Reading Critically

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Reading critically is more than memorizing information or getting through large amounts of text. It’s about understanding the material through questioning, active critical thinking, and connecting the information to other ideas. 

Critical reading helps the reader to:

  • Critically analyze difficult concepts.

  • Move new information to long-term memory.

  • Stay focused while studying.

You can also use the Three-Step Study Method for reading.

On this page:

  • The SQ3R Method

  • Reverse Outline

  • Active Reading

  • Speed Reading and Strategic Reading

  • References

The SQ3R Method

SQ3R is an acronym, and it stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.

This method focuses on not only critically thinking about the text before, during, and after reading, but it also emphasizes paraphrasing and recitation of the ideas for deeper understanding and lasting learning (Robinson, 1978).

Survey:

  • Look at all of the section headings.

  • Skim the first and last paragraph.

  • Skim the first sentence of each paragraph.

  • Underline words that stand out.

Question:

  • Set a timer for 30 seconds and write as many questions about the reading as you can.

  • Write any questions you hope will be answered during the reading.

Read:

  • Start actively reading from the beginning.

  • If reading print:

    • Underline or highlight sentences or phrases that stand out.

    • Write questions you have about the text in the margins.

    • Circle unfamiliar words you need to look up.

  • If reading digitally:

    • Keep a digital note or doc file for each reading.

    • Make lists of words to look up or questions that need to be answered.

    • Copy/paste sentences or phrases that stand out to your file.

Recite:

  • After each paragraph, say out loud what the main idea was in that paragraph. What did it mean?

Review:

  • At the end of the reading, try to paraphrase (put in your own words) the main ideas of the text.

  • Go back and answer any questions you came up with before and during the reading.

There is an extensive explanation of this method with examples on Khan Academy's website, titled "Active Reading Strategies Part 1: SQ3R."

Reverse Outline

A reverse outline can help you pull meaning from a very difficult text by critically analyzing each paragraph. This will create an outline of the main ideas in the text.

  • Read a single paragraph at a time.

  • After you read a single paragraph, ask yourself these questions:

    • What is the main idea in this paragraph?

    • What does this paragraph have to do with the one before it?

    • What trends, big ideas, or overarching meaning does this paragraph point to?

  • Repeat this for every paragraph. Write out your answers in order or record them as you read and review.

If you struggle with a paragraph, read it outloud or ask someone to read it to you. That way you can hear as well as see the text.

When you are finished reading, go back and review your outline to see the progression of the main ideas in the text.

Active Reading

This alacarte’  piece of other reading methods can be employed quickly and will work well when you are pressed for time. Active reading is a quick set of instructions for keeping yourself focused while reading. It is exactly like the ‘read’ section of SQ3R.

  • If reading print:

    • Underline or highlight sentences or phrases that stand out.

    • Write questions you have about the text in the margins.

    • Circle unfamiliar words and look them up.

    • After reading: find the answers to questions you wrote down.

  • If reading digitally:

    • Keep a digital note or doc file for each reading.

    • Make lists of questions that need to be answered.

    • Copy/paste sentences or phrases that stand out to your file.

    • Look up unfamiliar words.

    • After reading: find the answers to questions you wrote down.

Speed Reading and Strategic Reading

Speed Reading

In general, the more you practice reading faster, the faster you will get at reading. However, reading and retaining information are two different things. A great article on reading faster from Med School Insiders discusses the idea that in general, the faster you read, the lower the comprehension of the text (Jubbal, 2018). Overall, you’ll need to find a balance between reading for speed and reading for retention. Find that article here. One way to find that balance is to read strategically:

Strategic Reading

One way to improve reading speed is to not actually read every word. This is called strategic reading. Here’s how that works:

Start by reading the abstract or summary, if available.

  • Read the introduction in it’s entirety.

  • Then, read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. 

  • After each paragraph, check your understanding: if it makes sense and you can see how the information in that paragraph links to the information preceding it, then move on. If not, slow down and read that entire paragraph. Repeat this process for each paragraph. This works because most paragraphs have the main idea and conclusions for that main idea listed in the first and last sentences of each paragraph. Not always, but often.

  • Make note of any unfamiliar words and look them up. 

  • Read each caption or label for any chart or picture.

  • Read the conclusion in it’s entirely.

With this method, you can get through a text pretty quickly. However, you may not have the comprehension required. In that instance, try a reverse outline, as listed above.

References

Francis, P. (1978). Effective study (6th ed.). New York: Harper & Row.

Jubbal, K. (2018, April 15). How to Read Faster – Speed Reading Truth. Retrieved from https://medschoolinsiders.com/pre-med/how-to-read-faster-speed-reading/