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Close Reading: Real Preparation for Multiple-Choice Tests

by Jane Schaffer
San Diego, California

Taking a Different Tack
For some years, the English Vertical Team at my school has been concerned about our students' multiple-choice scores on AP Exams and other reading assessments. We were giving practice sets from previous AP Exams, but we didn't see much growth. We decided to take a different tack and began doing focused close reading assignments, asking open-ended reading questions that required sophisticated textual analysis.

At first, we looked at published materials designed for higher-order reading skills, but we found little on the market that suited our purposes. So, we wrote our own. Commercially available lessons asked, "What do you think was going on in Jack's head in Lord of the Flies when he looked at his reflection?" We wanted more analysis of the writer's choices and the kind of effect those choices created, so we deepened the question by asking, "When Jack looks at his reflection first in the pool and later in the coconut shell, what kind of light appears in the shell that wasn't present in the pool? What effect does Golding create here, and why does he create it?" The idea worked. Born from frustration, our approach to reading instruction can be used by any AP teacher.

We follow several steps in producing close reading exercises:
  • First, we identify key passages from the assigned reading. Shorter passages are more successful than longer ones.

  • Second, we write close reading questions for them, borrowing from AP multiple-choice stems, and assign them in class. We have learned that generic reading prompts asking about sequence or inference, for example, do not elicit higher order analysis. We write text-specific questions that require students to search the story for the information. "What is the main idea of the first paragraph?" is not nearly as effective as "How does Hawthorne describe the throng in the prison scene, and how does this description tell you his attitude toward the group?" If students can answer without looking back at the book, then we have written a study question, good in its own right, but not a close reading one. Students often must read a passage two or three times. They balk at this -- "We already read that page!" -- but they need to learn that good readers often reread challenging texts.

  • Third, we revise our question sets based on feedback from the class. They always show us what we need to clarify and polish.
Writing Your Own Assignments
The best way to write close reading assignments is to work as a group with colleagues who teach the same literature. Our most productive session was a release day where five of us went off-campus to work. The synergy led us to questions that none would have thought of alone. Even working together, we realized how difficult it was to phrase the questions correctly to help our students achieve a greater understanding of the piece.

When students begin a close reading exercise, they annotate the passage and make observations in the margins. They have little experience in doing this, so we model the process for them. If duplicating is an issue at your school, it needs to be solved. Students have to have their own copies of materials to mark.

Sometimes we use a passage before starting the book. For example, at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, we read the prison door scene to establish theme and tone. At other times, we might return to a selection that the class read several days before or assign the same excerpt twice to focus on an author's narrative technique. The only recommendation we have is that you not assign two or three days' worth in a row. Analyzing a passage is an intense process, one that students don't sustain well day after day. We average three to five excerpts per novel or play, fewer with short stories or essays. Poetry is an exception; by its very nature, it demands many questions. At first, we work as a class, then in pairs or small groups, and finally as independent work.

Our multiple-choice averages have moved up steadily over the last few years. By AP Exam time, our students are well versed in good reading skills and much more confident about handling the challenge of the multiple-choice section on any AP Exam.

Jane Schaffer taught AP English for 24 years in San Diego and served as an AP reader for 12 years. She retired recently in order to focus on teacher training full-time. She has published several articles about teaching English, including "Peer Response That Works" in the Journal of Teaching Writing, 1996; "Strategies for Critical Reading in English" in Making Sense: Teaching Critical Reading Across the Curriculum, 1993; and "Improving Discussion Questions: Is Anyone Listening?" in the English Journal, April 1989.

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