What is critical reading? My definition of “critical reading” is reading with a discerning eye, noticing connections, remembering the big ideas, and asking questions. That may very well be a definition you’ll read elsewhere (albeit in other words), but I am trying to be concise and simple about it.
So, why do we read? I think it’s important to remember why we read—and to remind ourselves of this point every time we start whining about needing to read something. Oftentimes, when we are in school we resent reading because we “have to” do it, and we don’t usually get a choice about what to read.
Always remember, however, that you are not assigned reading as a way to torture you. All reading has a purpose, and that purpose is to inform the reader, to share stories with a wider audience, and to get people realizing that they are not alone in this world. People—whether they are fictional characters living in Afghanistan 50 years ago, or real-life Norwegians or inner-city residents from Baltimore or the ultra-rich in New York city—share the same fundamental desires and face the same sorts of existential problems. Reading helps us to understand this. If we want to learn about life and the human experience, and learn how to do things, we need to read!
Reading also exercises our brains; it allows us to learn, to visualize, to imagine, to make connections, and to reach realizations. Whether we are reading a novel, a poem, a play, a short story, a memoir, or a founding document, we should be able to get similar lessons from the reading.
What should you notice while you are reading? For starters, try this list:
Main Idea / Argument: Any time you read something, you should be able to summarize it, once you’re done, in one to three sentences. If you force yourself to do this summary, you will be checking your comprehension, so please, always do this! If you can’t summarize your reading, then you didn’t absorb its central message.
To help find the main idea, or the argument (however you want to put it), consider the writing’s purpose: Ask yourself: for whom was this written? Who are the people the author is trying to convince? Understanding the intended audience can really help you!
Another very important detail to notice is tone: Take a look at the words used. Are they mostly positive or negative? Noticing the diction will give you, as a reader, an idea of the author’s tone, or attitude toward his or her subject. This is important to understand because tone informs purpose and argument!
So, how can we make reading more useful? By taking notes.
I often get asked, “How do we know how to take good notes?” And I often hear, “Our teacher doesn’t put clear notes up on the board, so what should we be writing?” Finally, students may wonder, “How are we to take notes when someone is talking, but isn’t writing on the board? What then?”
The key to annotation (taking notes) is to review Argument/Purpose/Tone (from above). If you are not sure where to look to find this information, try thesis statements, topic sentences, bold section headers, and conclusions.
Cornell notes are big in some schools—personally, I don’t really care for them, as I think they can result in writing down too much (virtual rewriting of a textbook), which may leave students ultimately unsure of what was most important. But, do whatever your school or teacher requires; also do what works for you.
I write down key quotes and always cite page numbers, source (title of piece I read), and author in my notebook. This helps me remember the important points, and I am all set if I have to write a paper later; I have the quotes and central points to address.
Taking notes from a lecture is a learned skill. It’s also great life practice. I am a visual person, but I have learned so much from forcing myself out of my comfort zone by making myself remember what I hear, not just what I see. Try the same. You might challenge your aural skills and then check with a friend (or your teacher) to be sure you captured the most important ideas.
Other questions I hear are:
“How can we deal with boring reading, such as those founding documents?” (See my essay from early August, “How to Read Boring Things.”)
“What if we stumble upon foreign vocabulary when we’re reading? What now?”
My answer: Have a plan: circle the vocab. Look it up. Keep a running list of word you didn't know. Make flashcards in order to learn and remember the words.
Reading Response Journals are excellent tools for helping students to hone their critical reading and recall skills (response journals typically require summary, questions, and reflections/connections—make annotation of all these points a habit, even if you aren’t assigned an official response journal!).
Once we feel better about reading, we can do the same with writing. Think about why people write, and why writing is assigned in school. Why is writing important?
We write in order to communicate. Both learning and communication are inextricably intertwined; we can’t have one without the other. I’ll give you some ideas about writing in a future blog post. Happy reading!