Academic Skills Blog - critical reading

Let us shine a light on tips and tools to support your research process. This week: critical reading

silhouette of boy reading against a tree at sunset

Does that mean I have to be negative about everything I read?

Critical can mean a number of things. In this case it is not about finding fault with what you are reading. Instead it is weighing up the evidence and the argument presented and making a judgement on it. It is about asking questions of a text and keeping an open mind.

Critical thinking, reading, note making and writing are all connected. You need to take a critical approach to your studies. Before you read or listen to anything you need to do some planning. Think about why are you reading it? What questions do you want it to answer?

Throughout the process do not accept what you read at face value, always question the information, ideas and arguments you come across. Use evidence to help you form your own opinions, arguments, theories and ideas.

Every discipline is different so we can give prescriptive advice but some of the points and questions below, may prompt a more critical approach to your learning.


If you study in a text-heavy discipline, you know that you don’t have time to read everything, so take a structured approach to each text. These first two stages help you get the main thrust of an argument and should highlight areas and language that need more time spending on them:


  • If it is a book look at the contents page and index. If the information you are looking for isn’t mentioned here, you probably don’t need to use this text.
  • If it is a chapter or journal article, use the structure to give you an idea about the content. Are there headings & subheadings?
  • In both cases, do you recognise anything in the reference list? Is it linked to material you have been reading?
  • Quickly look at the text to identify key words or phrases.
  • Look for figures, data, images. These are much easier to digest at speed than words.
  • Evaluate the relevance and usefulness and decide if you should read more.


  • Scanning the text helps you decide what to read in depth.
  • Note key points in summaries / abstract.
  • Read the first and last paragraph or section to get the main points. If they are a good writer they should tell you what they are going to say in the first paragraph and then summarise what they have said in the conclusion. You can then decide if you need more specific information from the body of the chapter or section.
  • This is the case for paragraphs too.  A good writer should introduce an argument in the first sentence and then summarise it in the last.

In-depth reading

Once you've identified areas that you do need to dedicate more time to, think about:

  • What is the author’s purpose?
  • Identify core arguments.
  • Look for repetitions of argument, phrases or words to give clues to author’s intentions.
  • What do they consider crucial? Does this match what you think is crucial?


You need to develop a checklist to evaluate what you read to help structure your ideas for writing. When reading critically you need to evaluate:

  • Currency
    • When was the information published or posted?
    • Does the time period that the information was published matter in relation to your topic?
    • When was the information last revised? ( often found in the footer for online resources)
    • If reviewing a web source, are the links current or are they broken?
  • Relevance
    • What is the depth of coverage? Is the information provided central to your topic or does the source just touch on your topic?
    • Is the information unique?
    • Who is the intended audience?
    • Is better information available in another source?
  • Authority
    • Can you tell who wrote it? If the author is not identified who is the sponsor, publisher, or organisation behind the information?
    • Are the author’s credentials or organisational affiliations listed? Is contact information available?
    • Is the source reputable?
  • Accuracy
    • Where does the information presented come from? Are the sources listed?
    • Can you verify the information in other sources or from your own knowledge?
    • Does the language or tone seem free of bias or ideologically based arguments?
  • Purpose
    • What is the purpose of the information? To inform, sell or entertain?
    • Can you determine possible bias? If you can, are they clearly stated or do they become apparent through a close reading?
    • Does the point of view appear objective?
    • Does the site provide information or is it a critical evaluation of other information?

Critical Writing

Recall and Review

It is good practice to take a moment after reading to see if you can do the following by way of a summary of a text:

  • Restate: reiterate the same topics and facts. What is it about?
  • Describe: discuss the topics and facts within the context of the author’s argument. What do they think?
  • Interpret: apply meaning within the wider context of your prior knowledge and values. Is this what you think? What are the implications of your analysis?

If you are struggling to do this, you may need to re-read sections before moving on to another text.

If you make effective summaries in this way, you can then lift chunks directly into your essay or assignment. It is therefore important not to simply describe what you have read but to analyse it too. That way you will be writing critically; comparing, contrasting and synthesising information while clarifying the importance of some authors, arguments and sources overs others.

Find out more

There is a course on for undergraduates this Wednesday 29th January 3-4pm. Book places on the university's training booking system.

We have a LibGuide tab which expands on this information and there are lots more aids available on the web such as those from Washington State University, Leeds University, Learn Higher, and Safari from the Open University.