What does it mean to “read critically”?

Most students find the ideas, insights, and information in assigned readings in college fascinating and valuable, but the volume of reading very heavy and the writing style of many scholarly works off-putting. Fortunately, there are simple and effective strategies that can help readers get through even long and difficult texts, locate 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. As a result, you’ll better understand and remember what you read. The method will also help you prepare to discuss, write about, or otherwise 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, 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, formulate questions about the title and headings, preferably using “the ‘w’ words.” 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? and 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. Write down the answers, and note the page numbers and section headings where you find them. You should also make note of the other main ideas you discover as you read.

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’re writing down your questions and the answers you find, you might also opt to write down a brief restatement--a summary--of the section.

“R”3 is for Review

After you finish reading the whole piece, review your questions and answers. If you haven’t done so already, this is an excellent time to write down 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 we at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies want you to go beyond merely understanding what you read: we want you to think deeply about it, so you will be prepared to contribute to a rich class discussion, or write a thought-provoking essay, or make a stellar presentation. So we have added 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?
  • Did the author convince me of his or her point? If so, what evidence or support did I find particularly strong? If not, what were the flaws, lapses, or weaknesses of the argument?
  • What was the author’s evidence and who were his or her sources? What makes the evidence and sources credible? What might throw their credibility into question?
  • Did the author leave out any important points or information? Did he or she overemphasize or underemphasize anything? Was the author balanced or biased?
  • What is the author’s “come-from place”? How do I know? Does his or her “come-from place” matter? If so, why?
  • What does the author assume that his or her audience believes, values, or doubts? How do I know? Do the author’s assumptions about the audience matter? If so, why?
  • Having read and thought about the piece, what questions do I have? What else would I like to know?
  • Does this piece remind me of others that I’ve read? How is it similar to and different from them? What does this piece have that others do not?

Final Notes

Practicing the SQ4F strategies will help not only your reading but also your writing. Understanding how 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. For more information on critical reading skills, click here. Be sure to check out the links on the bottom of the page to additional useful material on reading effectively.


© Sherri L. VandenAkker, Ph.D.