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College Readiness: Reading Critically

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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We have a generation of students that are trained to automatically trust the textbook, or for that matter, trust anything that is written. Today, many students don't know how to read things with a grain of salt. So how do we go about fixing this?

Well, first we have to get them to read, then get them to read critically. Mem Fox's book, Reading Magic, states that the love of reading has to start young. Parents and teachers have to read at least 1000 books to children to prepare them to read on their own. She also states that if you want your child to stay at home and be close to family, "do not read them stories about the Amazon rain forests." As it turned out, she made the mistake of reading her young daughter books about France, which prompted her daughter to want to read (know) more about France as she grew older, and guess where her daughter lived when she was twenty, having the time of her life.

Dr. Mike Schmoker, in his book, Results Now recounts how reading helped Mike Rose transform himself from an educationally uninterested, nearly illiterate student to that of a successful college professor. Rose went to school in Los Angeles and until the tenth grade, he only went through the motions of learning in school. For Mike Rose, with his poor literacy, going to school made him feel embarrassed rather than challenged. His tenth grade teacher finally changed all that by exposing Mike and the other students to a heavy dose of challenging literature, talking about what was read, and writing about the issues in the books.

Today, Mike Rose is a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Schmoker states emphatically that, "Generous amounts of close, purposeful reading, rereading, writing, and talking, as underemphasized as they are in K-12 education, are the essence of authentic literacy."

Between the Lines

Reading has to be synonymous to thinking. How can you have the one without the other? Reading is an active learning method, as opposed to listening, which is passive. In order to read, students must be physically engaged -- eye movement tracking words, turning the page (clicking the mouse, or flicking the page) -- mental decoding of symbols to sounds to meaning, carrying a storyline or topic flow in short term memory, and arriving at understanding through assimilation of mental images produce by reading the words.

With all of that creative learning juice flowing in student's brains while they read, it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Schmoker shares a simple strategy that will help: Read with a pen in hand. As the student reads, he should make notes in the margins, underline, circle and highlight. What? Write in the book? I remember purchasing used books for college that were already highlighted and had notes in it and they actually helped me study. Didn't they help you? So what is the shelf life of a typical school textbook? Five years? During those five years, do we want the only things written in the textbooks to be graffiti or profanity? Not going to budge? Well, if the students can't write in the book, then at least they can take notes on a paper about what they read.

We should teach students to identify concepts while they read and then judge which of them is a key concept. Authors tend to do that for the students anyway by providing topic headings and subheadings. Then teachers need to help students to identify kernels of evidence supporting the key concepts. Cornell Notes is a perfect way to do this. Let me be perfectly clear here. Cornell Notes, done right, is not just a note-taking tool; it is an enhanced thinking process.

Have you heard of the residue of thinking? According to Dr. Daniel Willingham, the residue of thought is memory. And in simplistic terms, this is how our students should use Cornell Notes to read critically:

  • First, they write their notes of facts and details on the right side of the notes page as they read
  • Then the real learning power comes from taking the time after reading to think about what was read and asking themselves the hard questions like: do I believe it?, what else do I know about this, why, says who?
  • The left side of the page should contain these questions along with memory cues, sketches and subject headings
  • Finally, at the bottom of the paper, they summarize what is most important

As you can see, using Cornell Notes the right way can help students read critically, which by the way helps them remember what they read.

Going Digital

The creation of iBooks 2.0, an app by Apple, will fundamentally change how students read textbooks. iBooks are not just text on a screen. They have access to interactive maps, graphs and demonstrations, videos, galleries of photos, a search tool, and hypertext definitions. Not only is reading an iBook an engaging multi-media interactive experience, but note taking with the iBook is as easier than making flash cards. Students will still have to be able to identify what things that should get special attention, but instead of writing in the margins, they will swipe their finger and highlight sections and then by tapping their fingers quickly attach notes. These notes are collected and can be searched, organized and reviewed in the notes section as if they were 3 by 5 note cards. The vocabulary of each chapter is already included in the set of electronic note cards so reviewing vocabulary and notes is a snap.

Ultimately, however, reading critically is more of a habit of mind than a reading strategy. The best way for teachers to teach students read critically is to read critically with them. Model the kind of thinking that needs to happen as you read a story to the students. Share with the students how you are thinking and why in response to a text. Ask them the hard questions (and don't give them the answers!) Do they believe what the text says is true? Once you show the students how to do it, then you can expect them to continue to read critically in every assignment.

What strategies have you found to be effective in helping students read critically?

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Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Beth Decker's picture
Beth Decker
Foundations teacher- A course for successful transition into adulthood

Offering very concrete foundational skills like talking to the text or annotation across all levels of curriculum works best for teenagers.
A class the guides them into high levels of thinking and learning through concrete discussion about education, what learning IS for, etc. has proved to raise our student test scores across the board. Getting all teachers to see that at the secondary level, our goal is to be coaches of higher learning not just delivery systems of content is of great value also.
I created a video series that my district offers for free of real high school students introducing baisc tools. You can see them at:

Nicole Feledy's picture
Nicole Feledy
English teacher and literacy coach, Sydney, Australia

Yes, the more we encourage, model and support students as they adopt critical reading habits, the more we empower them to take responsibility for their own learning.

I found even 'reluctant' readers become more engaged when they recognise the personal relevance of what they are reading. Whenever commencing study of a new text, I encourage my students to follow a formula:
1. Predict - what do I expect (what may this explore)
2. Check in - what do I already know about this issue / what is my perspective (how do I feel about this),
3. Check out - what would I like to know more about, how may this be relevant.

Often I have a couple of short articles to stimulate discussion and usually ask the students to write a short reflection. Then we 'dive' into the text. The students are actively encouraged to write all over their books and use 'post it notes' to tab issues and their reflections. (As Ben mentions, this is the exciting aspect of iBooks and Kindle).

Further activities include discussions (whole class and groups) blogging and synthesis / collaborative tasks, leading to an evaluative essay.

I found by following this pattern, over time, the students need little reminder of 'what to do' and instead focus on 'how' it has been done.

You may like this strategy -

Aimee Cunningham's picture
Aimee Cunningham
10th and 11th grade English Language Arts teacher

I love this fresh way to look at Cornell Notes. Ben, might you have a student work example of the reading notes? I do a lot of annotation work (talking-to-the-text) with my students but I would love to try this approach which seems to be more strategic.

Holly F.'s picture

I love how you called reading critically a "habit of mind." It's so true that (most of) our students don't just come to us with already developed critical reading skills. These skills need to be practiced and modeled for them, just as children learn language through the language models of adults. We are doing our students a disservice by just handing them texts without arming them with the proper tools to tackle them. Doing "think alouds" with students not only helps them to better understand the texts, but helps them learn their own comprehension strategies to self-monitor their understanding of texts.

Lindsey L.'s picture

I enjoyed how you opened the blog, with Mem Fox, I love her books! I completely agree that parents and teachers need to read to young children to develop that love of reading and the love of learning. I wonder how we can accomplish this at times, when we have some parents who are not helping in this struggles to create critical readers? In addition, how can we make our students become more physically engaged in the text? I repeatedly remind my students and model for my students how to track words with their eyes as well as their fingers, and how to know when it is time to turn the page. In addition, to having them more physically engaged how then are we going to have students mentally engaged? This reminds me of a commercial that is playing now for Netflix, "the struggle is real" After reading your blog I was very motivated yes! I can't wait to get back into my classroom and teach, but then I thought what we as teachers are up against and it reminded me of the commercial.
I also laughed out loud when I read about allowing students to take notes in the books. You did bring up very legitimate reasons as to let them do it, I think I need to ask my principal first if I can allow this to happen, but I do like the idea of it, I often preach to highlight when the text is copied, but in the book they cannot do this. So therefore, they are not even practicing some of the comprehension techniques, because they cannot do what I am asking.
Lastly, I liked your version of Cornell notes and it is definitely something I will be trying with my students.

Tpowell's picture

I agree with Mem Fox in that if you read to children at a young age it will peak their interest and create a desire for them to explore more information. Also, Schmoker make a great argument when he made the suggestion for students to underline, circle, highlight and write notes in the margin of texts. This gives students and opportunity to fully understand what they are reading, not just reading without purpose.

Finally, the experience of Mike Rose is one that stuck with me. It is important for students to have someone in their life who can peak their interest in education and reading because reading opens the door to so many avenues in life for students, but it takes a special teacher to tap into a student and bring out that interest.

Ms. Cutrona's picture

I really liked this article discussed how to Effectively implement Cornell Notes in the classroom. Improving reading comprehension is an ongoing skill that must be taught and reinforced throughout their k-12 schooling. I think effectively teaching students how to use Cornell Notes is a great way teachers can help improve students comprehension skills. Cornell Note allow students to efficiently organize material and new concepts. When students use Cornell Notes they are able to implement a variety of comprehension strategies including paraphrasing/summarizing information, monitoring, inferring, connecting and even activating prior knowledge. Teachers that implement Cornell Notes in the classroom must spend time modeling and instructing students how to use Cornell Notes.

Peggy Armstrong's picture

I have looked into and attempted to use Cornell Notes in my classroom. This seems to make more sense than other information that I have found. We are working on critical reading as a school to improve lexile scores. I am going to try this again and see how it works out this time.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Lindsey! We can't let our students write in our books, so this year I gave my 8th graders sticky-notes so they can jot down thoughts as they are reading and stick them in the book. I think it helps them get their thoughts down w/o getting too far away from their reading. At the end of each week, they take a picture of their notes and turn them in via Google Classroom. That way I can see if they need some help, but they can keep their notes in their book. After a few weeks, they use those notes to choose something for their analysis and for class discussions. My hope is that those blank notes at the start of the reading reminds them to think about what they read -- and then physically writing down their thoughts again reminds them that I expect them to have opinions about the reading. That requires active reading, not just passive.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Hi Lindsey, it's a challenge for many educators to get students to love reading. I think giving students a choice in what they're reading helps a lot. Taking notes, or close reading can be done using sticky notes as mentioned, but you can also try to use apps like Evernote or Notability. Evernote lets you take a snapshot and make notes on the image highlight etc. Notability can be used for note taking throughout reading if they can't write notes in the book.

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