Notice and Note for Primary Grades: Why Not?!

In my last post, I shared the success I’ve had in weaving close reading into our reading instruction in 2nd grade. The act of reading text multiple times with support has a clear advantage for primary readers in regards to fluency, vocabulary development and comprehension. Once I got the basics down, I started looking around for literature on close reading that would guide my mini-lessons.

Once I got my hands on Notice and Note I knew it was exactly what I had been searching for, even though it is written for grades 4+.

The authors polled teachers in grades 4-12 to compile a list of the most frequently studied novels and then began to look for similarities in plot, character development and theme. What resulted was a set of “signposts”. As drivers, when we encounter a sign such as this we know what is about to happen and change our driving accordingly.

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Similarly, successful readers can read the signs that the author leaves behind to know what’s coming in the text and change their thinking accordingly.

My favorite example that I have been able to apply to many of our read-alouds is the “Again and Again” signpost because it seemed most relevant to real life. If I need my husband to remember that we have plans on Saturday, I can’t expect that mentioning this once will be enough to ensure he remembers. Delicately, careful not to nag, I weave the mention of those plans into several conversations because it’s important to me that he keeps those plans in mind when he schedules other things. My kiddos responded well to this story and could certainly relate to such tactics being used by their own mothers.

Similarly, authors will mention things “Again and Again” and when they do we must ask ourselves: What is it that they want us to understand and why is it so important to the author that we understand it?

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To teach this to my second graders, I created a mini-lesson using the book Sheila Rae, the Brave in which the author repeats some variation of “Sheila Rae wasn’t afraid of anything” on nearly every page. Very quickly my students picked up on the repetition. During my first attempts at close reading I might have been satisfied simply by the fact that they’d noticed it, but Notice and Note had me expecting more from such a realization.

What do you think the author wants to make sure that you understand about Sheila in the first part of this book?

Through turning and talking, my students were able to articulate that the author really wanted us to understand that Sheila Rae was brave.

Why do you think that the author, Kevin Henkes, felt that he had to work so hard to make sure that we believed that Sheila Rae was very brave?

From here, with guidance, my students acknowledged that mice are not often thought to be brave, but rather shy and timid. Upon finishing the book, I shared my thoughts aloud that when Sheila Rae became scared, I was quite surprised. Even though it shouldn’t really surprise me that a baby mouse would feel afraid when she was lost in the woods. I was surprised because Henkes had completely convinced me that Sheila Rae wasn’t afraid of anything. He had convinced me by saying so “Again and Again.”

The practice of repetition is so common in books for young readers that noticing “Again and Again” signpost was the perfect mini-lesson for my 2nd graders. My students are now independently noticing this practice and discussing its purpose in our shared read-alouds and their own texts. Thanks to Notice and Note, the highest purpose of close reading has come to fruition in my classroom: my students are reading like writers.

I began to ask myself: What other signposts can work for the primary grades? And why do the strategies and Notice and Note seem to be written exclusively for grades 4+?

I have had similar success with mini-lessons on…

  • “Word of the Wiser”, where another character gives the main character advice as in Strega Nona by Toni dePaolo and
  • “Memory Moment”, where the author reveals a memory or a flashback to share important information with the reader, which happens throughout the book Holes by Louis Sachar.

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Admittedly, some of the signposts do not occur as frequently with the text complexity that is typically encountered by primary grades, such as “Ah Ha Moments” and “Contrasts and Contradictions”.

However, I think there is a treasure trove of other signposts waiting to be recognized in picture books and chapter books for primary readers. 

For example, I’ve taught a signpost lesson to help them notice “plot twists” – or events in the text that go differently than the main character expected, such as when Ramona cracks a raw egg on her head (intending to merely remove the shell of a hard-boiled egg) in Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Or when Wilbur – taking the suggestion of the goose – breaks free from his pen and discovers that freedom is not at all what he thought it would be. (Charlotte’s Web)

It was clear to us that the way a character responds to a “plot twist” tell us A LOT about the character. They can indicate a starting or ending point in the equation of how a character changes over the course of the text.

I’m working on developing a few more as we wind our way through many amazing texts this year. Though my second graders are not yet automatically reaching for the author’s intent when reading or discussing a text, our modeled think-alouds lead to richer dialogue and a deeper understanding of the text as a whole.


Where is close reading taking your primary learners? Are you searching for a higher purpose in all that re-reading? Leave your comments below.

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How to Make or Break Close Reading in the Primary Classroom

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A quick google search of “Teacher Blog Close Reading” will yield an abundant harvest of graphic organizers, posters, passages and book recommendations. It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago, many of us were cautiously dipping a toe in the waters of close reading. Now it seems that Common Core ELA and Close Reading are synonymous. This can be a dangerous over-simplification, especially if teachers aren’t sure why they are re-reading a text multiple times with their students.

That being said, I am often exasperated with the timidity of educators and coaches in bringing close reading into the primary classroom. Just because your earliest memory of annotating text and rereading for meaning was in high school or college does not mean my kiddos aren’t capable of doing just that (with a simpler text, of course).

I’ve found a number of consistencies between the practice of close reading and research-based learning experiences that are known to grow good readers, such as:

  • listening to a fluent reader
  • modeled think-alouds where an expert reader responds to the text
  • exposure to complex text
  • repeated readings of a text
  • text-dependent comprehension questions

In spite of these many advantages to using close reading in the primary classroom, it’s certainly not foolproof. Here are a few common mistakes I’ve learned from or observed:

  1. Please don’t close read entire books. Close reading is definitely about quality over quantity. Would you take your class to visit a museum and expect them to read every plaque on every exhibit? That would be drudgery, and so many asides could cause them to miss the overall message.
  2. Please make sure you have selected a portion of the text that is worth examining. The section that you share with your students can shift their entire perspective of the work. Imagine if you were to section off the Mona Lisa until all that was visible was her hand. Would that develop the same understanding of the picture as if you had chosen her smile?
  3. Please make sure you have jotted down a few elements worth noticing in the text selection. This will focus your instruction and help students understand what to look for in this and other texts. (Which leads me to…)

4. Close reading is NOT just re-reading a text multiple times. Or even going back to a text to find the answers to text dependent questions. While there are certainly benefits to multiple re-readings in building fluency, students should be expected to uncover another layer of meaning in the text with each re-reading. If their capacity to glean more meaning seems to have plateaued, end the lesson by modeling your own thinking and return to the text another day.

Like any aspect of instruction, close reading can become a part of our day where we are simply going through the motions. Consider, though, that like the stretches and strength-building drills of athletes, close reading can grow thoughtful, capable readers. And like a coach that keeps the game in mind, we teachers must consider the end goal of reading instruction: lifelong readers!

How does close reading fit into your classroom? Do your students dread it or eat it up? Leave your comments below.

Building a Reading Life

Check out my “Building a Reading Life” prezi here. Feel free to use or share this with your staff!

I had the opportunity to hear Donalyn Miller speak at the Heinemann “Bringing the Standards to Life” Institute in Santa Fe this past January. There are no words for what her talk did for me personally and professionally. I know we’ve all felt a bit mired down by the overwhelming task of incorporating the new Common Core State Standards. I have been optimistic about the opportunity to revitalize our school program with an increased emphasis in rigor, relevance and readiness. Donalyn brought me back to the heart of the matter with her conversation on building lifelong readers. I cannot recommend her work in Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild more fully. Each time a sit down to read them, I spring up after a chapter or two and go off to read a book or write a lesson about book love. She has inspired me to look beyond close reading, evidence and articles and remember what I’ve known all along: books are a refuge that every child deserves a key to.

reading in the wild book whisperer

ELA Anchor Standards

This past week I have been giving a Common Core 101 tutorial to my K-8 teachers regarding the structure of the CCSS ELA standards and major instructional shifts. I had received a few questions about how to read the abbreviations in the standards ELA.3.RL.2.1a is, admittedly, a lot of numbers and letters. I decided it was best to discuss the overall organization of the standards as opposed to the typical diagram of abbreviated standards.

I termed the 4 areas of the ELA standards “branches” to fit with my tree metaphor. I hope this resource can be helpful to other instructional coaches or administrators helping to familiarize their teachers with the Common Core.

Up next: CCSS Math Domains and Standards for Mathematical Practice

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Guided Reading v. Close Reading

I recently came across this article written by Timothy Shannahan on the use of Guided Reading v. Close Reading in regard to text complexity. Here is an excerpt:


Close Reading or Guided Reading
Recently, I’ve been fielding questions about guided reading (à la Fountas and Pinnell) and the common core; mainly about the differences in how they place students in texts. Before going there, let me point out that there is a lot of common ground between guided reading and common core, including high quality text, the connections between reading and writing, the emphasis on high level questions and discussion, the idea that students learn from reading, and so on. Nary a hint of conflict between the two approaches on any of those issues.
Not so with student-book placements; on that there is a substantial divide. Guided reading says go easy, and common core says challenge them. Easy, according to F&P, means placing kids in books that they can read with better than 90% accuracy and with high reading comprehension (and they make no distinction between beginners and more adept readers in this regard). For common core, making it challenging means placing students, second grade up, in books that would be frustration range according to F&P; books that students would read with markedly lower fluency and comprehension on a first read.

Several months prior to reading this article, I was introduced to the notion that Guided Reading did not offer text complexity because instruction was tailored to the student’s reading level. I disagree, but am realizing that some teachers may organize their guided reading instruction differently. I would like to clarify three points about Guided Reading instruction based on my personal experiences.

1. The purpose of comprehensive reading assessments (such as Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System), is to find a student’s frustrational level of text. The level that they were able to pass independently is their independent reading level. The majority of time students spend reading by themselves should be from selections at this level.

2. The results from this assessment provide the teacher with a clear picture of what the student is struggling with in decoding, fluency and/or comprehension. The teacher then selects texts for Guided Reading that are 1-2 levels above the student’s independent level. These texts are usually the level that the student should be reading independently by the next assessment. Since Guided Reading offers scaffolded instruction, there is no reason why a student should be reading at their independent level at the table. The guided reading table is a safe space for students to experience frustration with text. Instructing at the student’s independent reading level would indeed miss the target for text complexity.

3. Guided Reading is always part of a balanced literacy framework that includes whole group instruction with a on-level or above-level text. It can certainly be true that though Guided Reading instruction is focused above the student’s current independent reading level, that frustrational level may still be several levels below grade level. For this reason, guided reading alone is not a solution for teaching reading, lest students never be exposed to adequately complex texts.

In my own practice, I love bringing close reading to the guided reading table and do not feel that they are mutually exclusive. It keeps my students on their toes and is particularly good for breaking up a longer novel study.

How do you use your students’ reading assessment data to inform your instruction? Do you feel that Guided Reading and close reading can cohabitate?