Close Reading Activity

Eric Caldwell

One easy way of teaching close-reading is to get students to do it themselves; it’s one thing to listen to the instructor close-read a text, but many students will never understand that it is something that they themselves can do unless you give them the opportunity.

Take any poem and split it up into one- to four-line units. Then go around the room, with each student reading his/her lines, and have them answer the following questions:

·               What’s old about your lines? How do the lines continue the thematic/ metaphoric/ metrical elements of what has come before? (Of course, the student with the first two lines gets a pass on this question.)

·               What’s new about this section? Do your lines diverge at all from what has come before, even slightly? Are the vehicles of the metaphors, for instance, taken from the same or different discourses? Does the logic, tone, mood, diction, syntax change at all?

·               What’s beautiful or interesting about these lines—are there any metrical dynamics, metaphors, tropes, or figures which are especially arresting?

·               What’s peculiar, troubling, unsettling, or obscure about these lines? Are they strategically peculiar—are they this way for a reason? Or do we perhaps have to read more of the poem to really know?

After each student goes through these questions, open the lines up to everyone in the class—there is almost always a treasure-trove of material left unexamined. Because students sometimes have a tendency to tune out when they’ve completed their lines, keep the class on edge a little bit by cold-calling here and there, asking people to contribute something to an individual’s close-reading. Do it right, and you will have a community effort on your hands, with students coming to the aid of other students’ readings.


·               Don’t be afraid to question readings—when a student offers a misreading, ask them to give evidence for it from the text. When you move the matter of close-reading to the level of evidence, students themselves will often pre-empt criticism by admitting that there is not enough evidence for their (mis)reading.

·               Don’t let the student get ahead of his/her lines; i.e., don’t let him/her adduce textual material not yet in evidence. Some students will want to get to the “punchline” and use the “lesson” of the poem as a lens through which to close-read their lines. Resist this tendency, as it is one of the habits of mind which blinds students to the richness of poetry in general. Let students look backward into the text, but not forward; eventually, everything will come into view.

·               The two-line unit is something like the average—I usually keep it to one line/phrase when close-reading Shakespeare, two for Pope, and then sometimes a quatrain with (for instance) Rochester. Use your own judgment, considering that four lines with Shakespeare is a recipe for certain disaster (as there is simply too, too much going on to be meaningfully discussed extemporaneously by undergraduates).

·               In a seventy-five minute period, I’ve been able to do a single Shakespearean sonnet, twenty lines of Pope, Whitman, Milton, Chaucer, Stevens, Yeats, Eliot, and forty or so of Rochester.