National Paralegal College

How to Be an Effective Critical Reader

by Eve Rosenbaum

As a graduate student, there's nothing more important than learning how to approach a text -- whatever it is -- and knowing how to both understand the content and also to interpret the author's perspective, recognize what informs the writing, and get a handle on how to truly analyze/synthesize the material. Being a reader of academic and legal texts requires a discipline and set of skills that are not often used in pleasure reading. As a student, you must be prepared to approach a text critically, pushing yourself to ask questions of a text, summarize and analyze the material, and even to present it in new and interesting ways. There are many techniques at your disposal to assist in the practice of becoming a critical reader of scholarly texts. The following material will discuss these strategies.

How to Prepare

First and foremost, critically reading academic material requires that you read the material multiple times. A quick pass through the literature for a course does not a scholar make. Make sure to set aside enough time for the task at hand. Even before beginning the reading process, make sure you understand the scope of the assignment, or what is being asked of you. Ask yourself if you are reading to understand a case, interpret data, define terms, etc. Having a purpose while reading—even setting reading goals—will help you determine what reading strategies might be best for you.

Be Aware of Headings

Even before beginning to read an academic text, there are often signals embedded in the text of which you should be aware. Usually the language in bold or the headings within the text will give you some clue as to what to expect from the document. In a legal case, you would expect to see the following highlighted: the caption, case citation, and the author of the opinion. Other material you would expect to be highlighted includes the outcome—opinions and disposition, elements of the case—facts and law, legal concepts, and the evolution of reasoning. Knowing what to expect can help you decide what to read, what to skim, and what to skip. For example, if you’re working with multiple cases that have a similar historical evolution, it may not be necessary to read the historical basis of a rule multiple times. This is a place where you might be able to skim material but still be mindful of the connection the material has to other cases. Studies in other disciplines will emphasize important material with headings outlining the nature of the study, the methodology, the findings, and the discussion of the findings. Being able to position yourself as a reader in the text is an important first task. Just knowing the lay of the land is a helpful strategy for critical reading.

The Reading Process

Once you have a sense of the nature of the document and some goals for reading in mind, it is time to think about the reading process. After establishing how the headings or bolded language will help with your reading, it is often best to read the first two or three paragraphs of the document to get a sense of the document’s scope. Is there a hypothesis or a thesis? Are there participants we need to be aware of? An initial skimming of the document will help the reader get a sense of what lies ahead. After tackling the first introductory paragraphs, it will often help to then read the findings, outcomes, or concluding paragraphs. By reading the closing material, the reader will have a sense of direction and will be able to start thinking about what the interior of the document should examine. After this beginning process, it is essential to find a way to engage with the text. Often, the best way to engage with a text is to read the text more than once, read passages out loud, and try some of the reading strategies that follow.

Asking Questions

Reading critically means being prepared to ask questions, to inquire further about the material being presented. As a reader, asking questions often helps in analyzing the material being presented. One of the first ways to begin asking questions after an initial skimming of the document is to make a list of things you are curious about as a reader. If you are working on an assignment or a research paper, having questions in mind will help you experience the material at a deeper level, one with purpose. Your questions might have a wide range, focusing on issues such as whether or not clear and supportive evidence is being used or whether or not the findings or outcomes seem relevant to the initial claim being examined. When you have examined the material closely with your questions in mind, you will begin to work your way towards being able to fully analyze material. Of course, questions often lead to other questions. When a document offers historical material or references other studies, to fully understand and analyze the material at hand, you will often have to do more digging. Thus, when you read, make sure you have access to appropriate reference materials, including subject-specific dictionaries and encyclopedias, as well as access to articles and cases through databases.

Taking Notes

Another way of processing information is by engaging with a text through writing. If you keep a notebook or computer near you while you read, you are already headed in the right direction. Begin your note taking by keeping your list of questions nearby. As you find material that pertains to your question, write down the key pieces from the reading and the page number on which you found the information. You might even develop a system, where you mark passages or lines in the text and use a symbol in your notes to refer back to those lines or passages. No matter what, mark up your reading! You should be writing in the margins, highlighting information along the way. In your notes, make sure you summarize smaller chunks of information. If you find yourself reading but not really paying attention, force yourself to write a summary of the material you just read. If you cannot write the summary, make sure and stop yourself earlier to write summaries and connect with the text.

Talking Back to the Author

Another strategy for taking notes is to talk back to the author. Do you agree or disagree with what you are reading? How would you have handled the case? What would you have done differently in the study? If you are able to actively engage with a text in this way, you are more likely to be able to write a stronger analysis of the text at the end of your reading.

Divided Notebook

A final strategy for engaging with a text is to divide your notebook pages in half with a line down the middle. First, write a quotation or an important piece of information on one side of your notebook as it comes up in the text. Directly across from this information on the other side of the page, engage with the quotation or information. Do you have questions about this information? Ask them here! Do you think what you have written down might be important to the rest of the reading? Signal that to yourself so you remember to come back to it later to see if this is the case! The more often you work with the text to uncover meaning, the more successful you will be at analyzing the material.

Discussing Reading

Not all of us, however, think and read critically without processing material in other ways. Some of us must read out loud to process information. Others of us must think through ideas with peers. One way we can challenge our own thinking about the reading we are doing is by creating a space for conversation. If we explain our understanding of an article or case to someone else, he or she has the opportunity to challenge and inform our thinking. This kind of discussion forces the reader to go back to the text for evidence and support. If that supporting material is not there to work with, the reader has a new perspective on the piece and may, in turn, analyze it differently. Hearing multiple interpretations of a document pushes the reader to think in new and interesting ways. Using online spaces to discuss reading material for research or class is a great way to engage with your peers and hone your skills in analysis.

Making New Meaning

After multiple passes through a text, document, or case, during which time we actively read and engage with the material through analysis, the final step in the reading process is to make new meaning from the material being analyzed. If goals were set in the beginning of the reading process, now is the time to ask ourselves if the reading pushed us further in our thinking and in what ways. Are we now ready to consider previous knowledge in light of the current reading? How does the current reading influence our beliefs and practices? Reading critically is a complicated process, but, as burgeoning scholars, it is important to move past the notion that reading is a static activity, merely used to memorize and regurgitate information. Working through the process and establishing new critical reading behaviors will benefit all graduate students in their scholarship.

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National Juris University, the graduate division of National Paralegal College, offers the following programs:

Master of Science in Legal Studies
Master of Science in Compliance Law
Master of Science in Taxation