Reading and Listening Critically

Critical reading and listening are activities that require communicators to move beyond superficial engagement and analysis with a text or speaker. This handout is designed to explain the benefits of developing critical reading and listening skills, and it provides concrete strategies you can use in the classroom or during research.

Critical reading

Critical reading is an important activity in evaluating written arguments. It helps with the following activities:

  • Examining the evidence and logic
  • Assessing external influences on the argument
  • Investigating the limitations of the study or text
  • Evaluating the interpretation and facts presented
  • Deciding to what extent you accept the validity of the argument and conclusion

While many people undertake reading as a passive activity (by simply scanning the text), you can get more from your readings when you actively engage with the presented material. Critical reading offers the following benefits:

  • It promotes comprehension and absorption of material
  • It provides a context for facts, events, and people
  • It ensures that knowledge is judged on its merits
  • It improves concentration
  • It demonstrates your ability to perform an essential academic skill

Passive reading vs. critical (active) reading

Passive reading

  • Purpose: basic grasp of a text

  • Activity: absorbing; understanding

  • Focus: what a text says

  • Questions: What information does the text have? What information can I get out of the text?

  • Direction: accepting the text

  • Purpose: restatement; summary

Active reading

  • Purpose: judgments about how a text works

  • Activity: analyzing; interpreting; evaluating

  • Focus: what a text does and means

  • Questions: How does the text work? How is it argued? What choices does the author make? What patterns are present? What kinds of reasoning and evidence are used? What are the underlying assumptions? What does the text mean?

  • Direction: challenging the text

  • Purpose: description; interpretation; evaluation

Steps in critical reading

  1. Skimming
    • Review text prior to class
    • Look at key words, titles, headings, phrases, dates, and places
  2. Annotating
    • Read actively: talk back to the text
    • Write notes in the margins
    • Underline important ideas
    • Highlight memorable images
    • Mark thesis and key words
    • Underline sources
    • Identify confusing sections
  3. Summarizing
    • Paraphrase the overall idea
    • Select key words from the text
    • Outline the writer's arguments
  4. Analyzing
    • Determine the overall meaning of the text
    • Consider whether and how evidence relates to the overall message
    • Evaluate the significance of the evidence
    • Pair your analysis with examples/evidence
    • Judge the credibility of the text and its author(s)
  5. Re-reading
    • First reading: skim for main ideas
    • Second reading: reflect on text
    • Third reading: answer questions

Critical listening

It is as important to listen critically as it is to read critically. Critical listening is a process for understanding what is said and evaluating, judging, and forming an opinion on what you hear. The listener assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the content, agrees or disagrees with the information, and analyzes and synthesizes material.

Critical listening strategies

  • Find areas of interest in the material you're listening to
  • Reserve judgment: recognize your emotional biases
  • Work at listening: mentally summarize and review what is being said, organize information, and find connections to what you already know
  • Avoid distractions (internal or external)
  • Listen for and note main ideas; focus on central themes