close reading – how it could go with a focus on structure

one of our favorite things to do in writing workshop is study published texts in the same genre we’re writing. we call these mentor texts because they teach us – mentor us – to write in ways we wouldn’t write without the text. studying mentor texts in this way, reading the texts like a writer, helps kids see that writers do everything with a purpose. it’s empowering, really, to see their own writing in that way, that they have the power to make decisions as a writer.

knowing this as a reader is equally powerful.

if we read knowing that the author does things intentionally, we can find larger meaning when we may have missed it otherwise. this is the work of close reading – to read not only for what the text is about, but also to see deeper, to see what it’s really about.

one area the common core asks students to do this close reading is in thinking about the structure of a text. reading anchor standard 5 asks students to “analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g. a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

this post will show how close reading work around this standard could go in fox by margaret wild. like all great books, fox can be read and re-read with many different purposes, and is a favorite of ours to use in our class. we think this work will be most powerful if the story has been read once already so the students are familiar with the plot and can move past it to do some deeper thinking. (this will also allow you to use parts of fox rather than the entire text during your teaching.)

we think this work could be done during a read aloud, mini-lesson, small group, or even a conference. for the sake of clarity, we’ll put the words from fox in italics to show the parts of the text we might use. (there are many more parts than the ones we’ve pulled out that would be great to use when thinking about structure.)

here’s how it could go:

say: we know that writers make decisions about all parts of their writing. this includes the structure, or organization, of a text. one part of a text’s structure is the length of its sentences – how long or short the sentences are. as readers, we can pay attention to the length of the sentences, especially those sentences that stand out as being especially long or especially short, and think about why the author used those sentences where he (or she) did.

read aloud from fox: with magpie clinging to his back, he races through the scrub, past the stringybarks, past the clumps of yellow box trees, and into blueness. he runs so swiftly it is almost as if he were flying.

think aloud: this is a really long sentence! so long that i almost ran out of breath as i was reading it. i know the author, margaret wild, did this on purpose. let me reread it, and think about why the author might have used a long sentence here…

reread it and then give students a chance to turn and talk with their partner. you might want to prompt them with the starter, “maybe the author used a long sentence because/to show…” (we’ve also found success in writing phrases like this on post-its and putting them up under a document camera for students to refer to as they talk.)

structure

say: one thing i heard you guys say is that the long sentence matched the actions of dog and magpie. they’re running, running, running here, and the sentence seems to run, too. so maybe the author used this long sentence because she wanted to give us the sense of how long and far and fast dog and magpie were running here. (you might want to ask students to give a thumbs up if they had a similar thought or allow for chances to share different possibilities here.) let’s look at another part, thinking still about sentence length.

read aloud: fox scorches through woodlands, through dusty plains, through salt pans, and out into the hot red desert. he stops, scarcely panting. there is silence between them. neither moves, neither speaks. 

say: this is a really interesting part. did you hear the long sentence? it was another one of those times that fox is running far, like when magpie and dog ran far and the author used a long sentence. the author did something really interesting, here, though, and kind of different. after this long sentence, there are some short sentences. a group of them. listen as i reread, and think: why are there these short sentences? why did the author put them right after this long sentence?

reread it and then give students a chance to turn and talk with their partner. you might want to prompt them with the starters, “maybe the author used these short sentences because/to show…” or “maybe the author put these short sentences right after the long sentence because/to show…” or “long sentences give the feeling of…but short sentences give the feeling of…”

structure2

say: some partners were saying things like these short sentences stand out all of a sudden after the long sentences, kind of like fox’s action would stand out or catch magpie off guard. the author put them there so that they caught us off guard. the short sentences make us feel a little bit surprised, like magpie would in this moment.

once students have begun to read closely in this way and are more comfortable reading with the lens of structure and considering possibilities for the author’s choice of the structure, it’s important to guide them back to thinking about the larger meanings – the lessons, messages, and themes – and how the structure supports those meanings.

you might support students in this by giving them some prompts to use as they’re thinking, talking, and writing like:

  • one of the messages/lessons/themes of this text is…and the author shows this by…
  • this long/short sentence shows…and that fits with a theme…because..

structure3

how do you help your students focus on and think about the structure of a text when they’re reading?

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