Reading critically is a precursor of writing critically. We suggest you read adopting a "triple perspective": read the text carefully, asking questions; compare with other sources writing on the same topic; relate the text to what you need to cover in your essay.
When you read critically you need to question and engage with the text. This takes time and this is why we firstly undertake an initial skimming/scanning of the text to check that it is useful before launching into this deep reading (See Effective Reading).
In order to evaluate the source you are reading, you can ask the following questions:
Once you have critically read the text, think of what conclusions you can draw from the points it makes.
In the following video Doug Specht, Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, presents steps for critical reading:
In order to better evaluate a piece of work, you need to compare it with other sources dealing with the same topic(s). Sometimes you should also check the evidence the literature relies on.
What do other authors say about the topic(s) discussed in the source you just read? Is there some literature directly commenting on the text you read? Library Search is a good place to begin finding sources. You can also use the internet and Google Scholar, which allows the very useful feat of forward citation tracking (finding newest sources that cite a particular source) that can help you find what other literature comments on a certain source. See the library guide on using Google Scholar. You will then need to compare and synthesise the sources.
Are the facts presented in a text supported by sources? Are the sources credible? Are the sources up to date? What do the sources say? What is omitted? What other angle should be considered? Have the sources been interpreted, manipulated, or taken out of context? Statistics can sometimes be abused, presenting a partial perspective to bolster weak arguments. This notion underlies the popular quip attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
When you read for your assignment, keep in mind your purpose: to retrieve information that you will analyse and discuss in your own writing. If something is relevant, make sure you take notes and reference. These elements will be the basis of your analysis, and may be presented in your final text, perhaps as a quote, paraphrase, summary or synthesis.
If something is irrelevant, don't dwell on it. See also our guide on effective reading.
You can become a better critical thinker by keeping these points in mind: