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Reading for Academic Purposes: How to Read Critically for Academic Purposes

Anyone enrolled in a university degree understands the challenges of academic reading. It can be a painstaking, time-consuming and stressful task. Unlike reading for pleasure, when we might spend days and nights sticking with the same book, reading for academic purposes can sometimes be boring and frustrating. Many people are put off by the academic style of writing and specialist terms. Clearly, it requires so much more from readers than other types of reading. Nevertheless, reading for academic purposes is necessary for students given the knowledge it provides, whether as a primary source or a supporting source, for writing academic papers. Undoubtedly, the more effectively you read, the more thoroughly you will understand the topic and, of course, the more successfully you can then present your ideas through writing.

Rather than reading passively, as we tend to do when reading for other purposes, academic reading demands the reader’s active and considerable engagement with the text and author. To put it simply, you need to be ‘critical’. A critical reader will dare to question the author and the text itself. The process of questioning begins as soon as you pick up a book, an article or a journal and decide whether it is relevant to your area of interest. Once you begin to read, you will have to identify what the text is saying. What is the message of the author? Do you agree with the author? Why? Why not? It is through the process of questioning that the ‘argument’, a significant part of academic writing, is developed. The argument will then urge you to find more information from other sources to support your argument. By critically engaging with the text, rather than merely reading and not reflecting upon the text, you will realise which part of the text is useful to support or oppose your ideas in a convincing and powerful fashion.

Reading critically means reading slowly so you connect more closely with the text. Do not skim. Take notes while you read of important points to aid your memory. Putting these points into short note form can also help you grasp the gist of the author’s argument.

Reading is a major part of learning and since learning can only take place in an active environment, reading must also be active. A person who can make the best use of reading is one who can make sense of the text, think about it and be able to use it.  

Updated 6 March 2023
Ellen McRae, PhD, AE (IPEd), MNZSTI
Senior Managing Editor