Critical Reading and Analysis

Reading a textbook and other materials such as journal articles, news articles, and even graphs and charts for college courses requires more involvement with the material than when you read for yourself. When you read for your courses, you will be expected to remember the content, explain it, analyze it, write about it. In college, you will be tested not only on facts but on ideas and what they represent. Just as your interpretation of a musical piece requires a critical ear, so must you read your college texts with a critical eye. What does this mean? It means that you must ask questions, reach conclusions, and offer comments and suggestions about what you think is being said in the text. The following are some strategies you can use to do a careful, in-depth reading of your assignments:

  • Preview the text. Before you begin reading, read all the titles, subtitles, the introduction and conclusion, and the first sentence (often the topic sentence) of the first several paragraphs of the chapter. There may even be a chapter summary at the beginning or end of the chapter. For newspapers, read the headlines, captions of pictures, and the first few paragraphs of the article to get an idea of what is in the article. For graphs and charts, read the titles and find the categories that are being evaluated.
  • Scan for information. This technique enables you to find specific information quickly and easily. Sometimes you needn’t read every word of a text in order to get the information you need. If you are seeking very specific answers to particular questions, you can locate information such as a name or date quickly and easily by looking for capital letters (name) or numbers (date…) You may find the concept you were asked to focus on is in a particular section of the reading.
  • Annotate. This is a way of having a conversation with the text you are reading. Annotation requires more than underlining important information (also a good reading strategy). For example, you can ask questions: Consider the historical period of the music and composer(s) you are reading about. What was important about that period in music history? What were the influences on the composers, and how, in turn, did they influence later composers? What kinds of instruments and ensembles did they write for? What were the important genres – of solo music, chamber music, and large ensemble music, for the composers and the period? If you are reading an analytical essay, consider the form, the melodic and harmonic language, and the temporal organization of the music that is being analyzed. What analytical tools are being used? Does the music have any extraordinary or unusual features? You can write a one- sentence summary of an important idea. You can challenge the concept if you wish. Do you agree or disagree? Ask why and how? Write your questions or comments in the margin so that when you return to the reading, you will have your ideas readily available. These questions help you build critical thinking skills and read beyond the basic facts (who/what/where/when).
  • Summarize. If you can write a short summary of important ideas and concepts, you will be able to see how well you understand the material. To do this, read what you wish to summarize and put it away. Write the summary, focusing on the main point. If you get stuck, take out the reading again and read it again. Put it away and complete the summary.

Using these techniques will not only enable you to read efficiently, in an evaluative way, but it will help you keep track of the important ideas you’ll need for a midterm or final exam.