There are times when you can simply read through an article in a magazine or a chapter in a book and not worry too much about how much of it you actually comprehend. When you take a test, however, and face questions about content, you’ll need to be what we call a critical reader.
Reading “critically” does not mean you read to criticize. It means that, as you read, and after you read, you think about the content to more deeply understand it. You take the content apart in your mind and put it back together in new ways. You look for things that are similar and different in two related passages or in a passage and a graph. You even take ideas from the passage and formulate your own conclusions and predictions.
Reading critically actually begins before you even start to read and continues after the reading part is finished. There are definitive steps to keep in mind to read “critically.”
Putting yourself in a “reading frame of mind” will help you get the most out of written material. This begins when you first see the book, article, or other reading material and includes your first impressions. Here are a few suggested steps:
Consider the Source
What type of material are you about to read? Is it a book from an authoritative series or in a reputable magazine you trust? Is it published online by a source with an obvious political or other “agenda” that might skew the information presented? Just who has presented this text for your consumption?
Consider the Subject
Mentally access any prior knowledge you may have about the subject. Even if the piece is fiction, recalling your experiences in a similar setting or with a certain type of individual, animal, event, etc. will support your comprehension of new material.
Consider the Author
What do you know about the person who wrote the piece? Is the person an expert in a subject being discussed or are you familiar with other writing he or she has done? What are your expectations about what you are about to read?
Consider Your Purpose
Before you begin to read, set a purpose for doing so. If your desire is simply to be entertained, there’s not much else to think about. But if you are searching for answers in some form, take a minute to remind yourself just what you are seeking. This will help your mind focus from the beginning of a reading experience.
You’re probably thinking that it’s only possible to do one thing at a time and that you will be reading, so what else could you possibly handle? Actually, for short periods during the reading process to stop momentarily and do these two things because good readers are active readers:
Active readers think about what they are reading as they read it. This means that they are considering what the words say, making connections to the main ideas or examples, considering their own opinions on the topic, and pondering questions that may arise as they read.
Annotating is an active reading activity. Annotating means making critical notes or comments on what is being read. Ideally, this is done on the text itself, mostly in the margins. However, as it is not always possible (or permissible) to mark up a text, annotating can also be done on sticky notes stuck on the text, or on a separate sheet of paper. Some people like to keep a “reading journal” where their annotations can be reviewed and reflected upon at a later date and kept indefinitely.
Annotating can take a variety of forms, but it generally includes underlining key ideas, circling or highlighting new or important vocabulary; making quick notes in the margins about reactions, connections, or questions you have about the text; putting question marks in where you doubt information the author presents, question the author’s source, or just don’t understand something that is stated in the text; marking “a-ha” moments or points of surprise or strong reaction with an exclamation mark; and highlighting ideas that catch your attention.
Be careful about “blind highlighting,” however. No highlighting or marking of the text should take place without also including a brief notation to remind you why you highlighted a particular portion of the text. Even one or few word notations (“not my experience” or “Yes!” or “so true”) help remind you of the importance and value you saw in the text at that time and can be useful for writing about the text later. You can even create your own code to save time; for example, a ? if you question something, a ! if an idea is new to you or you think it is vitally important, an * for ideas that you want to remember, etc.
It is not enough just to get to the last word of a text and put it down to walk away. After you read, consider writing a summary of what you have read. How would you put it into your own words? How could you explain the main points of the reading to someone who is unfamiliar with it? If you were to capture the essence of the reading in a picture, what would the image include? These kinds of activities provide your brain with a sense of closure. Here are some more post-reading activities that will help you retain more of what you have read.
When you get to the end of the reading, develop a list of questions you have about the content or ideas presented. What was the author’s purpose in writing this piece? What was the main message? Why did the author structure the piece the way he or she did? If you could sit down with the author to discuss what he or she wrote, what would you ask the author? What follow-up questions do you have? What annotations led you to question a source or a statement or a claim? While these questions may never actually get answered, sometimes by just considering and pondering them, you come to a sense of conclusion yourself. If the questions remain unanswered, those may be points you write about in an essay.
The idea behind annotating a text isn’t just to give you another task to complete, but rather to give you a task that will help you comprehend what you read and give you insights for writing about or discussing the text. You don’t just annotate and take notes so that you can forget about them.
Use your notes and annotations to summarize, reflect, and question the writing. What did you learn from the reading? Were any of the questions you posed early in the reading answered later in the text? What main ideas or comments by the author caught your attention and why? What personal connections were you able to make? Where have you seen or read about similar things before?
Reading and reflecting on your notes after you read will help solidify the message and ideas in your head. In this way, your notes and annotations can help you review and understand what you have read and continue to process the information long after the reading.
A different approach is needed when reading fiction and nonfiction. In works of fiction, like short stories, novels, plays, or poems, characters, conflicts, and plot get you engaged and exercise your imagination. Nonfiction reading does not have those same elements, so the engagement with the text is a little bit different. Nonfiction reading generally requires a little more focus and attention. There may also be textual clues to help you get the most out of nonfiction writing. Here are some examples.
Nonfiction writing includes things like newspaper articles, manuals, and textbooks. Think about those texts. Have you noticed that all of them tend to be organized using titles and subtitles to denote different sections or new ideas? Those titles and subtitles are headings and paying attention to what those headings say and where they are located can help you navigate your way through a nonfiction text.
Headings are generally written in a larger or different style font or appear in a different color. Or they may be bold-faced or italicized. Headings are found at the top of a page or at the beginning of a section of text. They are important to read and take note of because they tell the reader what that section is about. So, if you are a reader looking for a specific piece of information, reading the headings may help you narrow down the scope of your reading.
Using Pictures or Images
Pictures, images, and photographs also appear in nonfiction texts. Consider a school textbook or the manual for a new blender. Both contain pictures and images so that the reader can identify exactly what the author wants them to “see” in his/her mind’s eye. Pictures and photographs may also include captions that explain the images presented. Reading these captions can help the reader better understand the images and their connection to the text.
Nonfiction texts, especially those about science, math, or politics, often use charts, graphs, or other graphics to mathematically show information or make comparisons. Using these graphics can often help readers visualize the impact and effect of the numbers relayed in the text. To read that “average housing prices rose by 14% over 5 years” may not have the same impact as a graph showing the climb.
Using Glossaries and Footnoted Terms
Nonfiction texts may include subject-specific words with which the reader is not familiar. To account for this, many authors will include a glossary of the terms at the end or provide footnoted definitions of terms at the bottom of the page. Look for these clues to help you understand these words before and while you are reading the text and seeing them in context.
Using an Index or Table of Contents
When preparing to read, many people will skip over the table of contents or ignore the index in order to jump straight into the reading. Reviewing these elements, however, can help the reader gain a sense of the organization of the text and what topics to expect in the reading. Like headings, these clues help readers access specific topics more quickly than having to skim over the entire reading again to find the part about a particular subject.
Looking for Special Print
In addition to the elements listed above, skim the text before you read to look for any use of special text. Words that are underlined, bold-faced, italicized, or of a different size or font style are probably key ideas or elements to which the author wants to draw your attention. Looking for them before you read helps to prepare you for places you’ll need to stop and look for the message the author is directing your way.