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The DBQ and Close Reading

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By Mollie Hackett, The DBQ Project

In classrooms across the country, a new emphasis is being placed on engaging students in “close reading.”  The goal is to create students who read with a critical eye, and search out the deeper meaning of text.  The DBQ with its use of short document excerpts – which are rich and layered in meaning – is a perfect tool for teaching these skills.

According to Barry Brummett, Professor in Communication at the University of Texas, close reading is “the mindful, disciplined reading of an object with a view to deeper understanding of its meaning.”  To be “mindful” means to be aware of one’s purpose and thinking as one reads. To teach this skill, we as teachers must model our own thinking – to make the invisible aspect of reading visible to our students.  It also means engaging students in such strategies as the think aloud to develop their metacognative skills.  Further, to be “disciplined” means instilling certain habits of mind in our students; habits that are often unique to a field of study (i.e. history, science, etc.). For instance, students of history need to learn how to detect point of view and think deeply about how that point of view impacts the telling of events. Historical thinking also requires a reader to contextualize a document; to situate it in place and time, including being cognizant of how the values and assumptions of the author and original audience differ from their own. These are just a few of the habits of historical thinking.  As history teachers we would be doing an injustice to our students if we didn’t teach them how to tackle text in this way.

Yet, as one can imagine, teaching this type of close reading, and having these types of conversations about text with our students, takes time. Fortunately, the concise nature of the documents used in DBQs offers the time-pressed teacher the perfect opportunity to integrate close reading instruction into their classroom. A teacher can model and guide students through a close reading of a document, and allow for individual or collaborative practice with additional documents, all within the confines of a class period.   DBQs also help to address another key challenge that comes with close reading, and that is students’ limited reading stamina.  As one can imagine, this type of “mindful” and “disciplined” reading takes a tremendous amount of mental energy on the part of our students. DBQs allow students to practice in short intervals, thus allowing them to sustain the necessary mental energy and not feel overwhelmed. Over time, as students become more proficient, longer documents can be assigned.  And in a few years, when they arrive at college, and their professors assign them to read The Federalist Papers, Walden, or the likes (in their entirety), our students will feel confident and capable of mastering such text.

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