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WriteCast Episode 5: Five Strategies for Critical Reading

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WriteCast Episode 5: Five Strategies for Critical Reading

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© Walden University Writing Center 2014


BRITTANY: Reading is actually where the writing process begins.


NIK: Welcome to WriteCast, a casual conversation for serious writers. I’m Nikolas Nadeau.


BRITTANY: And I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson.


NIK: Welcome back! Brittany and I are thrilled to be back on the air. As you may know, we took a survey this past year, 2013, to gauge your own opinions about the podcast—whether it’s helping you in your own writing—and we received a lot of great feedback. We’re now convinced that this is something we want to continue with your support. So today we’ll be starting a monthly podcast that is really aimed at the same thing that we’ve been doing since the outset, which is to provide some fun, entertaining, instructional guides for writing academically. IN this episode, we’re taking about critical reading as the first step in crafting a discussion post, course paper, or dissertation.


BRITTANY: That’s right, Nik, and we’re talking about a topic that is often overlooked and underrated in the world of writing. A lot of times writers feel like reading is something that is very separate than what they do when they sit down to type on their laptop or write in their notebook, but what we want to emphasize today is that reading is actually where the writing process begins. It’s where you start developing ideas that are gonna come out when you start writing, and it’s a really important step towards developing ideas that are whole and full. So today we’re gonna talk about reading as an idea generator, as an activity that can help you develop a thesis statement or an argument so you can really get started on some of the hardest parts of the writing process before you ever sit down at your laptop or your notebook.


NIK: So in other words, you have to start at the base of the mountain before climbing it. So in this episode, we’re going to provide some key tips, allowing you to get started and to build that foundation, that body of understanding and confidence in your own ability to really present ideas well later, which all begins with the process of reading.




NIK: So, Brittany, we have very key tip for starting out, and what is that?


BRITTANY: The first tip is to read with a purpose. So oftentimes we’re very passive as readers, we’re like sponges, and we just take in the information without really engaging with it or being active in anyway. And while that’s fine if you’re reading a novel for pleasure, what you want to do when you’re reading with the intent of then taking information and putting it into a piece of writing is to be a little bit more intentional about why you’re reading in the first place. And one of the things you want to ask yourself is what you already know on the topic that you’re reading about. It may be that you know very little, but even writing down the most basic things that you know is gonna help you go into the reading process with confidence and understand your own context for understanding what it is that the author is saying. So, ask yourself what you already know, and jot down some notes about the information you already have on this topic. Then you want to ask yourself what you want to know. What are you trying to learn from this piece of writing? How can the piece of writing help you? This helps you be more active in the reading process rather than just a passive reader. And, finally, as you begin to read, you want to ask yourself, what are you learning? And, what are you learning specifically related back to those questions that you wrote down, or statements, that described what it was that you wanted to know from the article. So you want to sort of answer your own questions as those answers appear in the piece of writing.


NIK: Second, read strategically. So, to read strategically to me means that when you have, let’s say, a giant book, or you have a 200-page dissertation, let’s be honest—you’re not going to read the whole thing. And if you do, you might be there for a while. So instead of taking that whole thing and reading it cover to cover, maybe check the table of contents, maybe check the index. Or, if it’s a bit shorter, try to just visually skim through the headings. See what kinds of arguments and key words seem to be popping up. Trust your instinct on this. If it’s important to you, if something jumps out at you, it’s probably significant. That way, when you return to that piece of writing again, maybe for a second or a third reading, you won’t need to completely start from scratch at every single turn. And keep in mind that reading for one time doesn’t mean that you have to read word-for-word. So number one: Read with a purpose. Number two: Read strategically. And I’ll turn it over to Brittany for number three.


BRITTANY: Yeah, number three is a really important one. It is to note and trust your questions as a reader. Now, these are a little bit different than the questions you were asking yourself in the read with a purpose part of the process. These are those questions that we all have as readers, where we say, wait a second, that doesn’t make sense. Or, I thought the author just said this other thing that contradicts that. Or, that’s a really confusing passage, I do not understand how it fits into the rest of the context of the article. What I want to encourage you all to do is to actually trust those moments of questioning. It could be that you just have to read the passage a couple more times because it’s dense or because the information is complex, but oftentimes when you have a question, especially if it’s related to the author’s argument, it may be that you, and your unique brain, have noticed something that other readers and/or the author him or herself have not noticed about the argument. We all bring our own context to a piece of writing when we read, and that means that different things are going to come to the surface in that piece of writing for each reader. And you have a very unique perspective on each article or book or piece of writing that you are reading, and that means that you’re going to have specific questions that may only arise for you. Those questions are a place where you can engage with the text, and that might be a place from which a thesis statement could grow for your own piece of writing. So if you have questions, highlight the sections that are confusing to you. Write down in the margins what is it that is confusing to you. Take note of that, and then come back to it, and that may be an entry point for you into an argument for either your course paper or possibly for something larger like a dissertation or a doctoral study.

So now we’ve got three things you should do: Read with a purpose, read strategically, and note and trust your questions. Now Nik’s going to tell us about a fourth strategy we can use as readers.


NIK: Yeah, and this strategy is really easy. It’s called Back Away. Stand back. Literally try to distance yourself from what you’ve just read. Close your eyes and try to succinctly summarize what that piece is saying and what it means to you. That might come through in a lot of different ways, and one of the best ways to digest how you think or what you think about a particular topic is to put it down in writing. Brittany’s going to talk more about that for our last tip of the day.


BRITTANY: The very last thing is the importance of writing on the things that you are reading. Now, if you’re reading a library book, you might have to, you know, put post-it notes in your book. Or, if you’re reading online, you may have to use alternative methods to taking notes. There are many, many wonderful software programs that allow you to take notes in your document online or not even online but even just on your computer as well, electronically. But, no matter how you do it, I very highly recommend that you take notes as you read. One thing that some people really like to do is to see if they can summarize each paragraph in one word in the margin. This helps when you’re coming back to the piece of writing later on, if you can kind of glean what is going on in that paragraph just by reading that one word. So, it’s sort of a helpful tool for scanning later, but it also helps you with comprehension as you go. If you have to summarize each paragraph in one word, that means that you have to be able to understand what’s in that paragraph.


NIK: Another strategy would be to highlight or underline, but of course you don’t want to highlight everything and you don’t want to underline the entire page. That’s kind of like taking an entire book and just making it one color, and because it’s red instead of white, it’s somehow more significant. What you want to do with your highlighting is to really bring out those ideas, those keywords, or just places where something just clicked. And it might be useful to combine that with your one-word summaries or with your notes to make sure why you highlighted something. Because, frankly, if I highlight something, by the next week I’ll wonder why in the world I highlighted it. So, be careful with that, but it’s a good strategy.


BRITTANY: Right, and another thing you can do is answer those questions that you devised for yourself in the beginning when you were setting a purpose for your reading. So rather than underlining or highlighting anything as Nik said, you can highlight or underline the information that helps answer some of the questions that you have about the piece of writing.


NIK: Well there you have it—we have a total of five tips for you today for critical reading. And the first, Brittany, is:


BRITTANY: The first is to read with a purpose.


NIK: Second, read strategically.


BRITTANY: Third, note and trust your questions.


NIK: Fourth, back away and summarize what you’ve read.


BRITTANY: And fifth, mark up your document.


NIK: Now, we always, at the Writing Center, want to hear your feedback about how we’re doing and what you want to hear us talk about. So, to do that, it’s very simple. Just send us a quick email to Or you can go to our homepage at, and under the Get In Touch section, you’ll see an orange “B” for the Blogger link, and if you click on that, you’ll get to our blog where you can then find the social media survey that will allow us to gather your opinions and suggestions for how we can make future episodes.


BRITTANY: Right, and we do have more resources on critical reading that are also available on our website, which again is The easiest way to find them is to type into the search box at the top of the page, “critical reading.” And then click on the very first item that comes up in the search, and you’ll see we have drop-down menus with information about four different aspects of critical reading that you can read about to learn even more.


NIK: Thanks so much for joining us. We always look forward to talking about writing, and we hope to see you next time.


BRITTANY: Bye, everyone!


[Transition music]


NIK: This podcast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center.


BRITTANY: This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson, my co-host, Nikolas Nadeau, and Anne Shiell.