Close Reading with ELLs

Close Reading with ELLs

When I returned to the U.S. in 2013 after teaching ESL for three years at the Bavarian International School in Germany, I began to hear the term close reading in every school I consulted with.   I noticed many new books with close reading in the title; I heard teachers tell students, “Let’s do a close reading of this text”; and I saw sessions about close reading at every conference I attended. I felt completely out of the loop and wondered what I’d missed while I was out of the country. So I began to read about close reading, talk to my colleagues about the process, analyze the Common Core State Standards, and attend workshops on the topic.

As I came to understand the purposes and process of close reading as defined by numerous books and webinars, I realized that this was the type of reading I had often engaged in with my students abroad in the International Baccalaureate English B (ESL) classes. In order to meet the IB English B standards students have to engage in close reading. They have to understand what the text says, how the text works, and what the text means. This spring as I was marking nearly 250 IB English B reading exams, I was struck with how critical close reading strategies were for student success on this exam. On this international high school ESL exam, students have to read short passages and answer a series of text dependent questions; determine the meaning of vocabulary and idioms in context; write the reference for pronouns used in text; justify true/false statements with text evidence; and discern the author’s purpose or opinion.

Since my return to the U.S., I have had the opportunity to facilitate and observe close reading with elementary and middle school ESL students, too. Unfortunately, ELLs in some classes struggle with (or give up on) the close reading process. They don’t get enough scaffolding and support with complex texts. I can highly recommend Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s professional development series for ideas on how to scaffold close reading for struggling students. In addition to their series of recommended strategies, I’ve also found that Visible Thinking Routines from Harvard Project Zero support ELLs during close reading.

The Visible Thinking Routine See-Think-Wonder teaches students to look closely before they read closely. Before reading an article about the Gold Rush with fourth graders in Colorado, I posted a picture of a man panning for gold. I asked students what they could see in the picture. They began naming things in the picture: a man, a hat, a river. Then one student responded, “I see a man panning for gold.” I congratulated him on making an inference and asked him what made him think the man was panning for gold, since we couldn’t see any gold in the picture. He then drew on background knowledge explaining that the man was on the edge of a river, held the pan at an angle, and wore clothes typical of a hundred years ago. He saw all of those details and made a logical inference from that evidence. I told the students they would use this skill of reading closely and making inferences with the text, too. After just 5 minutes of close viewing, the students were primed to read the text about the Gold Rush and they had practiced inferencing using a picture first. They had developed the close reading skills through the close viewing procedure.

Another Visible Thinking Routine Word-Phrase-Sentence helps students focus on the features of academic language, find key details, and main ideas. After reading and discussing the passage the first time, I ask students to return to the passage to find a word that captured their attention, a meaningful phrase, and a sentence that led to a deeper understanding of the text. Students then post their words, phrases, and sentences and explain why they chose them. Often the words students choose are words they don’t understand, but other students choose words that capture key ideas. If they don’t understand the word they choose, I can teach them to use context clues, word parts, or other strategies to figure out the meaning.  As students explain why their phrase is ‘meaningful’, I can assess their level of understanding of the text. Finally, their choice of a sentence indicates their understanding of the main idea of the text. This discussion generated through the Word-Phrase-Sentence routine helps everyone in the class to better understand the text and provides a scaffold for answering text-dependent questions and writing a summary.

While close reading with ELLs continues to challenge me, I am enthusiastic about the possibilities of the process for improving literacy skills in ELLs. I look forward to presenting these ideas at ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence this week in Nashville, TN.


  1. Hola, Beth!

    I completely agree with you that the IB Program supports the process of close reading. I currently work at an IB World School (Vientiane International School), and the ability to read closely is an indicator of an EL’s academic success.

    I created my own approach to teaching close reading called Visisble Reading. I focus on modeling the interactions I have with the text and guide students to apply these interactions during our shared reading.

    This approach works best with ELs who are deceloping their reading habits because it makes reading decisions visible to students.

    I wrote extensively about this approach in this article which includes videos of students engaged in Visible Reading

    Keep sharing great content, Beth!

    • Thank you, Tan, for your response and for sharing your thorough explanation of your process of Visible Reading with supportive videos for each step. It’s great to see your students engaged through your careful scaffolding and gradual release of responsibility. They are so fortunate to have you guiding them and believing in them! Thanks again for sharing, Beth

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