Learning to Read: The Importance of Critical Thinking
I frequently get emails from my readers who want to become better readers. How, they ask, do you read so much? Let me assure you, I am no genius! (Caught off-guard, I will not be capable of producing my wife’s birth date). I know more of carpentry, concrete, and drywall than of libraries. Being born into a blue-collar family, I have accepted the fact that reading skills will be the product of supernatural grace and hard work.
Reading for most of us, like writing, is hard work. Don’t let anyone give you the impression that great writers sit and let the words flow like a waterfall onto the page. E.B. White’s famous children’s book Charolette’s Web – certainly one of the best-written books ever – underwent six major rewrites! This is astonishing, given it is an easy book for children to read and that it was written by a literary genius.
By God’s grace, the defining period of my personal growth in reading and writing came during my undergraduate studies in the liberal arts program at Bellevue University (Bellevue, NE). There I was introduced to people of every background and thought and was expected to interpret all of the discussions, readings and lectures within the concepts and principles of the critical thinking circle (developed by http://www.criticalthinking.org).
The bottom line of what I learned in those two intense years: To read and write well we must be critical thinkers and being critical thinkers demands that we successfully ask the eight specific questions of the critical thinking circle.
Back to the topic of reading.
In their short little book, How to Read a Paragraph, authors Richard Paul and Linda Elder write:
“Skilled readers do not read blindly, but purposely. They have an agenda, goal, or objective. Their purpose, together with the nature of what they are reading, determines how they read. They read in different ways in different situations for different purposes. … When we read, we translate words into meanings. The author has previously translated ideas and experiences into words. We must take those same words and re-translate them into the author’s original meaning using our own ideas and experiences as aids.”
Before I learned critical thinking I thought the key to unlocking the meaning of a book was reading each and every word. No! Unlocking the meaning and purpose of a book is first related to asking the right questions and engaging the thoughts of others.
We must come to a book with the understanding that the author was driven by an idea and wants desperately to convince you of his thought. The publisher thought the idea was worthy to print. So what is the main thought? Is there substance behind the thought? What does the next chapter build from or what has the last chapter established up to this point? What information, concepts, and presumptions does the author bring to the table? Is it clear? Is it fair? Who or what is the author arguing against (sometimes not stated)?
These type of questions are critical in reading critically.
I could go on, but there are a number of excellent and free resources on their website to explain this better. I especially like Critical Thinking & The Art of Close Reading. You can read these and other articles for free here.
Although these resources are not Christian and certainly not without errors (stay away from the booklet on “Media Bias”), I do frequently reference and recommend the following critical thinking booklets:
1. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools (foundation of the rest)
2. The Thinker’s Guide on How to Read a Paragraph
3. The Thinker’s Guide on How to Write a Paragraph
4. The Miniature Guide to The Art of Asking Essential Questions
These resources may not immediately make you a faster reader, but they will make you a better and more confident reader. The speed will come with time as your confidence builds and you naturally ask the critical thinking questions of each book.
My own grace-given personal success within a liberal arts education was a great reminder that reading skills and the Spirit-illuminated, faithful exegesis of Scripture, are advanced – not hindered – by clear critical thinking!