Reading Critically

Although understanding is the foundation of all reading experiences, it is not the ultimate goal of most college reading assignments. Your professors want you to read critically, which means moving beyond what the text says to asking questions about the how and why of the text’s meaning. Reading critically means reading skeptically, not accepting everything a text says at face value, but wondering why a particular author made a particular argument in a particular way.

Proficient readers often ask “what if?” questions to help them read more critically:

  • What if the essay had started a different way?
  • What if the author had included different evidence?
  • What if the author had drawn a different conclusion?

The skills we use to for critical reading and writing are related to the skills we use for critical thinking.

American author John Steinbeck wrote in his last work The Winter of Our Discontent:

A story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight.

When you read critically, you read not only to understand the meaning of the text, but also to question and analyze the text. You want to know not just what the text says, but also how and why it says what it says.  Asking questions is one key strategy to help you read more critically.  As you read a text critically, you are also reading skeptically.

You can read more about Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent by following this link

A critical reader aims to answer two basic questions:

  1. What is the author doing?
  2. How well is the author doing it?

What is the author doing?

To answer “what is the author doing?” begin by carefully examining the following:

  • What are the author’s claims (a claim is what the author says is true)?
  • What is the evidence (evidence is what the author offers to support what they say is true)?
  • What are the assumptions (assumptions are what the author says is true or will happen without giving any support)?

It may be helpful to try to see the argument from different angles:

  • How else could the author have written this piece?
  • What other kinds of evidence could have been used?
  • What difference would that other evidence make?
  • How has the author constructed his or her argument?

How well is the author doing it?

To answer “how well is the author doing it?” consider the following questions:

  • How effective is the introduction? Why might the author have started the piece with this paragraph?
  • Are the main ideas supported by solid evidence?
  • What evidence does the author use? Is it effective? Useful? Can you think of other evidence?
  • Is the author biased or neutral? How do you know?
  • Does the conclusion effectively tie the argument together? Could you draw a different conclusion from this evidence?
  • What kind of language is used? How would you describe the author’s style?
  • How is the piece organized?

Asking Questions

Asking questions of a text helps proficient readers:

  • Predict what a text will be about
  • Identify confusing parts of the reading
  • Clarify what confused them
  • Develop a response to the text
  • Understand the author’s purpose for writing a text

The easiest way to develop questions about a text is to be aware of your thinking process before, during, and after reading.

  • What did you wonder about before you started reading?
  • What did you think the text might be about?
  • What questions did the text raise in your mind as you read?
  • What seemed important or surprising?
  • What were you wondering about when you finished reading?
  • What did the author hope to accomplish in writing this text?
  • Did he or she achieve that purpose?
  • What remains unresolved in your mind?