New College Writing Program

Our list of different ways of reading could be extended almost endlessly. While you might do any of these kinds of reading more or less carefully, would you do so critically? You may read lovingly over every word of the poem your child has written, and a newspaper article may grab your attention if you are interested in the subject at hand. If you are an avid Facebook user, you may be glued to the screen in your attention to the posts of your “friends.” We would argue, however, that there is a difference between these instances of careful, engaged reading and the kind of critical reading necessary for serious scholarly work. To offer you a definition of critical reading, we will first return to the definition of critical thinking we introduced earlier:

Critical thinking is the habit or practice of non-prejudicial and uncompromising analysis and inquiry, thinking from multiple perspectives, and adopting positions in light of all available information.

We can locate critical reading at the heart of the critical thinking process described above. All “available information” on which you might base your thinking, and the “multiple perspectives” to which you direct your attention as a critical thinker are most often going to be gathered through reading. Educators at every level know that reading is the single most important means of learning. Done critically, reading is the practice of interacting with ideas and of integrating what we know and believe with new information.

Critical reading is grounded in an active engagement that takes the text as a place to begin and not the last word on the issue at hand. Think of the texts you read not as the final destination but as a point from which many possible paths lead. Here are some general categories of critical reading, each with its own set of questions. Think of each set of questions as a pathway or direction for further thought and research.

You will notice that there is overlap between these questions. You may skip questions if they feel too repetitious. 

1. Reading the main claims.

  • What does the text argue?
  • What statements are put forward as truth or fact?
  • Are the claims of the text specific or very general?
  • Are the claims of the text well supported? How are they supported?

2. Reading the unfamiliar.

  • Are there concepts in the text you don’t understand?
  • Are there references in the text with which you are not familiar?
  • Are words in the text with which you are not familiar?

3. Reading for context.

  • What background information would help you better understand this text?
  • Does the writer make references to events that are not fully explained?
  • Does the writer base her / his ideas or assertions on the works of other writers and researchers?

4. Reading what’s absent

  • What ideas, facts, or understandings are assumed in the text? What do the writer or writers seem to take for granted? What are the assumptions of the text?
  • Are there ideologies or belief systems on which this text seems to rely? What are they?
  • What assertions or claims are implied by the text that is not all the way spelled out?
  • As you list the main claims of the text, what else has to be true for each claim to be true?
  • Do you sense an “attitude” in the text? Does a particular bias or worldview, perhaps unspoken, seem present?

5. Reading from the gut.

  • Are you interested in what you are reading? Do you feel resistant to it? Bored? Surprised? Intrigued? What other emotional reactions do you experience? Reading it, do you feel angry? Sad? Amused? Joyful? Frustrated?
  • What is your immediate reaction to the main claims of the text? Do you agree, disagree? How strongly? Why?
  • Sometimes the tone or voice of a piece of writing causes us to react. How would you describe the tone of the text? Its voice?

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