Close Reading

Close Readings

This semester we will be focusing on close reading as a form of literary criticism. There are many reasons to close read:

  1. Close reading is democratic: all readers are equal (special knowledge is not necessary).

  2. Close reading prioritizes an interaction between reader and text, rather than one over the other.

  3. Close reading develops skills of interpretation (hermeneutics), which require thoughtful reflection.

  4. Close reading assumes a text cannot be completely explained: it requires a reader to develop a relationship with the text and ultimately her/himself through the process of discovery.

In addition to all of these reasons, an important goal of close reading is to allow the text to speak in its own language. In order to allow a text to speak in its own language, close reading requires that you, the reader, learn the language of another world. As a close reader and writer, you will need patience and a belief in the value of another world. This requires confidence, practice, and the ability to disappear as your “self” and reappear through the language of the text.


  • You will write two (2) close readings this semester that are single page, double-spaced, Times New Roman Font, and one inch (normal) margins.

    • Close Reading 1: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (Due Thursday Nov. 19th)

    • Close Reading 2: One text from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Due Thursday, Dec. 24th)

  • Grades will be between 1 (low) and 5 (excellent). Those who exceed the expectations can receive a 6 or 7. See Rubric Below.

  • Close readings will be submitted by Thursday, 23:59 using Turnitin on Moodle.


What is NOT close reading

1) Do not summarize: close reading assumes you have read the text and understand what it is saying in a general sense. Close reading moves beyond summary to the details of the text.

2) Do not generalize: Close reading assumes that a text cannot be generalized into facts or truths. A text’s meanings can only slowly be unfolded.

3) Plagiarism will not be accepted.

Before Close Reading

1) READ ENTIRE THE TEXT. This is assumed for all literature students.

2) Take notes: summary, argument, main points, plot development, characters, setting, and transitions are a good place to start. Make a note of repeated, interesting, and unique words, paradoxical, problematic passages or forms. IMPORTANT: your initial emotional response to the text is about you, not the text (example: "I like, love, hate, laugh, am indifferent to, or bored and confused by the text). Move beyond your first response, summary, and common sense understandings to an analysis of “how” the text does what it does.

3) Look up words in a dictionary! Here’s a good place to start:

4) IMPORTANT: Some of the most interesting close readings appear though the hard work of clarifying initial confusion and deconstructing initial beliefs.

Close Reading Guide

After you have studied the text, use the following guidelines to structure your essay. Remember, you only have one page. Use it efficiently.

Choose a word or passage: this will be the focus of your close reading.

Introduction: introduce the passage, be it a key word, paradoxical, problematic, interesting or important phrase. Always quote exactly from the text. The words will be the focus of your close reading. Develop a thesis that will point to your close reading as important in understanding the larger text.

Paraphrase: put the meaning of this word or passage in your own words. Offer a general understanding of the word or passage’s meaning and then look closely at what is actually (or possibly) meant by the word in the sentence you quote. In your paraphrase, situate the passage clearly between what comes BEFORE and AFTER in the text.

Change contexts (or frames): an alternate point of view can reveal new aspects of the word or passage. Think about alternate definitions (etymologies), sentence structure, genre, imagery, tone, or other unique cultural information. How does the new context/frame change or reinforce the meaning of your passage?

Rhetorical phrases can help you draw the attention to the text (not you!). Rhetorical phrases also transition between paragraphs. Examples:

  • If we return to this passage again,

  • In addition to the accepted meaning, this word also meant (x) in the 12th and 13th centuries… (look it up!)

  • After a second reading,

  • If we look at the form, tone, sentence structure, imagery, literary devices, etc.,

  • If we look at this passage in relation to (change frame),

  • If we look at what comes right before this passage,

  • If we look at what comes right after this passage,

  • Instead of reading what is written, if we look at what is not written,

  • Instead of looking, if we listen to the sound of the text

Conclusions: What new or unique discovery has your close reading enabled? More often than not, close reading brings one’s original assumptions into question. You are not close reading if you can write, “This passage means (x).” Be sure to look at your conclusions and see if they follow from your introduction: if not, make them compatible (adjust your introduction/thesis, you conclusion, or both).


Finish your close reading early and leave it alone for a few days. Return to your essay on Tuesday or Wednesday and read it OUT LOUD:

Check for:

  • Spelling and Grammar

  • Transition sentences between paragraphs

  • Introduction and conclusion (with a clear thesis)

  • DELETE anything not related to your thesis or close reading. You have one page: use it efficiently!

Grading Rubric

1 point: Word or passage must be interesting, important, or relevant.* Passage must be limited to a manageable size.

1 point: Proper essay format that follows guidelines.

1 point: Proper English with minimal spelling/grammar mistakes.

1 point: Style: Essay guides reader through the close reading from beginning to the end.

1 point: Focus: Essay stays focused on the chosen word or passage.

Total: 5 points

EXTRA: For extra points, your essay should be a unified whole that shows something new or unique.

* “Interesting, important, or relevant” could also mean a word that seems unimportant, uninteresting, orirrelevant, but turns out to be necessary to understanding the text.