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2.1.1: Critical Reading

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    Reading for Understanding

    Reading is a much harder skill to master than we think, and many instructors take this for granted when assigning academic material. We forget how hard it is to read and actually understand information that might be completely new to us.

    Read, Re-read, Read Again

    Reading critically takes skill and time. In order to really grasp hard material, it's recommended that you read it at least three times:

    1. Read for an Overview - Read quickly, to get a general picture of the writer's purpose, methods, and conclusions. Authors do not always explicitly spell everything out for you --sometimes you must use inferences to figure out what the information is about.
    2. Read for Understanding - Once you have a general idea, read a second time more carefully to gain a critical, thoughtful understanding of the key points. Think about what the author is presenting - if the author is writing to persuade, do they provide evidence and do you find the arguments convincing? (Use some of your evaluation skills here.)
    3. Read for Note Taking and Summary - As you read a third time, begin to take brief notes about arguments, evidence, conclusions, or questions you still have.

    Identifying Key Points and Arguments

    Step one is relatively easy - this is how we read most everything. We skim through an article or online post to get the general meaning and an overview. Steps two and three become more difficult. When looking for key points and arguments, you are trying to determine how (or even if) you will use the source for your own research.

    There are some places that commonly contain this type of information so these sections might be good places to start.


    If it's an academic journal article, it often includes an abstract. This is a one to two paragraph summary of the article that might include a research question, information on research subjects, and a very quick summary of findings. It is an excellent place to look to determine whether the research article is going to help you further your arguments.


    The purpose of the introduction to any piece that has one is to give information about what the reader can expect from the source as a whole. There are different types of introductions, including forewords and prefaces that may be written by the author of the book or by someone else with knowledge of the subject. Introductory sections can include background information on why the topic was chosen, background on the author’s interest in the topic, context pertaining to why the topic is important, or the lens through which the topic will be explored. Knowing this information before diving in to the body of the work will help you understand the author’s approach to the topic and how it might relate to the approach you are taking in your own research.

    Table of Contents

    Most of the time, if your source is a book or an entire website, it will be divided into sections that each cover a particular aspect of the overall topic. It may be necessary to read through all of these sections in order to get a “big picture” understanding of the information being discussed or it may be better to concentrate only on the areas that relate most closely to your own research. Looking over the table of contents or menu will help you decide whether you need the whole source or only pieces of it.

    List of References

    If the source you’re using is research-based, it should have a list of references that usually appears at the end of the document. Reviewing these references will give you a better idea of the kind of work the author put into their own research. Did they put as much work into evaluating their sources as you are? Can you tell from the citations if the sources used were credible? When were they published? Do they represent a fair balance of perspectives or do they all support a limited point of view? What information does the author use from these sources and in what way does he or she use that information? Use your own research skills to spy on the research habits of others to help you evaluate the source.

    Taking Notes about a Text

    Note taking is sometimes referred to as annotating. Annotating simply means to take notes about the text you are reading. Some people hand-write directly on the document, some people hand-write separate notes on another piece of paper or in a notebook, and some people type up notes - you should do what feels best to you. There is research that shows that hand-writing notes with a good old fashioned paper and pen will help you retain more information than note taking on a computer (Goodwin, 2018).

    Strategies for Connecting Reading and Writing

    If you want to become a critical reader, you need to get into a habit of writing as you read. You also need to understand that complex texts cannot be read just once. Instead, they require multiple readings, the first of which may be a more general one during which you get acquainted with the ideas presented in the text, its structure and style. During the second and any subsequent readings, however, you will need to write, and write a lot. The following are some critical reading and writing techniques which active readers employ as they work to create meanings from texts they read.

    • Underline interesting and important places in the text: Underline words, sentences, and passages that stand out, for whatever reason. Underline the key arguments that you believe the author of the text is making as well as any evidence, examples, and stories that seem interesting or important. Don’t be afraid to “get it wrong.” There is no right or wrong here. The places in the text that you underline may be the same or different from those noticed by your classmates, and this difference of interpretation is the essence of critical reading.
    • Take notes: Take notes on the margins. If you do not want to write on your book or journal, attach post-it notes with your comments to the text. Do not be afraid to write too much. This is the stage of the reading process during which you are actively making meaning. Writing about what you read is the best way to make sense of it, especially if the text is difficult. Do not be afraid to write too much. This is the stage of the reading process during which you are actively making meaning. Writing about what you read will help you not only to remember the argument which the author of the text is trying to advance (less important for critical reading), but to create your own interpretations of the text you are reading (more important).
    • Keep a double entry journal: Many writers like double-entry journals because they allow us to make that leap from summary of a source to interpretation and persuasion. To start a double-entry journal, divide a page into two columns. As you read, in the left column, record interesting and important words, sentences, quotations, and passages from the text. In the right column, write your reaction and responses to them. Be as formal or informal as you want. Record words, passages, and ideas from the text that you find interesting, useful for your paper or in any way striking or unusual.

    In this video, the instructor is addressing an English class as she explains how to annotate a text. Many of the tips and suggestions she gives can apply to any type of critical reading for research. Take note of the suggestions she offers when annotating (underlining, highlighting, making notes in the margins). You'll be asked to annotate a source this week so you should decide what methods are most effective for you.

    Click to access the link to open the video in a new tab.

    Guiding Questions

    As you take notes - you should be having a conversation with the text - this is called "talking to the text" and it will help you better understand what you're reading.

    Reading critically means you are analyzing the logic of the article and/or chapter or section of a book. Here are some questions or prompts you can use to analyze logic while talking to the text:

    1. What is the main purpose of this article or chapter/section?
    2. What are the key questions the author is addressing?
    3. What is the most important information in this article or chapter/section and how does this fit with what I already know about this subject?

    CC BY-NC logoThis chapter was originally compiled, reworked, and/or written by Andi Adkins Pogue and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

    Original sources used to create content (also licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 unless otherwise noted):

    Cranfill, K. (2014). Annotating text [Video file]. [NOT LICENSED UNDER CC - FREELY ACCESSIBLE ON YOUTUBE]

    Dalsheim, J. (2017). Tips for reading.

    Evaluate: Assessing your research process & findings. (2016). In G. Bobish & T. Jacobson (Eds.), The information literacy user's guide. Milne Publishing.

    Schoenbach, R., Greenleaf, C. & Murphy, L. (2012). Reading for understanding: How reading apprenticeship improves disciplinary learning in secondary and college classrooms, 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass. [NOT LICENSED UNDER CC - USED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE PUBLISHER]

    Zemilansky, P. (2016). Research and critical reading. J. Kepka (Ed.) In Oregon writes open writing text.


    Goodwin, B. (2018). The magic of writing stuff down: Is the pen mightier than the laptop? Educational Leadership, 75(7), 78-79.

    Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2016). The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts and tools, 7th ed. Foundation for Critical Thinking.

    2.1.1: Critical Reading is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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