Critical Reading

Critical reading requires the reader to read intentionally and skeptically, looking to understand not only what the author says but also asking questions such as,

  • Why did the author write this article?
  • What are the author’s qualifications to write this material? Is the author an expert in this topic?
  • What is missing from the text? Has the author presented all relevant information?

Critical reading, also known as close reading, is the opposite of skimming the text. Critical reading helps the reader to understand the structure of the presented arguments and evaluate the logic, tone, organization, and internal cohesion of the presented arguments.

Before one may read critically, he must prepare himself. Reading critically requires preparation and concentration, and time. Critical reading is not an activity that one may jump into without preparation, and critical reading often requires a good amount of time and effort if the reader wishes to fully understand the material presented to him.

Tips for Critical Reading

Critical reading is a skill that that you must learn to be successful in both college and life. While some students learn the techniques of critical reading in high school, most students have to learn to read critically while in college. Here are a few tips to help you learn to read critically.

Identify the audience for your work

Authors compose their works with a specific audience in mind. One of the first considerations every author must address before outlining or drafting is his audience. Every writer should ask, “Who is my audience for this work?” Before beginning to read a work, a critical reader will ask himself, “For whom was this work intended?” If a work were written for elementary school children, a college student may find little content of value in the work, unless he were an elementary education major who was looking for examples to use in a class on elementary pedagogy!

Keep an open mind

A college student reads to acquire knowledge. This means that he will occasionally read material that contradicts long-standing beliefs and opinions that they may have. A student with strong religious beliefs may be challenged to consider other religious belief systems—and atheism—during a comparative religion course. However, if this college student seeks to understand the distinctions among the multiple religious traditions, he will put aside his passion for the tenets of his preferred belief system and seek to understand and comprehend the tenets and practices of the systems that he is studying. The student must remain dispassionate regarding the material and seek to understand, not discount and disagree.

A critical reader also gives the author whose work he is reading time to develop the work’s arguments. By not expecting  every answer to appear on the first page of the work, a critical reader accepts the author’s presentation style and seeks to understand why the author has presented the arguments in the order that he has. It’s important when reading critically that you do not rush to conclusion; let the content fully develop. Take your time.

Read the text from the outside inward

Critically reading academic material follows a pattern that is different from reading for pleasure. Reading a novel for pleasure requires the reader to start at the beginning and read through to the end (unless of course, the reader likes to jump to the end to see how the mystery ends). Reading for pleasure is an act in and of itself; the pleasure comes from the reading process.

Academic materials require a different reading pattern. Critical reading requires the student to first create a frame of reference from which the reader may understand the details. Typically, critical reading follows a specific pattern:

1. Read the book’s title

2. Read the table of contents

3. Read the preface and forward

4. Read the index

5. Read the introduction to the assigned chapter

6. Read the summary of the assigned chapter

7. Read the full contents of the assigned chapter.

A reader can only understand the full essence of the assigned chapter after knowing the purpose of the entire book. Having a grasp of the author’s intention in writing the textbook, will help a student better understand the details presented in each assigned chapter.

College professors assign reading materials that guide students to understanding the particular learning objectives of each class meeting and often these materials will come from multiple textbooks, not necessarily in the order in which the textbook authors wrote the materials. In general, a college student should expect neither to read all of the material in all of his textbooks nor read the material in the order in which it is presented in the textbooks. The course professor is using materials to support the class lectures and discussions, not create class lessons that follow the given textbook. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem; which came first, the textbook or the class lesson? From the professor’s perspective, the lesson came first, and the assigned readings support the lesson.

Use a dictionary and encyclopedia as necessary

A college student will often come upon words that are novel to him. When this happens, the student should seek to determine the word’s denotation from analyzing the context in which the word is used. Then, he should confirm his understanding by using a collegiate or unabridged dictionary. It is vital that a college student use an appropriate dictionary, so as to learn not only how a word is used in American English but the word’s etymology and preferred pronunciation. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) offers the most complete linguistic denotations, and the Oxford English Dictionary offers excellent etymologies.?1 Both of these dictionaries are available in all academic libraries.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (unabridged) and its companion, the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, are also available at Do not be satisfied with the definitions presented in an abridged dictionary, as these are offer insufficient detail for college work. Abridged dictionaries will likely not offer sufficient details and nuance for college work.

Take notes and ask questions

Critical reading requires students to take notes and ask questions during the reading process. If you prefer to take notes manually, you may find David Murphy’s note taking worksheet helpful. It is available at Or you may prefer to use a Livescribe smartpen, which is available at

Effective readers often create an outline of the principal arguments and topics addressed in works that they read. These notes serve not only to facilitate talking about the material during the next academic class meeting, they also serve as a means of physically organizing the reader’s understanding of the material.

Create context

When reading material for an academic purpose, a student must recognize that all learned material must pass through a lens. This lens is composed of experiences, knowledge, assumptions, judgments, and preferences. That which a reader knows colors that which he learns and seeks to know. A student who is already familiar with literary criticism will find criticizing a short story easier than will a student who is not yet familiar with the process of literary criticism. A student familiar with evolution may find it easier to see the relationships among Charles Darwin’s arguments in On The Origin of Species than a student who has not yet been exposed to the scientific details of the evolutionary process.

Critically reading also requires understanding the author’s perspective and biases. An article describing a political debate that is published in a Republican publication will likely highlight and develop different arguments than a description of the same debate that is published in Democratic or Libertarian publications.

A reader must also keep in mind that an author is a product of his time and experience. One may not expect work published in 1960 to portend the development and cultural influences of digital social media services, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Maintain perspective

How a reader perceives a work affects his ability to recall and understand not only the discrete facts of the selection but also the corpus of the selection, as well as understanding the relationships among the constituent details.

Understanding how the parts of a work fit together is often as important to a student as understanding the individual parts. For example, when reading poetry, the relationships among repeated phrases, metaphors, and constructions lead the student to fully comprehending the poet’s intention. Other forms of literature also ask the reader to seek relationships among details. Flannery O’Connor requires readers to follow the details of familial interactions and religious references in her short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Evaluation and Analysis

Critical reading allows the student to consider more deeply the writer’s arguments than does summative or cursory reading. Students are required to not only memorize details for later recall (e.g., dates, places, names), they are required to ask questions, such as:

  • Why did an historical event occur?
  • What were the contributing factors that led to the event?
  • What if one of the presumed contributing events had not occurred, would the result still have been the same?
  • Students must also evaluate the author’s experience and possible biases, asking questions such as,
  • Did the author consider previous scholarship related to this topic?
  • Did the author present an unbiased, disinterested review of the data?
  • How thoroughly has the author addressed the causes, effects, and other elements related to the topic?
  • Does the author present new scholarship or does he simply restate previous work?
  • Students must seek to evaluate and analyze the assigned readings. Analysis requires a thorough understanding of the material, thorough to the degree that the student may ask questions.
  • These questions may include:
  • Is the author truthful in his presentation of facts?
  • Did the author include all relevant facts?
  • What elements are missing from the author’s defense of his propositions?

This component of critical reading requires deep critical thinking: seeking to identify the emotions, assumptions, and logical fallacies that have crept into the arguments set before the student.

To become a great thinker and writer, a student should read the same historic materials that great writers read. Rather than reading only modern interpretations of historic materials,  you should seek to explore the same historic texts as the great writers did.

Marking Texts

As you read academic material (e.g., textbooks, handouts), you will likely have questions come to mind. When these questions come up, stop to write them down. You may write your questions in the margin of the textbook?2, on a sticky note, or in a notebook. You may even find it helpful to use the Cornell notetaking template that is described in chapter on notetaking.

By noting questions that come to mind while you are reading, you take a pause. This pause in the reading process moves the reading process from passivity to activity: engaging you more fully in the reading process. Being an active reader is vital to effective critical reading. Noting questions, comments—even disagreements—helps to create engagement between the you and the work that you are reading.

Reading a substantially challenging text without a writing implement at hand prevents the opportunity to fully interact with the text.?3


Careful readers do not highlight texts; rather, they prepare notes that reflect their understanding the material. Highlighting is useful when seeking to identify keywords that you must recall on a test, but highlighting does not help you to more deeply understand the material that you are reading.

Creating an annotated bibliography or using a note takingworksheet such as the one that is available on enables the reader to interact with the textual material. Translating  into one’s own words forces the reader to analyze and comprehend the arguments and data that are set before her. These additional steps—mechanical and cognitive—encourage learning.

E-readers: Benefits and Limitations

E-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad—and to a lesser popularity, the Barnes & Noble Booksellers Nook and the Sony Reader—offer portability to the reader, as do the Adobe PDF and ASCII text formats. Reading digitally, rather than in a traditional codex form, facilitates carrying dozens, possibly hundreds of thousands, of texts in a single, handheld device. However, portable access to so many texts can be a great convenience to both avid and scholarly readers, digital readers are not without significant limitations.

The principal disadvantage of digital reading devices comes from the technical requirements imposed by digital rights management software.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) allows publishers to remotely enforce their copyrights to works that are stored on reader’s digital devices. A reader may be required to enter a password to open an DRM-protected Adobe PDF file, purchase a text using specific software (e.g., Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, or Barnes & Noble Nook). A copy of the text purchased in one format and for one device may not be opened or converted to another format or device. The DRM software prevents these tricks of digital manipulation, forcing the reader to limit his reading to the prescribed format and device or purchase another copy of the work for a second device. This is not meant to be an argument against a publisher’s right to protect its copyrights but a description of the principal limitation of using a digital reading device.

Another limitation of digital reading devices is a lack of facilitated note taking. A digital reading device may offer highlighting and noting options; however, these are rudimentary at best, given the state of digital technology. Note taking on a digital reader without a pop-up, stylus controlled data entry system requires the reader to switch input screens, open a nearly or wholly separate application, type notes and, using his forefinger—a poor substitute for a stylus—link the note to the highlighted selection in the text.

When  reading on a digital device readers may find it more convenient to take notes using the tried and true method of pen and paper, a more efficient method of taking notes, compared to using the noting functions on my Kindles and iPad.

Although many textbooks are available in both codes and digital forms, students and instructors often prefer to carry a codex to class. Turning pages that are marked by sticky notes is quicker and easier than scrolling through pages of digital text, using a finger. Referring to physically printed material is more easily done than referring to digitally printed text. A student can usually more quickly turn pages in a codex than scroll through digital pages when looking to find previously read material. The exception to this general practice is the student who has thoughtfully prepared digital bookmarks during his pre-class reading sessions.

Reading Slowly

Critical reading, much to the consternation of timestrapped college students, is not an efficient means to reading more quickly. It is exactly the opposite. Critical reading requires the reader to slow down, reading more deeply. The objective of critical reading is to acquire as much knowledge as possible from a text, not most quickly reading the text.


1 An etymology describes how a word came into current use.

2 While marginalia can be helpful when you review for examinations, you cannot resell your book for as much money as you could have if you had kept your book in pristine condition.

3 Alan Jacobs. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.  p. 60. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2011.



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