Critical Reading Strategies*
This handout outlines some of the basic strategies for critical reading.
One of the first strategies to begin with is annotating a text. When you annotate, you underline important parts of the text, such as the thesis statement, topic sentences of body paragraphs and explanatory material. Annotating may also include circling key words and writing comments or questions you have about the material in the margins. This is also a very good way to mark material that needs to be studied for exams. See pages 6 and 72-89 in The Presence of Others.
When you contextualize a text, you place it within its original historical or
cultural context. As a reader you should try to identify this context and
consider how this context differs from your own. In order to do this, you need
to consider the following:
3. Reflecting on challenges to your beliefs and values.
Sometimes our beliefs about an issue are difficult to express because they
are so ingrained. In order to discover these beliefs it is important to explore
how a text challenges you. Does it make you feel disturbed, threatened, ashamed,
or inspired? Many of you may have a strong reaction to some of the essays you
read. This reaction is a good example of an occasion when this type of
reading strategy can be used. In order to do this, you might try the following:
When you paraphrase a text, you put it into your own words. This can be helpful in understanding a difficult or ambiguous passage. It is also one of the three ways to incorporate other people’s ideas into your own. The other two are quoting directly and summarizing. Unlike a summary, a paraphrase contains all of the original information. The purpose of a paraphrase is to simplify without changing any information. You are not changing what is said, but how it is said. See The Bedford Handbook, pages 561-562.
This can be used as a preliminary to summarizing. Outlining allows you to identify the basic structure of a text and the main ideas of the text. In an outline you are listing the main ideas and supporting evidence of a text. It is especially important to be able to distinguish between the two. Use your own words when outlining a text. See The Bedford Handbook, page 483.
Summarizing creates a new text by synthesizing the material of the original. After outlining the text, the information is put together again in your own words. Summarization fosters understanding of the text, as you need to be able to recreate the meaning of the text in your own words. See The Bedford Handbook, page 561.
7. Exploring the figurative language.
Similes, metaphors and symbols are all examples of figurative language. This
type of language helps writers illustrate their points and get the type of
reaction they want from the reader.
8. Looking for patterns of opposition.
A writer may anticipate opposition to his or her views by responding to them
in some way. A writer may also have conflicting views about the issues that are
presented in the text. When considering oppositions you might think of opposites
like, yes, no; black, white; etc. Writers will often present an argument by
favoring one side of opposing terms. In order to look for patterns of opposition
you might do the following:
9. Evaluating the logic of an argument.
The two parts of an argument are claim and support. The claim is what the
writer wants the reader to accept. That is, the claim is the idea, opinion, or
point of view of the writer. The support is the reasons and evidence that
becomes the basis for that claim. Arguments must pass the ABC test. That is the
argument must be,
10. Recognizing emotional manipulation.
Writers are guilty of improper emotional manipulation when they use false or
exaggerated appeals. When a writer acts as an alarmist, uses emotionally loaded
words, like racist, or tries to vilify the opposition, you, as reader, should be
suspicious. Some of the following are fallacies of emotional appeal.
11. Judging the writer’s credibility.
There are three ways that writers establish their credibility.
12. Analyzing the writing in other disciplines.
Other disciplines have traditional ways of writing about their subjects. As a
critical reader, you need to be aware of these differences.
*This material was adapted by Beth Gilmartin, a former writing instructor at Seton Hall, from "A Catalog of Critical Reading Strategies" in Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper, Reading Critically, Writing Well: A Reader and Guide, Fifth Ed., New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.