Reading to Understand (Lesson A)

Critical reading essentially means reading in such a way as to ensure you truly understand the ideas, arguments and assumptions of the article.

It’s easy to skim over articles and textbook chapters and tell ourselves that we’ve really understood them. But, it’s not until you have to apply that information, on a test for example, that you find out if you’ve really read to understand them.

This lesson will cover three steps: active reading, reading for context, and reading for content.

Active Reading

Active reading means reading with a purpose. Not everything we read will be exciting to us. But sometimes, we just really need to get through it and understand it. One way to do that is to understand why we are reading something, and to work at staying engaged in the reading to achieve that purpose. Tricks like reading with a pencil, noting down key information while we read, and explaining what you’ve read to someone else, are useful.

Reading for Context

In addition to active reading, strong critical readers read for context. Before you even begin reading, you can learn a lot about a work just by considering what it is and where it came from.

The questions in Reading for Context (Reference) can help you to evaluate the context of a source and then make decisions about what kind of information you might be getting, how authoritative that information is, and how relevant it might be to your needs.

Reading for Context (Reference)
Ask these questions What will you learn asking these questions?
What am I reading? Always consider the source. What kind of information do you have? A well-researched magazine article or a promotional website?
Who is the author? Investigate the author to understand both their perspective and background on the topic, as well as their authority – are you reading an expert or just someone’s personal opinion?
When was it written? Historical information can be very valuable, but it must be considered in the context of its publication date.
Why was it written? Can you determine the purpose or goal of the work based on the publication source, title, or abstract?
Reliability. Always understand how reliable a source is and never give more value to a source that it deserves.

Authority. Always understand how much the author knows about the topic and what the underlying purpose of goal of a work is.

Practice Reading for Context

Now it’s your chance to practice reading for context. In this lesson, we will practice on Marcus Wohlsen’s 2014 article “Digital Literacy is the Key to the Future, But We Still Don’t Know What It Means,” published in WIRED, an on-line technology journal.

You can view Wohlsen’s article by clicking the citation link below. Answers the questions in the table to assess the context of the article. When you’ve finished, click to open a sample answer.

Reading for Context:

Wohlsen, M. (2016). Digital literacy is the key to the future, but we still don’t know what it means. WIRED. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from’t-know-means/Wohlsen, M. “Digital Literacy is the Key to the Future.”

Reading for Context (Sample Answers)

1. What am I reading?

WIRED is a reputable online journal that explores the impact of technology across many areas of human experience. According to its website, “the WIRED conversation illuminates how technology is changing every aspect of our lives – from culture to business, science to design.”

When we explore the website, we learn that WIRED offers research and insight from a variety of experts across a wide range of disciplines. The information is journalism based, rather than academic, but clearly captures and investigates current trends and debates in its field.

The journal may be of significant use when doing further research for assignments in this course.

2. Who is the author?

Marcus Wohlsen is the senior editor for WIRED Business. As an experienced journalist, he has written many articles and a book investigating the intersections of business and technology.

While his work traces and investigates key themes and events in this field, we can distinguish it from more traditional academic analyses which would require more primary research and peer review.

3. When was it written?

This article was written in 2014 meaning that the ideas about digital literacy and coding are probably still very current and relevant.

4. Why was it written?

Based on the title of the article, it seems that Wohlsen will explore a debate around the concept of “digital literacy.”

The title of Wohlsen’s article gives us clues to the debate: having digital literacy will be crucial to success in the future, but as a society we don’t really agree about what that includes. What is the best way to define it? Or, another way to say this: what digital skills do we need in the future?

  • Now, we can think of a few questions we might have while we read the content of the article:
  • Are there different opinions about what digital skills we need?
  • Why are digital skills going to be so important?
  • Does Wohlsen finally define what he thinks digital literacy should be?

Download Sample Answers

Reading for Content

An academic summary demonstrates a strong understanding of the main idea and key points of a source. As we read for content, we can use the context for clues to understanding, and we can focus our attention with active reading skills.

When we read for content, we are looking for three main things:

  1. The larger topic and focus
  2. The main idea
  3. A map of the key points
Reading for Content (Reference)
Thinking Process Parts of the Summary:
  1. Identify the larger topic or focus.
    Every work starts with a general topic or focus.
    Usually a writer is motivated to say something about this topic, which can be a social issue or debate.
Describe the basic topic or focus of a work.
  1. Identify the main idea.
    Every work has, at its core, one main idea.
    This idea is the thing the author most wants us to understand.
Then identify the main idea — what the author has to say about that topic.
  1. Map the key points.
    Every work is developed in a set of key points.
    Each of these points is offered because it helps us understand the author’s main idea.
And finally list the key points the author offers to develop that main idea.

Practice Reading for Content

Now, let’s work on reading Wohlsen’s article, focusing on the content.

As you read Wohlsen, answer the questions in the Reading for Content (Practice). Remember to take notes while you’re reading, marking key points or questions. This marking, or annotation, can help you understand the article better.

Wohlsen, M. (2016). Digital literacy is the key to the future, but we still don’t know what it means. WIRED. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from’t-know-means/Wohlsen, M. “Digital Literacy is the Key to the Future.”

Reading for Content (Sample Answers)


  • Success in the future depends on digital literacy.
  • Digital literacy is “the idea that the world’s citizens, and kids in particular, will benefit if they’re skilled in the ways of information technology”.

Wohlsen engages with a particular social debate or problem: What does it mean to be digitally literate? How well should we be able to use information technology? What does “learning to code” really include?