Reading & Writing Center
The key to success in college--in all courses, in all disciplines--is critical reading. Critical reading is concentrated, active, engaged reading. At its core, critical reading involves annotating a text: underlining and writing key words in the margins.
Some students do not know how to read critically because they have never been allowed to write in their books. In college, you own the books, so you can finally learn this vital skill. You might worry that you are ruining the book, especially for sale back to the bookstore. However, marking in the book does not drastically decrease its value, and you should think beyond immediate economics to your future: you are paying now to get an education that will help you later. And a real education involves critical reading. If you can’t write in your book because you rented it or for another reason, please use brightly colored sticky notes for note-taking.
Critical reading is difficult but rewarding. Below are a few steps to help you.
Step 1: Find a quiet place to read and set yourself up for success
- Turn off the tv
- Hide your phone or use apps to limit your use
- Close out other browser tabs or find websites that allow you to turn off unnecessary pages
- Use classical music, a sound machine, or a white noise app instead of music with lyrics
- Find a quiet place in the library
- Study in a place that has ambient noise instead of people talking
- Use a Pomodoro-styled timer so you read actively for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break; this helps you maintain your concentration
Step 2: Pre-read your assignment and set reading goals
- Skim over the whole assignment very quickly
- Get a good idea of how much you must read and what it will entail
- Pay special attention to chapter titles, headings, highlighted sections, and illustrations
- Set your reading goals: to take a test on the material, to write an essay, to complete an assignment, etc.
Step 3: Use a reading strategy
- Think back to some of the reading strategies you’ve learned in your classes or from this website
- Having a strategy in hand will focus your reading better and allow you to see the arguments being made in the texts
Step 4: Annotate by reading with a pen in hand
- Annotation is the heart of critical reading; you aren’t reading critically if you aren’t annotating
- The two most basic moves of annotation are underlining and writing in the margins
- Underline key points, especially those found in topic sentences
- Highlight key words and terms by drawing a box around them
- Although many students like to use highlighters, highlighting a text is not sufficient; if you do use a highlighter, you should also use a pen to write in the margins
Step 5: Write key ideas/main points in the margins
- As you underline key ideas and main points, write them beside the text in the margins
- If you come to class with an article, textbook chapter, short story, novel, or non-fiction text that has the main points summarized, paragraph-by-paragraph, you will be prepared to answer questions and engage in class discussions
- When you go back to the text to write a paper or study for a test, you can quickly skim the text for main ideas without re-reading the whole text
- Annotating–underlining and writing in the margins–takes more time than quick, passive reading, but it actually saves time in the long run; you will understand the reading better from the start and retain more of it later
- An interesting note: Studies have shown that, even if you never look at the text again, if you have annotated it well, you will retain more than if you had merely read the text without marking it
Step 6: Read with a dictionary in hand--and use it!
- Look up unfamiliar words and write the definitions in the margins
- Since a text is made of words, if you don’t know what the words mean, you can’t really understand the text
- Pay special attention to defining key concepts
- Use the dictionary after you’ve read so you don’t interrupt your reading momentum and comprehension
Step 7: Ask questions as you read
- Stop often and ask questions: What does the title mean? Why does the writer begin the text this way? What is the writer’s main point? Why did the writer make that argument or use that example?
- Engage in a dialogue with the writer as you read; the writer is talking to you, so talk back with questions
- And write key questions in the margins; a questioning reader is well on the way to becoming a critical thinker
Step 8: Ask "how?," "why?," and "so what?" questions
- Don’t just read to understand what the writer is saying (although that’s important); read to figure out how, why, and the reason things happen since these are the deeper analytic questions
- Consider who the writer's audience was or her purpose for writing this text
Step 9: Look for the elements of reasoning
- As you read and after you have read, try to think about the elements of reasoning: purpose, audience, question at issue, point of view, information, concepts, implications, assumptions, conclusions, context, and alternatives
- If you apply the elements of reasoning to your reading, you are critically reading and critically thinking
Step 10: Evaluate the arguments of the text
- Break the arguments down into separate parts, examine those parts closely, and evaluate how significant they are to the work as a whole or to the argument you plan to make with your own essay
- What are the writer’s assumptions? His or her thesis? Audience? Purpose? Biases? Is the author convincing? Is the logic reasonable? Has the writer appealed to your logic, emotions, or values?
Step 11: Create a dialogue or debate with the text
- Note any points that contradict your own experiences or opinions
- Note anything you are skeptical about or that counterargues your other sources
- Write down any questions you have about the author’s counterarguments
- Look for logical fallacies that exaggerate the evidence or use faulty logic
- One article only provides one perspective, and your job might be to combine perspectives, as in a synthesis essay or a research paper, so ask yourself how this source connects to your other sources
Step 12: Think about the standards of critical thinking
- After you have finished reading, apply the standards of critical thinking to the text: clearness; accuracy; importance and relevance; sufficiency; breadth and depth; precision
- If you can do a standards check of a text before class, you will be way ahead in the game
Step 13: Look for connections
- Have you read anything else by this writer? Is this text like something else you have read? Does this text relate to something you are learning in another course, or something from your own experience?
- Make emotional or personal connections, and write them down in the margins
Page created by H. McMichael
Some material adapted from John Bird, Winthrop University TLC