Practical Tips for Reading Critically-Academic Prose
Adapted from Joshua Page, "Practical Tips for Reading Sociology"
Reading scholarly books and articles critically requires a specific method and strategy that makes it very
different from reading for fun, or reading to survey a work. If you care to get the most out of the materials
you are assigned, you have to learn to read critically or analytically, that is, to break down an argument
into its constituent parts (explandum, explanans, premises, hypotheses, theorems, laws and mechanisms,
conclusions and corollaries, ramifications for other theories or arguments), retrace its major stages and
turns, evaluate its strengths, weaknesses, and validity, and grasp its implications (empirical, theoretical,
moral, practical, and so forth). Here are some practical tips to help you do just that.
Always read with a purpose. Moving your eyes across a printed page is not critical reading! Reading with
a purpose means asking a question (or, better yet, a system of questions) that you keep in mind as you
progress and that helps you put the pieces of the puzzle together. So always identify from the outset what
the author intends to do in the writing, how s/he proposes to do it, and what kind of arguments s/he
develops (causal, historical, interpretive, etc.).
Scan and scope the text beforehand. You'll do a much better job of picking up the argument(s) in the text
if you know in advance what to look for. For this, always scan the full text beforehand: flip through the
pages, grab a few paragraphs here and there, pay attention to titles and subtitles, notice highlighted
phrases or italics, tables and figures (in particular their captions)-in short, get a rough feel for what's going
on there. You can also read the first and last sentence or paragraph of every section, just to become
familiar with the substance and tone of the argument(s). Then read the text in depth.