Reading critically means reading actively.
In other words, we need to question the premises of the argument/controlling idea/theme being presented, speculate on the ways in which evidence and support is being used, and perhaps compare the statements of one writer with another.
When you read, you hear an author's voice as you move along; you believe a person with something to say is talking to you. You pay attention, even when you don't completely understand what is being said, trusting that it will all make sense in the end, relating what the author says to what you already know or expect to hear or learn. Even if you don't quite grasp everything you are reading at every moment (and you won't), and even if you don't remember everything you've read (no reader does—at least not in long complex pieces), you begin to see the outlines of the author's project, the patterns and rhythms of that particular way of seeing and interpreting the world.
When you stop to talk or write about what you've read, the author is silent; you take over—it is your turn to write, to begin to respond to what the author said. At that point this author and his or her text become something you construct out of what you remember or what you notice as you go back through the text a second time, working from passages or examples but filtering them through your own predisposition to see or read in particular ways. (Ways of Reading, 3rd Edition, 1993, p. 2)
Here are steps to consider in order to read actively:
- What questions has your instructor directed you to respond to?
- Who is the author? What is his/her background?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What is the essay's title? What does the title tell you about what you are about to read?
- What is the genre of the piece (i.e. essay, novel, poem, etc.) and what expectations do you have of that genre?
Figure out some sort of annotating process that works for you. Mark sections that seem important in the book with a pencil or highlighter. Take notes on a separate piece of paper, notecards, or in the margins. Create a “key code” of central topics/issues and mark relevant passage with that code as they reoccur in the text. Use any technique that helps you remember what you have read.
3. Questions, questions, questions
- How does the author create his/her argument? Does s/he rely on examples, description, statistics, analogy, interviews, literary references/allusions?
- What central problem, issue, or subject does the text explore? What are the causes and effects of the problem/issue/subject?
- How is the subject material structured? Does the author rely upon comparison/contrast techniques? Deductive or inductive reasoning?
- How does the author's use of writing strategies affect how his/her ideas are expressed? Do the strategies help or confuse you?
- What type of tone does the author employ? Formal/traditionally academic? Sarcastic? Humorous? How does the tone affect you as a reader?
- Does the author succeed in conveying his/her ideas to you as a reader? Are you persuaded to believe the author? Why or why not?
4. Review/form your own ideas
Go over your notes and reread the essay before class. Are you ready to talk about what you have read? What ideas do you have about the reading? Develop your own thoughts and ideas on the reading, and evidence in the text that supports those ideas, and be ready to bring them up in class.