Teaching Critical Reading Skills: Strategies for Academic Librarians

ACRL announces the publication of Teaching Critical Reading Skills: Strategies for Academic Librarians, edited by Hannah Gascho Rempel and Rachel Hamelers. This two-volume set—Reading in the Disciplines and for Specific Populations and Reading for Evaluation, Beyond Scholarly Texts, and in the World—provides ready-made activities you can add or adapt to your teaching practice.

Learn more about Teaching Critical Reading Skills in this excerpt from the introductions by the editors, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Why (and What Is) Critical Reading?

While reading might initially appear to be a solitary practice, the act of reading—particularly critical reading—often takes place in community. Disciplinary and genre-based communities provide guidelines or expectations for what should be read. In other cases, community manifests itself when friends or colleagues suggest or discuss a book or article they just read and we are inspired to read something new. A book suggestion was key for prompting our thinking about critical reading. A colleague of Hannah’s (Anne-Marie Deitering) placed a copy of Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement by Karen Manarin, Miriam Carey, Melanie Rathburn, and Glen Ryland on her desk.[1] Hannah and Anne-Marie discussed the book with each other, and then they discussed the book with colleagues outside of their own library (and hosted an ACRL panel), and the community discussion continued to expand. Critical Reading in Higher Education provided the theoretical basis for these volumes and helped us explore what critical reading could look like as practiced and interpreted by academic librarians.

 There is a long history of scholarship on teaching reading. But this scholarship had been primarily focused on skills-based approaches for K-12 students—not on university students. In addition, the “critical” aspect, which calls for reflection and engagement with a larger community of readers, was missing from earlier explorations of reading instruction. Critical Reading in Higher Education shifted our thinking as librarians. Manarin and colleagues are teaching faculty representing a range of disciplinary areas at a public, undergraduate university. Their acknowledgment of students’ struggles with reading and faculty assumptions about students’ reading skills resonated with our experiences as librarians who often serve as a bridge between faculty assumptions and students’ realities.

Manarin and colleagues provide a definition for critical reading that we have also adopted for these volumes.[2] Their definition for critical reading posits that reading has purpose. And within academic settings, critical reading often has one of two learning purposes:

  • Disciplinary or academic reading. This type of critical reading emphasizes learning to read in order to work, understand, or create new knowledge in a discipline. This type of reading is typically framed as reading for an academic purpose. Characteristics of reading for academic purposes include identifying patterns in the text, determining main and supporting ideas, evaluating credibility, making judgments about how a text is argued, and making inferences about the text.
  • Socially engaged reading. This type of critical reading encourages learners to read in such a way that they will understand a different perspective, empathize with those whose experiences are different from their own, or create change in their community. This type of reading is often framed as reading for social engagement. Characteristics of reading for social engagement include comprehension, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. However, socially engaged reading also requires developing connections between one’s own knowledge and social contexts such as civic engagement or between the text and personal experience.

If the definition of critical reading was previously unfamiliar to you, it had also been unfamiliar to us and many of these chapter authors until we encountered Critical Reading in Higher Education. But upon reflection, we realized these two types of critical reading could serve as a framework for discussing reading instruction practices many of us were already using in our roles as academic librarians and archivists. Additional models for teaching students to read critically have been shared in recent years such as the CREATE model,[3] lateral reading,[4] and the SIFT method.[5] Several chapter authors incorporate these models into their approaches to critical reading and share their recommendations for how to best adapt them in a library context. Each chapter contains a section titled “Critical Reading Connection” to highlight each author’s approach for engaging with the purpose of reading critically and to carry forward the conversation about how librarians can foster critical reading.

What Can Librarians Bring to Critical Reading Practice?

Academic librarians and archivists have a long history of engaging with literacy—whether information literacy, primary source literacy, visual literacy, or multimedia literacy. From this foundation of working with learners to facilitate their ability to read and write in various formats, librarians are well positioned to engage learners in critical reading practices, regardless of the format in which they are reading. Many academic librarians draw on the ACRLFramework[6] as the keystone for curricular choices on how to teach students about information creation, how to search for information, and the value of information. Based on academic librarians’ understanding of the ACRL Framework, we are able to readily transition to teaching critical reading skills that focus on evaluation, application, and developing connections.

Many academic librarians also have a history of engagement with pedagogical best practices. We endeavor to base our teaching in a shared set of practices demonstrated to increase learning. Some of these pedagogical best practices include student-centered instructional choices, the use of active learning techniques, and balancing learning modalities (e.g., in-person or online, synchronous, or asynchronous) based on the learners’ needs and context. While this is not a book about pedagogical best practices, you will see these best practices woven throughout as the intentional incorporation of these practices is a core strength in our academic librarian community.

Earlier, we noted the bridging function librarians serve as they navigate between faculty and students. We are able to serve as a bridge in part because of our deep knowledge of our learner audiences. For example, we understand the different reading needs of first-year students, transfer students, and graduate students, as well as the affective challenges with reading that are often shared across learner audiences. We also bring an understanding of our disciplinary communities. We know what types of sources are read, the histories of how authority has been granted in various fields (and where changes may need to occur in how authority is determined), and how students may be expected to apply what they read in future professional or civic settings. Depending on the disciplinary setting, we also recognize that critical reading skills do not need to be confined to certain types of texts—or even to text at all! Finally, academic librarians frequently look beyond their local institutions to think about the larger structural and social justice implications of what is read, how we read, and who does the reading.

All these pre-existing types of knowledge place us in an excellent position to join in or lead conversations about critical reading on our campuses.

In these chapters, you will see examples of librarians’ and archivists’ deep connections to our campus communities and how critical reading instruction can be integrated in a variety of contexts within those communities. There are five thematic sections in this two-volume set. But across those five sections, you will see several key learner-centered themes woven through those sections. Here are the three learner-centered themes we observed:

  • Making the implicit explicit for learners
  • Reading as a skill that must be practiced and nurtured
  • Reading as a communal act

As you reflect on the ways you might adopt or adapt the critical reading exercises described in this book, we encourage you to look for the ways you can demystify the steps of reading a scholarly article or a figure presented in a news source. Think about how you can provide feedback on students’ initial attempts at reading using new techniques, or how you might build in intermediate steps so critical reading is viewed as an activity refined through continual practice rather than immediate expertise. Finally, returning to the two key purposes for critical reading—disciplinary or socially engaged reading—continue to be on the lookout for ways to demonstrate that reading is not a solitary activity but takes place within a larger context and community.


  1. Karen Manarin et al., Critical Reading in Higher Education: Academic Goals and Social Engagement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).
  2. Manarin et al., Critical Reading, 5–11.
  3. Alan J. Gottesman and Sally G. Hoskins, “CREATE Cornerstone: Introduction to Scientific Thinking, a New Course for STEM-Interested Freshmen, Demystifies Scientific Thinking through Analysis of Scientific Literature,” CBE Life Sciences Education 12 (2013): 59–72, https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-11-0201.
  4. Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, “Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information,” Teachers College Record 121, no. 11 (November 1, 2019): 1–40, https://doi.org/10.1177/016146811912101102.
  5. Mike Caulfield, “SIFT (The Four Moves),” Hapgood (blog), June 19, 2019, https://hapgood.us/2019/06/19/sift-the-four-moves/.
  6. Framework for Information Literacy, Association of College & Research Libraries.