Whether your students are reading a textbook for a class discussion, articles for a paper or thesis, or even just a newspaper, the ability to read critically is essential to writing or to public speaking. As preparation for composition, critical and close reading leads to stronger comprehension; it also sparks critical thinking and reasoning, which leads to more developed content.
You can help students read better by reviewing the reading process and encouraging them to follow it. Making students more reflective about their reading process can pay handsome dividends.
Preparing to read
Critical reading actually starts before a reader looks at the text. Students should begin by establishing the reason for reading. You can help by setting this up in an assignment. Clarify if you want students to read for information, or to understand the context of an issue, or to determine pros and cons—what do you hope they will get from reading a particular piece?
Awareness of document type can also help readers determine what to expect from reading. If the text is an analysis, for example, it will criticize, evaluate the authenticity or accuracy, or question a concept. If it is a research study, it will present the purpose, methods, and results. If it is an argument, it will present a claim and evidence for the claim.
Students can use knowledge of the basic organizational structure and purpose of a document type to take notes and to help them see the main points in the text. For example, if they are aware that the text is an analysis, they can identify what is being critiqued and the evaluative stance of the author. Given the dense nature of much academic prose, such guidance will simplify their task.
Guiding the reading
The following questions can help students decide what is important in a text:
What is the main idea or thesis? How is the main idea supported and developed?
What content is new to you? What concepts does the text introduce? (i.e., new vocabulary, a new theory, a new perspective on an established concept, etc.)
What questions, issues, or problems does this text address? Does it create or bring up additional questions?
How is the text organized? (i.e., categorically, chronologically, compare/contrast, scientific method, etc.)
After the reading
Advise students to think about the text once they have read it and review any notes they made while reading. They should make notes on their own evaluation of the text. Do they accept the text’s claims, evidence, or results? If they are reading for a project, how does the reading contribute to their own work? Thinking about the text and reviewing their notes will help them remember and use what they read.
Critical Reading Tips (to share with students)
Read the text several times if needed.
Highlight key phrases, sentences, or words, but don’t highlight too much. Otherwise, nothing will stick out from the text.
Look for words or headings that signal organization or that might lead to main points.
Mark unfamiliar terms and difficult sections to reread, look up, or discuss with your professor.
Take notes or outline the text’s organization and content. Review what you write.
Annotate and comment, or respond to the text in writing. Writing allows you to think deeply about the content and make connections with the ideas in the text.
Read complicated sections out loud. Slowing down and using two senses helps you understand and retain the information more effectively. It also helps you pay attention instead of letting your eyes superficially sweep over the words.
Allow plenty of time to read; speed reading isn’t the best method for reading critically.
Especially if students are doing an extended research project, a reading log can help them read more thoroughly and critically as well as provide a means to keep track of sources. The reading log should include full bibliographic information and a summary of the reading, as well as critical reflections and evaluations. Make sure students are aware that they should use quotation marks whenever they quote directly from a text, so that if they refer to their notes during the composing process, they can give proper credit. The easiest way to show them how to keep a log is to provide a few sample entries that you have written yourself. Have them read the text it is based on and then examine and discuss the entry in class.
Bean, John, Virginia A. Chappell, and Alice M. Gillam. Reading Rhetorically. 2nd brief ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Kennedy, Mary Lynch, and Hadley M. Smith. Reading and Writing in the Academic Community. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall-Pearson, 2010.
Academic Success Center, Reading for Success