Close Reading vs. Big Picture Reading Strategies

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  • 0:01 Close Reading and Big…
  • 1:14 Close Reading Strategies
  • 3:04 Big Picture Reading
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

In this lesson, learn about two different approaches to reading a work of literature: big picture strategies and close reading strategies. Discover how these two perspectives can be put into practice through examples from the play 'Romeo and Juliet.'

Close Reading and Big-Picture Reading

Remember the Sesame Street sketch where everyone's favorite fuzzy blue character, Grover, demonstrates the difference between the concepts near and far? Grover runs close to the camera, arms flailing, and screams, 'Near!' and then he runs far away from the camera, yelling, 'Far!'

Grover provides us with a good visual to represent what we will cover in this lesson. Big-picture reading and close reading are two ways of looking at a work of literature. They use varying strategies to provide different kinds of information about a text.

One type approach to reading, big-picture reading, is the 'far' view. Seeing things from a distance allows us to make generalizations, and see patterns and overarching themes we can use to describe a work of literature as a whole.

Close reading is the 'near' perspective. It's an up-close look at literature, shining a light on the small choices made by the author, including word choice, character actions, and symbolic objects.

Just as Grover remains Grover regardless if he is near or far away, looking at the big picture and the smaller details in a work of literature doesn't change what the novel, poem or play is about. We just focus on different things due to our perspective.

Close-Reading Strategies

Close reading requires us to take a deeper look at the choices authors make at the word, sentence and paragraph level. Readers must become detectives, investigating things like repeating sounds, word choices and figurative language, and their effect on the text.

Let's use the first few lines of Shakespeare's well-known tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, as a model for some close-reading strategies. First, the text:

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

First, you may have noticed those two pairs of rhyming words: dignity/mutiny and scene/unclean. Close reading means noticing those end rhymes, but also making the connection to how meaningful those two pairs of words are to what we know is going to happen to Romeo and Juliet.

The 'dignity' of the 'two households' of the Montagues and Capulets is about to give way to 'mutiny' as Romeo and Juliet decide to go against their families and cause even more of a beef between them.

The rhyming pair 'scene/unclean' also foreshadows or hints at all the murder and death that is to come in the story. A close-reading might also make note of the fact that plays are made up of 'scenes.'

Let's recount the specific strategies I used there. First, I noticed the rhyme scheme and the specific words used to make those rhymes. Then I thought about how those words were important to the story of Romeo and Juliet and made the connections very clear.

Close-reading is ultimately about taking note of small details and tying them back to what the work of literature is about. I could have also looked closely at the dialogue between two characters or what the description of a house in a novel might represent.

Big-Picture Reading Strategies

Big-picture reading strategies take a much wider view than close-reading strategies. With big-picture strategies, we take the poem, play or novel as a whole, thinking about elements that wind through the entire work.

One big-picture strategy is to examine the author's overall message and how he or she delivers that message. For example, Shakespeare is obviously trying to say something about family grudges with 'Romeo and Juliet.' All the miscommunications and misfortunes that befall Romeo and Juliet, and their families, are compounded into a full-blown tragedy. In the end, though, the two families are united in their grief.

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