Practicing Critical Reading Strategies

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

Your teacher gives you an assignment. Maybe you're preparing for a test. You're told to practice critical reading. You already know how to read, right? Then what does it mean to read critically? In this lesson, we'll review some great strategies for deep, reflective reading that are sure to help you ace the assignment or test.

What is Critical Reading?

There are many types of reading, each with different goals. When you read a social media post from a friend, you just want to know how to find the latest cat video as quickly as possible. When you're reading Harry Potter, however, you want to know what Voldemort's going to do next, and how Harry's going to feel about it. You might even think about how it makes you feel, or wonder what you would do in the situation. In other words, some reading involves just looking for basic information, while some types of reading engage with a text (such as a novel or essay) on a deeper level.

If you're thinking that critical reading is the second type, you're right. Reading a text ''critically'' means that you want to think about not only ''what'' the text says, but ''how'', and ''why''. You are seeking understanding, not just information. Looking at the words on a page is just the tip of the iceberg, or surface reading, while the majority of the text's meaning, purpose and significance are hidden below the surface.


Tip of the Iceberg


While this lesson covers general reading strategies, these tips apply to test-taking as well. In a test setting, the biggest difference is to keep time management in mind more than ever - if you read quickly but carefully, you'll get everything done in time.

Pre-reading Strategies

Though it might seem counterintuitive, start reading by taking a few minutes to ''not'' read the assigned text. ''What?!'' you might ask. ''But I don't have much time! Shouldn't I just dive in and start reading?'' This can be tempting if you're taking a test or otherwise pressed for time. However, much of a text's significance can be gleaned from some surface details.

Take a few minutes before reading and ask yourself about the purpose of doing this reading? If you're reading for a class, then an assignment prompt or teacher's directions probably give you guidance on what to look for (e.g., ''Analyze figurative language in The Great Gatsby '' or ''Explain the three most important claims of the Declaration of Independence''). If you're taking a test, by reading the questions first, you'll have an idea of what you need to look for once you start reading.


Open Blank Book


Looking quickly at how a text is structured, or scanning it, can also tell you a lot about its purpose. Look at the title and section headings, if there are any. Say you're reading an essay about industrialized society. Section one is titled ''The Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Machine''. Section two is titled ''The Twentieth Century: An Environmental Disaster.'' Just by looking at the section titles, you can that the author is making a historical argument (contrasting the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), and that the reading's overall argument is that industrialization has not been all good. You might also scan a reading and see things like bold words that indicate key terms, or graphs and charts that summarize important information.

Engaging with the Text

Once you've done some pre-reading, you're ready to start with the text itself. Critical reading requires you to do a little bit of work, to think about what you're reading as you do it. This is known as active or engaged reading, and though it might mean that you're going to be spending the rest of your life with the text, it doesn't mean you're marrying it.

Engaged reading means getting physical with the text. Mark all over it using pen or pencil (experts suggest that highlight doesn't really help, however). Try circling terms and phrases that you think are important, underlining key passages, putting a question mark beside sections you don't understand, and making notes in the margin.


Pencil and Paper


Stop every few minutes and jot down some quick notes to summarize things. In particular, keep thinking about the purpose of the text. What is the author's message? Is there an explicit argument, stated for you? Or is there an implicit point, one that you kind of have to guess at? Who is the author writing for, and why?

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