What is critical reading?

critical reading elt Aug 26, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Being critical is sometimes associated with being judgemental.  In other words, reading a text critically is commonly misunderstood as reading to identify only its weaknesses. This misconception is sometimes seen, for example, in undergraduate students’ critical evaluations of a research article. These students tend to critique the weaknesses of articles they evaluate, but seldom acknowledge their contributions.

In countries where standardised public examinations determine university entry, reading comprehension tasks tend to focus on reading for information. This means that there is little room for learners to engage with texts critically. As a result, learners have little experience in forming their own opinion on a particular text. A discussion on reading can be found in my other blog - What is reading?.

A holistic view

The concept of critical reading traces its roots to critical literacy. The main agenda of critical literacy is to develop a sense of agency among young people. In other words, they should be aware and believe that they can do something to make this world a better place (Comber & Nixon, 2011).

In critical reading, learners do not read a particular text solely for information. They think about worldviews that a particular text challenges or reinforces (Hammond & Macken-Horarik, 1999).

Another aspect of critical reading is to challenge the reliability of information presented in a text. For example, learners can examine whether a writer’s claim is substantiated or not.

Theory and practice

Going beyond reading for information, learners should be encouraged to compare their views with those that a particular text promotes. They should be encouraged to express their views and positions, and provide reasons and evidence to support them.

As challenging the reliability of information presented in a text is also at the heart of critical reading, teachers should prompt learners to ask the following questions:

1.   Does the writer provide evidence to support a particular claim? If so, is the evidence convincing?
2.   Is a particular claim based on the writer’s speculation?
3.   Is the writer an expert in a particular topic?
4.   What worldview is the writer promoting or challenging?
5.   What is the source (e.g., newspaper, magazine, Wikipedia) of the text?


Comber, B. & Nixon, H. (2011). Critical reading comprehension in an era of accountability. Australian Educational Researcher, 38(2), 167-179.

Hammond, J. & Macken-Horarik, M. (1999). Critical literacy: Challenges and questions for ESL classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 528-544.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Scanrail1