22 Critical Reading

Why do we do it?

When we read critically we are mainly trying to answer a few major question: Does the author do what they say they are going to do? and Do they do it fairly or correctly? We would like to think that every person who writes an article, or argument, does so with an open mind and not with a predisposed bias. However, think about your own point of view when you write—it’s hard sometimes not to be biased just a bit because of numerous factors such as age, gender, culture, religion, environment…etc.
So why should authors of articles that you review and possibly use in your own writing be any different? After all, you want your own writing to reflect information from sources that are trust worthy and reliable—right? Well this is the first step to making sure that is in fact the case. Remember…just because someone is an expert doesn’t mean that everything they say should be taken as the gospel. Being an expert is good-but not if they are also biased on an issue and may be slanting their information a bit to further that bias.

How do we do it?

Reading critically is a way of dissecting another persons writing. It involves several stages. Before reading the article, learn what you can about it by previewing—looking at other than the writing and see what you can learn. Next you might want to do a fast skim for your first read. The next reading starts getting into details and specifics. Then rereading to capture meaning and substance followed by or in conjunction with writing about what you have read. Each of these will be discussed further to help guide you in critical reading principles.

Previewing a work

Begin by looking at who wrote it? What do we know about the author? Is there anything in their background that might indicate a bias or that they can be trusted. Educational and professional work background as well as teaching or relevant experience?
Where was it published? The type of publication can tell us much about the writer’s position. Questions such as: Conservative or liberal medium?  Journal or popular magazine? What is the audience of the publication? It is a specific or general audience? Male/female audience?

What is the title?

There are times when titles can also give away information that tells us about the writer’s stance on a topic. A simple connotation or denotation by word choice or inference can easily set the stage for what is to come.


The conditions by which it was written. This covers a broad bit in terms of perspective dealing with the time period, location, political climate, cultural situation…etc. When there is an issue or topic is our society, often times these factor into a writers work and can influence the direction or tone of the article.

First Reading

Do a fast read, or skimming. Look for the thesis. But do not get hung up in the details and specifics at this point. See what you can pick up without trying too hard. This is the kind of “trying it on for size” review where you can get a feeling if the article is going to work for you or not depending on the type of research you are doing.

Second or Active Reading

It’s time to get involved with the work. With this level we will start to interact with the text. We begin to underline/highlight passages as well as marking up or making annotations. Focus on important things such as key points and make brief notes or questions. Your purpose in reading will drive the things you look for. You might be examining an argument or just reviewing the forms of evidence used in the writing. Either way, the marking up or use of annotations will really help the next stage where you will write about what you have read.  By the time you complete this read and marking, you should have the thesis and major article points established.

Writing about what we have read

Generally there are two techniques used in critical reading and they are summarizing and paraphrasing. Summarizing is simply the act of reducing what you have read into a small manageable amount that conveys the general meaning of what has been read in much less quantity. A paraphrase is simply a restatement in your own words what the authors have said in just about the same amount of words. These two concepts help with reading comprehension as well as using information in your own writing.
In summarizing you can add strength to your own argument by adding evidence, give authority or credibility to your voice as well as help build new ideas or new directions for a particular issue.
In paraphrasing the main idea is to help yourself to understand by restating in your own words. It makes it easier to understand what the writer is doing or trying to accomplish. It can also help other readers understand the why something might be of value if restated in your own words.
Don’t forget that BOTH of these methods required citing and in text citations! They are just like a direct quote in that the material still belongs to the originator of the information. Regardless if you are summarizing it or rewording it—the idea or concept still belongs to them.

Critical Summary

A critical summary is when you summarize a work but also include your own ideas.  This is often accomplished when writing your own argument and using a source within that argument. You also may discuss the strong and weak points of the authors work as a way to show that you understand both the strengths as well as the weaknesses. There are some preliminary ideas or strategies in writing a critical summary which may include the following steps.
  • Basic background information: author-place of publication…etc. Look at these areas and see if there is anything that needs to be addressed as a potential conflict.
  • Discuss the major point(s) author makes. As part of the summary, you will be addressing each point that the author makes. Here would be a good time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each major point based upon the evidence used.
  • Show an example of the evidence being drawn upon. Examine the quality of the evidence. Is it credible? Relevant? Timely? Does it do what the author suggests it is suppose to do?
  • Assessment comments, analysis or questions you have about the information. This will be your overall view of the article and its effectiveness based upon your findings.
  • Connect your argument to the summary of this work and then return to your own work.

Checklist for Critical Reading:

  • Perform the preview stage keeping in mind not to get bogged down with specifics at this point. You are going for that general overview look.
  • On readings, keep reviewing until you understand what the thesis is and the major points of the article.
  • Draft a summary. Keep it short-start with a paragraph or two of the thesis and major points.
  • Review summary for completeness—ensure all major points stated.
  • Check for areas that lead to questions due to incompleteness whether on your part or the authors. Did you get all of the article or did the author miss some important parts related to the issue?
  • Can you use your summary for your own work?
  • Who is the intended audience the author is looking to?  Understanding who the work is directed at may help with your review—take the time to look at the intended audience and whether or not they would be receptive to this work.
Annotating a Text

Annotating a text means interacting with the text and writing on it in order to understand it better. This includes defining words and concepts that you may not understand and making connections with other texts and/or experiences that you may have had. Below are some instructions for how to annotate a text that you can use in your composition classes.

How to Annotate a Text

  1. Read the text twice. The first reading is quick, getting the gist of the article/chapter. The second is a careful reading where you interact with the text and mark parts that are confusing, interesting, surprising or important.
  2. Begin to annotate. Circle, underline or highlight important ideas. In the margin explain the significance or the connection. Without margin commentary, the marked text is not helpful.
  3. Mark confusing/interesting words. Define new or confusing words in the margin.
  4. Note passages that generate a strong positive OR negative reaction from you. Where possible explain in the margin why you think you reacted the way you did.
  5. Ask questions. If you read something that doesn’t make sense, what would you ask the author if they were sitting next to you? Do you want more examples? Do you want more information? Ask the author. You can also ask your instructor questions or write questions you would like to discuss as a class.
  6. Make connections. One of the most powerful reading tools is for the reader to connect with what they read. For example, when I read Richard Wright’s literacy narrative, it reminds me of an experience I had at the Murray Public library as a 3rd grader. Because I’ve made that connection, I remember his piece better. In the margin, by that section of the text, I write in the margin: Murray Library 3rd grade to help me remember the experience. You can also make connections to other parts of the reading, other books/movies/TV shows you’ve experience or news events. If you’re a visual person, draw a picture.
  7. Identify rhetorical choices. When we write, we make rhetorical choices about words we use, the order we put words in, the examples we share, etc. How do professional writers do that? When you see some writing that you think is particularly good (or bad) highlight that and explain what is significant. When Richard Rodriguez uses Spanish in his literacy narrative, how does strengthen or weaken the text?
  8. Statement of main idea. Mark the passage and identify with a margin note that restates the thesis statement in your own words.

Following video:

Snap Language Published on Apr 10, 2016
Distinguishing fact from opinion and recognizing when they are well reasoned and well supported are important skills in critical thinking and in reading. Learn how to evaluate when the writer presents weak or strong opinions based on evidence.


Rhetorical Reading

Rhetorical reading involves identifying the genre of the source, the author’s purpose and audience, as well as the author’s degree of advocacy in order to understand the author’s rhetorical situation. A Rhetorical Analysis is a good way to analyze the author’s rhetorical strategies

Rhetorical Analysis Worksheet

1. Who is the audience of this selection? Be as specific as possible. What are some of their values and beliefs? Remember, the ideal community of readers consists of people who are already interested in the topic or those people who could be persuaded to be. If the audience is a scholarly or scientific one, then what are their beliefs and values about the quality and research of the journal article. What is the name of the journal? What academic discipline would read this journal?
2. What is the structure of this selection? What is its arrangement of ideas? What is the organizational pattern?
3. What is the logical structure or Logos of this selection?
a. What is the source of disagreement?
b. How do the beliefs and values of the audience differ?
c. Many peer-reviewed journal articles or scientific case studies are organized around a statement of hypothesis which is a                   proposed explanation or conclusion that is usually either confirmed or denied on the basis of rigorous examination or                         experimentation later in the article. A hypothesis is a proposed answer to the research question.
1. What is the research question of the journal article?
2. What is the hypothesis?
3. What is the author’s main claim or conclusion? Be as specific as possible.
d. Ask yourself WHY the author believes this claim or conclusion.
     Reason #1 Because____________________________________________________
     Reason #2 Because_____________________________________________________
     Reason # 3 Because_____________________________________________________
What type of evidence does the author use to support his or her claims?
Is the author’s use of logos effective? Why?
4. What is the context of this selection? What is the author’s purpose for writing it? What is the historical, social, or intellectual climate in which this piece was written? What is the larger issue in which this topic exists? Is there any mention of this topic in the mainstream media?
5. How does the author use Ethos or the appeals to credibility and authority? What credentials does the author have on his or her resume?
a. Does the author have knowledge of the topic he or she is writing about? How do
you know?
b. Is the author fair? Does the author address the opposition to his or her argument?
Does the author understand both sides of the issue?
c. Does the writer show concern for the values and beliefs of the audience? How? If it is a peer-reviewed journal article does the              author(s) comply with the beliefs and values of his or her peer reviewers?
d. Is the author’s ethos persuasive?
6. How does the author use emotional appeals or Pathos? Does the author tell a story or give vivid examples? Summarize them. What specific emotions are involved?
Does the author use vivid language or style? Give examples of the author’s use of emotional language. Do you believe that the author’s use of pathos is effective?
7. Describe the author’s use of language or style.
8. Your evaluation claim: Use the information above to evaluate the effectiveness of the argument presented as a whole. Why do you believe the argument was effective? What do you believe the creator could have done to make the argument more effective?


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Writing and Rhetoric by Heather Hopkins Bowers; Anthony Ruggiero; and Jason Saphara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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