Learning Strategy 24: Close Reading 

Robert Harris
Version Date: November 17, 2015


Close Reading is a learning strategy that helps you not only get the most out of your reading—assigned or pleasure—but it helps you read more accurately and circumspectly. Close reading focuses on the text itself, of course, but it also includes learning about such relevant information as the author, context, purpose, and so forth. These guidelines apply to both fiction and nonfiction writing.

 I’ve decided to use the “Journalistic Six” questions (who, what, when, where, why, how) as an organizational scheme for this module.


Who Is the Author or Writer

Knowing something about  the author can help you understand what you are reading because authors write from a point of view (or worldview) that embodies their values and attitudes and therefore shapes their writing. Political, social, religious, ideological, economic, esthetic, and other values influence the writer’s subject, tone, emphasis, and so on. For example, Charles Dickens had a heart for the poor, so  his novels reflect the concern for and abuse of the poor in nineteenth century England.

 Who is speaking?

Characters in a novel or a play often reflect attitudes and values that are in conflict with the actual writer’s true self, and in many cases, the point of view of a novel involves a first-person narrator, who is not at all like the actual writer of the novel. In nonfiction, also, the authors sometimes write in the guise of a person whose values differ from their own values, often in order to satirize the beliefs or arguments of the person they are pretending to be. In these cases, the actual author is adopting a persona, and it is a mistake to attribute to the actual author the ideas and opinions presented by the persona.

So, an important consideration at the outset is, Who is speaking? Is it the author of the writing or an adopted persona, posing as someone who does not share the author’s ideas? When is the author speaking for himself or herself, and when is a source being presented that the author may or may not agree with? Many writers paraphrase or summarize the arguments of others by presenting them in direct form. An example will clarify this. Suppose you read the following.

Article: “Wind Power Backfires”
Author: Joe Doax
Text: “Advocates of wind-generated electricity seldom discuss the tradeoffs involved: Birds are killed in large numbers by the spinning blades. This is an ecological disaster of major proportions. But slicing and dicing a bunch of bald eagles is okay if it saves a few barrels of fossil fuel.”

In the presentation above, the last sentence is not the opinion of Joe Doax, but an opinion attributed to wind power advocates. In this case, the tipoff is the satiric exaggeration (killing “a bunch” of endangered birds to save “a few” barrels of oil). Of course, the writer could have said, Apparently,” or “These folks think,” to make the attribution clearer, but in this case, you were left to add the qualification through your own understanding.

You likely won’t be able to answer fully the Who question before you read the material. Studying the text is a powerful way to learn about the author, though he or she may be in disguise.


What are you reading?

An excellent starting point for the What consideration in interpretation is to practice the first two steps of the SQ3R reading method: Survey and Question.

 What kind of writing is this? Fiction? Then expect more metaphors, foreshadowing, feeling. Non-fiction? Expect an informative or argumentative style. If the writing is an argument, expect evidence, reasons,  oppositing arugments answered, and so on.


Does the Date Make a Difference?

When Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice in 1813, she included this sentence:

“Fatigued as she had been by the morning's walk they had no sooner dined than she set off again in quest of her former acquaintance, and the evening was spent in the satisfactions of an intercourse renewed after many years' discontinuance” (Chapter 21).

Now, a reader who didn’t know that in 1813, intercourse meant communication like talking, might conceivably be offended, or at least wondering what Jane was thinking by introducing racy elements into her reserved novel. Similarly, when King George George told Christopher Wren in 1711 that the architect’s design was awful and artificial, Wren was elated, because those were great compliments (awful meaning filling one with awe’ and “artificial” meaning containing high art


Why: What is the Purpose of the Writing?

Is he writing to inform, to persuade, to corrupt, to improve, or to entertain you?





Note:  "Author" may mean either the persona or the writer behind the persona.

The best way to do a close reading is to discover the details which make up the overall impression of the work.  So, while taking the composition as a whole into account, pay special attention to a few representative paragraphs which can be studied for language and rhetoric.  Since the first paragraph is critical to any composition, always give it some amount of attention.  Look for meaning first, then method.


1.  What subject, problem, or idea is the author addressing?  (theme, topic)  What is he saying about it?  What else is he saying?  That is, are there hidden implications, double meanings, or innuendoes?  Is there a difference between his denotation and connotation? Is the author addressing you in his own clothes?  (Author vs. Persona)  What does he underplay?  Are the conclusions or morals stated or left up to you?  Why?


2.  What, if anything, does the writer seem to be up to?  Why is he writing?  Does he give or imply any reasons?  Does there seem to be a difference between his stated purpose and what appears to you to be his real purpose?  (ostensible vs actual)  Do you believe him?  If he is lying about anything, why is he?  Does he expect you to catch him?  (genuine argument, false argument, satire)


Language and Imagery

“The plot unfolds slowly but beautifully as the petals gradually open into full bloom.”

“The plot, glacier like in both its slow movement and iciness that freezes out our interest, gradually stops altogether.”



3.  How has the author expressed his ideas?  Why has he said to this way instead of another way?  Why did he use that word, that phrase, that sentence, that syntax, that qualifier or modifier?

How does his style contribute to, affect, or detract from his overall meaning?  (simple, complex, precise, wordy, inverted, straight-forward, beautiful, forceful, ambiguous, incoherent, mechanical, plodding, calculated, emphatic, active or passive voice)

How does his tone contribute to, affect, or detract from his overall meaning?  (angry, ironic, reassuring, self-assured, calm, sympathetic, thoughtful, rash, intellectual, juvenile,sophisticated, plain narrative, detached/scientific/disinterested)

How does his mood contribute to, affect, or detract from his overall meaning?  (gloomy, happy, depressed, optimistic, pessimistic, careless, intensely concerned, neutral, "why try?"

 4.  What kinds of words does the author use?  Exact, general, specific, vague, concrete, technical, jargon, sesquipedalian, mathematical, emotive language (positive or negative).  If he uses jargon, from which trade or field?  Whence does he draw his metaphors and analogies?  From housekeeping, marketplace, astronomy, common, unusual?  How persuasive are his analogies?  Any false ones?  How obvious are his rhetorical devices and ploys?  How effective?  How significant are his puns?  Any ambiguities or amphibologies or equivocations?  What is the effect of all this on the composition?  What kinds of reasons and appeals are used?

 5.  What does the author seem to be like?  What is your impression of him?  Does he (does his persona) appear smart, learned, bigoted, logical, illogical, reasonable, trustworthy,persuasive?  Does he jump to conclusions or appear to distort evidence?  How does he come out on points about which you are informed?  Right, wrong, credible, twisted, hiding or inflating certain facts?  Does he follow an identifiable "line"?  Does he speak in clichés?

Does he care what he is saying ( i.e., use of metaphors, wrong words, contradictions, empty jargon)?  Does he commit any logical fallacies?  Is he naive?



High Performance Learning

VirtualSalt Home
Learning Strategy 1: Mnemonics
Learning Strategy 2: Paraphrasing
Learning Strategy 3: Summarizing
Learning Strategy 4: Self Monitoring
Learning Strategy 5: Self Explanation
Learning Strategy 6: Mental Rehearsal
Learning Strategy 7: Self Assessment
Learning Strategy 8: The SQ3R Reading Method
Learning Strategy 9: Note Taking
Learning Strategy 10: The Leitner Flash Card System
Learning Strategy 11: Maintaining Interest
Learning Strategy 12: Conversation
Learning Strategy 13: Group Interaction
Learning Strategy 14: Idea Mapping
Learning Strategy 15: Drawing Pictures
Learning Strategy 16: Study Cycles
Learning Strategy 17: Sleep and Rest
Learning Strategy 18: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 19: Learning Strategy Checklist
Learning Strategy 20: Asking Questions
Learning Strategy 21: Idea Linking
Learning Strategy 22: How to Use a Book
Learning Strategy 23: Active Listening
Learning Strategy 24: Close Reading
Learning Strategy 25: Fluency / Automaticity
Learning Strategy 26: Power Thinking
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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com