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Suggested Readings on Teaching Critical Reading

There is a voluminous amount of reading one can do about reading and about teaching of same. In this brief bibliography of such sources that don’t specifically reference digital reading, we’ve selected some that offer useful reminders for teaching critical reading and for cultivating reflective reading practices that still remain highly relevant and useful for the digital age.


Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky, eds. “Introduction: Ways of Reading.” Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers (6th edition).  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.  1-18. Print.

In the introduction to their aptly titled anthology, Bartholomae and Petrosky make a good case for composition instructors to assign the kinds of texts that are, in some ways, strange or challenging—texts that, for instance, don’t offer a clear main idea or that might express ideas that seem ambiguous or even contradictory. They encourage readers, especially student readers, to develop a broader understanding of and appreciation for a wider variety of ways of reading and emphasize the reader’s responsibility for actively constructing that meaning.

This is not merely a simplistic privileging of the reader over the text; in Bartholomae and Petrosky’s view, the relationship between reader and text is complex and dynamic: “Reading then requires a difficult mix of authority and humility. On the one hand, a reader takes charge of a text; on the other, a reader gives generous attention to someone else’s (a writer’s) key terms and methods, commits his time to her examples, tries to think in her language, imagines that this strange work is important, compelling, at least in the moment.”


Bean, John. “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts.” Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1996.

Bean examines the reading difficulties college students encounter in reading academic texts and offers various explanations for and solutions to the difficulties. Among the many reasons for the difficulties, Bean emphasizes the fact that students often misunderstand the nature of the reading process, misunderstand the nature of texts, and misunderstand their own roles in interpreting the texts they read. To get students to change their perceptions of self, text, and the reading process, Bean encourages instructors to share their own approaches to reading and in particular to show how the process varies depending on the reader’s purpose. 

To gain insight into how texts are constructed, he advocates for using academic exercises, including but not limited to creating study guides and asking critical reading questions that help students understand the rhetorical context, background, and biases of the texts they read.  Another strategy here is to ask students to examine what a text says and what it does, thus helping them to engage with the structure as well as the content of the texts they read.  To overcome their “natural resistance to ideas and views different from their own” he encourages strategies that help students play devil’s advocate and look for strengths and weaknesses in what they read.


Bosley, Lisa. “ ‘I Don’t Teach Reading’: Critical Reading Instruction in the Reading Classroom.” Literacy Research and Instruction 47.4 (2008): 285-308.

Much of the literature focuses on students’ lack of experience as the basis for their struggles with critical reading. But if inexperience is the problem, what is the solution?  More specifically, what should teachers do? Lisa Bosley speaks to this issue in a research paper that looks at how composition instructors view reading, and whether they teach reading in their classes. Surprisingly, her study suggests that “reading pedagogy is an afterthought in many composition courses.” One reason for the marginalization of reading in composition classes is that instructors lack confidence in their own understanding of what critical reading even means or how to teach it.  Given the importance of critical reading at the university and the students’ inexperience with it, Bosley concludes that it is imperative to discuss explicitly what critical reading is and how to do it and to give students lots of opportunities to practice it.


Carillo, Ellen. “Making Reading Visible in the Classroom.” Currents in Teaching and Learning 1.2 (Spring 2009): 37-41.

Carillo agrees with Robert Scholes (see below) that one reason reading gets downplayed in composition and other courses is because reading, unlike writing, is largely invisible. To make reading more visible to instructors and students themselves, Carillo has designed a revised close reading exercise, called a passage-based paper (PBP), that helps students to slow down and pay attention to a text as well as to the cognitive moves they are making while they read. After describing the assignment—its brevity and distinction from a response paper are key—Carillo gives some suggestions on how this assignment might be adapted in courses across the disciplines. Since the assignment doesn’t require students to do “anything particularly literary” (4), she believes that it can easily be used to help students reflect on and learn the writing conventions of any discipline. 

As Carillo acknowledges, the PBP assignment is very similar to the difficulty paper that Salvatori mentions in “Conversations with Texts” (see below).


Carter, Rita (narr.) Why Reading Matters.  BBC.  YouTube. 8 April 2009. 

This documentary asks some fascinating questions about how we read, why we read, and how reading words might change our minds and our lives.  The film explores these questions by looking at how ordinary people experience reading and by turning to scientists (mostly neuroscientists) for answers about the ongoing development of the reading brain. 

Among the most remarkable findings is the fact that reading is, in a sense, not natural; instead, over centuries, the brain has managed to reuse, recycle, or rewire multiple parts of the brain that were designed for other functions.  That is, the reading brain relies on parts of the brain used for speaking, object recognition, seeing, etc., and in a sense co-opts those existing functions to develop new neural pathways to allow us to decode and comprehend texts.  (See the books by Maryanne Wolf and Nicholas Carr on our digital reading bibliography for more about this.)

The story of the reading brain gets even more interesting as the film looks at the effects of reading on the brain. In one scene, it looks at Shakespeare’s clever choices of words and considers how these words work on readers. Brain scans suggest that certain words (words that seem new and exciting) seem to “electrify the brain,” and lead to speculation that Shakespeare might have intentionally used certain language to get his audiences’ attention.

The next section of the film considers whether reading can facilitate the development of empathy and answers in the affirmative. Here, neuroscientists have identified so called mirror neurons as the basis for empathy and suggest that, to some extent, we feel what we see others do. These studies further suggest that these mirror neurons operate when we read: we feel what the writers and characters feel.

The last section looks at the impact of digital technology (especially video games) on reading and on its ability to cultivate empathy and concludes that not enough evidence is available to address this question.


Murray, Donald. “Reading as a Reader.” Read to Write:  A Writing Process Reader. New York:  Holt, Reinhart and Winson, 1986. Print.

Murray, always a welcoming voice for struggling readers, advises students to take heart in the fact that they already read fairly well. He suggests that the key to improving their skills as readers is to increase their repertoire of reading strategies so they can read a wider variety of texts. To that end, Murray discusses various approaches to reading:  reading to escape, to seek information, to understand, and to appreciate. He emphasizes that the strategies we use vary according to the different reasons, purposes, or ways of reading. Murray’s main insight is that the readers’ experiences, backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives shape how they read. While this seems obvious, it has serious implications for developing effective reading habits:  it invites students to question how their own attitudes, background, and experiences might not only impede them but also help them to engage with and make sense of texts.


Salvatori, Mariolina. “Conversations with Texts:  Reading in the Teaching of Composition.” College English 58.4 (April 1996): 440-454.

Salvatori argues that faulty theories of reading have obscured the connections between reading and writing, including theories that present reading as mysterious, ones that present certain texts as “venerable repositories of meaning,” or ones that reduce reading to the mere application of some arbitrary interpretative lens:  “…these theories…make it possible to cover over the processes by which knowledge and understanding are produced….[and] in different ways and for different reasons, simultaneously glorify reading and proclaim its unteachability” (444).

Salvatori wants, instead, to demystify how reading really works, and suggests that writing (and teaching) can help to do this:  “Although the processes that constitute our reading and writing are essentially invisible, those processes are, in principle, accessible to analysis, scrutiny, and reflection.” Salvatori encourages teachers to find creative ways to facilitate introspective reading, one where the reader monitors and adjusts her reading and responses to texts. She discusses some practical ways to encourage this kind of reflective or introspective reading, including having students write a “difficulty paper.” (See Ellen Carillo’s “Making Reading Visible in the Classroom” for an example of a difficulty paper.)


Scholes. Robert. “The Transition to College Reading.” Pedagogy 2.2 (Spring 2002): 165-172.

Scholes cites a colleague (Tamar Katz), with whom he wholeheartedly agrees, who argues that students misread texts in many ways and for many reasons, but the underlying problem seems to be that they “want to read every text as saying something extremely familiar that they might agree with” (166). Scholes sees this particular reading problem as rooted in the dominant theory of reading in Literature (New Criticism). To address this, Scholes wants instructors to teach texts that emphasize (or at least include) conflicting perspectives—viewpoints that are different from each other, from the students’, and from the instructor’s.

Scholes cites the Internet as a good example of how conflicting perspectives can incite interest, energy, and insight: “We need to see the Web as a constantly replenished source of textual materials to study. We should be asking students to bring back examples from sites of interest to them and to discuss the positions taken, the quality of various presentations, and their views of the matters at hand.” By broadening the definition of what counts as literature to include rhetorical texts, Scholes believes that instructors across the curriculum, not just in literature classes, can help students improve the skills needed for education in a democracy: “reading so as to grasp and evaluate the thoughts and feelings of that mysterious other person: the writer” (171).


Michael Larkin and Donnett Flash
UCB College Writing Programs
March 18, 2015


Michael Larkin
Donnett Flash