that represent significant concepts in the reading. For each word, students write a sentence defining it in their own words and describing how it relates the big ideas in the reading.

Hate Love Wonder

I’ll be honest that I haven’t actually tried this one yet. It’s a close reading strategy I decided to start using after reading Paul Hanstedt’s book Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. While Hanstedt just discusses love and hate strategies, I plan to add a wonder part to try garner some more interesting conversations. When I use this strategy, students will select a concept or quote that they hated and write a short paragraph explaining what didn’t resonate with them. They’ll also write paragraphs detailing what they love from reading the text and what they’re still wondering about.


Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Rohde, M. (2013). The sketchnote handbook: The illustrated guide to visual notetaking. Peachpit Press.

Literacy and the Collegiate Student

When I confront “problems of practice” in my teaching, I like to turn to my smart friends for advice.  About a year ago, I was really confounded by my students’ trouble with reading for deep understanding.  While I could see that the students were completing assigned readings, they weren’t always able to process the information deeply to analyze the concepts or apply the content to new situations.  Since I don’t have much experience teaching reading, I turned to my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Shettel.  Jen is a literacy professor and has run several tremendously successful close-reading workshops in our area.  I figured she could give some advice. Our conversations prompted some pedagogical experimentation with different literacy-based strategies which Jen and I will be sharing at a local teaching and learning conference next week and at the Teaching Professor Conference this June.

Some readers may be wondering why we even need to examine reading strategies for collegiate students.  After all, our students are adults and they should have already developed advanced reading abilities.  That was one of the first areas that Jen tackled with me.  While we’d like to think that our students are prepared for the challenging content we assign, collegiate students are still developing as readers and we need to help them in this process.  To demonstrate her case, Jen shared Jeanne Chall’s Stages of Reading Development.  In this model, Chall identifies six different stages across a reader’s development and the different characteristics and abilities prominent at each.  Based on their age, we may expect that our students have reached the highest stage, Construction and Reconstruction.  At this stage, students should be able to construct their understanding based on text analysis and synthesis.  The reality, however, is that some of our students may be entering our classes without this ability.  Maybe some are still at Chall’s “Reading for Learning the New” stage or maybe others are just reaching the “Multiple Viewpoints” stage.  Realizing that our students are still developing as readers was pretty eye opening.

In our conversations, I inquired whether any large-scale studies had been done to examine college students’ reading abilities.  After searching around a bit, Jen and I found a 2006 study conducted by the American Institutes for Research titled The Literacy of America’s College StudentsThe study looked comprehensively at college students’ literacy levels from a variety of different perspectives.  If Chall’s work was eye opening, this study was even more so.  In the study, the authors identify four literacy levels (below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient) across three different a literacy types (prose, document and quantitative).  Looking at the average literacy levels for students enrolled in two and four year institutions, the authors report that while college students on average score significantly higher than the general adult population in all three literacy types, the average score would be characterized at the intermediate literacy level.  Expanding the lens to examine the collegiate student population closer, the authors uncover some important findings for those institutions of higher education whose missions include working with first generation college students or with international students.  Students whose parents are college graduates score significantly higher across all literacy types than those students whose parents did not attend any post-secondary education.  Foreign-born students score significantly lower across every literacy type than their US-born peers.

I know some readers may see these findings and think that our schools just need to be more selective.  Maybe other readers dismiss this study entirely because they work at an elite school with a (presumed) higher caliber of student. It’s important to note that the researchers did not find significantly different literacy levels when comparing students at public vs. private institutions or at selective vs. nonselective institutions. While the findings may be a little disheartening, the report shows that ALL institutions of higher education need to be aware of their students’ literacy levels.

And that’s the big takeaway from this post.  Considering our students’ literacy development and ability, we need to assist them with interacting with the readings we assign.  We need to help them access our disciplinary texts and support them in their growth as readers.  And that’s the main goal with the session that Jen and I are developing.  We hope you’ll join us.


Baer, J. D., Cook, A. L., & Baldi, S. (2006). The Literacy of America’s College Students. American Institutes for Research.

Chall, J.S. (1983). Stages of Reading Development. New York, NY:McGraw-Hill. pp.10-24