Get better at critical reading with these 9 easy hacks

Get better at critical reading with these 9 easy hacks

At the beginning of every learning period, students are assaulted with lengthy reading lists of reading resources selected by course lecturers as learning guides for the entire learning period.

Getting through the list is hectic, and more so, when these same texts are examinable. Reading all of the texts is not a matter of choice and after trying out a few of them, most students give up halfway through.

Some become unenthused by the sheer volume of the reading lists while others become dissuaded by mental blocks they encounter when they try reading the books.

Getting through the course resources and getting a decent grade requires critical reading. Critical reading is a deeper and more engaging interaction with the text that helps in further understanding and retaining the content of a given book.

Our Unemployed Professors care about your grades and have compiled a list of nine hacks that can help you get better at critical reading.

  • Developing a reading strategy

Developing a strategy for reading and understanding text is the very first step to critical reading. We recommend you adopt a three-step reading strategy;

  • Select
  • Skim
  • Reread

a. Select

The select phase of this reading strategy involves going through the entire reading list and selecting a text. Once the text has been selected, go through the blurb at the back of the book.

The blurb contains information such as a short summary of the book and a short biography of the writer.

This information can help you get a basic understanding of what the book is about even before you open the first page.

You can also look at the title. Question the title. Memorize it and mull it over in your brain. Keeping it in mind will help you understand why the writer chose that particular title for the book.

b. Skim

Skimming is going through a text without paying special attention to any areas. It helps in grasping a better understanding of the book and the story it tries to tell.

Take note of the most important aspects of the book, the major themes, the noteworthy events and some of the general ideas that the author proposes.

These will later come in handy in the next section.

c. Reread

Once you have established what the book is about, the general themes in the book and some of the author’s thoughts and ideas, you can then settle down for a long and meditative look at the book.

Skimming through the book before ensures that you have no more suspense that may cloud your understanding of the book and therefore, the brain is left free to roam the literal world of the book.

The reread helps fill in some of the gaps and plot holes that you might have noticed during the skimming.

2. Follow the SQ3R strategy

The SQ3R strategy is a reading strategy designed to help students improve their comprehension of a reading resource. It is also supposed to help them in their memory and improve their reading efficiency.

The method was proposed by education philosopher Francis Robinson in 1946 in his book, Effective Study.

The strategy derived its name from its five component steps;

  • Survey
  • Question
  • Read
  • Recite
  • Review

a. Survey

The survey step urges students to first go through the outstanding features of the book and resist the urge of diving headfast into it. Survey is best implemented on a chapter level when there is lesser ground to cover.

These outstanding features include titles, subtitles, headings, subheadings, graphs, pictures, illustrations and maps and any captions that may have be used on them.

Survey also involves using review notes and study guides from the course lecturer and comparing how they blend with the major parts of the book.

Review questions at the end of every chapter can also be a good start to getting a general overview of the text or reading resource.

Based on these, the reader should be able to formulate a conclusive image of the chapter.

b. Question

The readers should now be able to generate questions about the chapter and answer them. The headings and subheadings can also be changed into questions. Some questions that can be formulated include;

  • What is the chapter about?
  • What do I know about the subject that the chapter is talking about?
  • What question is the chapter trying to answer?
  • What information does the chapter give?

More questions can be sourced from the end of the chapter on the text or at the end of the reading resource.

These questions should help you understand the text better as you will read while trying to answer them.

c. Read

With questions formulated, you can now delve into the text. Use the background work done in Survey and Question to help you better understand the text. Look for answers to the questions raised and underline important parts of the text.

Reduce your speed for the passages that are particularly difficult to understand and take some time on them to grasp what they are about. Read a section at a time and then go to recite.

d. Recite

Recite is the second “R” in the strategy. The recite part is to help the reader see how much they have grasped from the Read section.

Try recalling the major points and ideas from the just read section. Recital may be oral or written. Recitation can also be in form of a summary.

The more you are able to recite from the previous section, the better the understanding.

e. Review

Review is the final “R” in the strategy. Once you complete the chapter at hand, you can look back on it with the short notes, questions and summaries made from the previous two parts to further internalize what you have read so far.

3. Critical Thinking as an extension of critical reading

Critical thinking is a very crucial part of critical reading.

Critical thinking involves evaluating an issue at hand, in our case, the reading resource, and after an objective analysis, forming a judgement derived from it.

In academics, this involves reading with an open mind. This means having a reading process that is not affected by personal emotions, opinions or biases.

However, in order to do this, you first have to recognize your own thoughts from those presented by the book and isolate them so that the ideas of the resource remain intact and open to the interpretation the author intended.

4. Be comfortable before you read

For most of us, being comfortable means a lot of things. For some, its sitting in your bedroom, surrounded by the memorabilia you’ve collected over the years and with probably some punk rock in the background. For others its sitting in the patio or the lawn, surrounded by the nature and its intricate scents. For others, it’s sitting by the fire, wrapped in a blanket listening to the crackling of the fire, or the whir of the electric heater while for others, the study does it just fine.

Whatever does it for you, do that. Make sure you are comfortable and without any disturbance before embarking on your read. Being comfortable ensures that the author is able to clearly speak to you and increases your understanding of the book.

5. Split the book in chunks

Another common mistake that students do is take on the entire tome at once. This inhibits your ability to internalize anything and only leaves you with a vague idea of what the book is about.

A more efficient way to go about a book is by splitting it into small chunks. This may be into chapters or even smaller sections if the chapters prove too big to handle.

Make sure that every sub-section is properly covered and understood before you can move on to the next.

6. Understand the inspiration of the book

This is especially helpful if the reading text is for a literature course and is a novel or story. For such, understanding what inspired the book could help a lot in understanding the thematic fabric of the book.

This can be done by looking up the book online. Reading about interviews that the author has attended about the book in order to get more information.

You can also look up the author and read about their life history.

One such example is an autobiography like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The book heavily borrows from the personal experiences of the author and their life story. It was also written at a time when the author was facing some emotional and mental distress and this heavily translates into the book.

It is for this reason that the critical reader is urged to read more about the inspiration of the book to better grasp its content.

7. Use supplementary reference works

Another mistake that learners make is to read a reading resource in passing like one would do with a novel.

However, unlike a reading resource, you will never be tested based on a novel. Every precaution should be taken, therefore, to understand every nook and cranny of the resource.

Supplementary reference works include a dictionary and even the internet. If you find a word that you do not know its meaning, or a phrase whose meaning you know but whose use is strange, look them up. They will help in further understanding the text.

Alongside the reference works, you should also have a reading journal. This can be used to mark the progress you have made and to monitor that progress by identifying each work made with a date. That way, you can identify when you have slackened down your pace or when you have started being sketchy in your understanding of the text.

The journal can be used to write summaries and short notes from the resource that might come in handy later.

8. Post-reading

After completing the entire text using the above steps, you should compile all the notes you have jotted down through the text. Try to arrange them according to their themes.

The essence of doing this is to see if the small parts you’ve been collecting all over the text make a bigger picture.

If they actually do, this will help you easily identify it and see how the author propagates this theme all over the text.

9. Challenge the author

Having isolated your personal feelings and emotions throughout the entire text, this would be the perfect time to let them loose.

After compiling your summary of the entire text and coming up with the main theme(s) portrayed in the text, it is important to analyze them from your point of view.

This means identifying thoughts of the author that you think were incorrect, ideas that you think were unsuitable and perspectives that you think were biased. The fact that they are the author does not mean that they were not in any way influenced to come up with a conclusion that would be favorable to them.

This section allows the reader to propose their own suggestions on how these ideas should be if you think they are wrong. The reader can also support themif their personal opinion sides with that of the author’s.

However, your personal opinion of the book should not come before those of the authors unless solicited, especially in an examinable essay or paper about the text.


There are several other ways that one can read a text critically. However, the above guidelines are guaranteed to help improve your critical reading skills and your understanding of the next reading resource you decide to take down. Next time you read, you should know how to go about it.

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