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Do Your Students Read Critically?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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How do you tell if someone has been reading a book critically? One way is they have dog-eared the pages, underlined key ideas, annotated the margins, highlighted quotable phrases, and filled the book with tabs on pages of interest.

Looking closer, you read the notes in the margin and you see that in some cases the notes indicate agreement with the author, other notes simply add supporting references, while others vehemently disagree and give examples and evidence contradicting what is written.

If you find such a book, you can be sure that the reader not only read it, but did so critically. As educators, the best thing we can do is to help students develop the skills for critical reading and establish critical reading as a "habit of mind."

Questioning Text

Critical reading means that not only does the reader read to obtain the content knowledge (what information or message the author is sharing), but additionally, the reader has to read for a level of understanding through which he or she can evaluate the writing. Critical reading requires the reader to ask the hard questions: "Do I believe what I am reading?" "Does it make sense?" "Is the argument compelling?" "Is the evidence provided sufficient and credible?" "What is missing?" "What is most important?" "How does this fit with what I already know?" "How is this useful to me?" "What do I need to do with this information?" When students read critically, information in the book comes alive and they remember what they read.

In these margin conversations with the author, the student asks questions that seek more evidence, understanding or examples. The student also makes "to do" notes to himself of the need to look for more information online, to refer to the dictionary, to check facts, or to talk to someone about this topic. Some of the questions go unanswered; "Why do you bring this up?" "How does this fit in?" "What were you thinking?" "Where is your evidence?" Some of the margin notes are simply exclamations of support: "Good thinking!" "That's right!" "Awesome!" "Great idea," while others are pejorative labels: "That is stupid!" "Seriously?" "Wrong!" "Get a grip!" "No way!"

Books that are critically read also contain non-linguistic stars, circles, happy faces, sketches, and highlighted or underlined phrases that identify critical topics that the students would like to reference in the future.

Sticky tabs mark pages of importance and Post-it notes stuck to the pages add additional information or questions. Even electronic books can be marked on. The iBooks not only have a note section, but highlighted words and phrases are automatically saved in electronic note-cards with the word or phrase on one side and a blank card face for writing the definition on the other. After going back and defining the highlighted words or phrases, the student would then be able to quickly review the important concepts of a chapter as if it were a stack of three-by-five cards.

Unfortunately, public schools do not allow students to write in their books, so even when students get to college and have to buy their books, they feel that writing in the books is a sin.

Worst of all, they do not have any experience in "reading with a pen in hand" as noted by school reform agent Dr. Michael Schmoker (2006) in his book, Results Now. There are ways around this, post-it notes for example and note pads, but there is nothing that beats recording your conversation with the author right in the book itself.

Digital Annotation

My school has promoted the use of the iPads, and with these tools, finally, we may be able to fill the critical reading void and help our students develop the essential habit of mind of critically reading everything.

With electronic books, students will be able to write notes connected with the pages they read and will easily be able to search, categorize, and collate their notes. More importantly, however, the students will be able to have those critical conversations with the author that will engage them in what they are reading, deepen their understanding, and most importantly of all, and following the lead of Dr. Daniel Willingham, a noted cognitive scientist, who states, "The residue of thought is memory," students will assimilate and remember what they read.

What kind of critical conversations do your students have with the authors or textbooks they read? Please share in the comment section below.

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nobleknits2's picture

I had been thinking a lot about this, after a national phone-in show had a conversation on Sunday about books vs digital form. Overwhelmingly, the conversation went in favour of the old-school book. However, nobody talked about the book in the context of the classroom, or about annotating as you go. Reading for a book club with a digital copy was a revelation for me, and I immediately wished the technology had been around for me as a student. Forget messy stickies (which fall out),or endless highlighting. I love the opportunity this gives a student to organize their ideas as they go, and be able to go back and find a point they thought was important.

Critical thinking is so crucially important, and we don't encourage it enough (I don't think). There was a point when we used to hand flags/stickies to our students in language classes, and encouraged them to use them on their books - I don't see that as much any more. I think we're forgetting how important it is that our students are taught to think as they read, not just before and after (thanks to Kylene Beers, who really made me think about this years ago. )

Karla Valenti's picture
Karla Valenti
Empowering parents to empower their children (

Teaching children to read critically is a great way to ensure that they are getting the most out of their learning and is a skill that will serve them throughout their entire life. It should absolutely be the focus of educators at all levels.

Of equal importance is teaching children how to think critically --> In both instances, the focus is on learning how to unpack new ideas and then use those ideas to create something meaningful. Isn't this fundamentally what learning is about...?

Tomi's picture
Grad School Student and Tutor

I certainly agree with many of the issues about critical reading brought up in this post. I was especially interested in the idea that because students cannot write in the school-owned books, it creates the idea that writing in books is a sin. I know that my first year as an undergraduate student, I felt the same way, but I never knew why I felt that way. It wasn't until my second year at school that I began to grasp why I had such reservations about diving into the text and marking it as if it were my own. Some teachers treat novels like they really are sacred, so students develop this aversion to marking the text.

For example, in high school, we read To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and Of Mice and Men. Those were the novels the school district taught when my parents went to school, when I went to school, and what they are still teaching now. With this history comes a sense of power; these novels have such a meaningful message that the students feel there is no critical conversation to be had. They read the text and take what the author said at face value, they accept, and they move on. And I believe that there are two reasons why students can shy away from critical thinking, even if they already have the skills to do so. First, the novels read in high school have such a long linage that the texts themselves take on a "holy" or "sacred" quality to them, and students shy away from disagreeing with something they perceive to be time and true. Second, it is because these books have come to mean something more that students would fear writing in them, even if they were able to do so.

Therefore, I agree wholeheartedly about the pros of digital annotation. For some reason, writing a note in a document feels so much different from writing in the margins of the book. The taboo of "writing in books is a sin" is gone. Plus, digital annotations work so much better than keeping a notebook with references and thoughts because everything is right there in the book. And, as nobleknits2 pointed out, post-it notes lose their stickiness and fall out. Unfortunately in the rural area I tutor in, the schools do not have the funding to assign students laptops or iPads to help them practice critical conversations with the authors. Likewise, when I gave students post-it notes during student teaching, the students quickly used them for surface and plot level questions such as "I'm confused. What is going on here?" instead of any sort of deeper conversation with the text.

I thought this post was very insightful, and I agree with it. Once an author publishes a text, it becomes public. It isn't their novel any longer, but it's our novel. We have to get inside the text to decide whether or not we agree with what the author is saying, and to mark a text takes some ownership over not only our thoughts and ideas but also the text itself. I think that is a huge part of critical thinking, but I still struggled to it to a handful of my students. I wonder about the students who just aren't at that stage yet. Without the digital annotation, how do we help nurture critical thinking in students who are reluctant to get inside a text?

Anon491's picture

Anyone who takes education seriously should realize that critical thinking is discouraged in the modern American curriculum. In fact there are blatant efforts made to prevent the development of critical thought. The purpose of the educational system is to sculpt children into mindless automatons incapable of individualistic thought and critical analysis of their environment, fit for use as human resources to power corporate machinations. For what purpose would thought serve the owner of an asset? The motivation stemming from the creators and designers of the curriculum is obviously not one of benevolence - there is no profit in social equality.

This point is made elegantly in "Teaching As A Subversive Activity" by Postman and Weingartner. 50 years ago it was painfully obvious to them why schools do not extend an effort to shape learning based upon scientific principles and philosophic purity of thought. If children were taught to question their core beliefs, how would a nation of millions come to accept their subjugation and oppression via military dominance and shameless propaganda? How would the masses be so easily controlled, and such mind-boggling profits to corporations be made from of war, unless children were taught to bend to authority and false propositions of 'truth' at every turn? A society which thinks critically would not support the slaughter of millions for false idealism as their parasitic leaders exhibit unfettered contempt for their citizens by leeching their productivity to extend their own affluent lifestyle and send youth to die for the sake of their own power.

No, children will NEVER be taught to TRULY question their world, until the masters of society desire a population which puts their ownership into question. Average citizens are completely ignorant of simple truths regarding the mafia-like nature of our financial system, for example, or the farce of political equality. Basic observation of modern society proves that critical thinking is held within contempt, and will remain so as long as there is money to be made through deception; ignorance enables political authorities to effortless manipulate their subjects.

Alicia's picture
High School, Biology I teacher

Love this! So many of my students get lost with the textbook (too hard, not their interest, don't see a personal connection). I need to get back to promoting this type of thinking/learning!

EdTechBSt's picture

What a great, much-needed post! Indeed, it is incumbent upon us educators to "help our students develop the essential habit of mind of critically reading everything," including what they find on-line. The blessing and the curse of internet media is everyone's an author, critic, and expert. Tools that assist students in developing a critical lens through which to view this media are essential. In that spirit, we at Parlor ( are working to develop a platform for reading critically, sharing sentiments about what students/teachers read, and aggregating them in a single portal to foster class discussions. Check us out!

Nicole's picture
7th Grade L.A./S.S.

I thought that critical reading is such an important topic to mention. Our students will be required to do more close reading with the adoption of the common core standards, which makes it more important that they are being taught these skills. It is so empowering as a teacher when students do start to question the material being taught when they are truly curious and trying to deepen their understanding. The only way that we as educators can develop this questioning is by teaching them to read closely, make personal connections, and analyze text.
This past year we were using old S.S. texts that need a lot of supplemental help. All the supplemental were copied for the students. We were then able to highlight and draw pictures of key information. This coming school year we will be adopting new textbooks, which we will not be able to write in, perpetuating the idea that text books are sacred. I will have to develop new techniques to engage my students in the close reading that will be required outside of the text.

Alireza Sadreddin's picture
Alireza Sadreddin
English language teacher

I think nobody can disagree with the super great ideas mentioned above. It seems to me almost a dream to find a student implementing these strategies in his/her reading. Is it enough to make them aware and teach them these strategies? Are you talking about a typical motivated organized student?
What if you are blessed with unmotivated, mismatched students?
How can we inject the idea of critical reading?

Mark Eichenlaub's picture
Mark Eichenlaub
8th Grade Reading/Language Arts Teacher from Flossmoor, Illinois

Have you used the free iPad app Subtext? It is perfect for this!

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