1 Critical Reading

Elizabeth Browning; Karen Kyger; and Cate Bombick

Reading as a Conversation


What would happen if you walked by the tables in front of Duncan Hall on your first day at HCC, approached a group of strangers quietly chatting, and proceeded to announce to the group exactly what you were thinking at the moment? Most likely, the group would stop talking, look at you, laugh, and slowly move away. Let’s try another approach.

This time, you walk up and quietly join the group. You listen for a few minutes to figure out the topic being discussed and to understand the group members’ different perspectives before adding your own voice to the conversation. You have probably used this method many times throughout your life and have found it to work well, especially when joining a group of people you do not know very well. This method is the very same way to approach reading in your college courses.

To be a successful reader in college, you will need to move beyond simply understanding what the author is trying to say and think about the conversation in which the author is participating.

By thinking about reading and writing as a conversation, you will want to consider:

  • Who else has written about this topic?
  • Who are they?
  • What is their perspective or argument on this topic?
  • What type of evidence do they use to support their point of view?

In this chapter, we will introduce expectations for college reading, identify key strategies of skilled readers, and review the active reading process. Throughout the chapter, you will find links to samples, examples, and materials you may use.

We will also be introducing the concept of critical reading. Critical reading is moving beyond just understanding the author’s meaning of a text to consider the choices the author makes to communicate their message.

By learning to read critically, you will not only improve your comprehension of college-level texts, but also improve your writing by learning about the choices other writers have make to communicate their ideas. Honing your writing, reading, and critical thinking skills will give you a more solid foundation for success, both academically and professionally.

Understanding and using the strategies outlined in this chapter is an important part of your success in your ENGL-121 College Composition course. You will need strong reading skills in order to understand assignments, write papers and participate in class discussion. Here are the ENGL-121 objectives that are relevant to the reading process:

4) Maintain a controlling purpose for research and writing that emerges from a clearly-defined research question.

5) Locate, evaluate, and integrate appropriate sources accurately and fairly through paraphrase and direct quotation.

6) Critically engage sources through interpretation, analysis, and/or critique in service of developing and supporting logical, well-defined claims.

Taken together, these objectives prescribe an approach to reading that is driven by questions, that is sensitive to authors’ meaning, credibility, and relevance, and that does not take sources’ perspectives for granted but that evaluates the reliability of their claims.


1. Expectations for Reading in College

How does reading in college differ from reading in high school?

In college, academic expectations change from what you may have experienced in high school. As the quantity of work expected of you increases, the quality of the work also changes. You must do more than just understand course material and summarize it on an exam. You will be expected to engage seriously with new ideas by reflecting on them, analyzing them, critiquing them, making connections, drawing conclusions, or finding new ways of thinking about them. Educationally, you are moving into deeper waters. Learning how to read and write strategically and critically will help you swim.

Figure 1.1 “High School versus College Assignments” summarizes other major differences between high school and college assignments. 
High School Reading College Reading
Primary Types:  Textbook, literature Primary Types:  Textbook, literature, persuasive analysis, research, multimedia sources, self-selected material
Student Expectations: Read to find the main idea, share opinions, and make personal connections Student Expectations:  Read to form new conclusions about the author or text, generate examples that support/refute a text and compare/contrast texts.  Use texts to develop questions for further inquiry.
Student Goals:  Understand text and share reactions to the text, be able to answer questions posed by the teacher, and ask questions to clarify understanding. Student Goals: Analyze the text and synthesize to enter academic conversations on a topic, be able to ask questions, and share insights with peers and professors in order to further the conversation.
Teacher Expectations:  Complete reading/assignment, answer who, what, when, where, and how questions, and share connections to the text. Professor Expectations:  Develop thoughtful reactions to assignments, enter into a conversation on the topics, why questions are the focus, share questions and answers about a topic.
Teacher Goals:  Check student understanding of the material through assignments (test, quizzes, papers, etc). Professor Goals:  To guide and respond to student’s analysis and synthesis of information.  Comprehension is assumed.
If Problems Arise:  Teachers may go out of their way to help students who are performing poorly on exams, missing classes, not turning in assignments, or struggling with the course.  Students are often given “second chances” to complete and submit assignments. If Problems Arise: Professors may notice students performing poorly, but often expect students to be proactive and take steps to help themselves (i.e. attending office hours, emailing professors, etc.). “Second chances” are less common.

2. What is critical reading?

Reading critically does not simply mean being moved, affected, informed, influenced, and persuaded by a piece of writing. It refers to analyzing and understanding the overall composition of the writing as well as how the writing has achieved its effect on the audience.

This level of understanding begins with thinking critically about the texts you are reading. In this case, “critically” does not mean that you are looking for what is wrong with a work (although during your critical process, you may well do that). Instead, thinking critically means approaching a work as if you were a critic or commentator whose job it is to analyze a text beyond its surface.

A text is simply a piece of writing, or as Merriam-Webster defines it, “the main body of printed or written matter on a page.” In English classes, the term “text” is often used interchangeably with the words “reading” or “work.”
This step is essential in analyzing a text, and it requires you to consider many different aspects of a writer’s work. Do not just consider what the text says; think about what effect the author intends to produce in a reader or what effect the text has had on you as the reader.  For example, does the author want to persuade, inspire, provoke humor, or simply inform the audience?  Look at the process through which the writer achieves (or does not achieve) the desired effect and which rhetorical strategies are used.

These rhetorical strategies are covered in the next chapter. If you disagree with a text, what is the point of contention? If you agree with it, how do you think you can expand or build upon the argument put forth?

Consider the example below. Which of the following tweets below are critical and which are uncritical?

alt="A Tweet from Helvetica Smith that reads, 'I just finished # Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Would love to know what y'all think about it!' Graine O'Donnell replies, 'Lean In inspired me to seek out mentors in my profession.' I Am Only One Me replies, 'This book revitalized my sense of purpose. I am inspired! # Lean In.' anna bo banna replies, 'I think the real-life situations experienced by working moms she uses to illustrate some of her points make the book relatable to a wide audience.' Billie da Kidd replies, 'she convinced me that I have been holding myself back at work!' Just Harold replies, 'Sheryl Sandberg is a Harvard-educated woman in a business run by her family. How much does her book apply to women without that level of privilege?'"
Figure 1.2 “Lean In Tweets”

3. Why do we read critically?

Critical reading has many uses. If applied to a work of literature, for example, it can become the foundation for a detailed textual analysis. With scholarly articles, critical reading can help you evaluate their potential reliability as future sources.

Finding an error in someone else’s argument can be the point of destabilization you need to make a worthy argument of your own, illustrated in the final tweet from the previous image, for example. Critical reading can help you hone your own argumentation skills because it requires you to think carefully about which strategies are effective for making arguments, and in this age of social media and instant publication, thinking carefully about what we say is a necessity.

4. How to read critically

Reading does not come naturally. It is not an instinct that you were born with — rather, it is a cultural development that began 6,000 years ago when humans began to use symbols to represent ideas. The process of reading is learned through instruction and recruits brain mechanisms that evolved for other purposes.

In other words, you weren’t born to read. Reading is a learned skill that relies on interaction nature, nurture, and culture. It is a cognitive tool that is developed through learning and practice. So what reading strategies are already in your toolbox?  What strategies can you add to your toolbox to become a more efficient and effective college reader?

 4.1 Start with Questions

Questions to Ask a Text

Inquiry-based learning methods, or question-based investigations, are often the basis for writing and research at the college level. Specific questions generated about the text can guide your critical reading process and help you when writing a formal analysis.

When reading critically, you should begin with broad questions and then work towards more specific questions; after all, the ultimate purpose of engaging in critical reading is to turn you into an analyzer who asks questions that work to develop the purpose of the text

In order to develop good questions before reading a text, you will want to think about your purpose for reading.  As a college student,  you’ll want to think about why your professor assigned this particular text?  How does this text connect to topics you have been discussing in class or to other assigned readings?

For example, if you have been assigned to read UMBC President, Freeman Hrabowski’s essay entitled, “Colleges Prepare People for Life,”  ask yourself why your professor assigned that particular text.  Perhaps your professor wants you to read a variety of perspectives on the purpose of college.  In that case, you’ll want to ask a question such as, What is Hrabowski’s view on the purpose of college?   Perhaps, your professor is preparing you to write an argument essay and would like students to see how other authors have crafted their arguments.  In that case, a good question might be, How does Hrabowski introduce other people’s views on this topic and how can that help me in my own writing?

Another effective questioning strategy is to turn the title or a sub-heading into a question by adding what, how, or why to the title or heading. You can turn the title into a question by adding how. The question becomes “How do colleges prepare people for life?” Once you have finished reading the essay, return to that question to see how well you can answer it using the information you learned from the text.

Example Questions to Ask Text; an upside-down triangle divided into horizontal sections. From largest to smallest, the sections read, 1. What general topic or issue is the writer covering? 2. What is the writer's thesis (or main argument)? 3. What points or examples does the writer use to support her thesis? 4. How does the writer organize those supporting points and examples throughout the text? 5. What specific details does the writer include? 6. What kind of diction (or word choice) does the writer use? How do these elements help to support the writer's thesis?
Figure 1.3 “Example Questions to Ask a Text”

Questions For Further Inquiry

In addition to asking questions of the text and author, you will want to use a text to develop additional questions about the topic.  This is a crucial step in the process of entering into an academic conversation.  To develop questions for further inquiry, you should focus on open-ended questions that cannot be easily answered by a quick Internet search.

For example, if you are reading a text about changing the name of Washington’s NFL team, a question for future inquiry could be “What are the effects of media stereotypes?” A closed-ended question such as “What other NFL teams use Native Americans as a mascot?” would close the door to inquiry.  The answer to the second question can be easily found using a quick search that ends your line of inquiry.  Conversely, the first question can lead to a much deeper level of critical thinking about the topic.

As you read and learn more about the topic, you may want to develop additional questions even if this line of inquiry goes in a completely different direction from where you started. To develop questions for inquiry consider asking these types of questions:

  • Where are there holes or gaps in the logic or evidence in this text?
  • What else would you like to know about this topic beyond this text?
  • How are other authors writing about this topic?
  • Where are the disagreements between texts?

4.2 Identify the Main Idea and Supporting Details

Your college professors will expect you to be able to read independently to understand all the information you are expected to process in your college texts. Some of your reading assignments will be fairly straightforward. Others will be longer and more complex, so you will need a plan for how to handle them.

For any expository writing—that is, nonfiction, informational writing—your first comprehension goal is to identify the main points and relate any details to those main points. Regardless of what type of expository text you are assigned to read, the primary comprehension goal is to identify the main point: the most important idea that the writer wants to communicate.  This idea is often stated early on in the introduction and re-emphasized in the conclusion.

Finding the main point gives you a framework to organize the details presented in the reading and to relate the reading to concepts you learned in class or through other reading assignments. After identifying the main point, find the supporting points: the details, facts, and explanations that develop and clarify the main point.

Your instructor may use the term “main point” interchangeably with other terms, such as thesis, main argument, the main focus, or core concept.

4.3 Decode Vocabulary

Understanding the vocabulary used in your college texts is a critical component of reading comprehension.  Having strategies to use when you come across unfamiliar words will help you build and improve your vocabulary.  You can sometimes determine the meaning of a word by looking within the word (at its root, prefix, or suffix) or around the word (at the clues given in the sentence or paragraph in which the word appears). If you are unable to determine the meaning of word in context, you may look up the definition.

Each academic discipline has its own terminology, and part of your success in all of your college courses will require you to move beyond simple memorization of word meanings to using these terms appropriately within the context of the situation.  This means being aware that words have different meanings and connotations associated with them, and these meanings and connotations can change depending upon the situation in which they are being used.

Context Determines Meaning

Match the correct meaning of the word synthesis to the context in which it is being used:

Definition #1: the combination of ideas to form a theory or system.

Definition #2: the production of chemical compounds by reaction from simpler materials.

Context: Your English professor would like to see you use more synthesis within the body of your essay.

Answer: You may get a failing grade on your essay if you combine chemicals to form an explosion, so you better go with definition #1!

4.4 Utilize Metacognitive Strategies

Because college-level texts can be challenging, you will also need to monitor your reading comprehension. That is, you will need to stop periodically and assess how well you understand what you are reading. You can improve comprehension by taking time to determine which strategies work best for you and putting those strategies into practice.

Finding the main idea and paying attention to text features as you read helps you figure out what you should know. Just as important, however, is being able to figure out what you do not know and developing a strategy to deal with it.

Textbooks often include comprehension questions in the margins or at the end of a section or chapter. As you read, stop occasionally to answer these questions on paper or in your head. Use them to identify sections you may need to reread, read more carefully, or ask your instructor about later. Even when a text does not have built-in comprehension features, you can actively monitor your own comprehension.

Try these strategies, adapting them as needed to suit different kinds of texts:

  • Summarize. At the end of each section, pause to summarize the main points in a few sentences. If you have trouble doing so, revisit that section.
  • Ask and answer questions. When you begin reading a section, try to identify two to three questions you should be able to answer after you finish it. Write down your questions and use them to test yourself on the reading. If you cannot answer a question, try to determine why.
  • Don’t read in a vacuum. Look for opportunities to discuss the reading with your classmates. Many instructors set up online discussion forums or blogs specifically for that purpose. Participating in these discussions can help you determine whether your understanding of the main points is the same as that of your peers.

4.5 Read Recursively

Reading is a recursive, rather than linear, activity. It is rare that you will read a text in college once, straight through from beginning to end. You may need to read a sentence or paragraph several times to understand it. Your reading will slow down or speed up as you encounter novel or familiar information. You may get “lost” in an example and need to double back or skip ahead to understand the point the author is trying to make.

You should plan on reading a text more than once: first for general understanding, and then to analyze and synthesize the material. Reading actively and recursively is the secret to becoming an effective reader.

  • First Reading – Focus on the literal meaning of the text. What is the author “saying”? Annotate the text or take notes to keep track of the thesis and key points. Use strategies for unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Second Reading – Focus on “how” the author is communicating. What literary or rhetorical techniques does the author use? Pretend you are having a conversation with the author. What questions do you have? Are there any gaps in the narrative, evidence, or conclusions?
  • Further Readings – Are you ready to join in the academic conversation? What additional questions do you have to further guide you inquiry into this topic? How does the text relate to other readings, class discussions, or “real world” situations? Here are a few questions to consider:
    • What ideas/passages did you find most/least interesting?
    • What did you learn from the reading that you did not know before?
    • Did the author succeed in changing your view on the topic?  Why or why not?
    • What elements of the text did you connect with the most?
    • What problems do you have with the text?

5. The Active Reading Process

What strategies do I use when I  read?  What strategies do I need to add?

How many times have you read a page in a book, or even just a paragraph, and by the end of it thought to yourself, “I have no idea what I just read; I can’t remember any of it?” Almost everyone has done it, and it’s particularly easy to do when you don’t care about the material, are not interested in the material, or if the material is full of difficult or new concepts. If you don’t feel engaged with a text, then you will passively read it, failing to pay attention to substance and structure. Passive reading results in zero gains; you will get nothing from what you have just read.

On the other hand, critical reading is based on active reading because you actively engage with the text, which means thinking about the text before you begin to read it, asking yourself questions as you read it as well as after you have read it, taking notes or annotating the text, summarizing what you have read, and, finally, evaluating the text.

Completing these steps will help you to engage with a text, even if you don’t find it particularly interesting, which may be the case when it comes to assigned readings for some of your classes. In fact, active reading may even help you to develop an interest in the text even when you thought that you initially had none.

By taking an actively critical approach to reading, you will be able to do the following:

  • Stay focused while you read the text
  • Understand the main idea of the text
  • Understand the overall structure or organization of the text
  • Retain what you have read
  • Pose informed and thoughtful questions about the text
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of ideas in the text

5.1 Before you read

Establish Your Purpose

Establishing why you read something helps you decide how to read it, which saves time and improves comprehension. Before you start to read, remind yourself what questions you want to keep in mind.  (Review Start with a Question section in this chapter).  Then establish your purpose for reading. 

In college and in your profession, you will read a variety of texts to gain and use information (e.g., scholarly articles, textbooks, reviews). Some purposes for reading might include the following:

  • to scan for specific information
  • to skim to get an overview of the text
  • to relate new content to existing knowledge
  • to write something (often depends on a prompt)
  • to discuss in class
  • to critique an argument
  • to learn something
  • for general comprehension

Strategies differ from reader to reader. The same reader may use different strategies for different contexts because her purpose for reading changes. Ask yourself “why am I reading?” and “what am I reading?” when deciding which strategies work best.

Preview the Text

Once you have established your purpose for reading, the next step is to preview the text. Previewing a text involves skimming over it and noticing what stands out so that you not only get an overall sense of the text, but you also learn the author’s main ideas before reading for details.  Thus, because previewing a text helps you better understand it, you will have better success analyzing it.

Questions to ask when previewing may include the following:

  • What is the title of the text?  Does it give a clear indication of the text’s subject?
  • Who is the author?  Is the author familiar to you?  Is any biographical information about the author included?
  • If previewing a book, is there a summary on the back or inside the front of the book?
  • What main idea emerges from the introductory paragraph?  From the concluding paragraph?
  • Are there any organizational elements that stand out, such as section headings, numbering, bullet points, or other types of lists?
  • Are there any editorial elements that stand out, such as words in italics, bold print, or in a large font size?
  • Are there any visual elements that give a sense of the subject, such as photos or illustrations?

Once you have formed a general idea about the text by previewing it, the next preparatory step for critical reading is to speculate about the author’s purpose for writing.

  • What do you think the author’s aim might be in writing this text?
  • What sort of questions do you think the author might raise?

To skim a text means to look over a text briefly in order to get the gist or overall idea of it.  When skimming, pay attention to these key parts:

  • Title
  • Introduction (which give context, background, and introduces the writer’s main idea)
  • Topic sentences of body paragraphs
  • Conclusion (which often completes or clarifies the writer’s thesis or solution)
  • Bold or italicized terms

Activate Your Background Knowledge on the Topic

All of us have a library of life experiences and previous reading knowledge stored in our brains, but this stored knowledge will sit unused unless we consciously take steps to connect to it or “activate” this knowledge.

After previewing a text, ask yourself, “What do I already know about this topic?”  If you realize that you know very little about the topic or have some gaps, you may want to pause and do some quick Internet searches to fill in those gaps.

Although Wikipedia is usually not considered a credible source for an academic essay, it can be a helpful tool to discover what other people are saying about the topic, author, or publisher of a text.  Internet searches, online encyclopedias,  news websites may all be used to help you quickly learn some of the key issues related to the topic.

As you read, you should consider what new information you have learned and how it connects to what you already know.  Making connections between prior knowledge and new information is a critical step in reading, thinking, and learning.

More on Pre-Reading Strategies

5.2 While you read

Improve Comprehension through Annotation

Annotating a text means that you actively engage with it by taking notes as you read, usually by marking the text in some way (underlining, highlighting, using symbols such as asterisks) as well as by writing down brief summaries, thoughts, or questions in the margins of the page.  If you are working with a textbook and prefer not to write in it, annotations can be made on sticky notes or on a separate sheet of paper.

Regardless of what method you choose, annotating not only directs your focus, but it also helps you retain that information.  Furthermore, annotating helps you to recall where important points are in the text if you must return to it for a writing assignment or class discussion.

Annotations should not consist of JUST symbols, highlighting, or underlining. Successful and thorough annotations should combine those visual elements with notes in the margin and written summaries; otherwise, you may not remember why you highlighted that word or sentence in the first place.

A scanned article titled 'Education's Hungry Hearts.' It is heavily annotated in blue pen.
Figure 1.4 “Sample of Says/Does Annotations”


Consider the Unique Qualities of the Text

The way you approach a text should vary based on the type of text you encounter. Reading a poem is very different from reading a chapter in a textbook. There are unique structures, elements, and purposes to the various texts you will encounter in college.

Below are some examples of active reading strategies employed with a variety of “texts” you might encounter in college including textbooks, scientific research, online media, artwork, and more.  Notice how the readers approach the text differently based on the length, format, subject matter, and the reader’s own purpose for reading.


Scholarly Research

Online Media

Persuasive Text


Visual Media

5.3 After you read

Once you’ve finished reading, take time to review your initial reactions from your first preview of the text.  Were any of your earlier questions answered within the text?  Was the author’s purpose similar to what you had speculated it would be?

The following steps will help you process what you have read so that you can move onto the next step of analyzing the text.

  • Summarize the text in your own words (note your impressions, reactions, and what you learned)
  • Talk to someone about the author’s ideas to check your comprehension
  • Identify and reread difficult parts of the text
  • Review your annotations
  • Try to answer some of your own questions from your annotations
  • Connect the text to others you have read or researched on the topic

Once you understand the text, the next steps will be to analyze and synthesize the information with other sources and with your own knowledge.  You will be ready to add your perspective, especially if you can provide evidence to support your viewpoint.

Just like with any new skill, developing your ability to read critically will require focus and dedication. With practice, you will gain confidence and fluency in your ability to read critically.  You will be ready to join the academic conversations that surround you at HCC and beyond.

6. Now What?

After you have taken the time to read a text critically, the next step, which is covered in the next chapter, is to analyze the text rhetorically to establish a clear idea of what the author wrote and how the author wrote it, as well as how effectively the author communicated the overall message of the text.

Students are often reluctant to seek help. The truth is, every learner occasionally struggles. If you are sincerely trying to keep up with the course reading but feel like you are in over your head, seek out help. Speak up in class, schedule a meeting with your instructor, or visit your university learning center for assistance. Deal with the problem as early in the semester as you can. Instructors respect students who are proactive about their own learning. Most instructors will work hard to help students who make the effort to help themselves.


Key Takeaways

  • College-level reading and writing assignments differ from high school assignments in quantity, quality, and purpose.
  • Managing college reading assignments successfully requires you to plan and manage your time, set a purpose for reading, implement effective comprehension skills, and use active reading strategies to deepen your understanding of the text.
  • Finding the main idea and paying attention to textual features as you read helps you figure out what you should know. Just as important, however, is being able to figure out what you do not know and developing a strategy to deal with it.
  • Ask and answer questions. When you begin reading a section, try to identify two to three questions you should be able to answer after you finish it. If you cannot answer a question, try to determine why. Active engagement in the inquiry process is critical to success in college.
  • College writing assignments place greater emphasis on learning to think critically about a particular discipline and less emphasis on personal and creative writing. Your focus becomes analyzing and synthesizing information to enter into academic conversations.
  • Do not read in a vacuum. Simply put, don’t rely solely on your own interpretation. Look for opportunities to discuss the reading in and out of class to help clarify and deepen your understanding.



CC Licensed Content, Shared Previously

English Composition I, Lumen Learning, CC-BY 4.0.

Rhetoric and Composition, John Barrett, et al., CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Writing for Success,  CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Rhetoric and Composition, Bay College, CC-BY 4.0


Image Credits

Figure 1.1 “High School versus College Assignments,” Cate Bombick, Howard Community College, CC -0, derivative image from “High School Versus College Assignments,” Writing for Success, CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Figure 1.2 “Lean In Tweets,” Kalyca Schultz, Virginia Western Community College, CC-0.

Figure 1.3 “Example Questions to Ask a Text,” Kalyca Schultz, Virginia Western Community College, CC-0 .

Figure 1.4 “Sample Says/Does Annotation,” Karen Kyger, Howard Community College, CC-0.



Originally Composed by Elizabeth Browning; revised by Karen Kyger and Cate Bombick, Howard Community College Faculty


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Critical Reading Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Browning; Karen Kyger; and Cate Bombick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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