Critical Reading Skills and Strategies

People learn at an early age to read. Reading is important in society. It’s something we do everyday, whether we’re reading signs, instructions, or leisure reading for fun. However, when it comes to learning, there’s a more active form of reading that’s known as critical reading.

Critical reading is an attempt to get the readers to read and understand, on a deeper level, the material that they’re engaged with. It is a more complex form of reading that asks the reader to analyze the material and interpret it. It’s also important for evaluating materials.

Critical Reading in Practice

Critical reading is particularly important as people begin to enter higher levels of education, although it’s a useful skill at any age. However, it’s an absolutely critical skill to have for people in college and getting advanced degrees. For instance, take a person putting together a research paper. They may have a dozen sources that they’re thinking about including in their argument. The question becomes whether every source should be included, or whether certain sources are more valuable than others.

People performing this kind of research often have to read critically. In being active with the material, they need to seek to understand what their source is discussing and whether the argument in their reading makes sense.

At the same time, they need to interpret the findings of their sources. What do the conclusions of their source mean? Can those conclusions be used to back up the reader’s own arguments? All of this is part of an evaluation process that the reader uses to judge whether the source is valuable.

As an example, say a reader is writing a research paper about space travel. To back up an argument, it would be important to find previous research that discussed fuel consumption or shielding from radiation found in space. If a source made claims about space travel that weren’t backed up by hard math and scientific concepts, it wouldn’t be a source that a person would want to use.

In practice, many people read uncritically. They simply accept the claims made by other people. This can be harmful, since the reader can go on to make untrue claims because they didn’t critically examine the arguments they were reading.

The Critical Reading Pattern

The University of Toronto has a basic worksheet describing the difference between reading and critical reading. There are six elements of critical reading: purpose, activity, focus, questions, direction, and response.

In typical reading, the purpose behind the reading is to only get a basic idea of what is being communicated. In critical reading, however, the reader is reading not only to understand the content but to make judgements about that content. They think about the arguments being made.

Consequently, the activities that people engage in while reading tend to be different from critical reading. Typical readers only look to absorb the content. Critical readers are in a constant process of evaluating what is being read. It’s the difference between knowing what the reading is about versus evaluating whether what is being said makes sense and is logical.

The focus of normal readers is on what the text says, while the critical reader focuses on how the text is making its argument. This is why normal readers ask different questions from critical readers. Typical readers will commonly ask the following questions:

  • What is the text saying?
  • What information can I absorb from the reading.

Critical readers, on the other hand, ask the following question:

  • How was an argument made?
  • What choices were made in terms of content included in the material?
  • What reasoning was used in the reading?
  • What assumptions did the writer make during their writing?

Because readers ask different questions from critical readers, the direction of their reading differs from critical readers. Traditional readers take for granted that the reading is true, whereas critical readers are constantly asking whether the reading is making sound arguments. At the conclusion of their reading, traditional readers can summarize the material.

Critical readers, on the other hand, can evaluate the truth of the reading and interpret the reading. Interpretation often occurs as a person compares what they’ve read against other texts that are similar.

Returning to the idea of writing about space travel, a person who reads uncritically simply accepts a text that says the speed of light travel is now possible. A critical reader, on the other hand, will place the text in context with the larger body of literature indicating that faster than light travel is impossible.

The Critical Reading Process

A critical reader often approaches a text differently from a traditional reader. First, they will often seek out the central argument of a text, or its thesis. They will then look at the supporting evidence that the writer uses to create that central argument.

Writers often combine many different sources to make their argument. A critical reader will look not only at the thesis of a text, but also the supporting evidence and judge whether that supporting evidence is valid.

Critical readers are also sensitive to the types of arguments being made. Some writers tend to appeal to a person’s emotions more than rely on sound arguments, whereas other writers try to create a reasonable argument.

Another way that critical readers differentiate themselves is in the ability to identify how the writer analyzes material. Writers may use cause and effect logic or compare and contrast different topics.

Critical readers are sensitive to these different kinds of analysis and are able to determine whether the analysis was conducted in a sound way. If an analysis is a bad analysis, then it may undermine the entire paper.

Another part of the critical reading process involves interpretation. Interpretation requires the reader to understand the ideas beneath the paper. What debate is the author engaging in? What are some similar debates that others have been involved in? A critical reader even asks if they’re biased to believe the writing. This can be dangerous, because it can lead a reader to agree with materials that aren’t rational. The final part of the critical reading process is the evaluation portion.

Critically evaluating a reading involves asking about both the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. Critical readers also ask if the argument is logical. Another part of critical reading is whether the main argument is consistent with larger work in the field. If a reading doesn’t agree with the larger literature, that doesn’t mean the reading is wrong. However, it’s important to ask critical questions about the material to understand why the reading conflicts with other writings on the topic. It may be that the reading is making a novel contribution to the field, approaching the topic from a direction that has previously gone unresearched.

The Dangers of Uncritical Reading

While there are many occasions when it is perfectly fine to read in a traditional way, there are also some significant dangers associated with uncritical reading. For example, take the writings of politicians and people who have the power to make public policy. It can be easy to read the writings of a politician you agree with. However, that may cause you to go along with what that person is arguing without ever questioning whether it’s a bad argument.

This is actually a fairly common problem in political advertisements and editorials. The writer appeals to a person’s emotions instead of making a sound argument. However, because the reader wants to agree with the writer, they never question the argument. The problem is that using this approach can lead a person to agreeing to public policies, policies that will personally affect their lives, that may actually be harmful. They may agree to public programs or tax policies that will end up damaging their own ability to make a living. For this reason, it’s important to be a critical reader when it comes to material that could have a significant impact on a person’s life and society at large.

Preparing to be a Critical Reader

In order to be a critical reader, there are some definite steps that can be taken prior to engaging with reading material. One of the most important keys to being a critical reader is to be widely read. The more you read on a topic, the more expertise you bring to a new reading. It’s far easier to judge a paper or book if you have read other material that touches on similar topics.

The more familiar you are with a field, the more you’ll get used to asking questions about what you read. You’ll ask some of the same questions over and over, from one reading to another. As you get into this habit, you’ll become much better at evaluating new material.

With a solid reading background, you’ll be prepared to critically read. The next step in this process is to become a part of the writer’s audience. It’s important to remember that writers write for specific audiences and rarely set out to address the general population as a whole.

To best understand a text, it’s important to know about the field that’s being written in, understand the purpose of the writing, and have at least a passing understanding of other writings in the same field. This goes back to the importance of being widely read. For instance, it’s far easier to understand a book written on the topic of Impressionism art if you also understand some of the schools of art that gave rise to Impressionism.

As you read, do so with an open mind. While constantly evaluating the material, be open to the author’s arguments. There is a difference between evaluating a paper fairly and being antagonistic to the author. This is particularly likely to happen when reading materials on a sensitive topic, like religion or politics.

It’s important not to be hostile to the writer, so finding a balance between critical reading and outright hostility is necessary. As you’re reading, if you find yourself repeatedly making judgements of the author, it may be best to take a step and ask yourself whether you’re giving the author some space in which to make their argument.

If you don’t do a lot of reading, then there are some basic steps you can take to helping you understand the material. For instance, if it’s a particularly scholarly work, you may encounter words you’ve never read before. Keep a dictionary on hand. In fact, because the internet is so prevalent today, you can always look up confusing words as you’re reading.

Even more importantly, you can quickly bring yourself up to date about topics a writer is speaking about. If a writer mentions a theory that’s important to their argument, you can quickly get up to date on that material thanks to modern technology.

There are even more basic steps you can take to being a critical reader. Pay attention to the title of a work, since it may help clarify what the author’s purpose is. If the reading is difficult, feel free to make your way slowly through the material.

You may even benefit from taking notes as you read through the material. Particularly if a work is in a field you’re unfamiliar with or simply more difficult than what you normally read, you can benefit from writing notes as you go through. Feel free to keep reading journals as you’re working your way along or to jot down notes in the margins of the reading, particularly if it’s a book that you’ll be going back to in the future.

The truth is that people make false claims in their writing all the time. From science to politics and many other subjects, it’s not uncommon to find writers willing to bend the truth to support their arguments. Being a critical reader will help you to make sound judgements about the material and determine whether the argument is sound.

Critical Reading and Critical Thinking

The final way you can benefit from being a critical reader is by the fact that it will help you become a critical thinker. Not all the material you’ll need to make critical judgments about will be found in writing.

On radio and in the media, you’ll encounter many people making unsound arguments, the same way that people do in writing. As you become familiar with asking critical questions about writing, you’ll also become adjusted to asking those same questions of material you encounter from day to day. You’ll find yourself asking important questions about things you hear in the new, for instance.

Becoming a critical reader is the first step to becoming a critical thinker, which will help you to better evaluate claims you hear from many different types of media, from television to the internet.

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