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CRITICAL READING STRATEGIES

 

Here are seven critical reading strategies that you can learn readily and then apply not only to the reading selections in this class, but also to your reading for other classes.  Although mastering these strategies will not make the critical reading process an easy one, it can make reading much more satisfying and productive and thus help you handle difficult material well and with confidence.

Fundamental to each of these strategies is annotating directly on the page:  underlining key words, phrases, or sentences; writing comments or questions in the margins; bracketing important sections of the text; constructing ideas with lines or arrows; numbering related points is sequence; and making note of anything that strikes you as interesting, important, or questionable.

Previewing:  Learning about a text before really reading it. 

Previewing enables readers to get a sense of what the text is about and how it is organized before reading it closely.  This simple strategy includes seeing what you can learn from the headnotes or other introductory material, skimming to get an overview of the content and organization, and identifying the rhetorical situation.

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

When you read a text, you read it through the lens of your own experience.  Your understanding of the words on the page and their significance is informed by what you have come to know and value from living in a particular time and place.  But the 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 those represented in the text.

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

As students, you are accustomed (I hope) to teachers asking questions about your reading.  These questions are designed to help you understand a reading and respond to it more fully, and often this technique works.  When you need to understand and use new information though, it is most beneficial if 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.

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

The reading that you do for this class might challenge your attitudes, your unconsciously held beliefs, or your positions on current issues. As you read a text for the first time, mark an X in the margin at each point 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.?

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

Outlining and summarizing are especially helpful strategies for understanding the content and structure of a reading selection.  Whereas outlining reveals the basic structure of the text, summarizing synopsizes a selection’s main argument in brief.  Outlining may be part of the annotating process, or it may be done separately.  The key to both outlining and summarizing is being able to distinguish between the main ideas and the supporting ideas and examples.  The main ideas form the backbone, the strand that holds the various parts and pieces of the text together.  Outlining the main ideas helps you to discover the structure. 

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

All writers make assertions that they want you to accept as true.  As a critical reader, you should not accept anything at face value, but you should 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 the 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.

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

Many of the writers we will study are concerned with the same issues or questions, but approach how to discuss them in different ways.  Fitting a text into an ongoing dialectic helps increase understanding of why a writer approached a particular issue or question in the way he or she did.