Close Encounters of the Reading Kind

Close Reading is an invaluable skill.  So why isn’t it taught as much as it should be (and believe me, it’s NOT)? Many people have no idea of where to begin.   Websites that claim to teach you how to do a close reading are filled with exhortations to “pay attention to diction,” “look for patterns,” “highlight syntax,” and other unhelpful truisms. Another series of web-pages gives you questions to answer while you are reading–moderately helpful but one has to keep looking back at the questions. (If you don’t believe me just Google “close reading” and click on any link on the front page).

But I, Dear Reader, am actually giving you two strategies to help students not just learn ABOUT  close reading but to actually DO close reading.  (They are also easy to adapt and grade if you wish to do so–I certainly do.) They are: Quiz/Notes and 4 X 4 X 4 (read “four-by-four-by-four”). A central strength of both assignments is that they force the reader into a kind of intimacy with the text that one rarely sees.  Students become familiar with the notion of “going to the text” to prove a point and, better yet being able to find almost any plot point or quotation they need.

Quiz/Notes requires students to do 10 Quiz questions (with answers in square brackets [ ] next to them and 15 comments with page number PRECEDING the comment).  Comments can take any form from a list of characters being introduced to a change of venue to a reminder of something in another text. I do Quiz/Notes for EVERY TEXT I teach. At the beginning of Quiz/Notes I give out samples of my own Quiz/Notes. These are easy to grade (25 points!) and I often use them to give the quiz on the reading.  I like using Quiz/Notes with long prose assignments as students will essentially build their own set of Cliff Notes or Spark Notes to the text.  I append a link to the Quiz/Note document I hand out (or email to students, post on the class website) so you can see what the form looks like.  I also have clipped and pasted simple example of a Quiz/Note page.

Quiz Note Doc

Name____________________      Pages covered_____________________                                                     Text_____________________       Date_______________

Quiz                                                                      Page# Notes








4 x 4 X 4 is a great way to get students to engage a text and to get students to talk with each other.  (The number “4” is completely arbitrary here and I have done 3 x 3 x 3 and 5 x 5 x 5 when it suits me.) The description and example below are from a handout I developed when teaching Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  When I do this well, I am able to be a relay station as I ask one student to give us one of his quotations and then ask for response from other students. Or I ask for one student to give a question or comment and then redirect to other students for response. I love the flexibility and rigor of both these ways of helping develop better readers.


Dear Scholars,

Below you will find the reading schedule for our next book, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  We will spend five (5) days on the book and each day we will have up to 8 students provide us with a 4 X 4 X 4 each day.  Each student does one (1) 4 X 4 X 4 but you MUST bring TWO COPIES (one for me and one for you to keep).  Each 4 X 4 X 4 is worth 30 points (three quiz grades).

4 X 4 X 4 refers to a student writing 4 Questions and 4 Comments, and identifying 4 Quotations from that night’s reading.  In other words, for Wednesday, up to 8 (2 x 4) students will bring to class 2 copies of the 4 X 4 X 4.  You are NOT allowed to range outside of your assigned page numbers for the 4 X 4 X 4.  A sample 4 X 4 X 4 for pages 21-42 appears on the back of this paper.  Notice that you need not supply all of the quotation (just the first FOUR words and the last FOUR words and the page number[s]).  Quotations should be about something that interests you. Questions can be speculative (What does it mean when Frankl says that “the best of us did not return”?), or informational (Does “Dr. M” refer to Joseph Mengele?), or some combination of the two.  Comments can be about style (“I think that Frankl gives clear examples”), or substance (“The idea that the ‘best of us did not return’ suggests that Frankl himself is not among the best”).  Questions, Comments and Quotations may all refer to the same things.

Wed    Feb 1   set up 4 X 4 X 4

Thu      Feb 2   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 21-42 4 X 4 X 4

Fri        Feb 3   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 42-64 4 X 4 X 4

Mon     Feb 6   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 64-84 4 X 4 X 4

Tues     Feb 7   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 84-101 4 X 4 X 4

Wed    Feb 8   Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 101-115 4 X 4 X 4


Daniel McMahon

4 X 4 X 4 pp. 21-42


What is the “delusion of reprieve” and why is it so dangerous? (p. 28)

What does “run into the wire” mean? (p. 37)

How powerful is the temptation to become a Capo?  Would it be worth it to sell out?

Why does one prisoner tell Frankl to “shave daily” no matter what? (p. 38)


There seems to be remarkable cruelty in the comment that one prisoner makes to him that his friend is floating up to heaven. (p. 31)

It is amazing what the prisoners can adapt to.

Is the “delusion of reprieve” actually a good thing—does it help one go on? (p. 28)

It is interesting that curiosity remains even in the face of such horror. (p. 35)

Quotations: First 4 words…Last 4 words:

“The selection process was….had to be found” (pp. 22-23)

“As I have already….us did not return.” (pp. 23-24)

“If someone now asked….act of committing suicide” (pp. 36-37)

“At first the prisoner….move him any more” (p. 40)

Next week, more comments on teaching and less on strategy and technique.



Filed under books and learning, close reading, critical thinking, education, Frankl Man's Search for Meaning, inferential skills, pedagogy, theories of reading, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Close Encounters of the Reading Kind

  1. John McGean

    Very excellent, Dan! In addition to developing deep readers, you are pulling all kids evenly into conversation around the text–not just those with the quick hands in the air. In my pre-retirement life we called such stuff as you describe “learning protocols” (McDonald, Mohr) or “Thinking Routines” (Ritchard, link, below) that help teachers make their students both read deeply and make their own thinking visible to themselves, their classmates, and the teacher.

    As always, you’re right on! Thanks for sharing so selflessly.


    The Ritchard link:


    Enjoyed it. Wish I was in your class. Charlie
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry


    These are great fresh approaches to the old double journal entry strategy…especially the inclusion of questions in the 4X4X4 sets. May I have your permission to share these two “close reading” methods with teachers I meet at workshops? I’m doing 8 break-outs for Solution Tree during their Common Core Institutes in Phoenix and Boston (4X4 ha!) and one or two will be on close reading techniques….I will definitely cite my source! Also, thank you for your endorsement of my new book, it comes out this week and your quote is on the back cover!
    Mary Kim

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