February 23rd, 2012

Using Reading Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking


“Students can critically read in a variety of ways:

  • When they raise vital questions and problems from the text,
  • When they gather and assess relevant information and then offer plausible interpretations of that information,
  • When they test their interpretations against previous knowledge or experience …,
  • When they examine their assumptions and the implications of those assumptions, and
  • When they use what they have read to communicate effectively with others or to develop potential solutions to complex problems.” (p. 127)

And don’t we all wish our students read this way! Unfortunately most of them don’t, and the challenge is finding those strategies and approaches that help them develop these sophisticated reading skills. Terry Tomasek, who crafted this description of critical reading, proposes one of those kinds of strategies.

She uses reading prompts. “The purpose of these reading/writing prompts is to facilitate personal connection between the undergraduate student and the assigned text. The prompts are simply questions used to orient students with a critical reading stance and to guide their thinking as they read.” (p. 128) Her goal in using the prompts is to help students identify the big ideas rather than just “mine” the text for facts and details. She’s not anti facts and details, but she thinks that’s mostly what students read for and the big ideas are what prompt the reflection and analysis typical of those who read deeply and think critically.

Tomasek develops prompts designed to promote a range of critical-thinking responses. The categorization she has developed is neither linear nor hierarchical, meaning the prompts can and should be used in different orders. Here are her six categories and some of the sample prompts contained in the article.

Identification of problem or issue—This “lens” is used to create a “need to know” viewpoint for readers. (pp. 129-130)

  • What problem is the author identifying? Who does the problem relate to?
  • For whom is this topic important and why?

Making connections—These prompts helps students think critically about course content, what they are reading, and their own knowledge. The goal is to get students to integrate their experiences with what they are reading.

  • How is what I am reading different from what I already know? Why might this difference exist?
  • What new ideas are here for me to consider? Why am I willing or not willing to consider them?

Interpretation of evidence—These prompts are best used when students have been assigned a case study, have viewed a video clip, or are reviewing each other’s work.

  • What inferences can I make from the evidence given in the reading sample?
  • What relevant evidence or examples does the author give to support his or her justification?

Challenging assumptions—The goal of these prompts is to encourage students to identify and critique assumptions.

  • What kind of assumptions is the author making? Do I share these assumptions?
  • What information builds my confidence in the author’s expertise?
  • If the opportunity arose, what questions would I pose to the author?

Making application—Here students are challenged to use what they have learned.

  • What advice could I add to this reading selection? On what basis do I give this advice?
  • Looking toward where I want to be in two years, what suggestions from the reading make the most sense to me?
  • Taking a different point of view—Students develop critical perspectives when they are encouraged to consider diverse ideas.
  • What would I point out as important about this topic to others who either question or disagree with my point of view?

As for the mechanics, Tomasek assigns one reading prompt at the time the reading assignment is made. Students respond in one or two paragraphs prior to the next class. They are asked to share their responses to the prompts in a variety of ways. They might post them on a Blackboard discussion space and then respond to the comments posted by other classmates. This electronic exchange takes place before class.

Tomasek may use material from these exchanges when she discusses the reading in class. Other times students email their responses to other students, who respond by asking clarifying questions. This kind of exchange then happens face-to-face at the beginning of class. Or students may simply write out their responses to the prompt and email them to the instructor, who uses them in a variety of ways as the content is presented and discussed in class.

Tomasek instructs students not to worry about grammar, punctuation, or paragraph structure. What students are being asked to prepare is not a writing assignment, but a response to an attempt to help them uncover the big ideas and see how they relate and can be applied. When students submit their responses, the feedback provided is limited and the papers are not graded. However, Tomasek does keep track of students’ responses, seeing that they are doing the reading and responding thoughtfully.

“This is one way to facilitate a richer learning experience for students outside the classroom. The list of reading/writing prompts offered here is by no means exhaustive; in fact, they should only be used as [a] starting point to broaden the critical reading skills of other individual instructors’ undergraduate students.” (p. 132)

Reference: Tomasek, T. (2009). Critical reading: Using reading prompts to promote active engagement with text. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 21 (1), 127-132.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 24.10 (2010): 4-5.