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Critical reading

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Critical reading

Think critically about what you read...

  • examine the evidence or arguments presented
  • check out any influences on the evidence or arguments
  • check out the limitations of study design or focus
  • examine the interpretations made

The purposes and practices of reading

The way we read depends on what we’re reading and why we’re reading it. The way we read a novel is different to the way we read a menu. Perhaps we are reading to understand a subject, to increase our knowledge, to analyse data, to retrieve information, or maybe even to have fun! The purpose of our reading will determine the approach we take.

Reading for information

Suppose we were trying to find some directions or opening hours... We would need to scan the text for key words or phrases that answer our question, and then we would move on.

It's a bit like doing a Google search and then just reading the results page rather than accessing the website.

Reading for understanding

When we're reading for pleasure or doing background reading on a topic, we'll generally read the text once, from start to finish. We might apply skimming techniques to look through the text quickly and get the general gist. Our engagement with the text might therefore be quite passive: we're looking for a general understanding of what's being written, perhaps only taking in the bits that seem important.

Reading for analysis

When we're doing reading for an essay, dissertation, or thesis, we're going to need to actively read the text multiple times. All the while we'll engage our prior knowledge and actively apply it to our reading, asking questions of what's been written.

This is critical reading!

Reading strategies

When you’re reading you don’t have to read everything with the same amount of care and attention. Sometimes you need to be able to read a text very quickly.

There are three different techniques for reading:

  • Scanning — looking over material quite quickly in order to pick out specific information;
  • Skimming — reading something fairly quickly to get the general idea;
  • Close reading — reading something in detail.

You'll need to use a combination of these methods when you are reading an academic text: generally, you would scan to determine the scope and relevance of the piece, skim to pick out the key facts and the parts to explore further, then read more closely to understand in more detail and think critically about what is being written.

These strategies are part of your filtering strategy before deciding what to read in more depth. They will save you time in the long run as they will help you focus your time on the most relevant texts!

Scanning

You might scan when you are...

  • ...browsing a database for texts on a specific topic;
  • ...looking for a specific word or phrase in a text;
  • ...determining the relevance of an article;
  • ...looking back over material to check something;
  • ...first looking at an article to get an idea of its shape.

Scan-reading essentially means that you know what you are looking for. You identify the chapters or sections most relevant to you and ignore the rest. You're scanning for pieces of information that will give you a general impression of it rather than trying to understand its detailed arguments.

You're mostly on the look-out for any relevant words or phrases that will help you answer whatever task you're working on. For instance, can you spot the word "orange" in the following paragraph?

Being able to spot a word by sight is a useful skill, but it's not always straightforward. Fortunately there are things to help you. A book might have an index, which might at least get you to the right page. An electronic text will let you search for a specific word or phrase. But context will also help. It might be that the word you're looking for is surrounded by similar words, or a range of words associated with that one. I might be looking for something about colour, and see reference to pigment, light, or spectra, or specific colours being called out, like red or green. I might be looking for something about fruit and come across a sentence talking about apples, grapes and plums. Try to keep this broader context in mind as you scan the page. That way, you're never really just going to be looking for a single word or orange on its own. There will normally be other clues to follow to help guide your eye.


Approaches to scanning articles:

  1. Make a note of any questions you might want to answer – this will help you focus;
  2. Pick out any relevant information from the title and abstract – Does it look like it relates to what you're wanting? If so, carry on...
  3. Flick or scroll through the article to get an understanding of its structure (the headings in the article will help you with this) – Where are certain topics covered?
  4. Scan the text for any facts, illustrations, figures, or discussion points that may be relevant – Which parts do you need to read more carefully? Which can be read quickly?
  5. Look out for specific key words. You can search an electronic text for key words and phrases using Ctrl+F / Cmd+F. If your text is a book, there might even be an index to consult. In either case, clumps of results could indicate an area where that topic is being discussed at length.

Once you've scanned a text you might feel able to reject it as irrelevant, or you may need to skim-read it to get more information.

Skimming

You might skim when you are...

  • ...jumping to specific parts such as the introduction or conclusion;
  • ...going over the whole text fairly quickly without reading every word;

Skim-reading, or speed-reading, is about reading superficially to get a gist rather than a deep understanding. You're looking to get a feel for the content and the way the topic is being discussed.

Skim-reading is easier to do if the text is in a language that's very familiar to you, because you will have more of an awareness of the conventions being employed and the parts of speech and writing that you can gloss over. Not only will there be whole sections of a text that you can pretty-much ignore, but also whole sections of paragraphs. For instance, the important sentence in this paragraph is the one right here where I announce that the important part of the paragraph might just be one sentence somewhere in the middle. The rest of the paragraph could just be a framework to hang around this point in order to stop the article from just being a list.

However, it may more often be that the important point for your purposes comes at the start of the paragraph. Very often a paragraph will declare what it's going to be about early on, and will then start to go into more detail. Maybe you'll want to do some closer reading of that detail, or maybe you won't. If the first paragraph makes it clear that this paragraph isn't going to be of much use to you, then you can probably just stop reading it. Or maybe the paragraph meanders and heads down a different route at some point in the middle. But if that's the case then it will probably end up summarising that second point towards the end of the paragraph. You might therefore want to skim-read the last sentence of a paragraph too, just in case it offers up any pithy conclusions, or indicates anything else that might've been covered in the paragraph!

For example, this paragraph is just about the 1980s TV gameshow "Treasure Hunt", which is something completely irrelevant to the topic of how to read an article. "Treasure Hunt" saw two members of the public (aided by TV newsreader Kenneth Kendall) using a library of books and tourist brochures to solve a series of five clues (provided, for the most part, by TV weather presenter Wincey Willis). These clues would generally be hidden at various tourist attractions within a specific county of the British Isles. The contestants would be in radio contact with a 'skyrunner' (Anneka Rice) who had a map and the use of a helicopter (piloted by Keith Thompson). Solving a clue would give the contestants the information they needed to direct the skyrunner (and her crew of camera operator Graham Berry and video engineer Frank Meyburgh) to the location of the next clue, and, ultimately, to the 'treasure' (a token object such as a little silver brooch). All of this was done against the clock, the contestants having only 45' to solve the clues and find the treasure. This, necessarily, required the contestants to be able to find relevant information quickly: they would have to select the right book from the shelves, and then navigate that text to find the information they needed. This, inevitably, involved a considerable amount of skim-reading. So maybe this paragraph was slightly relevant after all? No, probably not...

Skim-reading, then, is all about picking out the bits of a text that look like they need to be read, and ignoring other bits. It's about understanding the structure of a sentence or paragraph, and knowing where the important words like the verbs and nouns might be. You'll need to take in and consider the meaning of the text without reading every single word...


Approaches to skim-reading articles:

  1. Pick out the most relevant information from the title and abstract – What type of article is it? What are the concepts? What are the findings?;
  2. Scan through the article and note the headings to get an understanding of structure;
  3. Look more closely at the illustrations or figures;
  4. Read the conclusion;
  5. Read the first and last sentences in a paragraph to see whether the rest is worth reading.

After skimming, you may still decide to reject the text, or you may identify sections to read in more detail.

Close reading

You might read closely when you are...

  • ...doing background reading;
  • ...trying to get into a new or difficult topic;
  • ...examining the discussions or data presented;
  • ...following the details or the argument.

Again, close reading isn't necessarily about reading every single word of the text, but it is about reading deeply within specific sections of it to find the meaning of what the author is trying to convey. There will be parts that you will need to read more than once, as you'll need to consider the text in great detail in order to properly take in and assess what has been written.


Approaches to the close reading of articles:

  1. Focus on particular passages or a section of the text as a whole and read all of its content – your aim is to identify all the features of the text;
  2. Make notes and annotate the text as you read – note significant information and questions raised by the text;
  3. Re-read sections to improve understanding;
  4. Look up any concepts or terms that you don’t understand.

Even after deep reading like this, you may decide that an article is unsuitable. But remember, a text can be used in many ways: perhaps it's supporting evidence, or perhaps it's something to discuss; perhaps it opposes your argument but you can still respond to it and develop your own point in light of that response. Don't dismiss an article simply because it poses an inconvenience (that would be misleading through omission).

Questioning

Questioning goes hand-in-hand with reading for analysis. Before you begin to read, you should have a question or set of questions that will guide you. This will give purpose to your reading, and focus you; it will change your reading from a passive pursuit to an active one, and make it easier for you to retain the information you find. Think about what you want to achieve and keep the purpose in mind as you're reading.

Ask yourself...

  • Why am I reading this? — What is my task or assignment question, and how is this source helping to answer it?
  • What do I already know about the subject? — How can I relate what I'm reading to my own experiences?

You'll need to ask questions of the text too:

  • Examine the evidence or arguments presented;
  • Check out any influences on the evidence or arguments;
  • Check the limitations of study design or focus;
  • Examine the interpretations made.

Are you prepared to accept the authors’ arguments, opinions, or conclusions?

How to read an article

Where do you start when looking at academic literature? How can you successfully engage with the literature you find? This bitesized tutorial explores the structure of academic articles, shows where to look to check the validity of findings, and offers tips for navigating online texts.

Blocks to critical reading

Certain habits or approaches we have to life can hold us back from really thinking objectively about issues. We may not realise it, but often we're our own worst enemies when it comes to being critical...

Select a student to reveal the statement they've made.

Student 1

I have been asked to work on an area that is completely new. Where do I start in terms of finding relevant texts?


From the choices below, identify which block to critical reading might be limiting their performance.

Student 2

I don’t understand what I'm reading – It's too difficult!


From the choices below, identify which block to critical reading might be limiting their performance.

Student 3

Help! There is too much to read and too little time!


From the choices below, identify which block to critical reading might be limiting their performance.

Student 4

I am struggling to remember what I have read.


From the choices below, identify which block to critical reading might be limiting their performance.

Student 5

Where did I read that thing?


From the choices below, identify which block to critical reading might be limiting their performance.

Student 6

I have strong opinions about the argument being presented in the reading – why can’t I just put this side forward?


From the choices below, identify which block to critical reading might be limiting their performance.


Student 6
Student 5
Student 4
Student 3
Student 2
Student 1

Active critical reading

It's important to take an analytical approach to reading the texts you encounter. In the concluding part of our "Let's get critical" theme, we look at how to evaluate sources effectively, and how to develop practical strategies for reading in an efficient and critical manner.

Being actively critical

Active reading is about making a conscious effort to understand and evaluate a text for its relevance to your studies. You would actively try to think about what the text is trying to say, for example by making notes or summaries.

Critical reading is about engaging with the text by asking questions rather than passively accepting what it says. Is the methodology sound? What was the purpose? Do ideas flow logically? Are arguments properly formulated? Is the evidence there to support what is being claimed?

When you're reading critically, you're looking to...

  • ...link evidence to your own research;
  • ...compare and contrast different sources effectively;
  • ...focus research and sources;
  • ...synthesise the information you've found;
  • ...justify your own arguments with reference to other sources.

You're going beyond just an understanding of a text. You're asking questions of it; making judgements about it... What you're reading is no longer undisputed 'fact': it's an argument put forward by an author. And you need to determine whether that argument is a valid one.

"Reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting"

Edmund Burke


"Feel free to reflect on the merits (or not) of that quote..."

– anon.

Critical reading involves understanding the content of the text as well as how the subject matter is developed...

  • How true is what's being written?
  • How significant are the statements that are being made?

Regardless of how objective, technical, or scientific the text may be, the authors will have made certain decisions during the writing process, and it is these decisions that we will need to examine.

Two models of critical reading

There are several approaches to critical reading. Here's a couple of models you might want to try:

SQR3
Survey, Question
Read, Recite, Review
Describe,
Analyse,
Evaluate

The SQR3 method

Choose a chapter or article relevant to your assessment (or pick something from your reading list).

Then do the following:


Survey

Determine broadly what the text is about.

  • Look at the front and back covers

  • Scan the table of contents

  • Look at the title, headings, and subheadings

  • Read the abstract, introduction and conclusion

  • Are there any images, charts, data or graphs?

Question

What are the questions the text will answer? Write some down.

  • Use the title, headings and subheadings to write questions

  • What questions do the abstract, introduction and conclusion prompt?

  • What do you already know about the topic? What do you need to know?

Read

Do a first reading. Read selectively.

  • Read a section at a time

  • Answer your questions

  • Summarise or make brief notes

  • Underline or highlight any key points

Recite (in your own words)

Recall the key points.

  • Summarise key points from memory

  • Try to answer the questions you asked orally, without looking at the text or your notes

  • Use diagrams or mindmaps to recall the information

Review

After you have completed the reading…

  • Go back over your notes and check they are clear

  • Check that you have answered all your questions

  • At a later date, review your notes to check that they make sense

  • At a later date, review the questions and see how much you can recall from memory

Describe, analyse, evaluate...

Either...

Choose a relevant article from your reading list and make brief notes on it using the prompts below

...or...

Choose an article you have read earlier in your course and re-read it, applying the prompts below.

Compare your comments and the notes you have made. What are the differences?


Describe

Who is the text by?
Who is the text aimed at?
Who is described in the text?

What is the text about?
What is the main point, problem or topic?
What is the text's purpose?

Where is the problem/topic/issue situated?, and in what context?

When does the problem/topic/issue occur, and what is its context?
When was the text written?

Analyse

How did the topic/problem/issue occur?
How does something work?
How does one factor affect another?
How does this fit into the bigger picture?

Why did the topic/problem/issue occur?
Why was this argument/theory/solution used?
Why not something else?

What if this or that factor were added/removed/altered?
What if there are alternatives?

Evaluate

So what makes it significant?
So what are the implications?
So what makes it successful?

What next in terms of how and where else it's applied?
What next in terms of what can be learnt?
What next in terms of what needs doing now?


Here's a template for use with the model.

Go to File > Make a copy... to create your own version of the template that you can edit.


CC BY-NC-SA Learnhigher

Critical analysis vs criticism

The aim of critical reading and critical writing is not to find fault; it's not about focusing on the negative or being derogatory. Rather it's about assessing the strength of the evidence and the argument. It's just as useful to conclude that a study or an article presents very strong evidence and a well-reasoned argument as it is to identify weak evidence and poorly formed arguments.

Criticising

The author's argument is poor because it is badly written.

Critical analysis

The author's argument is unconvincing without further supporting evidence.

Arguments & evidence

Academic reading can be a trial. In more ways than one...

It might help to think of every text you read as a witness in a court case. And you're the judge! You're going to need to examine the testimony...

  • What’s being claimed?
  • What are the reasons for making that claim?
  • Are there gaps in the evidence?
  • Do other witnesses support and corroborate their testimony?
  • Does the testimony support the overall case?
  • How does the testimony relate to the other witnesses?

You're going to need to consider all sides of the case...

Considering the argument

An argument explains a position on something. A lot of academic writing is about gathering those claims and explaining your own position through their explanations.

You'll need to question...

  • ...the author's claims;
  • ...the arguments they use — are their claims well documented?;
  • ...the counter-arguments presented;
  • ...any bias in the source;
  • ...the research method being used;
  • ...how the author qualifies their arguments.

You'll also need to develop your own reasoned arguments, based on a logical interpretation of reliable sources of information.

What's the evidence?

Evidence isn't just the results of research or a reference to an academic study. You might use other authors' opinions to back up your argument. Keep in mind that some evidence is stronger than others:

weak

Intuition or beliefs — personal opinions of the author;

Quoting an expert witness — an attempt to be persuasive;

Anecdotes — personal experiences or case studies;

Research — primary or secondary findings or data.

strong


You can get an idea of an author's certainty through the language they use, too:

weak

"It is said that..." "It appears that..." "There's evidence to suggest that..."

"It may (not)..." "It might (not)..." "It is possibly (not)..." "It is perhaps (not)..."

"It could (not)..." "It is (un)likely..."

"It can(not)..." "It should (not)..." "It is probably..." "It is presumably..."

"It is (not)..." "It will (not)..." "It must (not)..." "It is certain(ly)..." "It is definite(ly)..." "It is clear(ly)..." "it is undoubtedly..."

strong

Adapted from UEFAP

Linking evidence to argument

It's not just a case of looking at what the evidence might be; you also need to consider how the evidence and the argument work together to persuade you.

  • Why did the author select the evidence they did? — Why did they decide to use a particular methodology, choose a specific method, or conduct the work in the way they did?
  • How does the author interpret the evidence?
  • How does the evidence prove or help the argument?

Even in the most technical and scientific disciplines, the presentation of argument will always involve elements that can be examined and questioned. For example, you could ask:

  • Why did the author select that particular topic of enquiry in the first place?
  • Why did the author select that particular process of analysis?

Synthesis

Synthesis:

"the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole."

OED

You'll need to make logical connections between the different sources you encounter, pulling together their findings. Are there any patterns that emerge?

Analyse the texts you've found, and how meaningful they are in context of your studies...

  • How do they compare to each other and to any other knowledge you are gathering about the subject? Do some ideas complement or conflict with each other?
  • How will you synthesise the different sources to serve an idea you are constructing? Are there any inferences you can draw from the material?

Embracing other perspectives

Good critical research seeks to be impartial, and will embrace (or, at the very least, address) conflicting opinions. Try to bring these into your research to show comprehensive searching and knowledge of the subject.

You can strengthen your argument by explaining, critically, why one source is more persuasive than another.

Recall & review

Synthesising research is much easier if you take notes. When you know an article is relevant to your area of research, read it and make notes which are relevant to you. Consider keeping a spreadsheet or something similar, to make a note of what you have read and how it relates to the task.

You don't need elaborate notes; just a summary of the relevant details. But you can use your notes to help with the process of analysing and synthesising the texts. One method you could try is the recall & review approach:

Recall

Try to summarise key words and elements of the text:

  • Sketch a rough diagram of the text from memory — test what you can recall from your reading of the text;
  • Make headings of the main ideas and note the supporting evidence;
  • Include your evaluation — what were the strengths and weaknesses?
  • Identify any gaps in your memory.

Review

Go over your notes, focusing on the parts you found difficult. Organise your notes, re-read parts, and start to bring everything together...

  • Summarise the text in preparation for writing;
  • Be creative: use colour and arrows; make it easy to visualise;
  • Highlight the ideas you may want to make use of;
  • Identify areas for further research.

Critical reading: why, what, and how

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