2.1 Reading critically for a purpose

7 min readdecember 30, 2022

Minna Chow

Minna Chow

AP Research 🔍

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In AP Research, you will be doing a lot of reading, and it's important that you do it carefully and thoroughly. This is called reading critically. Chances are you've done a lot of critical reading in AP Seminar, and a lot of the skills you learned there will absolutely still apply. In this guide, we'll be refreshing what it means to read critically, and sharing some tips for how to become a better critical reader!
Much information comes from page 19 of the AP Research CED.
Research Tip: Need a refresher on your AP Seminar Analysis skills? Check out our Big Idea Guides for AP Seminar here.

What is Reading Critically?

College Board defines reading critically as reading closely to identify the main idea, tone, assumptions, context, perspective, line of reasoning, and evidence used in a piece of text. Instead of taking the text at face value, you're thinking about things like its structure, context, and potential weaknesses.
Research Tip: You don't have to disagree with a text in order to think critically about it.
Another way to think of reading critically is actively reading.
You may have heard of active reading in one of your English classes. At its core, active reading is reading a text with a purpose. If you're reading a passage actively, you're looking for something specific as you read. Maybe you want to see how the word choice or rhyme scheme in a poem works, for example. Looking for something specific as you read helps you stay engaged: not an easy feat in AP Research, where you'll be reading dozens of dry academic articles. It also helps you make sense of what you're reading and makes the research process more efficient than passively reading would.

Critical Reading Skills

Let's cover two different categories of things we can do with a text: preview and prioritize, and making meaning.

Preview and Prioritize

It's really hard to understand everything about a text on first read, especially if it's a scholarly paper. The definition of reading critically from above asks you to identify seven different things!
Fortunately, you aren't expected to find everything on a first read. To Preview and Prioritize (P&P) a text is to interact with it in multiple different ways. College Board has identified four different strategies:


Scanning a text is when you quickly read through it to get a general sense of the content and main points. When you scan an article, you might look at the headings, subheadings, and key terms to get a sense of what the article is about.
Scanning an article before you commit to reading it closely can help you identify if it's right for you. An article that seems helpful at first glance often turns out not to be, and by scanning you can save time and mental energy.
Scanning a text also makes it easier to understand when you read it closely, because you'll have already read it once before. This means you have foresight into where the text's going.
Research Tip: Often, scholarly papers will have an abstract, or a brief summary of the paper, at the beginning. Generally, you can tell just by reading the abstract if the paper will help your research or argument.


Skimming a text is a more detailed form of scanning. For example, you might read the first sentence of each paragraph when you skim an article, as opposed to only reading headings when you scan it.
Skimming also encompasses reading specifically to find certain bits of information.
  • For example, let's say you're researching the impact of social media on the mental health of high school students. As part of your research, you need the date of the first study ever done on social media, so you read a different scholarly article until you find that date.
Research Tip: As these two strategies imply, it is perfectly okay not to read everything you use all the way through! As long as you've read enough to make sure you're not misrepresenting the text you're using. Try to read at least the abstract of everything you use in your final research paper.


Questioning a text is when you write down your own questions based on what you've read in the text. It can also refer to challenging a text (in your notes) if you think there are gaps in the research or disagree with something in it. You'll generally question a text when you're reading it carefully, not when you're skimming or scanning it.
Questioning a text can help keep you engaged, because in order to question a text you need to be actively thinking about it. It can show you potential research gaps for your own work, or logical gaps in the author's argument that you can explore more.
Questioning a text can also show you where your interests lie: if all your questions about a hypothetically scientific research topic are historical in nature, maybe you should look into doing a historical research project.


Rereading the text is... rereading the text. This may be rereading the text in whole, or rereading just parts of the text. I saved rereading for last because all three of the above strategies will involve rereading later down the line. You may need to reread the text that you've skimmed or scanned. In order to find answers to your questions or come up with questions you may need to reread the relevant parts of the text. Fundamentally, P&P requires lots of re-reading, which can be time-consuming.

Making Meaning

Making meaning is from a text is when you make what you're reading make sense to you. College Board has identified four different strategies:


Annotating a text is when you write on the text itself. This can include highlighting relevant passages, underlining key words or phrases, and/or writing notes or questions in the margins. Annotating a text can make it easier for you to understand it. If you need to come back to your text a second time, having annotations can help you navigate the text faster.
  • For example, I really like summarizing each paragraph in the margins when I annotate a text (and have the time to). That way, when I come back to the text I'll have a summary of each paragraph in the margins, and can therefore quickly find specific paragraphs or lines.


Note-taking is taking separate notes from the text itself. These notes can be on paper or digital. If you're working with digital notes (a major advantage of which is that you can search through them), software such as Evernote or GoodNotes can help make your notes more organized. (Or you could put everything in a word document, if that works for you!)
Research Tip: Try to keep your notes as organized as possible. You'll thank yourself if you need to consult them again, later.


Highlighting is when you highlight passages, either on paper or digitally. It can be a visual way to help distinguish certain lines of text from the rest of the passage.
  • For example, it can be helpful to highlight all the claims in a section one color, and all the evidence a different color.

Reading Aloud

Reading aloud can increase comprehension of difficult passages. (Give it a try with this guide!) This is because not only are you actively saying the words out loud, you're also processing them both through sight and sound.
Research Tip: Not every active reading strategy will work for you. It's okay to pick and choose the ones that do! Furthermore, don't be afraid to experiment with different types of note-taking or active reading.

What Are We Reading For?

College Board says we should identify...
  1. the main idea: what is the writer's main point?
    1. You can look at the main idea of an entire text, a section, or a passage.
    2. Generally, you can find the main idea in the thesis statement, the claim or implied throughout the text. The thesis statement can be tricky to find, but the claim of a paragraph will generally be the first sentence.
  2. tone: generally defined as the writer's attitude towards their subject
    1. Are they positive? Negative? Is this a work of satire?
  3. assumptions: what fundamental principles or ideas does the author rely on in their work?
    1. Could those principles be challenged? Would your research challenge them?
  4. context: in what academic, historical, etc context is the writer writing in?
    1. How does that shape their argument? Are they writing to argue against another viewpoint?
  5. perspective: the viewpoint that someone has on a particular argument; this includes their attitude and/or tone.
    1. What lens do they look through? What do they believe?
  6. line of reasoning (remember this from AP Seminar?): how did the author get to their argument?
    1. Is there a "weak link" or missing chain in this line of reasoning?
  7. evidence used in a piece of text: what sources are the author citing? where did they get their information from?
    1. You are 100% allowed to use sources you found in other people's work for your own, as long as you cite both. (It's also good practice to mention where you originally found your source in.)
Research Tip: It's both possible and recommended to identify these traits in more than just scholarly texts. Some of them (such as the context) will apply to images, videos, performances, works of fiction, etc.
Research Tip: If you're working with non-written sources, you should also analyze them closely. Analysis of an artistic work’s context, subject, structure, style, and aesthetic is necessary to "critically read" it. For more information, check out our AP Art History Guides!

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