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Critical Reading: Critical Reading

help for reading complicated scholarly articles or other text.

Resources for Critical Reading

Source: Knott, Deborah. Critical Reading Towards Critical Writing. New College Writing Centre. University of Toronto.

For a nicely formatted pdf of this page, visit


Critical writing depends on critical reading. Most of the essays you write will involve reflection
on written texts -- the thinking and research that have already been done on your subject. In
order to write your own analysis of this subject, you will need to do careful critical reading of
sources and to use them critically to make your own argument. The judgments and
interpretations you make of the texts you read are the first steps towards formulating your own


To read critically is to make judgments about how a text is argued. This is a highly reflective
skill requiring you to “stand back” and gain some distance from the text you are reading. (You
might have to read a text through once to get a basic grasp of content before you launch into an
intensive critical reading.) THE KEY IS THIS:

-- don’t read looking only or primarily for information

-- do read looking for ways of thinking about the subject matter

When you are reading, highlighting, or taking notes, avoid extracting and compiling lists of
evidence, lists of facts and examples. Avoid approaching a text by asking “What information
can I get out of it?” Rather ask “How does this text work? How is it argued? How is the
evidence (the facts, examples, etc.) used and interpreted? How does the text reach its


1. First determine the central claims or purpose of the text (its thesis). A critical reading
attempts to identify and assess how these central claims are developed or argued.

2. Begin to make some judgments about context. What audience is the text written for? Who
is it in dialogue with? (This will probably be other scholars or authors with differing
viewpoints.) In what historical context is it written? All these matters of context can
contribute to your assessment of what is going on in a text.

3. Distinguish the kinds of reasoning the text employs. What concepts are defined and used?
Does the text appeal to a theory or theories? Is any specific methodology laid out? If there
is an appeal to a particular concept, theory, or method, how is that concept, theory, or
method then used to organize and interpret the data? You might also examine how the text
is organized: how has the author analyzed (broken down) the material? Be aware that
different disciplines (i.e. history, sociology, philosophy, biology) will have different ways
of arguing.

4. Examine the evidence (the supporting facts, examples, etc) the text employs. Supporting
evidence is indispensable to an argument. Having worked through Steps 1-3, you are now
in a position to grasp how the evidence is used to develop the argument and its controlling
claims and concepts. Steps 1-3 allow you to see evidence in its context. Consider the kinds
of evidence that are used. What counts as evidence in this argument? Is the evidence
statistical? literary? historical? etc. From what sources is the evidence taken? Are these
sources primary or secondary?

5. Critical reading may involve evaluation. Your reading of a text is already critical if it
accounts for and makes a series of judgments about how a text is argued. However, some
essays may also require you to assess the strengths and weaknesses of an argument. If the
argument is strong, why? Could it be better or differently supported? Are there gaps, leaps,
or inconsistencies in the argument? Is the method of analysis problematic? Could the
evidence be interpreted differently? Are the conclusions warranted by the evidence
presented? What are the unargued assumptions? Are they problematic? What might an
opposing argument be?


1. Critical reading occurs after some preliminary processes of reading. Begin by skimming
research materials, especially introductions and conclusions, in order to strategically choose
where to focus your critical efforts.

2. When highlighting a text or taking notes from it, teach yourself to highlight argument: those
places in a text where an author explains her analytical moves, the concepts she uses, how
she uses them, how she arrives at conclusions. Don’t let yourself foreground and isolate facts
and examples, no matter how interesting they may be. First, look for the large patterns that
give purpose, order, and meaning to those examples. The opening sentences of paragraphs
can be important to this task.

3. When you begin to think about how you might use a portion of a text in the argument you are
forging in your own paper, try to remain aware of how this portion fits into the whole
argument from which it is taken. Paying attention to context is a fundamental critical move.

4. When you quote directly from a source, use the quotation critically. This means that you
should not substitute the quotation for your own articulation of a point. Rather, introduce the
quotation by laying out the judgments you are making about it, and the reasons why you are
using it. Often a quotation is followed by some further analysis.

5. Critical reading skills are also critical listening skills. In your lectures, listen not only for
information but also for ways of thinking. Your instructor will often explicate and model
ways of thinking appropriate to a discipline.

Prepared by Deborah Knott, Director of the New College Writing Centre
Over 50 other files giving advice on university writing are available at

Reprinted with permission from D. Knott, 2014

Skimming and Scanning

Source: Freedman, Leora. English Language Learning, Arts and Sciences. University of Toronto.

For a nicely printable pdf version of this, visit:

Reading to Write: About Skimming and Scanning
Your perceptions of any written text are deepened through familiarity. One of
the most effective methods for beginning the kind of thoughtful reading
necessary for academic work is to get a general overview of the text before
beginning to read it in detail. By first skimming a text, you can get a sense of
its overall logical progression. Skimming can also help you make decisions
about where to place your greatest focus when you have limited time for your
reading. Here is one technique for skimming a text. You may need to modify it
to suit your own reading style.

a. First, prior to skimming, use some of the previewing techniques.
b. Then, read carefully the introductory paragraph, or perhaps the first
two paragraphs. As yourself what the focus of the text appears to be,
and try to predict the direction of the coming explanations or
c. Read carefully the first one or two sentences of each paragraph, as
well as the concluding sentence or sentences.
d. In between these opening and closing sentences, keep your eyes
moving and try to avoid looking up unfamiliar words or terminology.
Your goal is to pick up the larger concepts and something of the overall
pattern and significance of the text.
e. Read carefully the concluding paragraph or paragraphs. What does
the author’s overall purpose seem to be? Remember that you may be
mistaken, so be prepared to modify your answer.
f. Finally, return to the beginning and read through the text carefully,
noting the complexities you missed in your skimming and filling in the
gaps in your understanding. Think about your purpose in reading this
text and what you need to retain from it, and adjust your focus
accordingly. Look up the terms you need to know, or unfamiliar words
that appear several times.

Scanning is basically skimming with a more tightly focused purpose:
skimming to locate a particular fact or figure, or to see whether this text
mentions a subject you’re researching. Scanning is essential in the writing of
research papers, when you may need to look through many articles and books
in order to find the material you need. Keep a specific set of goals in mind as
you scan the text, and avoid becoming distracted by other material. You can
note what you’d like to return to later when you do have time to read further,
and use scanning to move ahead in your research project.

Copyright © L. Freedman 2012, University of Toronto 

Reprinted with permission of L. Freedman, MFA

Help for Reading Philosophy

The philosophical papers assigned for some of your reading may be more abstract and perhaps do not lend themselves to skimming for understanding or the structured abstract.

Here is an excellent guide for writing a philosophy paper from Harvard College Writing Program. Reading the guide will also help with reading a philosophy paper, since it explains how to organize it :

In summary, look for the Big Questions, then the explanation of the thesis, or the argument supporting the thesis, or the objection to the thesis, or the consequences of the thesis, or whether acceptance of another argument supports the thesis, or the acceptanceof other viewpoint(s) if I accept the thesis.

The Harvard guide suggests reading your philosophy papers slowly and carefully, several times.

Look for "signposts," that reveal the author's intent. Examples, "this, I think, is clearly false," "I will argue that...," "I shall consider...," my strategy will be to...".

It might help to draw out the paper in "thought bubbles", giving you a visual representation, or map.

Guidelines on Reading Philosophy by author Jim Pryor suggests:


  • Skim the Article to Find its Conclusion and Get a Sense of its Structure
  • Go Back and Read the Article Carefully
  • Evaluate the Author's Arguments