Shelley Reid .

Shelley's Quick Guides for Writing Teachers:
Critical Reading Assignments


This page lists several kinds of short assignments that may help students read a particular assignment more carefully so that they are better prepared to participate in a discussion or begin a longer written analysis of a piece of writing.

It can be important to help students learn to be critically active before, during, and after the time they spend reading a text. While assignments like these take time, they can improve comprehension, lessen alienation, and enable better work on later assignments. Help your students see how slowing the reading process down will actually save them time in the long run, and make the time they do spend reading more engaging.

Remember that critical reading falls under Shelley's "20-Minute Rule": Anything you want students to do at home with attention and comprehension, you should practice doing together during class for 20 minutes."

With critical reading, you could split the 20 minutes into 10 minutes of modeling before students go home, and 10 minutes sharing results after they come back. Don't get tempted to skimp on this at the end of a busy class day (as Shelley often is!): invest your time to help students see how to invest theirs.

Some of these strategies are borrowed from John Bean's book, Engaging Ideas, and some are adapted from Stephen Brookfield's book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Others are familiar strategies you may associate with K-12 reading, but that are equally appropriate for some college-level students.

Predict and Annotate
(Pre-reading, Reading; Generic to all reading assignments)  

  • Read the title and the first paragraph.  Jot down 2-3 issues you predict the article will cover, and 2-3 questions you have about those issues.

  • Annotate the essay as you read, using a pen/pencil (not a highlighter!).  If you don't want to write in your book, you can make a photocopy, use Post-its, or scan it and use OCR software to create a text document to comment in.

  • As you mark passages, try to emphasize short phrases (5-8 words) to help you remember key ideas: use circles, boxes, squiggles, double-underlines, etc., to indicate slightly different degrees or tonalities of emphasis.

  • Aim to include 3-5 short, word-based comments per page, using one or more of the approaches/heuristics below:  

    • Include short reactions (aha, huh?, heh, eek, wha-a? hmph, nah, ick), as well as questions, connections ("like my Milton class," "contrast w/Macrorie"), and/or short summaries of an idea you want to remember ("silence voices in head"). 

    • Include comments that summarize/comprehend, interact/evaluate, extend, or rhetorically analyze the text. (Credit to Mary Goldschmidt for this structure.)

    • Alternately, TXT to the text: use quick, familiar abbreviations: LOL, OMG, etc.

(Pre-reading; Must be adapted to each reading assignment)

Before you read, please respond to the following five statements with "Agree," "Don't know," or "Disagree."  Write 1-2 sentences to elaborate on one response.

Sample Opinnionaire Statements:

  • Most people prefer ______.

  • Doing X causes people to ______ .

  • _______ers should always be _____ . (etc.)

As you read, watch carefully for places where the author provides evidence that supports, contradicts, or provides interesting alternatives to the responses you gave. Does it seem as though the author is writing to people who share your opinions or who have different ones? How can you tell?


(Pre-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

Freewrite for 10 minutes on [[the topic of the reading assignment]].  Write quickly without erasing or censoring; try to put down what occurs most vividly to you, even if you think you're getting "off topic." When you're done, go back and double-underline one or two phrases that seem most interesting to you, so you can look for connections to these ideas as you read.


(Pre- and post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

  • Survey the reading: look at starts and finishes, headers, topic sentences; note down 2-3 things you think it will be about. 

  • Write down 2-3 Questions:  what do you want to know, or hope you'll learn, about these topics? 

  • Read a section at a time (no more than 2 pages), thinking about your questions. 

  • At the end of each section, Recite the main points or questions that occur to you so far; go ahead and speak aloud as you do this, to engage orally/aurally, and write a note or two if you'd like. 

  • After you've finished, Review all your earlier notes, and add any observations you've missed; in a day or so, return and review those notes again.


(Pre- and post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments, but it can be useful to give students an initial sense of the topic for the pre-reading part)

Survey the reading, and list 3-4 things you already Know about [[this topic]].  Also list 3-4 things you Want to know about [[this topic]].  Read the selection with these issues in mind.  When you're done reading, list 3-4 things you've Learned about the topic from reading. Were any of your questions answered? What else do you still want to know?


(Pre-reading or post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments, but may need some tinkering to fit particular topics)

Explore [[the topic of the reading]] from 6 angles, writing a sentence or two for each. 

  • Describe it (key characteristics?). 

  • Compare it: what's it like? 

  • Associate it:  what does it make you think of? 

  • Analyze its parts or steps: what's involved? how does it work?. 

  • Apply it: what can you do with it? how? 

  • Agree or disagree with it, or explain how/why it will or will not work or be useful (in a given situation).


Two-column Log
(Reading and/or Post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

Divide your paper or screen into two columns (or insert a table).  Label the left hand column "Summary" or "They Say."  Label the right hand one "Response" or "I Say."  Complete at least four, two-part "entries" to this log.

In each entry, use the left column to paraphrase or quote a specific point from the reading that caught your eye.  Use the right column to respond or talk-back to the author's point: try to be vivid rather than general, to speak your mind rather than to "translate" (" this the author means..."), to question or extend rather than just say "I agree" (say why), to make connections to other readings or experiences. You will write more, perhaps twice or three times as much, in the right column than in the left. Show what's in your head that might not be in some other reader's head.


(Reading and post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments, but may require additional modeling beforehand and discussion afterwards, since this is a way to learn to read more than a preparation for discussion; see also "Discussion Questions" below)

Review the four Question-Answer Relationships below.  As you read or after you've read, write at least one question + answer pair that fits each category.

  • Right there Q&As:  questions that occur(ed) as you read that are answered clearly (a little later) in the text ("What are the 'three approaches'?)

  • Think-and-search Q&As: questions answered in the text, but only when you piece the answers together from several parts of the text ("How is X a feminist approach?")

  • Author-and-you Q&As:  interpretive questions that can be answered only when you put your knowledge and reasoning together with the text ("What does X imply?")

  • On-my-own Q&As: factual or contextual questions that can be answered, but only by leaving the text and consulting other resources ("What else was happening when X was going on?")


Three Positions
(Pre- and/or Post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

Pre-reading:  Imagine three people who are closely involved in [[this issue]] but who each disagree with (or take a different stance from, or have a different investment in) the other two.  Briefly describe each person (name, age, gender, status, background) and outline his/her argument.  Be sure you identify three distinct positions -- not just one "pro" and two "con" arguments.

Post-reading:  Imagine -- and give a brief description of -- a single person who agrees with the author's main point.  Then imagine two other people who each have a position or view different from the author's and from each other.  Describe each person briefly, and list his/her argument or response.  Be sure you identify three distinct positions -- not just one "pro" and two "con" arguments.


(Post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

After you finish reading, freewrite for 5 minutes in a believing mode, during which you respond as if the author could do or say no wrong.  What do you see?  What could really happen if everything the author says is right?  When you're done freewriting, copy at least two short quotations from the piece giving the author's exact most-believable words.

Then freewrite for 5 minutes from a doubting perspective, during which you respond as if the author is totally looney and should never be allowed to speak/write in public.  What problems do you foresee? what's been overlooked or unanalyzed? When you're done freewriting, copy at least two short quotations from the piece giving the author's exact most-doubtable words.


Concept Map 
(Post-reading; Generic to all assignments, but may need stronger modeling than others)

Take five minutes to visually map out -- using bubbles, streets, hills-and-lakes, graphs, etc. -- the relative locations (and interrelations) of either 5-6 concepts that you've been thinking about lately regarding [[the general topic of this reading assignment]], or 5-6 authors you've read (as part of this class or your current research).  As or after you read, place this author and/or his/her main idea(s) on your map.  Write a few sentences about the locations and connections you envision.


What Would ___ Do/Say?
(Pre-reading, Reading, and/or Post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

Remind yourself of the main arguments/beliefs of another author you've read this semester. Choose one whose ideas remain vivid to you. As you read (or review) the text, imagine what that person would think about these arguments. Write 3-5 notes about what the other author's responses and reasons would be. (You may use a two-column log -- X says, Y might respond -- if you wish.) When you're done, check back with the first author, and copy out a few key phrases s/he actually did say.


Case Study Reflection
(Pre-reading or post-reading; Must be adapted to a particular reading)

Consider the following case study. Before/after you read the text, freewrite for 10 minutes about the problem that is posed.

Sample Case Study: For teachers reading Bean Chapter 12 (on research-based writing)

As a writing teacher, Judy believes most strongly that students learn to write better when they're engaged and having fun. At Midlothian state, she was easily able to work this goal into many of her daily assignments and a couple of narrative essays, along with a couple of essay assignments that asked students to analyze the role of various elements of pop-culture in their lives.

Now that she's teaching at Mason, she's trying to find a way to meet the research and argumentation goals of this curriculum. How might she design a research-based assignment that meshes with her principles, and/or alter her previous assignments to include research-related learning-goals?


Conversation Analysis & Talkback
(Pre-reading and reading; Generic to all reading assignments but particularly useful for more "theoretical" or dense readings)

Review the questions below before you read; ask and/or answer (and note your reason for asking/answering) at least one question from each category.

  • Perspectives: What are the author's assumptions or guiding traditions? Are principles grounded in documented evidence? Is the text skewed to one (cultural) point of view?

  • Experiences: What or whose experiences are omitted or overly-simplified? How are ethical issues addressed?

  • Communication: Whose voices are heard? How does specialized language, if any, contribute to or limit access and understanding? How do metaphors/analogies reveal the author's ideology or assumptions?

  • Politics: Whose interests are served by this piece? What approaches are taken for granted rather than challenged? Does the piece empower readers?


Write Your Own Discussion Questions
(Post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

When you're done reading, compose 2-3 Discussion Questions of your own.  Try to write real questions that you don't know (and want!) the answer to, rather than "teacher-like" questions ("what is the most important theme in this essay?"). 

You may write questions that ask the author something, ask about the author or other writers' experiences, wonder about "what if's," suggest links to other topics or readings, ask your classmates for input, or ask about related issues. If you get stuck, think about questions that begin with "How..." or "Why...." Don't ask if you don't really want to know the answer!


Write a "Difficulty Paper"
(Adapted from Salvatori and Donahue)
(Post-reading; Generic to all reading assignments)

Pick a passage or two in the text that stumped you. Instead of trying to explain what they mean, explain why they were difficult for you.

What were you thinking before you encountered each passage, and how did the passage not match your expectations? What is covered later in the text that does not seem to match this passage?

Point to terms or concepts that were difficult or unfamiliar, and explain how they contributed to the challenge of reading the passage. Describe any sentences that seemed to mean one thing at first but might have other meanings or implications.

Point out any statement that surprised you or that does not match your own experience or previous knowledge; note any contradictions, omissions, exaggerations, or assumptions that made reading difficult. Describe other texts you've read that present alternate points of view not fully represented in this passage.

If along the way you begin to see some elements of this text more clearly, you can indicate your current realization. However, your goal is neither to emphasize the "wrongness" of your earlier reading nor to argue for a current "right" reading. Instead, you should focus on explaining as thoroughly as possible why a reader might have difficulty with this passage, and what strategies might help a reader who encounters similar difficulties elsewhere.



Last updated November 2009.Email Shelley Reid