Online College Courses for Credit

Critical Reading as a Learning Strategy

Critical Reading as a Learning Strategy

Author: Rebecca Oberg

Critical readers evaluate an author’s support for a point and determine whether that support is solid or not. Critical reading includes the following three abilities, which students should be able to understand and apply:

Separating fact from opinion. A fact is information that can be proved true through objective evidence. An opinion is a belief, judgment, or conclusion that cannot be proved objectively true. Much of what we read is a mixture of fact and opinion, and our job as readers is to arrive at at the best possible informed opinion. Textbooks and other effective writing provide informed opinion—opinion based upon factual information.

Detecting propaganda. Advertisers, salespeople, and politicians often try to promote their points by appealing to our emotions rather than our powers of reason. To do so, they practice six common propaganda techniques: bandwagon, testimonial, transfer, plain folks, name calling, and glittering generalities.

Recognizing errors in reasoning. Politicians and others are at times guilty of errors in reasoning—fallacies—hat take the place of the real support needed in an argument. Such fallacies include circular reasoning, personal attack, straw man, false cause, false comparison, and either-or.

This learning packet offers a thorough slide show with definitions, examples, and several related concepts regarding critical reading. The packet begins with a quotation from noted author John Steinbeck, and also includes a definition of the term, a more lengthly text discussion of the concept, and an activity for students to apply their new learning of critical reading to images from WWII propaganda posters, which is particularly appealing to visual learners.

See More

Author John Steinbeck on Critical Reading

"...a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. "

Source: John Steinbeck, The Winter of our Discontent

Critical Reading Defined

Critical reading is the opposite of naivety in reading. It is a form of skepticism that does not take a text at face value, but involves an examination of claims put forward in the text as well as implicit bias in the texts framing and selection of the information presented. The ability to read critically is an ability assumed to be present in scholars and to be learned in academic institutions.


Critical Reading 101

This informative slide show offers detailed instruction on critical reading, including definitions, examples, and related terms.

Source:, modified by Rebecca Oberg

What Is Critical Reading? A Deeper Look


To non -critical readers, texts provide facts.  Readers gain knowledge by memorizing the statements within a text.

To the critical reader, any single text provides but one portrayal of the facts, one individual’s “take” on the subject matter. Critical readers thus recognize not only what a text says, but also how that text portrays the subject matter.  They recognize the various ways in which each and every text is the unique creation of a unique author.

A non-critical reader might read a history book to learn the facts of the situation or to discover an accepted interpretation of those events. A critical reader might read the same work to appreciate how a particular perspective on the events and a particular selection of facts can lead to particular understanding.

Non-critical reading is satisfied with recognizing what a text says and restating the key remarks.

Critical reading goes two steps further.  Having recognized what a text  says , it reflects on what the text  does  by making such remarks.  Is it offering examples?  Arguing?  Appealing for sympathy?  Making a contrast to clarify a point? Finally, critical readers then infer what the text, as a whole,   means , based on the earlier analysis.

These three steps or modes of analysis are reflected in three types of reading and discussion:

  • What a text says     – restatement
  • What a text does    – description
  • What a text means interpretation .

You can distinguish each mode of analysis by the subject matter of the discussion:

  • What a text says – restatement – talks about the same topic as the original text
  • What a text does – description – discusses aspects of the discussion itself
  • What a text means – interpretation — analyzes the text and asserts a meaning for the text as a whole

Textbooks on critical reading commonly ask students to accomplish certain goals:

  • to recognize an author’s purpose           
  • to understand tone and persuasive elements
  • to recognize bias

Notice that none of these goals actually refers to something on the page. Each requires inferences from evidence within the text:

  • recognizing purpose involves inferring a basis for choices of content and language
  • recognizing tone and persuasive elements involves classifying the nature of language choices
  • recognizing bias involves classifying the nature of patterns of choice of content and language 

Critical reading is not simply close and careful reading. To read critically, one must actively recognize and analyze evidence upon the page.

Critical reading is designed to show you what to look for ( analysis ) and how to think about what you find ( inference ) .

The first part —what to look for— involves recognizing those aspects of a discussion that control the meaning.

The second part —how to think about what you find— involves the processes of inference, the interpretation of data from within the text.

Recall that critical reading assumes that each author offers a portrayal of the topic. Critical reading thus relies on an examination of those choices that any and all authors must make when framing a presentation: choices of content, language, and structure. Readers examine each of the three areas of choice, and consider their effect on the meaning.

Being a Critical "Reader" of Images

Being a critical reader extends far beyond paragraphs of printed words. Images can be read critically, for fallacies of logic, bias, propaganda, and more. Check out these WWII propaganda posters and read them critically: who is the creator of these images? Why were they created? Who is the target audience?

Source:, modified by Rebecca Oberg