If our students had a dollar for every time we said, “You need to start reading critically,” they’d be millionaires by Christmas! Like critical thinking, critical reading is something many teachers take for granted because we know how to do it. But we need to remember that critical reading is a learned strategy, one that we must teach our students. So rather than have our students grit their teeth and learn through trial and error, we thought they might benefit from a few of these simple steps.
5 Ways to Help your Students with Critical Reading and Reading Critically
Poke around before you start reading
The first thing most readers do is check to see how long the text is and then do a quick mental tally to figure the amount of time it’s going to take to read it. Before you do that, check out the first page of the assigned reading:
- Do you see any headnotes? Is there an abstract (a brief summary of what you’re about to read) or any other notes about the author? This is valuable information; read this first.
- Now read the first paragraph—maybe even the first few paragraphs if they are relatively short. Introductions are typically where the author sets up his or her argument and tells you what s/he is going to tell you in the rest of the article.
- It’s sort of an unwritten law: you’re not supposed to read the end of a book first. Forget that for a second; go ahead and read the last paragraph(s). This is the section is important; it’s where the author tells you what s/he told you in the text.
Let’s stand back and assess here. Think about all the things you know now that you’ve done this: You know who the author is (which means that that you have a sense for her biases); you know what she is going to talk about; you also know what her conclusions are. Not bad for a few minutes of work.
Not all paragraphs are created equally
Although every paragraph should serve a purpose and help the author build her case, not all paragraphs are created equal. You’ll want to spend more time on some paragraphs (reading, rereading, annotating) than on others.
Be on the lookout for certain key words and phrases
Experienced writers use certain signal or transitional phrases that, if you know how to look for them, draw attention to essential information. For example, when an author says, “thus” or “therefore,” circle it and read on. Why? Because she is about to sum up her conclusion. The same goes for “however,” “moreover.” Also, when you see that the author has written “First,” it is likely that there will be a “Second” and “Third” point she will make. Circle these words so that you’ll be able to remember the structure of the author’s reasoning or argument.
Write on the text with a pencil
Mark up your books, but do it in pencil. Don’t try to rely on your memory. Here are some other tips:
- Ditch the highlighter: When students do annotate their texts, many of them use highlighters. We suggest sticking to pencil for a few reasons: first, you’ll be able to erase your notes at the end of the semester; second, highlighters may draw your attention to specific areas in the text, but they don’t help you remember why you highlighted it in the first place. You can’t very easily write “I disagree because…” or “confusing” in neon pink highlighter, can you?
- Use words, phrases and symbols: Underlining is good, but not enough. Of course, you’ll devise your own system, but you might try using an (!) for a particularly important sentence or paragraph. Try a (?) where you are confused. If the author appears to be going on a tangent, write, “How does this connect to the rest of the text?”
You have biases just like the author has hers
As you read, be aware of your own beliefs and, if you can, set aside your own preconceptions and judgments. If you begin reading something already having decided that you disagree with the author or that the reading is boring or stupid, you’ve already shaped the way you’ll engage with that text.
Setting aside your preconceptions doesn’t mean that you have to believe or agree with everything that you read. It simply means that you are open to new ideas and are prepared to interrogate your own as well as those of the author.
Some of the ideas in this blog have been adapted from the Harvard Library’s article, Introduction: Thinking-Intensive Reading.