A Rubric for Close Reading

With my research assistant Sarah Hertz, I’m developing a rubric for close readings of Shakespeare’s texts, mostly verse, in my English 205 this fall (2011). Close reading is a core skill for English majors, and thus is one of the skills the course focuses on. (The others are slow reading; annotating texts; using evidence; paraphrasing and comparing passages; and the stages of critical writing–from citations to arguments to outlines to editing.)

So how do you test students’ close reading skills in a stand-alone exercise? In the past, I’ve simply demonstrated what you look for when close reading — form, structure, argument, voice/tone, sound/rhythm, language, rhetorical figures. My assignment then offered students a list like this with some descriptive language, and set them loose on a sight passage.

The results were very uneven; a recurring problem was that students would neglect components that were too difficult, and hope for the best. Must a close reading be comprehensive to be valid? Not necessarily, but one that makes no mention of the rhyme scheme when analyzing a sonnet  (for instance) is doing it an injustice.

So Sarah and I are formalizing the process with a questionnaire, of sorts. So far the site offered by a consortium called Mantex has been useful for dividing the components into linguistic, semantic, structural, and cultural categories. But we’re also using some guides that have been online for ages: from Sophia A McClennan to the venerable Jack Lynch to John Lye to L Kip Wheeler, these are decidedly Web 1.0-style guides to the timeless, pre-Twitter habits of reading, rereading, and looking up words in the OED.

When we have a preliminary version of the rubric ready to share for comments, I’ll post it here. More in due course.

UPDATE: The exercise is now available here, on Google Docs.

One Response to “A Rubric for Close Reading”

  1. Roberta Jackson

    Hi Michael,

    I’ve been thinking about close reading quite a bit lately in other contexts and one thing that came up there and I see here is a potential for confusion in the terms that has surfaced in my own work–“close reading” can be a practice (as it is here) or the results of that practice–an interpretation. Is this questionnaire intended to lead them from the practice to the results? It might be that you make this clear in the context of the class, but I am just wondering if this questionnaire leads the students towards a “reading” of the text.

    A couple of smaller issues. In question 2 about line length–is that not a question about metre? Are you asking how many feet in the line? If so, you could also ask them to scan the poem for you.

    One small issue: question 3–there is a chance that the students might think these are two different questions. You could just follow the phrasing in the following questions and say “consider the structure”–I think that would work.

    Hope this helps, Michael,




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