Learning How to Read: The Write Way

readingI’m here to teach you how to read.

Yeah, you heard me right. Kindergarten may seem like a fond, distant dream, but I’m not talking about ABC’s and phonetics.  I’m talking about reading. Let me explain myself.

In fifth grade, you probably enjoyed Because of Winn-Dixie. You received a numbered copy along with everyone else in your class and merrily charted the adventures of Winn-Dixie and company through pop quizzes, simple study guides, and big posters with lots of glue and (maybe) glitter.  In middle and junior high school, things became more demanding. Analyzing humans instead of dogs, you learned how to read for ‘plot,’ and ‘metaphor,’ and ‘conflict.’  Even if you were making posters at the end, you learned how to discuss, make arguments, and find hidden meanings in the text. By high school, you are doing even more. By senior year, you may be handed a poem or a passage from a text under the instruction to critically read.

This is the type of reading I’m here to teach you about today. There is a difference between Winn-Dixie and critically reading. While the former is crucial for your foundation in reading—really learning how to enjoy a good story—the latter is fundamental to your high school, college, and professional career.

[Find out HOW critical reading works]

Here’s a fact: most students won’t learn how to critically read until college, and even then, they will not refine this skill until junior or senior year. For non-humanities students, this skill might not even be asked to show up on their radar. Here’s another fact:  if you start developing this skill now, not only will you get into a better college, but you will perform better in college regardless of your major, because of how it teaches you to think.

Enough said. How do you do it? Here are some tips.

Let’s say you are given a paragraph or two from a novel (say,Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations).

  1. Read the passage through for content, underlining and annotating as you go along. Right now, the key is to understand what’s going on. Who are the characters? What is the context? Is there a conflict? What is the main idea?
  2. Be on the lookout for things that seem problematic, puzzling, or intriguing. This could mean anything! Does the author use a curious word at one point? Are the sentences complete or fragments? Is the argument clear? Mark down or take notes on these puzzling things; they’ll be important later!
  3. Read through the passage again, this time, critically. This means treating every word and phrase seriously. Feel the power of your own skepticism! Learn to look at individual words as having multiple different meanings. Ask questions about everything (why did the author use that pronoun there? Why isn’t the character being very clear? Why does the tone of the passage seem so dreary?). Tear the passage apart, mentally and literally: mark it up with underlines, stars, question marks, you name it.
  4. Formulate an argument or an idea from these intelligent doodles. Oftentimes, critically reading a passage generates arguments of its own, and you may be expected to formulate a thesis of some sorts from what you have read (this is what you will do on the AP English exam free response questions, especially). Make sure your argument is grounded in the text (“Dickens’ use of metaphor in this passage emphasizes his focus on class stratification”) and does not make sweeping, general claims (“Dickens’ use of metaphor recalls the suffering of all of humanity”).

Certainly, four simple steps are not “simple;” and nor are they enough to make critical reading a habit. But practicing these tendencies in your daily life can help cultivate the kind of attitude you will need to make it a habit, because they primarily teach you how to question and interrogate the world around you. And that will teach you how to be the curious, intelligent, interrogative scholar the world of education wants you to be. Whether with gossip columns in People, articles in the New York Times, or passages from To Kill A Mockingbird, you can start cultivating a way of thinking that will only become a lifestyle.

And who wouldn’t trade an ‘average’ lifestyle for a ‘critical’ one?

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.


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