Skip to content

Critical Thinking Questions For Close Reading

by Richard Paul and Linda Elder

In the previous two columns we introduced the idea of close reading, emphasizing the importance of the following:

  • understanding your purpose in reading

• understanding the author’s purpose in writing

• seeing ideas in a text as being interconnected

• looking for and understanding systems of meaning

• engaging a text while reading

• getting beyond impressionist reading

• formulating questions and seeking answers to those questions while reading


To read well, in addition to having the above understandings, students must be able to identify the big picture within a text, to determine the key ideas within the text early on, and to see the scaffolding that connects all the ideas within the text. In other words, they need to develop structural reading abilities. Moreover, students need to see that there are generalizable skills one must develop to read sentences and paragraphs well. In addition, students must develop reading skills specific to reading certain kinds of texts – like textbooks, newspaper articles and editorials.

In this column we will focus on the theory of close reading. We will discuss “structural reading” first. We will then make some basic points about the art of reading sentence and paragraphs. We will conclude with some domain specific theory: how to read a textbook, how to read a newspaper, and how to read an editorial. For examples of the theory we outline here, see The Thinker's Guide to How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading. The following guideline is written directly to the student:

Structural Reading

Structural reading is a form of close reading applied to the overall structure of an extended text (usually a book). In it, we focus on what we can learn about the book from its title, preface, introduction, and table of contents. Structural reading has two main uses. First, it enables us to evaluate a book to determine whether we want to spend the time to read it carefully. Second, it provides an overview to use as scaffolding in reading the text. If we can get a basic idea of what a book is driving at before we read it in detail, we are much better able to make sense of the parts of it as we read them paragraph by paragraph. Knowledge of a whole helps us understand all of its parts. Knowledge of a part helps us better understand the whole (which contains the parts).

To read structurally, ask these questions:

  • What does the title tell me about this book?

  • What is the main idea in the book? (You should be able to figure this out from skimming the introduction, preface, and first chapter.)

  • What are the parts of the whole, and how does the book deal with those parts? (Again, this may be found in an overview in the introduction, preface, first chapter, and/or table of contents.)

  • In the light of my structural reading, what questions would I pursue during close reading?
How to Read a Sentence

Reading a sentence consists, first of all, in finding a way to state what the sentence says so we can think the thought the sentence expresses. Further ways to make the meaning of a sentence clear are: elaborating the sentence, finding an example, and illustrating its meaning.

Finding key sentences means finding the sentences that are the driving force within a book. Structural reading is one way by which we locate key paragraphs and boil them down to key sentences, and thence to key ideas and key questions.

An important part of reading with discipline is to connect sentences to the broader context within which they are located, to see how they fit within the written piece. For every sentence you read, you might ask:

  • How does this sentence connect with the other sentences in the text?

  • How does this sentence relate to the organizing idea of this text
    as a whole?

Good readers read sentences in relationship to other sentences, connecting each sentence with the purpose of the written piece. Taking a sentence out of context can pose problems because sentences read in isolation from the sentences that precede or follow them often overstate a point. The sentences that precede or follow usually clarify the author’s true meaning, or bring it in line with supporting facts. Good readers read a text charitably and generously. They look for qualifications of points that otherwise might seem false or overstated.

How to Read a Paragraph

Carefully reading a paragraph involves finding the idea or question that is the driving force within the paragraph. Finding key paragraphs consists of finding the ideas or questions that are the driving force within the book. Structural reading, you will remember, is an important means by which we locate key paragraphs.

All paragraphs within a written piece should connect to every other paragraph so that we can see logical connections between ideas. All ideas should form a system of meanings. As you move from paragraph to paragraph, ask:

  • What is the most important idea in this paragraph?

  • How do the ideas in this paragraph relate to the ideas in
    previous paragraphs?

  • How are the important ideas in the text connected?

Look for paragraphs that focus on significant ideas or questions. Connect those ideas, when possible, to situations and experiences that are meaningful in your life. To actively connect ideas to life situations, ask:

  • How can I relate this idea to something I already understand?

  • Is there an important idea here that I can use in my thinking?

  • Have I ever experienced a situation that sheds light on this idea?

How to Read a Textbook

The first and most important insight necessary for successfully reading a textbook is that all textbooks focus on “systems” which, when internalized, can help us reason through a specific set of problems. They focus on a special way of thinking about a special set of things. To elaborate, history textbooks teach a special way of thinking about events in the past. Biology textbooks teach a special way of thinking about living things. Mathematics textbooks teach a special way of thinking about the numbers, shapes, and figures. Physics textbooks teach a special way of thinking about mass and energy and their interrelations. The same is true for all other textbooks.

Thus, there is no way to learn mathematics from a math textbook without learning how to figure out correct answers to mathematical questions and problems. There is no way to learn history from a history textbook without learning how to figure out correct or reasonable answers to historical questions and problems. There is no way to learn biology from a biology textbook without learning how to figure out answers to biological questions and problems. Any subject can therefore be understood as a system of figuring out correct or reasonable answers to a certain set of questions. We study chemistry to understand chemicals and how they interact (to answer questions about chemicals). We study psychology to figure out human behavior (to answer questions about certain human problems). All subjects can be understood in this way. All textbooks can be read in this way.

Most textbooks begin with an introductory chapter or preface that introduces us to the field of study: What is biology? What is physics? What is history? It is important for us to do a close reading of this opening chapter in order to acquire from the very beginning an insight into the most basic and fundamental concepts in the field.

Once we have a basic idea of the whole of a subject from the introductory chapter, we should be able to do some thinking within the system. Thus, with a basic idea of biology, we should be able to do some simple biological thinking. We should be able to ask some basic biological questions and identify some relevant biological information. This is crucial to success in reading the remainder of the textbook because if we do not have a clear concept of the whole, we will not be able to relate the parts (covered by the other chapters) to that whole.

Our reading strategy should not be whole, part, part, part, part, part…but, rather, whole, part, whole, part, whole, part. We first ground ourselves in a basic (though introductory) idea of the whole. We then relate each part (each subsequent chapter) to that whole. We understand the whole through integrating the parts into it. We use the whole as our tool of synthesis. We use our knowledge of the parts as a tool of analysis.

How to Read a Newspaper for
National and International News

To become adept at reading the news, you first must understand that every society and culture has a unique worldview. This colors what they see and how they see it. News media in the cultures of the world reflect the worldview of the culture they write for. Suppose you have two persons reporting on the events of your life — your best friend and your worst enemy. Your best friend would highlight the positive things about you; your worst enemy would highlight the negative things about you. Both would think they were simply telling the truth.

If you understand this, you can apply that understanding to how the news is constructed by every country in the world. Within any country, the news media highlight what is positive about the country; its enemies’ news media highlight what is negative about it. As a critical reader of the news, you must make adjustments for both of these biases. So if you are a Frenchman in France reading French newspapers, you must read the fine print to find out the negative things about France that are being suppressed or buried. If you are reading a newspaper from a country that considers France its enemy, you must, in a parallel way, read to correct for its one-sidedness (its predictable negativity about France).

At present, the overwhelming majority of people in the world, untrained in critical reading, are at the mercy of the news media in their own country. To learn how to read the news critically, you can begin with our guide entitled How to Detect Media Bias & Propaganda. It focuses on how to:

  • interpret events from the perspective of multiple views

  • find multiple sources of thought and information, not simply those of the mass media

  • identify the viewpoints embedded in news stories

  • mentally re-write (reconstruct) news stories through awareness of how stories are told from multiple perspectives

  • assess news stories for their clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and significance

  • identify contradictions and inconsistencies in the news (often in the same story)

  • identify the agenda and interests served by a story

  • identify the facts covered and the facts ignored in a news story

  • identify the points of view systematically presented in a favorable light and those presented in an unfavorable light

These are some of the skills that critical readers of the news develop. To take command of the way the mass media influence your thinking about the world, you must learn how to see through their biases and appreciate dissenting as well as mainstream points of view. Only then can you come to well-reasoned conclusions using a balanced approach. At present, few people have developed the skills to do this.

How to Read an Editorial

To become adept at reading editorials, you must first understand that the goal of the editorial writer is to make a brief case for one side of a controversial issue. His or her goal is not to consider all sides or to do what a writer of a research paper or report is expected to do. Most people read editorials in the following way. If writers are defending what they believe, they praise the editorial. If writers are criticizing what they believe, they criticize the editorial. Therefore, they are unable to gain insights from people with whom they disagree. The fact is that most people are rigid in their thinking and largely closed-minded. There are many points of view into which they cannot enter. There are many ways to look at the world that they never examine or appreciate.

By contrast, critical readers recognize that they have been wrong in the past and may be wrong now. They recognize what they would like to believe while at the same time realizing that they may be prejudiced by that very desire. It is in this spirit of open-mindedness that we should learn to read editorials — especially the ones to which we are least sympathetic. We must learn how to step outside of our own point of view and enter points of view with which we are unfamiliar.

Of course, we should not assume that the editorials in our own culture’s newspapers provide us with a full range of points of view. What we can expect is merely that these newspapers provide us with the range of views held by the mainstream readers within the society. The goal of a newspaper is not to educate readers concerning international and dissenting points of view but rather to make money. And a newspaper makes money only when it caters to the beliefs and preconceptions of its readers. Thus, newspapers rarely present radically dissenting perspectives, and when they do, they emphasize that these are merely opinions.

Critical readers read all editorials with equal sympathy. They read to discover and digest a wide range of points of view, especially points of view that tend to be ignored in the mainstream of the culture. To enhance their breadth of vision while avoiding ethnocentrism and sociocentrism, critical readers search out dissenting media sources. For examples of dissenting news sources, see The Miniature Guide to Media Bias and Propaganda.


This article was adapted from How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.


Go to top


To read well requires one to develop one’s thinking about reading and, as a result, to learn how to engage in the process of what we call close reading. Students not only need to learn how to determine whether a text is worth reading, but also how to take ownership of a text’s important ideas (when it contains them). This requires the active use of intellectual skills. It requires command of the theory of close reading as well as guided practice based on that theory.

In this and the next few articles we focus on some of the fundamentals of close reading. We explain what it means to think through a text using theory of close reading at the core of the reading process.

Reading For a Purpose

Skilled readers do not read blindly, but purposely. They have an agenda, goal, or objective. Their purpose, together with the nature of what they are reading, determines how they read. They read in different ways in different situations for different purposes. Of course, reading has a nearly universal purpose: to figure out what an author has to say on a given subject.

When we read, we translate words into meanings. The author has previously translated ideas and experiences into words. We must take those same words and re-translate them into the author’s original meaning using our own ideas and experiences as aids. Accurately translating words into intended meanings is an analytic, evaluative, and creative set of acts. Unfortunately, few people are skilled at translation. Few are able to accurately mirror the meaning the author intended. They project their own meanings into a text. They unintentionally distort or violate the original meaning of authors they read. As Horace Mann put it in 1838:

"I have devoted especial pains to learn, with some degree of numerical accuracy, how far the reading, in our schools, is an exercise of the mind in thinking and feeling and how far it is a barren action of the organs of speech upon the atmosphere. My information is derived principally from the written statements of the school committees of the respective towns — gentlemen who are certainly exempt from all temptation to disparage the schools they superintend. The result is that more than 11/12ths of all the children in the reading classes do not understand the meanings of the words they read; and that the ideas and feelings intended by the author to be conveyed to and excited in, the reader’s mind, still rest in the author’s intention, never having yet reached the place of their destination." (Second Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education, 1838)

In general, then, we read to figure out what authors mean. Our reading is further influenced by our purpose for reading and by the nature of the text itself. For example, if we are reading for pure pleasure and personal amusement, it may not matter if we do not fully understand the text. We may simply enjoy the ideas that the text stimulates in us. This is fine as long as we know that we do not deeply understand the text. Some of the various purposes for reading include:

  1. Sheer pleasure: requires no particular skill level

  2. To figure out a simple idea: which may require skimming the text

  3. To gain specific technical information: skimming skills required

  4. To enter, understand, and appreciate a new world-view: requires close reading skills in working through a challenging series of tasks that stretch our minds

  5. To learn a new subject: requires close reading skills in internalizing and taking ownership of an organized system of meanings

How you read should be determined in part by what you read. Reflective readers read a textbook, for example, using a different mindset than they use when reading an article in a newspaper. Furthermore, reflective readers read a textbook in biology differently from the way they read a textbook in history.

Having recognized this variability, we should also recognize that there are core reading tools and skills for reading any substantive text, some of which will be the focus of this and our next few our columns.

Considering the Author’s Purpose
In addition to being clear about our own purpose in reading, we must also be clear about the author’s purpose in writing. Both are relevant. Consider the following agendas. Think about what adjustments you would make in your reading given the differing purposes of these writers:

  • politicians and their media advisors developing political campaign literature

  • newspaper editors deciding which stories their readers would be most interested in and how to tell the story to maintain that interest

  • advertisers working with media consultants while writing copy for advertisements (to sell a product or service)

  • a chemist writing a laboratory report

  • a novelist writing a novel

  • a poet writing a poem

  • a student writing a research report.

To read productively, your purpose in reading must take into account the author’s purpose in writing. For example, if you read a historical novel to learn history, you would do well to read further in history books and primary sources before you conclude that what you read in the historical novel was accurate. Where fact and imagination are blended to achieve a novelist’s purpose, fact and imagination must be separated to achieve the reader’s pursuit of historical fact.

Developing a “Map” of Knowledge

All knowledge exists in “systems” of meanings, with interrelated primary ideas, secondary ideas, and peripheral ideas. Imagine a series of circles beginning with a small core circle of primary ideas, surrounded by concentric circles of secondary ideas, moving outward to an outer circle of peripheral ideas. The primary ideas, at the core, explain the secondary and peripheral ideas. Whenever we read to acquire knowledge, we should take ownership, first, of the primary ideas, for they are a key to understanding all of the other ideas. Moreover, when we gain an initial understanding of the primary ideas, we can begin to think within the system as a whole. The sooner we begin to think within a system, the sooner the system becomes meaningful to us.

Thus, when we understand core historical ideas, we can begin to think historically. When we understand core scientific ideas, we can begin to think scientifically. Core or primary ideas are the key to every system of knowledge. They are the key to truly learning any subject. They are the key to retaining what we learn for lifelong use.

We should relate the core ideas we learn within one discipline to core ideas in other systems of knowledge, for knowledge exists not only in a system but also in relation to all other systems of knowledge. To do this, we must learn how to read books for their core ideas and for their system-defining function. Mastering any set of foundational ideas makes it easier to learn other foundational ideas. Learning to think within one system of knowledge helps us learn to think within other systems.

For example, if in studying botany, we learn that all plants have cells, we should connect this idea to the fact that all animals have cells (which we learned in studying biology). We can then begin to consider the similarities and differences between animal and plant cells.

Or consider the relation between psychology and sociology. Psychology focuses principally on individual behavior while sociology focuses on group behavior. But one’s individual psychology influences how one relates to group norms, and social groups shape how individuals deal with their perceived life problems and opportunities. By reading for the core ideas in both fields and relating those ideas, we better understand the way in which the psychological and sociological are intertwined in our lives.

Reading to Understand Systems of Thought

Reading with discipline, then, means reading to understand systems of thought. Understanding systems of thought means taking command of the structures that are the basis of all thought. In other words, when we understand the parts of thinking, we then read for purposes and goals; for questions, problems, and issues; for information and data; for concepts, theories, and ideas; for interpretations and conclusions; for assumptions; for implications and consequences; and for points of view. The ability to read in these disciplined ways gives power and command to your reading. You do not simply read; you construct systems of thought as you read.

Reading Within Disciplines

To understand academic subjects or disciplines, we must approach them as systems of thought. Indeed, not only are all disciplines system of thought, but often they are systems of systems. Thus, scientific thinking forms a large-scale system of thought (which contrasts with other systems, such as ethical thinking). But science as a large-scale system also contains sub-systems within it (physics, chemistry, biology, physiology, and so forth). Science, therefore, is a system of systems.

But, unlike science, in which there is agreement on the most basic principles guiding scientific thinking, some systems within a given discipline are in conflict with each other. For example, philosophy, psychology, and economics contain multiple conflicting schools of thought.

To be an effective reader within disciplines, you must learn to identify, for any given subject, whether it is best understood as a system of supporting systems (such as math and science) or a system of conflicting systems (such as philosophy, psychology, and economics). If you are within a system-harmonious field, your task is to master the systems and come to see how they support each other. If you are within a system-conflicting field, your task is to master the systems by exploring how they conflict with each other. Of course, in seeing how conflicting systems exclude each other, you would also discover how they overlap. Conflict between systems of thought is rarely, if ever, total and absolute. You will find conflicting systems in all disciplines in which there are competing schools of thought.

Conclusion

To read well, we must understand reading as requiring intellectual skills. As a good reader, we don’t simply decipher words, we actively engage in a dialog with the writer. We actively seek the author’s purpose in writing. We look for systems of meaning in a text.


This article was adapted from How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading , by Richard Paul and Linda Elder.

Go to top