study skills: reading critically
If you're like most learners, you find the ideas and information in your assigned readings fascinating and valuable, but are sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of reading you must do and put off by the writing style of many scholarly works. Fortunately, there are simple and effective strategies that can help you get through long texts more easily and locate the main ideas, assess their validity, and remember them.
First, let’s clarify what it means to "read critically.” In college, you’ll be expected to do more than simply understand what you read. You’ll also be expected to question and test what you read--to determine whether or not the ideas are complete, unbiased, and sufficiently supported. You’ll also be asked to apply what you read to real-life situations.
THE "SQ4R" METHOD
The SQ4R critical reading method will help you read effectively and actively. (The original was SQ3R; I added an extra "R.") The method will help you better understand and remember what you read, and prepare to discuss, write up, or present your thoughts about a text.
Let's examine the steps one by one.
- “S” is for Survey or Scan
The first step is to survey or scan the material that you’re going to read. Take approximately 3-5 minutes to survey a book, or 1-3 minutes to survey a chapter.
If it’s a book, look at the Table of Contents; scan the Introduction or Preface to get a sense of the author’s thesis statement, approach, and writing style; and quickly flip through the pages to see how the book is laid out.
If it’s an article or book chapter, look at the title; read the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of the thesis statement and main ideas, and also the writing style; and scan the headings and graphics.
- “Q” is for Question
Next, use the "w" words to formulate questions about the title and chapter headings, and even the graphics.
For example, if you were to read an article titled “Dudley Square: The Making of a Community,” you might ask: Where is Dudley Square? Who made it a "community"? When? How did they do it? Why wasn’t Dudley Square a "community" before? What makes it a "community" now?
If you have time, or if the material is particularly important or interesting to you, write out your questions.
- “R”1 is for Read
Next, read the piece, actively looking for the answers to your questions. If you wrote down questions, write down the answers you find as you read, and note the page numbers and section headings where you find them. You should also note the other main ideas you discover as you read.
TIP: Click here to download a sample note-taking form. <--COMING SOON!*
You can also annotate--mark up--the text itself. Effective ways to annotate include writing your questions in the margins next to the “answers”; highlighting or underlining the “answers” and other main ideas; or briefly summarizing them in the top, side, or bottom margins of the page.
- “R”2 is for Recite or Restate
After you finish reading a section of the piece, look up and briefly recite or restate aloud what the section was about. If you can’t, you need to re-read. Reciting confirms that you understood what you read and helps you remember it.
If you haven't yet written down answers to the questions you posed, this is an excellent time to do so! You might also opt to write a brief restatement--a summary--of the section. You could also make a “cluster”--or "web" or "map"--of the main ideas.
TIP: Click here to learn more about clusters, webs, or maps. Click here for an essay map you might find useful. Click here, here, or here to try an excellent application for making clusters, webs, or maps.
- “R”3 is for Review
After you finish reading the whole piece, review your questions and answers. You could also make a “cluster” or web of the main ideas.
Go back and review your questions and answers and other notes before the class and throughout the term. As you would expect, the more times you see your notes--even briefly!--the more likely you’ll remember the material.
- “R”4 is for Reflect
Actually, the “real” name for this reading method is “SQ3R.” But in college, you'll need to go beyond merely understanding what you read: you'll need to think deeply about it, so you will be prepared to contribute to a rich class discussion, write a thought-provoking essay, or make a stellar presentation. So you'll need to do a fourth R: Reflect.
Here are some questions that you might ask yourself as you reflect upon what you’ve read. (As you think of more questions, write them down!):
- Why did my instructor assign this reading? What did he or she want me to get out of it? How well did the author convince me of his or her point? What evidence or support did I find particularly strong? What were the flaws, lapses, or weaknesses of the argument?
- What evidence did the author use? Who were his or her sources? What makes the evidence and sources credible? What might throw their credibility into question?
- What did the author leave out of the argument? Why? How important are those omissions?
- What did the author overemphasize or underemphasize? Why? How important are those emphases?
- How balanced or biased was the author? What was the author's purpose in writing?
- What does the author assume that his or her audience believes, values, or doubts? How do I know?
- Having read and thought about the piece, what questions do I still have? What else would I like to know?
- How does this piece resemble others I've read on the topic? How does it differ from them? What does this piece have that others do not?
FINAL NOTE: You might initially find that using the SQ4R strategies takes some time. Don't worry! The more you practice, the less time they'll take. Chances are good that you'll find the time a great investment, because you'll understand and remember what you read so much better.
In addition, you'll find that reading actively also helps you write better! Understanding how other authors craft well-written, credible, and convincing texts will help you create your own. It might sound like a paradox, but one of the best ways to improve your writing is to improve your reading.
TIP: For more information on reading critically, click here. Be sure to check out the links at the bottom of the page too! Also check out this video, Reading Skills that Work -- for Tests and Class, by James at EngVid.com:
This work by Sherri VandenAkker, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.