To become critical readers, students need to get into a habit of writing while they read. They also need to understand that complex texts cannot be read just once. Instead, texts require multiple readings, the first of which may be a more general one to get acquainted with the ideas presented in the text, its structure and style. During the second and any subsequent readings, however, students need to write, and write a lot.
The following are some critical reading and writing techniques which active readers employ as they work to create meanings from texts they read:
STRATEGY I: Annotating the Text
The first step when annotating is to underline words, sentences, and passages that stand out for whatever reason: key arguments that the author of the text, any evidence, examples, and stories that seem interesting or important. There is no right or wrong when annotating. The places in the text that one reader underlines may be differ from those noticed by his/her classmates, and this difference of interpretation is the essence of critical reading.
Secondly, take notes in the margins of the ideas that are underlined, or attach post-it notes with comments about the text, as to why the passage is underlined. Think of annotating as having a conversation with the text.
Here are some additional ideas to guide your annotating:
- Ask questions.
- Agree or disagree with the author.
- Question the evidence presented in the text.
- Offer counter-evidence.
- Offer additional evidence, examples, stories, and so on that support the author’s argument.
- Mention other texts which advance the same or similar arguments.
- Mention personal experiences that enhance your reading of the text.
Annotating is the stage of the reading process when the reader is actively making meaning. Responding or conversing with the text will help readers not only to remember the argument which the author of the text is trying to advance (less important for critical reading), but to create their own interpretations of the text they are reading (more important).
STRATEGY II: Write Exploratory Responses
Students are often asked to write one or two page exploratory responses to readings, but they are not always clear on the purpose of these responses and on how to approach writing them. By writing EXPLORATORY RESPONSES, students continue the important work of critical reading which begins with annotating. An EXPLORATORY RESPONSE allows readers to extend the meaning of the text by creating their own commentary and perhaps even branching off into creating their own argument that is inspired by the reading. Professors may provide a writing prompt, or ask their students to create their own topic for a response. In either case, these responses are supposed to be EXPLORATORY, designed to help students delve deeper into the text they are reading than note-taking or underlining will allow.
When writing exploratory responses to the readings, it is important to keep one thing in mind, and that is their purpose. The purpose of these exploratory responses, which are often rather informal, is not to produce a complete argument, with an introduction, thesis, body, and conclusion. They aren’t used to impress classmates or professors with “big” words and complex sentences. On the contrary, EXPLORATORY RESPONSES help readers understand the text they are working with at a deeper level. The verb “explore” means to investigate something by looking at it more closely. Investigators get leads, some of which are fruitful and useful and some of which are dead-ends. As readers investigate and create meaning of the text they are working with, they should not not be afraid to take different directions within the response. In fact, it is important to resist the urge to make definitive conclusions or think that everything has been determined about the text. When it comes to exploratory reading responses, lack of closure and presence of more leads at the end of the piece is usually a good thing.
While professors will provide guidelines regarding format, length, etc., keep the following points in mind:
- Remember the goal—exploration. The purpose of writing a response is to construct the meaning of a difficult text. It is not to get the job done as quickly as possible and in as few words as possible.
- Bring in related texts, examples, experiences, and/or ideas from others. Active reading is about making connections with what the reader has learned and experienced.
- While the primary goal is exploring, questioning, & the form of writing may be a bit informal, the response should be written in clear and error-free language.
STRATEGY III: Use Reading for Invention
Use EXPLORATORY RESPONSES to start formal writing projects. Reading is a powerful invention tool. While preparing to start a new writing project, return to the readings and responses in search for possible topics and ideas. Comparing responses with others in class and reviewing the list of references at the end of the text (if available) can help to generate more ideas.
STRATEGY IV: Keep a Double-Entry/Dialectical Journal
Many writers like double-entry journals because they allow them to make that leap from summary of a source to interpretation and persuasion. To start a double-entry journal, divide a page into two columns. The left column is filled with passages, ideas, quotes, that are directly from the text (cited accordingly & ethically). The right column is filled with the reader’s reaction and responses to the passages, ideas, quotes, etc.
This journal can be used to identify passages or ideas to be used in a formal paper, or it can be used as more of an “exploratory” tool to make connections to other texts.
Don’t Give Up
College reading is difficult. College reading is filled with unknown vocabulary, unfamiliar contexts, theory, and there’s a lot of reading to do in college. However, if a text seems too complicated or “boring,” that might indicate that the reader has not attacked it aggressively and critically enough. Complex texts are the ones worth pursuing and investigating because they present the most interesting ideas. Critical reading is a liberating practice because readers do not have to worry about “getting it right.” As long as readers put forth effort to engage with the text and are willing to work hard on creating a meaning out of what is read, the interpretation of the text will be valid.
IMPORTANT: So far, we have established that no pre-existing meaning is possible in written texts and that critical and active readers work hard to create such meaning. We have also established that interpretations differ from reader to reader and that there is no “right” or “wrong” during the critical reading process. So, students may ask, “Does this mean that any reading of a text that I create will be a valid and persuasive one?” With the exception of the most outlandish and purposely-irrelevant readings that have nothing to do with the text, the answer is “yes.” However, remember that reading and interpreting texts, as well as sharing interpretations with others are rhetorical acts.
First of all, in order to learn something from critically reading a text, readers (students) need to be persuaded by their own reading of the text. Secondly, for a reader’s interpretations to be accepted by others (IE: peers, professors, etc.), they need to be persuaded by the reader’s interpretation, too. Conveying one’s interpretation of a text in a persuasive way, does not simply mean the reader has to find “proof” in the text to support his/her point of view. Doing that would mean reverting to reading “for the main point,” reading as consumption. Critical reading, on the other hand, requires a different approach. One of the components of this approach is the use of personal experiences, examples, stories, and knowledge for interpretive and persuasive purposes, the subject of the next section of this chapter.
Go to the Chapter titled “Readings: Short Stories, Articles, and More”.
Read the article by Mike Bunn: “How to Read Like a Writer” which emphasizes several points mentioned in these last three chapters & complete the two tasks listed below:
Task 1: As you read the article, EITHER annotated the article (if you print it), OR create a double-entry notebook.
Task 2: After you read the article, write a response in which you address at least two of the following questions. (You will type your response & follow MLA format that we reviewed in class.)
- What are some questions you have after reading the article?
- What ideas, points, concepts does Bunn make that connect to the chapter readings: “What is Critical Reading?”, “What is the Connection…?”, “Strategies to Connect…”
- What ideas, points, concepts does Bunn make that connect to your other classes, experiences, knowledge, etc.?
- Identify one or two ideas that you think are most significant, important, relevant to your understanding of the relationship between reading & writing. Explain your choice(s).
Each task will be its own grade.