Critical Thinking and Reading Skills

Overview: Reading skills are taught explicitly to younger students, but as they progress through the grades, it is easy to assume that most simply adapt and and grow and pick up skills implicitly. After all, most of us have become sophisticated readers without anyone showing us how to make inferences or consciously break down a text piece by piece. Similarly, many kids become good basketball players simply by playing every day at recess and after school. Practice alone can be sufficient, but it is inefficient. The outline below breaks down the skills of reading for an audience of older students and points to how they can practice the individual skills that make up a complex process.

The Bundle of Skills We Call Reading

Most of the things we call “skills” are in fact big bundles of smaller skills. For example, to be a highly-skilled basketball player means that you have developed the following abilities: Spatial awareness, Hand-eye coordination, Vertical leap, Foot speed, Agility, Dribbling, Shooting, Rebounding, Passing, Guarding, Game strategy, Team dynamics, and Psych-out psychology. No one is born good at basketball. Good players have spent a long time developing each of these skills, constantly pushing themselves to get better by playing with others of similar or higher ability, and working with good coaches who offer strategies for developing any skill that needs work. No one is born good at basketball. Ability is a reflection of time spent practicing.

Reading is a bundle of what smaller skills? There are many, but these four are what we usually talk about when we call someone a “good reader.”

1.Decoding.  2. Understanding Explicit Information.  3. Making Inferences.  4. Analysis

Here’s what each one means:

  1. Decoding – Every alphabet is a code. It takes a long time to teach people the code, which is why we start teaching little kids right about the time they master bathroom skills (which are also very important).

There are lots of different types of alphabets. Many are used throughout the world today, and lots have come and gone.

The Chinese alphabet looks like this: 我喜歡餡餅; The Russian alphabet looks like this: Мне нравятся пироги; The Greek alphabet looks like this: Μου αρέσει πίτες; The Hebrew alphabet looks like this: אוהב עוגות; The Persian alphabet looks like this: وست دارم پای; The Japanese alphabet looks like this: 私はパイが好き; The Roman alphabet looks like this: I like pies.; The Invisible Elephant alphabet looks like this:

 You may have already guessed which alphabet we use.

It takes a long time to burn each letter into your brain. A stands for AAAApple and AAAAAAcorn. It seems easy, but it took you a lot of repetition to get where you are right now.

People with dyslexia can have difficulty with this step. They can be great at the skills required for reading, but a part of their brains are wired differently, making decoding tricky. Studies show that people with dyslexia are better at pulling information out of a large, crowded area, so if you are travelling through the woods and are expecting an attack by a group of Ninja raccoons, you are well advised to travel with a few people with dyslexia.

 It’s easy to decode short words, but some words can be tricky even for seasoned readers. Some hard-to-decode words:

Ichthyologist – One who studies fish

Sphygmomanometer – That fun little device that goes around your arm to test your blood pressure

Onomatopoeia – Refers to those words that imitate a sound, like buzz and belch

As you start to read harder books, you will encounter some words that are tough to decode, but really, after about 3rd grade, most teachers focus on the other skills required to be a good reader.

  1. Understanding Explicit Information – This is the ability to understand what a sentence, paragraph, or passage is trying to tell you. It sounds easy, but it can be difficult for two reasons: A. The writer is using big words and being playful with language, and/or B. The concept itself is really difficult.

Let’s look at some examples of rich language making it hard to figure out what the author is saying:

Hard version: Calmly, but with a purpose not often seen in this thread of the feline lineage, Felix lashed out upon the brittle skin of the once-mighty Maurice. Ursa major? Try Ursa minor.

Easy version: The cat punched the old bear.

Hard version: There’s no doubt that the finer luxuries in life have their charm and purpose, but I can find no pleasure greater than the sweet, buttery bite of a freshly-baked confection from the warm, fuzzy ovens of the McVities corporation.

Easy version: I like cookies.

And sometimes the concept is really difficult:

Steven Pinker’s First Law – “Human intelligence is a product of analogy and combinatorics. Analogy allows the mind to use a few innate ideas—space, force, essence, goal—to understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allows a finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.” (

These are complex ideas expressed with complex words. It’s hard to figure what he’s saying, even when you read slowly.

As you grow and become more intelligent, you should try to find books that live just on the edge of your understanding. You don’t want to plow bleary-eyed through books that have no meaning to you, but you similarly won’t be well-served by reading books that don’t challenge you.

The next two skills are thinking skills. We can’t be good readers without being good thinkers.

  1. Making Inferences – This is the ability to guess information that is not explicitly stated in the reading. If a book starts with the sentence, “Maurice licked his big paw after scraping off the honey and the angry bees,” you should infer that Maurice is an animal and not, say, an old man, a baby, or some kind of strange alien. Your ability to make inferences is linked to your experience. The more you know, the better your guesses will be. We regularly make inferences about the setting, the plot, various traits of the characters, relationships between characters, values held by each character, and what will happen next.

For example, you often have to infer a character’s personality from his or her actions:

  1. Betty kicked the dog on her way home from school. The dog hadn’t done anything wrong, but Betty figured it would show the whole neighborhood that she was boss.
  2. Bobby cowered in the corner as Terry and his friends walked by. Luckily, they were so focused on looking cool that they didn’t notice him.

Sometimes you have to infer what happened if the author doesn’t tell you:

  1. Betty cried as she limped to her room. “It’s your own fault!” her mother yelled.
  2. As Bobby slowly awoke, he noticed that his pillow smelled an awful lot like his backpack. He looked at it. It was his backpack. His head darted left to right. He was shocked to see the dimly lit hallways of the school.

We make many inferences without thinking about it, and if we take the time to make even more inferences, we build a deeper relationship with the text.

  1. Analysis – This term simply means “breaking down.” There are a lot of ways that we can break down and pull apart a text. It helps to start with good questions

Some basic examples:

  1. What is the author’s intention?
  2. What does the author want us to think?
  3. Is the author biased?
  4. What are the author’s values?
  5. Am I being bamboozled?
  6. Is this an argument about __________________? (Childhood? Education? Community? Freedom? America? Feminism? Marxism? Etc.)

For fiction books we can add:

  1. Do the characters grow?
  2. How do the relationships between the characters change?
  3. How does the author effectively manipulate the reader? How does he/she build tension and suspense? How are emotions evoked?

 For non-fiction books we can add:

  1. Are the arguments sound?
  2. Is the evidence acceptable?
  3. How is rhetoric used?
  4. What parts are important and what is fluff?

 Note: We can’t get explicit information until we decode. We can’t make inferences or analyze until we understand the explicit information. Again, making inferences and analyzing are not just reading skills; they are thinking skills, which means that you can’t be a good reader without being a good thinker.

 The Arc of Learning

It takes a long time to learn these four skills, and like all skills, the learning process follows a general pattern (adapted from Fitts and Posner)

  1. Blissful Ignorance. You may have heard of the skill, but you’ve never tried it. You’re unaware of what smaller skills are bundled beneath the larger umbrella. (Pre-Cognitive stage)
  2. Be Kind! I’m New at This! This is the tough period of learning the basics. You’ll have to move slowly and deliberately, and you’ll sometimes feel foolish. You will be very aware that you’re doing something new, and you’ll make lots of mistakes and lots of small adaptations. (Cognitive stage)
  3. Gaining Comfort. The easier period when you become more fluent or comfortable with the new skill. You start chunking steps together and you don’t make as many mistakes. You’re still aware that you’re learning and getting better, but it’s not as mentally taxing. (Associative stage)
  4. Auto-Pilot. You have practiced the component skills so thoroughly that your brain can do them without any conscious thought. (Autonomous)
  5. Adaptation and Growth. Wait. What Just Happened? You are cruising along on autopilot and all of a sudden, something strange happens and you make a mistake. This is a frustration point. You find yourself unable to meet the challenge with your current skill set. You briefly feel flushed and incompetent, but you quickly start experimenting with new approaches, and soon you have adapted your skills to the new demand. (We rise to the skill-level demanded by our environment.)

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