How to Master Critical Thinking by Using a Strategy for Critical Reading

Use the SQ3R strategy to master anything you read

Lee G. Hornbrook
Feb 11 · 11 min read
Photo by dusanpetkovic.

Whether you are a writer, a business executive, or in any field of self-improvement, you are no doubt inundated by texts: news articles on your phone, school textbooks, hundreds of pages of a business report. You slog through one long report after another until they all merge into an amorphous blob of gunk. But what if I told you, just by systematizing your act of reading, you will gain complete mastery over everything you read with very little additional effort?

Mastering your reading is a key skill that enables you to think critically and clearly about any subject matter. And thinking critically about any subject will take you from novice pursuer to expert influencer.

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says, “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.” To become clear thinkers, we must also be strong readers. An established strategy for critical reading can take your critical thinking to the next level and help you to accomplish your goals. Clear thinking + critical thinking = powerful clear writing.

Since 1986, when I first started teaching college composition and English, I have introduced thousands of students to the SQ3R method of critical reading. I have seen beginning and developmental students blossom into first-rate scholars and thinkers using this method.

I was always a slow, methodical reader myself. There is some validity in reading literary texts slowly and closely, paying attention to the special language of literature. But large theoretical texts were my enemy. I could rip through a novel, but when I was done, I had forgotten much of what I had read. Reading a lengthy textbook, I could not tell the difference between main points and supporting ideas. I needed a strategy that was more than highlighting important passages.

When I first started using the SQ3R method myself, I saw results within a matter of weeks. The SQ3R method helped me to systematize my heavy reading load and improved my comprehension and recall. Now, I read quickly with solid comprehension. I have the confidence to master any reading material.

At the start of my teaching career, I knew that helping my students meant teaching them a strategy for critical reading. But the SQ3R method has applications beyond the university. It is an effective method for anyone who engages with complex texts. By using the SQ3R method, you can truly master any reading material to advance your career or to understand the subtleties of even the most difficult texts.

Critical Thinking Leads to New Knowledge

We create new knowledge in the world by building on top of expert knowledge of the past. Critical thinking means that you do not just accept what an author presents. By reading critically, you read skeptically, questioning the author against your own knowledge and your own world view. Sometimes your ideas will align with an author’s. But often, your world view and the author’s will collide.

Reading is a discovery process. We aren’t just empty vessels that get filled by the cup of knowledge. When we read, we are in a symbiotic relationship with the author and we create new meaning and new knowledge. By following a strategy for critical reading, you can identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument or an approach and develop a new way forward. The author’s view plus your own will lead to new knowledge. The SQ3R method will help you to identify areas of a text that you can argue with in order to create a new understanding of the world.

When reading, if all we needed to do was to accept an author’s point and then spit it back, we would be hopelessly stuck in presenting a world view as if it were a fourth-grade current events or book report: This is what the author said. This passive reading strategy is important for young kids as beginning readers, but once we get a little older, we must read much more actively to not only understand what authors say, but to develop our own ideas about the world. This is where SQ3R comes in. You already know how to read. SQ3R will systematize your reading to maximize your comprehension and make reading efficient.

SQ3R — A Strategy for Critical Reading

SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review. SQ3R was developed by Francis Pleasant Robinson, an educational psychologist in his 1946 book “Effective Study,” to improve the reading skills of military personnel. The strategy is most useful for highly structured texts, but it can be used with fiction and or shorter works just as effectively. By following the five-part structure, you can become an active reader and improve your critical thinking skills.

Step 1 — Survey: Look before you leap

Survey: The first step is to survey the text — quite literally look at the material. If you have a 1,000-page text to read, you need to first understand what it is you’re dealing with. Look at the book without reading it. Look at the front and back covers and inside the front and back covers. Flip through the table of contents. Then page by page, flip through the pages, all of them, from beginning to end.

If you are working with an e-book, of course, you may need to make some adjustments to this step. Still, you can survey the table of contents, notice the length of the book, how it is structured, and (if you can) scroll through the pages. I read and teach using physical books, and this article is based on applying the SQ3R method to them. You will need to find the best way of applying these techniques to e-books.

Don’t read the text just yet. A pattern will emerge. You will see a systematic presentation of ideas in the structure of the book. You will see chapter titles, subheadings, and sub-sub-headings. In academic textbooks, you may see new vocabulary presented in bold or italic type. You may see illustrations or graphs or lists of activities at the ends of chapters. You may see examples illustrated. Flip through the entire book. Surveying your text is an important step, the foundation for the rest of the strategy.

If your material is shorter, this process takes much less time. Look at an essay, for instance. What is the title and author? Are there subtitles? How many paragraphs are there? Is there any white space? Does any text stand out? Whatever the reading, note the structure of the piece as you survey it.

The human brain is a miraculous organ. It discerns patterns in all that it sees. By surveying the text, you are setting up your brain to subconsciously understand the patterns that you are presenting to it. In short, your brain makes meaning from those patterns. You are creating the framework for your brain to understand the material. This skeletal outline provides structure for the book’s content, much as your skeleton helps you to stand upright. Without that structure, the content would be a loose jelly, difficult to comprehend in any structured way.

Step 2 — Question: Creating a plan of discovery

The second step is to write questions for each subtitle in the text. Write down questions based on the chapter titles and sub-headings. For instance, in a textbook on writing, there may be a section on Prewriting. One of the subheadings may be Freewriting. On a piece of paper, write down “What is Freewriting?” Go through the entire reading and write questions for each chapter title and subheading.

At this time, you may be tempted to write down answers to those questions, especially as those answers swim in the text in front of you. For now, it is best to write down all the questions first and wait to answer them during the reading portion of the strategy.

A note on writing: Writing down material improves memory. When I use SQ3R, I write the questions with pen and paper, even though I spend the vast majority of my time typing. The mechanical ways in which you record the information is up to you. I encourage you to write or type out your questions. You will use those written questions when you read the material.

Step 3 — Reading: Turn off all distractions and read

The third step is reading. Reading the text is a two-step process. The first time you read the text, do so without a pencil. Just read it quickly to discern the main ideas and structure of the text. The second time through, you will read carefully and annotate the text.

First, read the text without a pencil. Find a quiet place and read the material. Turn off distractions, such as your phone and the television. I find that having soft music or classical music in the background improves my concentration. Researchers suggest that classical music puts “students in a heightened emotional state, making them more receptive to information.”

If your reading selection is large, preview it first and perhaps break it into more than one reading session.

Reading is a muscle-memory activity. It takes 5–10 minutes to get into reading. We can then read comfortably and at peak performance for about 40–60 minutes. After that, our minds start to wander and we need a break. Take a break for 5–10 minutes to rest your eyes and stretch. Shake out your body and rest your brain for a few minutes. Then continue your reading or wait until the next session.

Reading part two: Annotate the text. Annotating the text will help you to understand the patterns of the text. You are targeting your reading to find the main points of the text. How can you tell what is important in a sea of text? Professional writing is elaborately edited and arranged. Topic sentences present main ideas. Middles of paragraphs provide supporting information and examples. Final sentences present take-away points.

Even sentences themselves are well-structured. Good writers present topics as their subjects and main points as their predicates. The middles of sentences are details and supporting materials.

If the author writes, “The significant point is…” or “The main point is…” or “The most important point to remember is…,” then you know the point is something to annotate or highlight.

Knowing where to find the most important information will help you find the essential points.

Look for the answers to the questions you wrote in step 2. When you find an answer, write it down. If an answer is not presented directly, the answer may be implied. Write down any answer you can infer from the text.

When you annotate a text, you are reading actively. Write all over the text. If you’re working with paper, you will develop your own symbol system, as I have. (Here again, for e-books you will need to determine what you can do based on the e-reader you use. Because of those limitations, you may find it worthwhile to work with a printed book instead, especially for important texts.)

I underline main points. I circle words I don’t know. I look the word up in a good dictionary and write “def” in the margin along with the definition. If I agree with the author’s point, I write “Yes!” in the margin. If I’m skeptical of the author’s point, I write, “Hmmm” to indicate I must think about that point some more. If I disagree with the author, I will write “B.S!” or something similar in the margin. If I see a pattern such as “First … Second … Third …” I put boxes around those structural elements and draw lines between the words. If I have my own thoughts or comments about a passage, I write it in the margins. When I’m done, my text is marked up with all my comments for when I look at the material again.

Photo: Lee G. Hornbrook / Author / Text is from Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1948.

In my example, I have made many marginal comments trying to follow the thread of the argument. De Beauvoir has an extensive vocabulary, so to be precise, I look up any word that may even remotely have nuanced meaning. I will look up words I think I know well, only to find out that I had an imprecise working meaning of a word. It is important to be honest with yourself and look up words that you don’t know or that you can know more precisely than you do.

Develop a system to annotate a text that makes sense to you. Whatever you do, write on your text. If you do not want to write in your book, make a copy of your reading and write all over the copy. Annotating the text is a crucial step in making the material your own.

On highlighting: I have seen many beginning students highlight entire pages of text. When everything is highlighted, nothing stands out. It’s the same as not highlighting anything. Use highlighting sparingly. I reserve highlighting for only the main point of each chapter, if I highlight at all.

Step 4 — Recite: Give voice to your ideas

The fourth step is to recite the main points of the text aloud to a friend or to yourself. When we verbalize any material, we create a memory of it in our brain. Telling a friend about your reading will help you to remember it. It will also help you to elaborate on any disagreements you may have with the text. Why do you disagree with the author and what is your own position? It is not enough to just disagree with an author’s point. You must also strive to articulate the reason for your disagreement, which will help you to articulate your own position on the topic. This step in critical thinking is important in making new knowledge for the world.

Step 5 — Review: Reinforce the entire process to truly make the text your own

The fifth and last step is to review the text. As you glance your eyes over the text now, you will be looking at the material for the sixth time. You will take in not only the author’s points but your own active reading of the text.

After passing your eyes and critical gaze over the text six times, I guarantee that, if you have been faithful to the SQ3R method, you will have command of the majority of the material. Your task is not to memorize the text, though there will be parts of it that you know verbatim. Rather, your task has been to command the material, to know the main points and the structure of the writing, to know its strengths and weaknesses, and to know your own reaction and attitudes toward that material. In combination with the author, you have now become an expert on this material and created new knowledge.

You are now ready to do something with this new knowledge — whether it is presenting that information to a board of directors or taking a test in school or writing an article that incorporates another author’s position within your own argument.

Using the SQ3R strategy for critical reading may slow your reading down initially, especially as you write focused questions and develop a workable annotation scheme. But if you use this strategy consistently, you will achieve noticeable improvements in command and comprehension of your reading.

Reading is often the first step for learning new knowledge, but it is also a first step in creating new knowledge. The SQ3R strategy for critical reading will help you to understand any reading, from the most complex to the most trivial. It will increase your engagement with your reading, helping you to think critically about what you read, rather than being a passive receptacle, and enabling you to create new knowledge for the world.

We do not just discover the world through reading. We create the world we inhabit. Now it is your turn to create the beautiful world where you want to live.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Thanks to Terrie Schweitzer

Lee G. Hornbrook

Written by

Writer, Editor. Vegan. Rule-breaker. 33-year higher ed. writing teacher. **I Write. Mostly Words. Every Day.**

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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