Chapter 5 Study Skills

5.2 Critical Reading Skills

A stack of books
Reading for joy and learning.

Learning to read critically is an  important part of  developing good study habits, and ultimately strong reading skills will enhance almost every area of your life.

Most students entering college have not yet dealt with the level of difficulty involved in reading–and comprehending–scholarly textbooks and articles. The challenge may even surprise some who have pretty good reading and comprehension skills so far. Other students for whom reading has mostly consisted of social media, texts, forum chat rooms, and emails, find they are intimidated by the sheer amount of reading there is in college classes.

What is Reading Comprehension?

Reading comprehension is defined as the level of understanding of a message. In other words, how well do you understand what you read? This understanding comes from the interaction between the words that are written and how they trigger knowledge outside the written message. Comprehension is a “creative, multi-faceted process” dependent upon four language skills: phonology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Proficient reading depends on the ability to recognize words quickly and effortlessly. It is also determined by an individual’s cognitive development, which is “the construction of thought processes”. Reading comprehension involves both the ability to decode (figure out) words (i.e. know what the words are) and also the ability to make meaning of the words strung together (comprehension) Some people learn through education or instruction and others through direct experiences.

There are specific traits that determine how successfully an individual will comprehend text, including prior knowledge about the subject, well-developed language, and the ability to make inferences. Having the skill to monitor comprehension is a factor: “Why is this important?” and “Do I need to read the entire text?” are examples. Another trait is the ability to be self-correcting, which allows for solutions to comprehension challenges.


Reading comprehension and vocabulary are inextricably linked. The ability to decode or identify and pronounce words is self-evidently important, but knowing what the words mean has a major and direct effect on knowing what any specific passage means. Students with a smaller vocabulary than other students comprehend less of what they read, and it has been suggested that the most impactful way to improve comprehension is to improve vocabulary.

Most words are learned gradually through a wide variety of environments: television, books, and conversations. Some words are more complex and difficult to learn, such as homonyms, words that have multiple meanings and those with figurative meanings, like idioms, similes, and metaphors.

Reciprocal Teaching

Reciprocal teaching requires students to predict, summarize, clarify, and ask questions for sections of a text. The use of strategies like summarizing after each paragraph have come to be seen as effective strategies for building students’ comprehension. The idea is that students will develop stronger reading comprehension skills on their own if the teacher gives them explicit mental tools for unpacking text.

Instructional Conversations

Instructional conversations create higher-level thinking opportunities for students.

“Instructional conversations”, or comprehension through discussion, creates higher-level thinking opportunities for students by promoting critical and aesthetic thinking about the text. There are several types of questions to focus on: remembering; testing understanding; application or solving; synthesis or creating; and evaluation and judging. It is helpful to use these types of questions through “think-alouds” before, during, and after reading a text. When a student can relate a passage to an experience, another book, or other facts about the world, they are “making a connection”. Making connections helps students understand the author’s purpose in a fiction or non-fiction story.

Text Factors

There are factors that, once discerned, make it easier for the reader to understand the written text. One is the genre, like folktales, historical fiction, biographies or poetry. Each genre has its own characteristics for text structure that, once understood, help the reader comprehend it. A story is composed of a plot, characters, setting, point of view, and theme. Informational books provide real world knowledge for students and have unique features such as: headings, maps, vocabulary, and an index. Poems are written in different forms and the most commonly used are: rhymed verse, haiku, free verse, and narratives. Poetry uses devices such as: alliteration, repetition, rhyme, metaphors, and similes. Students who are familiar with genres, organizational patterns, and text features in books they read are better able to create those text factors in their own writing.

The SQ3R Strategy

The SQ3R method has been a popular method of reading to learn. Textbooks require different reading methods than you might use for a novel, magazine, or website. When you approach a textbook, you are using it as a tool to learn the material that you need to know for your course. To achieve your aims, you will want to read with a purpose. One method for reading purposefully is called SQ3R. The acronym SQ3R reminds you of the elements of this reading method – Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review – that will help you become a more effective reader.



Before diving in to read the chapter – look over some of the key aspects.

  • Survey the title: Think about what you may already know about that topic.
  • Survey the introduction: It gives you an idea about how the chapter is organized, and what you will be learning.  If your chapter includes a list of Learning Objectives, you will want to pay particular attention to these. The Learning Objectives outline the key content you will want to master as a result of your reading.
  • Survey anything in bold: Subtitles are labels. Other bolded items may be definitions that you will need to know.
  • Survey the pictures, charts and graphs: Glance at these to pick out things that seem interesting or informative.
  • Survey the summary at the end: This will review and give you the key points in the chapter.
  • Survey the questions at the end of the chapter: These will help focus your attention on the main points.
  • Survey your course syllabus/course presentation and see what topics the instructor is focusing on.


When you have completed your survey, you will begin reading, focusing especially on items that you identified as important when you survey. Think of questions you would like to see answered in the chapter. Think of the 5 Ws and H questions. Think of  “Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How” questions for each subtitle or definition (you can do this as you progress through the reading).  These questions will become the headings in your notes.


Read the chapter. Read to answer the questions you have created.  Reread captions under pictures, graphs, and visuals. Note all underlined, italicized, and bolded words or phrases. Stop and reread parts that aren’t clear. Once you have found the key information needed, move to the next step.


Recite the answer to your question out loud. Do this as if you are explaining to a study partner. Better yet, actually explain it to a study partner, family member, or friend who is interested in supporting you. Explaining it to someone else helps you understand it better yourself.

  • After reciting, write this information down.
  • Repeat this step for each question that you created.


Stand back and look at the chapter as a whole.

  • How do the ideas and facts you learned from each subsection fit together?
  • Review your notes to be sure they make sense to you.

Exercise: The SQ3R Reading Method

Open your textbook to the chapter you are reading and complete the steps below.  Download this SQ3R printable worksheet [PDF] for a template to guide you as you read and take notes.

SURVEY: After surveying the chapter, what do you think it will be about?

QUESTION: Turn the first subtitle into a question.

READ: The section to answer the question.

RECITE: Answer the question in your words. (Repeat for the rest of the chapter.)

REVIEW: After reading the chapter, what new things did you learn?


KWL Reading Strategy

KWL is a method that can guide you in reading and understanding a text. You can do it working alone, but discussions definitely help. It is composed of only three stages which can be reflected on a worksheet of three columns with the three letters:

What we Know what we Want to know what we Learned

K stands for Know

Think first about what you already know about the topic before reading and jot it down in the first column, marked K. Discuss with others if possible.

W stands for Want to know

In the W column list the things you want to learn about the topic. Record questions, thinking of the 5 Ws and H questions. These questions will help you focus your attention during reading.

L stands for Learned

The final stage is to answer your questions, as well as to list what new information you have learned. You can do this either while reading or after you have finished.

Exercise: KWL Reading Method

Try it!

Try using the KWL method on a simple task that you would like to know more about. For example, how to make a great cup of coffee, how to make a delicious margarita, information about a medical issue someone you know has been diagnosed with, tips for painting a bedroom… anything you like.

The Reading Apprenticeship (RA) Approach to Comprehension

A method called Reading Apprenticeship is based on the premise that people who have become expert readers can assist learners by modeling what they have learned to do. The idea is that a more proficient reader is present to support the beginner, engaging the beginner in the activity and calling attention to often overlooked or hidden strategies.

This strategy takes a metacognitive approach to comprehension, utilizing various strategies readers may already know they know how to do, then adding more. For example, most readers have learned to make predictions, ask questions concerning meanings (“I wonder about…”), visualize a scene being described, associate the material being read to some other material, and, at the end, summarize the material. By reading together, the more experienced reader walks the beginner through the process by leading them through similar processes.

Now review and affirm important comprehension skills you already possess and complete the exercise below.

Exercise: Reading Apprenticeship Approach

Go back through the excerpt above on reading comprehension and this time, write marginal notes where you used any of the comprehension tools listed below:

  • Predicting – guessing what the author would write next.
  • Asking questions of the material such as, “I wonder about,” “Could this mean?”
  • Visualizing – trying to picture it in your mind.
  • Connecting this material to something else you have learned – “It’s like…”
  • Noting where you think you might need to read something over again for comprehension. This is important! It’s not a weakness to read things over several times to understand them!
  • Summarizing – excellent for testing to see if you really understood the main point of the reading.

Key Takeaways

  • Being able to read a section of writing doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it well.
  • There are key strategies to increase reading comprehension.
  • Practices such as discussion, reciprocal teaching, questioning, and summarizing help to increase understanding.
  • Taking into account text factors such as genres, literary features, organizational patterns, and text features such as headings, maps, charts, and indexes – all aid comprehension.
  • The SQ3R reading method uses survey, question, read, recite, and review as a structure to deepen understanding.
  • The KWL reading method uses 3 stages: what you know, what you want to know, and what you learned.
  • The Reading Apprenticeship approach uses a mentorship model where a strong reader helps a weaker reader gain useful reading strategies.
  • Try some of these reading approaches and see if one works well for you. These strategies help to engage you and make you active in the reading process rather than just be a passive receiver of information. This helps you to remember and understand.

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