Reading Critically


Be Your Best


By the time you finish this you unit, you should:

  • be familiar with strategies to help you extract meaning from difficult texts;
  • know the difference between facts and interpretation;
  • know how to evaluate a source's credibility.


  • ad hominem 
  • agenda
  • bias
  • credibility
  • fact
  • interpretation
  • logical fallacy
  • objectivity
  • post hoc
  • red herring
  • subjectivity
  • syntax
  • tone


The following Internet and print sources can help you with the concepts covered in this unit:

Be Your Best: Using a Dictionary features instructions on reading a dictionary entry, as well as links to online dictionaries.

Be Your Best: Reading Poetry offers a step-by-step guide to making sense of difficult poetry.

Updated February 5, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


In high school you may have spent most of your "school time" in class; however, college requires you to learn primarily through "homework," and most of this work involves reading. If you cannot absorb material from reading assignments, you probably will not succeed in your college courses. Remember that your long-range success depends not on the amount you read or hear, but the amount you understand and retain.  The information below will help you not only to absorb and remember information, but to read it critically—that is, to weigh considerations such as genre, bias, and credibility and ultimately to interpret the meaning of the information.


Like language itself, argument is something you have known nearly your entire life.  The first time you tried to talk your parents out of making you go to bed, you are were arguing.  Since that time, you have formed a few hundred other arguments--that it was your sister's fault and not yours, that you should be able to stay out until midnight instead of 11 p.m., that the teacher's test was unfair, that UNCP should admit you, that you are eligible for financial aid.  Indeed, every time that you try convince someone that something is true or persuade someone to do something, you are engaging in argument.  Most of the time, you probably use words, either written or spoken, but you also may have used pictures, gestures, facial expressions, and other tools.

Argument, then, is nothing new.  Still, just as college composition classes help you to improve language skills you already have, these same classes--and others in history, psychology, chemistry, and every other discipline--can help you to polish your argumentative skills.  In fact, argument is at the core of the kind of study that goes on in college.  Both you and your professors use argument when you study a subject, interpret the facts and opinions about it, reach a conclusion, and then try to convince others that your conclusion is the right one.  Unlike high school, which tends to emphasize the learning of facts, college focuses on the skill of interpretation.  You still have to try to absorb a lot of information, but now you have to think a great deal about it, synthesize various details, and draw conclusions.  Indeed, one of the most important--and most difficult--lessons that college has to teach is that truth is in most cases a matter of interpretation.

In college, you study and practice the various steps for making an effective argument.  That is, you will learn how to collect and evaluate evidence, how to state a clear claim, and how to organize and present compelling support for this claim.  Before beginning to develop these skills, however, you can prepare yourself for success by studying a few basic principles of argument, not only so that you can engage in it yourself, but also so that you can be an effective critical reader of others’ arguments.   

In his discussions of rhetoric, the art of communicating effectively, the great Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three particular means of making an argument: logos, the appeal to the audience's sense of logic; ethos, the invocation of the speaker's character; and pathos, the appeal to the audience's emotions.  Of these three means, the first two are the most useful in academic argument.  When making the first, you often will have to present evidence--that is, factual material or other people's interpretations.  Whereas your early arguments over bedtime may have amounted to shallow pleading--"Pleeeeease, just five more minutes!"--the type of sophisticated arguments you will do in college, on the job, and in your communities must be logical and grounded if they are to be effective.

As you examine this evidence in your various sources, you will want to beware of logical fallacies.  These errors in reasoning actually serve to mislead or distract readers and thus do not belong in honest argument; nevertheless, they are quite common.  Politicians, for example, are notorious for a type of fallacy called an ad hominem attack, which is aimed at a person rather than an issue.  Many people are guilty of using the post hoc fallacy, which implies that one event caused another simply because it came first.  Other logical fallacies include begging the question, which involves using unproven evidence to support a claim; the false dilemma, which implies that someone must choose from a limited number of options even though others actually exist; and a red herring, which merely distracts the audience from the issue by introducing something not directly related to the argument at hand.

Facts and Interpretation

Probably every source you encounter will include factual material, which is material that most people accept as indisputable.  Some examples of facts are dates, quantitites, names, and locations.  One test of whether something is a fact is to ask yourself whether it answers one of the following questions: Who? What? When? Where?  If it does, it likely is a fact.  For example, the material in the following sentence is entirely factual: Benjamin Franklin began publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1828 in Philadelphia.  Factual material can strengthen an argument because it cannot be disputed and thus provides a solid foundation.  An interpretation, on the other hand, involves a conclusion that someone, such as a scholar, has drawn from the facts and thus is disputable.  Some examples of interpretations are value judgments, explanations of causes and effects, assessments of meaning, and proposals.  You can test whether something is an interpretation by asking yourself whether it answers one of the following questions: Why? How?  If it does, it probably is an interpretation.  For example, the following sentence contains some interpretation: Benjamin Franklin believed humans could control their destiny and wrote his autobiography to encourage them to exercise their free will.  Interpretation strengthens an argument by giving it meaning and substance.  Indeed, as you will see later, an argument by definition must include some interpretation.  As you also will see, you must give credit to sources when you borrow their interpretations.


When you assess a source's credibility, you try to determine how believable it is.  First, you should look at the credentials of the author and the publisher.  Authors who have advanced degrees in their fields, who work for reputable organizations such as respected universities or government agencies, or who have published other books or articles tend to be more credible than authors who lack any of these credentials.  Furthermore, well-known publishers--especially those affiliated with reputable universities--tend to be more credible than other publishers because they have reputations to uphold.  In other words, credentials provide some proof that the material in a source is accurate and based on sound reasoning.  Because it is much easier to publish material on the Internet than to print it in a book or reputable magazine, print sources tend to be more credible than sources you find on the Internet.  A second consideration is timeliness.  Sources published or posted recently tend to be more credible than older sources simply because new knowledge gradually becomes available as scholars continue to conduct research.  You also will want to look for sources whose authors appear to have considered various interpretations and to have presented fair accounts.  Beware of biased sources, which tend to present only evidence that supports one interpretation.  In particular, try to avoid a source that has an agenda: a set of political, ideological, or financial goals that the author or authors seek to achieve.  One clue that an author has an agenda is a subjective tone--that is, one with an emotional component; stick with objective sources, which avoid emotional language.  Finally, evaluate the reasoning in a source's argument.  Try to avoid sources that rely on logical fallacies. 

Reading Strategies

Here are a few strategies to help you understand--and remember--what you read:

Prepare to succeed: Before you sit down to read, make sure that you have your book, as well as your class notebook, a pencil or pen, and access to standard reference tools. Anything else on the table might distract you. Remove it.  Whenever possible, read in the library.  The library has two advantages that make it the best place to read. First, unlike just about every other place on campus, it's quiet. If you are going to understand difficult concepts such as photosynthesis and inflation, you need to concentrate, and you simply cannot concentrate when your roommate is talking on the phone and the people next-door are having a '70s dance party.  Second, studying in the library gives you easy access to scores of reference books, including dictionaries and subject encyclopedias, that you can use to look up unfamiliar words, places, and events.  While you usually can't afford the time to look up every word you don't recognize, you can't afford not to look up key terms and names.  If a word or name appears more than once or if it is central to a passage, look it up and summarize what you find in your notes.  

Read "ahead": Read slowly and try to predict where the writer is headed. You won't always be right, of course; if you always knew what was coming, you wouldn't have to read the rest of the chapter. Nevertheless, by thinking ahead in this way, you force yourself to analyze the information as you read it, instead of passively skimming over the words. Also, try to solve sample problems without looking at the answers. For example, a grammar text book might define the passive voice and then present examples of sentences in both the active and passive voice. Read the sentence in the active voice and then try to come up with the passive version. Use the sentence in the book to check your answer.

Take notes: As you read, place a star in the margin of the book next to important passages.  If you are reading literature, for example, you would want to note passages related to the plot, setting, characters, themes, and literary devices. Write a brief comment next to each passage that you star. After you have finished the reading assignment, bring your book and notebook to class. During lectures and group exercises, write in your notebook any names, dates, terms, and ideas that your professor and classmates mention. Pay especially close attention to anything that the professor repeats, writes on the board, or mentions in handouts or study questions. Try to organize this information in a rough outline. For example, if the professor defines the term "sonnet," write this term along the left margin; below the term, move over a half-inch or so and make a list of the characteristics of a sonnet, placing a dash before each characteristic. Place a star next to passages that your professor and classmates note as important. Finally, include an example you can use to illustrate the term. Example:


*-14 lines 
*-iambic pentameter 
*-rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg (English) 
-originated in Italy; English poets adapted it 
-used by Shakespeare, Donne, and others 
-example: Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" 

If you are taking an online course, use this process as you work your way through study guides or read classmates' essays or contributions to online discussions.

Organize your notes on a computer: Bring your notes to a computer. Make sure you have a dictionary and, if possible, a subject encyclopedia nearby. Using the outline function in a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word, type the notes from your notebook, as well as key passages you noted in your text book, followed by the numbers of the pages on which they appear. As you input this information, make any necessary changes in organization, add some of your own ideas, and use the dictionary and subject encyclopedia to define important words and terms. If your professor has given you study questions on the material, practice answering--either in your head or in writing--some of these questions by referring to the material in your notes. If you don't have any study questions, simply think about questions someone might ask you about the material and consider ways you might use the information in your outline to answer such questions. Save this outline on a diskette, back it up on a separate diskette, and print a copy that you can place in your notebook. This extra step, while time-consuming, has three benefits. The most important benefit is that it gives you the opportunity to review and synthesize the material you have covered, especially when you take time to reorganize the information and add your own ideas. Typing your notes in an outline also makes them neater and thus easier to read. Finally, storing this information in the form of a computer file allows you to find information very easily. For example, you can use the "find" function in the word-processing software to find a term or a character's name in seconds.

Review your notes: Immediately after you have taken notes on something you have read or heard, take five minutes to review them.  If possible, find or make an opportunity to talk about your notes with someone else. At the very least, come to class prepared to ask questions and talk about your observations. Even better, get together with some classmates from time to time and chat about the material you have been reading. Talking about what you read encourages you to make connections among ideas and to articulate your thoughts. Indeed, I have found that the things I tend to remember best about something I have read are the same ones I discussed in or out of class. Research on learning shows that people tend to remember about 10 percent of what they read, 70 percent of what they discuss, and 95 percent of what they teach. If possible, form a study group in which each member takes turns teaching material to the others.

Interpret What You Read

If you have ever had to "read between the lines," then you know that there is more to reading than simply understanding the words and sentences on the page.  Indeed, one of the most important skills to develop in college is the skill of interpretation.  Especially in literature courses--but also in political science, history, and other fields--you will get much more out of your reading if you can evaluate and interpret purpose, audience, figurative language, and other information.  Here are some suggestions:

Read with a purpose:  Baseball star Yogi Berra once said: "If you don't know where you're going, you probably won't get there."  Before you start to read a novel, a chapter in a political science text book, or anything else, determine what you want to take away from it.  If your professor provides study guides, read them before you read the assignment.  If the book comes with its own study questions, read them.  Ask the professor what he or she wants you to get out of the reading.  It also is useful to evaluate the author's own purpose, as well as the audience for the text.  In other words, try to determine the author's background, the author's reasons for writing, and the people the author wishes to reach.  Once you have an idea of why you are reading, you will be better prepared to interpret the text.

Have confidence: If you approach challenging reading material, especially literature, like a riddle, you're likely to be disappointed when you don't "get" it.  Instead, begin every reading assignment with the knowledge that you can find something meaningful and rewarding in it.  The truth is that great works of literature, like people and history, do not give us clues, but suggestions. In fact, one might argue that what makes works great is their richness--that is, their capacity for leading readers down a multitude of mental paths, some of which perhaps the authors themselves didn't consciously plan. When I read, I wander down some of these paths, taking my cues from an author's suggestive images, allusions, symbols, sound patterns, or other characteristics, and I make notes about these elements to support my interpretations. I find this style of reading more rewarding--and more enjoyable--than hunting for clues to a riddle.

Pay attention to form: When you reading to understand material, you tend to focus on content.  In other words, you try to determine what the writer is saying on the surface.  To interpret an essay or novel successfully, however, you often need to pay attention to form.  That is, examine the diction, the genre, any figurative language you encounter, and anything else related not to the words themselves, but to the way they are packaged.  Always ask yourself how the form shapes the meaning of the material.  For example, if a character in a play compares his love to a "light"--thus using a formal element called "figurative language"--speculate on the significance of this analogy.  Why did the character compare his love to a light, rather than, say, a flower or a season?  Literature and other forms of writing often convey important meaning not through just the words themselves, but also through associations with those words.  We tend to associate light with truth, hope, purity, even God; thus, a writer or character who conjures up the notion of light--either through a simile, imagery, symbolism, or lighting effects in a play--is encouraging us to read between the lines and interpret this element.  In short, think of a novel, a poem, even a political speech or television commercial, as an equation in which form + content = meaning

Get help: I don't encourage students to use Cliffs Notes and similar "study guides" because I think they discourage students from doing their own reading and interpretation; however, I do suggest reading prefaces, introductions, and critical essays, which can help illuminate challenging texts without "translating" them.  Just remember to give credit to these materials whenever you borrow the ideas you find in them.  Failing to give credit is a form of plagiarism.  Also, use your professor as a resource, both by participating actively in class discussions and by talking to him or her outside class.