Seven Critical Reading Strategies

Posted by Big Universe on May 21, 2013 8:00:48 PM


Gone are the days when you read a text cold, and this is good news for typical and nontypical students. Some students mistakenly think that doing prep work for reading a novel is borderline cheating, as teachers know that real "cheating" would be reading Cliff Notes without reading the assigned text. In college, I realized that reading a text with just my own perspective wasn't helpful when studying A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Yes, I tried reading it cold. And my college professor's lectures made me question if I read the same book. I honestly thought that this “literary great” was just a writer who couldn’t get outside his own thoughts. Only when I sat in the library, surrounded by social histories that accurately placed where James Joyce was writing from, to understanding the physical places where the narrator experienced (nearly subliminally in his thoughts), to varied literary analysis, could I digest any of this influential fiction -- or understand the class lectures.

I would expect to come across reading strategies from a college-level English Department, but the Counseling Center at Guerrieri University Center in Salisbury, MD has put a list of seven critical reading strategies (outlined below). Some of the suggested list works for teachers preparing younger children for reading assignments to college-level students:


1. Previewing: Learning about a text before really reading it.

The Center suggests previewing as skimming the instructional formatted material: nicely organized with titles, headers, any pull quotes and pictures with captions. This provides “an overview of the content and organization,” and the structure not only helps absorbing the subject content – it can help to frame note taking, which can be used for study later on.


2. Contextualizing: Placing a text in its historical, biographical, and cultural contexts.

Readers response theory is the first step to a student understanding reading material – where a student makes personal connections to the text. But readers do need to go beyond the lens of their own experiences. To do this, readers need to understand that some “texts you read were all written in the past, sometimes in a radically different time and place. To read critically, you need to contextualize, to recognize the differences between your contemporary values and attitudes and those represented in the text.” For example, in an affluent classroom of mostly Caucasian high school students who are reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, many of the student won’t be able to bridge their experiences to the text (although it is a good starting place). They need to understand the text’s context, and teachers can provide its historical, biographical, and cultural contexts or assign research groups to provide the text’s context.


3. Questioning to understand and remember: Asking questions about the content.

The Center suggests that teacher questions that guide literature does often work, but students should consider writing their own questions as they read. You can have younger children journal their “as I read” questions, pinpointing not only comprehension issues but also higher-level thinking questions. And when they discover an answer to one of their own questions, it provides a student-centered learning and, for older students, a potential working thesis for essay writing.

The Center adds, “With this strategy, you can write questions any time, but in difficult academic readings, you will understand the material better and remember it longer if you write a question for every paragraph or brief section. Each question should focus on a main idea, not on illustrations or details, and each should be expressed in your own words, not just copied from parts of the paragraph.” Great advice.


4. Reflecting on challenges to your beliefs and values: Examining your personal responses.

This part may be more difficult for younger students to address, but even middle school students can use some help in identifying their own beliefs and values – compared to what a text is suggesting. Not an opportunity for indoctrination of any divergent viewpoints, it can help clarify one’s own beliefs and help frame argumentative essays.

The Center suggests marking the text with Xs “where you feel a personal challenge to your attitudes, beliefs, or status. Make a brief note in the margin about what you feel or about what in the text created the challenge. Now look again at the places you marked in the text where you felt personally challenged. What patterns do you see?” What a great way to visually note challenges and places where one can counter arguments.


5. Outlining and summarizing: Identifying the main ideas and restating them in your own words.

“Whereas outlining reveals the basic structure of the text, summarizing synopsizes a selection's main argument in brief.” The Center adds, “When you make an outline, don't use the text's exact words” and summarize using your own words because it “requires creative synthesis.” This is tricky for younger students, and I would suggest outlining text using the text’s clues (headers, titles, sometimes italicized words) and allowing them to copy provided text. The bottom line is “being able to distinguish between the main ideas and the supporting ideas and examples…Putting ideas together again -- in your own words and in a condensed form -- shows how reading critically can lead to deeper understanding of any text.”


6. Evaluating an argument: Testing the logic of a text as well as its credibility and emotional impact.

I personally feel that this is the single most overlooked aspect of reading: critical thinking. I try to have my students understand that just because a text says this is so, doesn't mean that it is an absolute truth. We want a nation of readers who are open-minded enough to evaluate arguments and decide where they stand for themselves. A text’s credibility is most important – what is the source, who wrote it, is this person affiliated with a group or ideology, and how strong is the writer’s other written work?

The Center writes:
All writers make assertions that they want you to accept as true. As a critical reader, you should not accept anything on face value but to recognize every assertion as an argument that must be carefully evaluated. An argument has two essential parts: a claim and support. The claim asserts a conclusion -- an idea, an opinion, a judgment, or a point of view -- that the writer wants you to accept. The support includes reasons (shared beliefs, assumptions, and values) and evidence (facts, examples, statistics, and authorities) that give readers the basis for accepting the conclusion. When you assess an argument, you are concerned with the process of reasoning as well as its truthfulness (these are not the same thing). At the most basic level, in order for an argument to be acceptable, the support must be appropriate to the claim and the statements must be consistent with one another.

I feel that they are driving home a good point: reasons are shared beliefs, assumptions, and values; evidence is facts, examples, statistics, and authorities. Understanding an authors reasons and evidence are critical, as is understanding one’s own.

7. Comparing and contrasting related readings: Exploring likenesses and differences between texts to understand them better.

The Center writes: “Many of the authors we read are concerned with the same issues or questions, but approach how to discuss them in different ways.” This part is about understanding the big picture. You can understand a subject more deeply by considering different points of view on the subject, and you become an expert. What comes to mind is asking older students to write a pro-argument essay, and then follow up with a con-argument essay. Yes, I can hear the students groan, but I think that defending both sides of an issue means that the student better understands a particular subject matter than most, and, more importantly, understands and can defend his or her own viewpoint.

Image courtesy of Ambro at

Topics: Classroom Ideas, Literacy

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