Critical Reading Activities

Active Reading: Marking Up the Text and Dialogic Journals

Purpose: Helping students learn to actively read texts, how to take notes on readings, and gain an understanding of their preferred styles for notetaking and the possible benefits of each.

Description: This exercise asks students to try two active reading strategies using the sources they might use for their research papers. Then, they discuss in order to articulate their preferred note taking style and the benefits of each.

Suggested Time: 50 minutes


Have students bring in at least two articles they plan on using for their research. Give students the two handouts below. Give students 20 minutes to try each technique, using one article for each technique. Give 5 minutes for independent writing in which students explain which method they prefer and why. Then, have a class discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of each method.

Handout 1:

Active Reading – Mark up the Text

  • Underline key ideas – for example, topic sentences.
  • Box or circle words or phrases you want to remember.
  • Place a checkmark or a star next to an important idea.
  • Place a double check mark or double star next to an especially significant idea.
  • Put a question mark near any unfamiliar reference or a word you need to look up.
  • Number the writer’s key supporting points or examples.
  • Use different color highlighters.
  • Don’t be afraid to write your thoughts in the margins or on a separate sheet of paper (like the dialogic journal).

Questions to Ask (and Answer) when Reading a Text

  • What issue is the writer focusing on?
  • Does the writer take a clear stand on this issue?
  • What is the writer’s thesis (if there is one)?
  • What is the writer’s purpose for writing?
  • Who is the audience for this writing?
  • What is the writer’s tone?  Why do you think he/she writes with this tone?
  • Does the writer seem to assume readers will agree with his/her position?
  • What evidence does the writer use to support the essay’s thesis/central argument?  Does the writer include enough evidence?
  • Does the writer consider, address and/or refute opposing arguments?
  • Do you understand the vocabulary?  If not, look the words up.
  • Do you understand the writer’s references/citations?  If not, look them up.
  • Do you agree with the points the writer makes?  Why/why not?
  • What connections can you make between this article and others you have read?

Handout 2:

Dialogic Journals (also called Double Entry Journal)

Before reading, answer these questions:

  • Why are you reading this piece?
  • What do you hope to learn as you read it?

Fold a page in your daybook in half (long ways) and follow these steps to complete your dialogue journal:

  1. Write the title and author of the article at the top of the page.
  2. In the first column, “write down anything from the reading that catches your attention, seems significant, bores you silly, confuses you, or otherwise causes you to take note (or stop taking note).”1 Make sure to also write down the page number from which you have taken the quote.
  3. In the second column, explain what made you write the quote in the first column and/or respond to, question or critique the quote.

Note: You will ping-pong between the two columns.  When you find a quote you want to write down, you will write that quote in column one and then respond to it in column two. Then you will go back to reading, notice a new quote you want to write down in column one and respond in column two.  And so on…

For this assignment, I want you to choose at least two quotes per page.

When you have finished reading, answer these questions:

  • How is this reading useful or not useful for my purpose (in this case, for your inquiry project)?
  • If it is useful, what is useful about it, and what in the reading illustrates that use?


1 Adler-Kassner, Linda. Considering Literacy. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. Print.  (Quote taken from page 10)


Appealing to an Audience: How Publications Set a Tone with Content, Structure and Design 

Purpose: Understanding how journals and newspapers set a particular tone for their audiences. Description: This exercise asks students to analyze various features of publications. Homework assignment that turns into a discussion the next class period. Often used when students are preparing for a feature article or remediation project.

Suggested Time: 20-50 minutes (depending on discussion time)


Give students the following homework assignment:

Publication Analysis (2-3 typed, double-spaced pages)

For this short assignment, you will identify what specific publication you are going to write your feature article for, and analyze the publication in four areas:

  1. Content – skim through several issues of the publication, primarily paying attention to the feature articles (i.e. usually the major articles that are listed on the front cover). What subjects/topics do their authors write about? Make a list of the most common subjects you see.
  2. Style – pay attention to the type of vocabulary used, the tone employed, the length of the articles, paragraphs, and sentences, the persona/ethos that the writer constructs, and the overarching themes that emerge.
  3. Structure/Design – what kinds of organizational structures do the writers use? What about their “hook”? Do they typically start with an interesting quote, a shocking statement, the posing of a problem, factual information, an anecdote, etc.? What kinds of design elements are present? Are there off-set quotes, images/advertisements, unique fonts, subject headings, works cited, bio of the author, etc.?
  4. Audience - On the basis of the feature articles’ common types of content, style, and structure/design, what can you infer about the audience? Start with demographics like age, race/ethnicity, gender, religious/political affiliations, etc. but don’t stop there. What does this audience value? How do they perceive themselves? What kinds of weaknesses or desires do the advertisements tend to exploit or encourage? What kinds of knowledge or background experiences do the articles assume that their readers have?

Have students discuss what they found either in small groups, whole groups, or both.


Finding the Commonalities: Investing Organizational Structures and Formatting of Academic Articles 

Purpose: Helping students develop knowledge about organizational structures and formatting common to academic articles, so that  can use  this information to help them read difficult texts

Description: This exercise asks students to identify and present on the features and types of academic texts. This exercise works for particularly well for research-based classes, but can work in other composition courses as well.

Suggested Time: 2-3 class periods and outside of class work time


In groups of two or three, students choose one of the types of essays or essay features from the list at the bottom of the page and create a short presentation for the class.  (The list is by no means complete but is applicable to most of the texts students encounter in scholarly databases.)

For the article types, students should explain

  1. the purpose of the article (i.e. what does a review article actually do?)
  2.  the  kind of information in each section (i.e. what does the results section do?)
  3.  how each section is connected to the others (i.e. how is the lit review connected to the argument?)
  4.  and how knowing this information helps readers understand the text  (i.e. how can you read differently knowing the purpose of a lit review?)

For the features common to multiple article types, students should focus on

  1.  the purpose of those features (i.e. what do notes do?)
  2. the kind of information in the features (i.e. what kind of information would you find in notes?)
  3. how the features are connected to the content of the article (i.e what is the relationship between the subject heading and the actual text?)
  4. how knowing about these features helps readers understand the article (i.e. how might you read differently knowing about subject headings?)

Each group creates a PowerPoint or similar artifact that can be distributed to the rest of the class.  After the presentations, discuss what the students learned and then, during the next class period, apply this knowledge to a course reading.

List of Article Types and Features

  • IMRAD Articles (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion)
  • Review Essays (Introduction, Methods, Article Discussion, and Implications)
  • Humanities Essays (Introduction, Lit Review, Body/Argument, and Conclusion)
  • Book Reviews (Introduction, Summary, Critique, and Implications)
  • Abstracts
  • Subject Headings
  • Signposts / Forecasting Moves
  • Notes/Endnotes/Footnotes
  • Works Cited Pages


Sofa to 5k: Active Reading  

Purpose:  This exercise demonstrates the relationship between active-reading and efficient-reading. Students should learn that attentive reading habits can increase their retention and comprehension. It is well-suited for the beginning of the semester, or in conjunction with a research-based assignment.

Description: This exercise prompts students to reconsider quick and non-interactive reading by comparing the processes. It should demonstrate that retaining information is more difficult and time-consuming from a passively read passage.

Suggested Time: 40 minutes


  1. Ask students to read an excerpt of your choice projected on the board.
  2. Remove the projection and ask them to write short answers to a series of questions referencing specific content, as in phrasing or numerical details.
  3. Discuss their answers, and draw extra attention to their (in)ability to quote exactly from memory.
  4. Project the excerpt again and ask them to double-check their answers.
  5. ...Did it require them to essentially read the entire passage again?...
  6. Provide a second excerpt on a printed hand-out and ask them to read the material with a pencil in hand. Encourage them to mark the passages they think are important, especially the author’s thesis or relevant / convincing facts. Ask them to anticipate as they are reading which details you may have chosen for questions.
  7. Project a new set of questions for the second excerpt, and ask them to write their short answers on the same sheet of paper as the first excerpt.
  8. Discuss their answers. How did engaging with the text affect their ability to find the specific answers? How well did they understand the second text? Did they need to completely re-read to find the answers?
  9. Start a discussion about which process seemed "better" to them, or more useful for writing with research.
  10. Be sure to question which factors might prohibit them from physically writing in their books (they want to sell them back?), and address possible solutions (post-its).


The Verbal Shove-Off: Active Reading 

Purpose:  This exercise compels students to engage with authors in an exaggerated take on the “talking back to the text” reading strategy; and serves as a nice precursor to an opinion-editorial.  Students should be motivated by the outlandish or absurdly biased (poorly researched) essays to challenge the author with questions in the margins of their essays. Comments like, “say what?!, seriously?, really?, says who?,” are what we want.

Description: While this exercise aims to generate a conversation between the student and the author, it  invites students to scrutinize the resources used within the text. It prompts students to challenge claims in a colloquial manner, and then provides the opportunity to discuss varied viewpoints and draft a counterargument. This is aggro active-reading, or active reading with a purpose.

Suggested Time: 60 minutes


  1. First, you need to find an “article” which presents opinion as fact, and refers to questionable sources like Wikipedia. Here is one, for example: Interest Convergence, FSU, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
  2. If you’re in a computer-classroom have your students respond in a document as they read the article. If not, and preferably, provide copies.
  3. You’ll also want to offer a brief introduction to the topic.
  4. Ask the students to decide—as they are reading—if they “agree” or “disagree” with the statements being made—considering a decision, means thinking.
  5. Liken it to the way a lawyer collects a defense.
  6. When they are done reacting to the piece, facilitate a discussion of the essay.
  7. What points did the author make well? Where did they fail? Do you agree? Etc.
  8. Ask them to write a response.
  9. Resume discussion for another 10-minutes.
  10. Last question, did having your paper written out help you articulate your thoughts?


How to Eat a Poem 

Purpose: When reading poetry, students so often feel pressure to find the “deeper” or “underlying” meaning. This exercise is meant to demonstrate that they can read poetry and get meaning from it, and that they don’t need to feel pressure about it.

Description: This exercise provides one way for students to “eat” a poem, meaning to digest a meaning from a poem for themselves. Basically, you’ll choose a contemporary poem and explain how to read a poem, then have students read according to that protocol.

Suggested Time: 35-50 Minutes


Step 1: Prepare for Lesson

  • For this lesson, you’ll need to pick out a poem to read to the class. I recommend picking out something contemporary that easily connects with students. Examples of this could be Tony Hoagland’s “Poor Britney Spears,” Kim Addonizio’s “First Poem for You,” Matthew Dickman’s “V,” Dorriane Laux’s “Facts about the Moon,” or Sherman Alexie’s “Heroes.” Obviously these are just examples -- there are tons more out there. The point is not to pick something too archaic or hard to understand; rather, choose poetry that is contemporary and digestible.
  • Make copies of the poem so that each student has one to read in class. Make sure that students have writing utensils ready.

Step 2: Dispell the Myth of the “Underlying Meaning”

  • To start this exercise you’ll need to give a brief talk or have them read something that dispels a myth that has been instilled in many young adults, the myth that poetry has some “hidden meaning.” Here’s an example of what I tell my students:

People often offer me this complaint when I talk to them about poetry: ‘I don’t understand poetry. Why do poets hide meaning? I wish they would just say what they mean!” Perhaps you’ve thought this (I did when I was in college).

But thinking that poets are trying to “hide” their meaning is misleading, and hiding meaning is not what poetry is about. If the best poets could hide their meaning the most, then the “best” poetry would be unreadable to anybody else. Instead, poetry is more exact in meaning than prose or plain speech.

Let me explain: if I say “I love you,” you have some vague idea of what I mean. But I’ve said that phrase to my parents, sister, brother, ex-girlfriends, former classes I taught, pet bird, favorite book, etc. The phrase has little meaning on its own. Sometimes it means “I want to get in your pants;” others it means “I commit my life to you,” or “you birthed me, that was pretty cool,” “I grew up with you and we are linked that way forever,” “you were the best classroom I‘ve taught,” “you whistle the Mardi Gras Mambo, that’s pretty cool.”

What I’ve just done is made my language more specific to its audience and to the rhetorical situation. Poetry is that magnified times 10 -- it is the most specific form of expression. Sure, there are many kinds of poetry, some easier and some harder to understand. Sometimes you will be able to verbalize a meaning, and sometimes you won’t, and that’s ok. Sometimes, maybe, you’ll feel like you know what the poem means, but won’t be able to describe it. But what makes poetry hard to understand is that you are zooming in to unpack the specific meaning of each word when you read it.

Step 3: Instruct Students on How to Read a Poem, They Read Chosen Poem

  1. Read the poem first with your pen down. Read at a moderate pace -- slow enough to enjoy the language, but fast enough to follow the meaning of the sentences.
  2. As you read the first time, try to play a video in your head of the images in the poem. Reading a poem should be like experiencing your own personal movie. This may not work for the entire poem, but do it as much as possible.
  3. Reread the poem, this time with a pen in your hand. Underline your favorite images, and make a short note about why you connect with them. Put a star next to any parts you don’t understand.
  4. Also, on this second read think about the tone of the poem as you read. Is the poem traumatic? Hilarious? Is the speaker yelling at you? whispering? Try to see if you can hear those things in your head.
  5. Finally, let the poem affect you and write down how it makes you feel. Allow yourself to be moved, or to take something from the poem, or even to get angry with the poem. This requires letting your guard down and believing that a poem can do this. People have different “readings” of poems/literature - some will find the same poem offensive as another might find beautiful.

Step 4: Class Discussion of the Poem

  •  Have a conversation about the poem with the students. Make sure to have the conversation on the student’s terms -- this means you should start by asking them what the poem meant to them, what images or lines they particularly enjoyed, or what video they saw in their heads while reading.
  • As you discuss with them, be sure to ask abou the poem’s rhetorical situaton, the audience of the poem, etc.
  • Also, be sure to ask them about the process of reading -- did it work for them? Did it not? Why or why not?