Cold, Hot or Warm? Thoughts on Cold Reads in English

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about cold reads: how they work, how they maybe don’t work, whether they’re a good thing, bad thing, or whether they deserve their increasing popularity. I’m not sure how much this post will offer as I suspect, or certainly at the outset, my answer to all of the above will be ‘I’m not sure’.

Yet, the fact this is my starting point, one of slight scepticism and curiosity, is probably good enough reason to write this in the first place. If nothing else this might help to clarify my own thinking about what place cold reads might have, if any, in my own classroom.

What Are Cold Reads?

This seems like a reasonable place to start. What exactly are they? I suppose, as with anything, there is inevitably some variance depending on specific teacher and class, but I think the general principle of a cold read would share some or all of the following characteristics:

  • An emphasis on moving through the text quickly
  • Most discussion or teacher/student interaction during the cold read based around teasing out plot points and basic comprehension
  • Little emphasis placed on detailed analysis, with this coming after the cold read
  • Curated reading, where certain parts or sections of the text are omitted or the story paraphrased in order sustain pace

Thus, adopting a cold read strategy places a premium on moving through the text quickly, attending mostly to details of plot, with the intention then being to return to analysis and more detailed discussion once the text has been read. As such, it might be that the entire text is read in only a matter of weeks or even lessons.

If this is what a cold read is at a practical level, then the next question is why do it? As someone not necessarily in favour of cold reads, not entirely anyway, I can still think of many reasons we might adopt such an approach:

  • It provides students with a solid understanding of the text meaning any subsequent analysis is rooted in an appreciation of the whole text
  • Closely connected to the above, this makes it much easier to discuss character arcs, narrative trajectory, motifs, tropes, recurring ideas and themes, the underpinning message or perspective of the text
  • By focusing on plot first, it helps students to build a solid textual schema through which to then view any subsequent analysis and discussion
  • Textual pleasure is possibly heightened, at least at the level of story, since students are able to enjoy the text as intended and enjoy the experience of reading or encountering a wonderful story
  • Linked to the above, it perhaps builds opportunity for disciplinary pleasure since students are likely to find it easier to appreciate the text at the level of plot and story and therefore encounter more opportunities for success within English. Once such feelings of success are embedded, any future complexities or struggle might be met with more willingness to persevere

Undoubtedly, there are other reasons too, but these strike me as the most salient. There is certainly a lot here to agree with, but, as already expressed, I’m still wary of cold reads as a strategy. Why?

Why Might We Not Wish to Use Them?

I suppose the premise of this blog is that, whilst by no means opposed to doing a cold read, I am somewhat wary of them or perhaps unconvinced of their efficacy. There are a few reasons for this, but I’d like to explore three in particular that I suppose might best be described as philosophical or disciplinary rather than strictly practical. I have no doubt at all that if we were set on doing a cold read it could be handled incredibly seamlessly, but my wariness is more related to whether we should be using them in the first instance.

Reason for Wariness No 1

Is there an argument to be made that we conflate our enjoyment of reading the kinds of texts we teach ‘cold’ with the kind of enjoyment this might elicit in students? By way of exemplification, here’s a beautiful passage from Macbeth:

If being read ‘cold’, which is to say for a first time and with very minimal analysis or guidance, what is the textual experience of reading these lines likely to be?

Now of course, this is wildly inauthentic in the sense some students would absolutely get a lot more out of this than indicated above, but as a broad sweep of what might be happening in a classroom when reading this passage it might help to capture the discrepancy that could quickly emerge between the actual enjoyment of the teacher and the perhaps assumed enjoyment of the student.

Of course too the student would be getting other things from the play and probably sustain an overall trajectory of how Macbeth is feeling and what’s happening, but the nuance is probably being lost and it’s in the nuance that literature really lives. Are they getting from this cold the hit of emotion that we would get and that the play is able, and intended, to provoke?

The other slight tremble comes in contemplating what misconceptions might now be starting to take root in some student minds that then, as the play continues, are compounded and amplified.

The final point to make here is that with scaffolding, teacher guidance, discussion, and analysis students could be brought to the same kind of textual experience we might have on a first reading. Does a cold read magnify the natural gaps that might exist between teacher and student rather than seek to close them? An advocate of cold reads no doubt would say students are getting enough of the text to enjoy it in a meaningful and rich manner and that subsequent analysis would be deepened having first read the whole text. I am by no means at all unconvinced of this, just slightly wary.

Reason for Wariness No 2

I wonder if it might be worth making a distinction between English as a formal discipline and then English in the much more informal and dispersed sense of celebrating and enjoying reading. The two can, and do, co-exist within an English classroom, and this is a good thing, but is one a more authentic disciplinary procedure or experience than another? In other words, should we be setting up our classroom routines to better facilitate one over the other?

I would argue that the English classroom is a place in which we should signpost, model and celebrate reading for enjoyment, but, more fundamentally, it is a space in which to enact certain disciplinary traditions underpinned by discussion, analysis, commentary, critical reflection. The meaning of text is extracted and best experienced, perhaps, through careful reading and analysis, at least within the domain and disciplinary tradition of ‘English Literature’ as distinct from ‘literature’.

If one accepts this position, and I absolutely concede we may not, then does a cold read facilitate an authentic disciplinary experience of reading a text? It’s worth saying that using a cold read as a strategy implies going back to the text when finished and doing exactly those things listed above (discussion, analysis, commentary) and so in this sense it could absolutely be argued it is deeply enmeshed within the procedures of the discipline.

Yet, I do wonder, slightly, if there is a difference between enacting that kind of analytical and discursive reading in the moment of encountering the text as opposed to afterwards. Could an argument be made that the more disciplinary experience is to model, scaffold, guide students through this kind of analytical disposition as they are reading it? This would not preclude going back to it again either and certainly shouldn’t be seen as advocating a kind of microscopic, ‘death by annotation’ approach, but I wonder if a cold read moves us away from the kind of reading we hope to inculcate in our students.

This kind of reading is likely what we, as experts, do all the time: we are attuned, as we read, to motif, choice of language, symbolism, imagery, theme, and such like. Students, as novices, are not. This might in fact be a reason for adopting a cold reading, but another view might be that this could be a reason for taking our time, drawing student attention to what we would notice but they might miss, discussing the use of language, and all of this taking place during and not after we read the text. In this way, the meaning of the text unfolds itself during the reading process, guided by the teacher, and students encounter its richness and depth as belonging to the process of reading and not just to subsequent study. The two become one in the same: attentive, deliberate, careful reading attuned to language, form and structure is reading in the English classroom.

Reason for Wariness No. 3

When considering how best to adopt a cold read strategy I’m always slightly at a loss as to the text it’s most appropriate for. I think this is actually really tricky to get right. If the chosen text is too complex then cold reading might not work especially well because there is a risk of compounding misconception and misunderstanding without frequent checks and pausing to discuss. The necessary frequency of these pauses may then undermine the point of doing a cold read in the first place. However, on the flip side, if the text is too straightforward or accessible then is a cold read even warranted as, in this instance, discussing and analysis could perhaps take place alongside without too much being lost.

It’s quite difficult to find a text that occupies the middle ground: one that is neither too complex as to run the risk of introducing and exacerbating confusion nor so accessible that analysis couldn’t take place alongside an initial reading anyway. For cold reading, or one could argue at least, to be truly effective the text would need to be easy enough for students to keep track of the plot and underpinning ideas mostly on their own yet not so easy that a more analytical, discursive, collective discussion couldn’t be taking place.

Are We Any Closer to an Answer Yet?

Not really! In many ways, this post wasn’t intended to provide an answer but rather to clarify my own thinking and, as anticipated, I’m probably not much further along in this than my starting position.

I can definitely appreciate and value the arguments for using cold reading as a strategy, but my overall attitude is still one of wariness. I think this is mostly because, in most instances, my preferred approach would be to scaffold an initial reading and textual experience that moulds itself to the kind of analytical noticing I would have myself on a first reading. I can’t expect my students to have this kind of encounter natively, but equally it is still the kind of encounter I want to shape. I’m not convinced, although I completely concede others may be, that cold reading is the best strategy to adopt to achieve this goal.

This is an encounter based around a careful unfolding of meaning where the text reveals itself not just as a story, but as a story mediated through language, imagery, symbolism, theme, and that all of these exist alongside one another as we move through and not over the surface of the text. Yet, this isn’t the same either as the kind of microscopic analysis sometimes synonymous with the English classroom, a style of reading of which I’m equally wary.

Perhaps, then, the kind of textual encounter I’m advocating might be best thought of as a warm read: we stop and pause to notice, annotate, discuss and unfold meaning as it happens, seeing the story as contiguous to this and not placing it before, but we also shy away from what could become detailed, line by line annotative reading. It’s the kind of reading we might do, pencil in hand as we scribble in the margins during and not after our first encounter with the text.

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