Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

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.

Another big-picture strategy is to look at how the author handles a big question like fate versus free-will. We learn within the first few minutes of the play how it will end when Shakespeare writes, ‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.’ So is it fate that they meet, fall in love and die, or are Romeo and Juliet directly responsible for what happens to them?

Like individual brush strokes, recurring small details add up to paint a larger picture. Shakespeare makes many references to fate throughout ‘Romeo and Juliet’; mentions of stars, fate and bad omens contributes to a larger approach on the part of the playwright. In this way, the smaller examples taken from close-reading can be used as evidence to develop a big-picture view.

For example, before attending the ball where he meets Juliet for the first time, Romeo predicts that, ‘Some consequence yet hanging in the stars/ Shall bitterly begin his fearful date.’ While Romeo and Juliet go around cursing the stars they were born under, they don’t seem to take much responsibility for their choice to get married in secret.

Lesson Summary

Big-picture reading and close-reading strategies are two ways of looking at a work of literature. Big-picture reading strategies focus on larger themes or recurring details, like mentions of fate or free-will. Close-reading strategies look at the small details in a story, poem or novel and how they connect to the larger story being told. Strong readers use both big-picture and close-reading strategies to examine literature for the author’s intent.

Join the conversation