So Your Students Aren't Reading!?

Intellectual Development Through Critical Reading


Critical Thinking Community

Critical Literacy

Workbook Academic Reading
with self-audits

A Guide to Reading & Analyzing Academic Articles

Teaching Resources

How to Read an Academic Article

PSU iStudy Module on Active Reading


Learning to Think!

OK, so you've included motivational aspects in your courses; you've given students strategies to process texts efficiently and effectively, and they are even starting to understand some of the more challenging ones, but that isn't enough!

You want them to develop their thinking ability, to approach texts critically, and to use their reading to learn new material and to develop intellectually. You may also want them to expand their learning to include social and civic consciousness. But how?

First let's identify some typical traits of critical thinkers, then we'll examine a model for intellectual development, and finally look at critical literacy and its role in social and civic action.

Traits of Critical Thinkers

Take a look at three graphics from The Foundation for Critical Thinking which summarize many of the intellectual standards, traits, and elements that we hope students acquire while in college.

elements of thought                  intellectual standards

         Intellectual Elements                                                                  Intellectual Standards

intellectual traits

 Intellectual Traits

Through college courses, we hope that students will develop the intellectual traits that signify a well-educated person. We help them to develop these traits by holding them (through their assignments) to the intellectual standards given.

Naturally, this is a learning process for students and takes time. Faculty should plan accordingly by developing activities appropriate to student skills and abilities. Jump too high and cause frustration. Jump just beyond and you pull students towards you. Scaffold and support this development process by providing relevant and thoughtful feedback to student work that helps students to grow intellectually. When reading texts, students can use the questions associated with the Intellectual Standards above to think critically about texts. Encourage students to use the Intellectual Elements to probe texts more deeply and to frame the ways in which they think about what has been written.

Remember also, that modes of thinking and ways to approach texts critically, varies (sometimes greatly!) between content areas. Make the ways in which people approach thinking in your discipline transparent for students.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2004). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts & tools. Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

back to top

Is there a way to think about intellectual development as a staged process?

Perry's Model of Intellectual Development

William Perry, educator and administrator at Harvard University (1946-1998) became interested in student intellectual development through his encounters with students as a faculty member and student advisor.  Perry had, "a fateful curiosity about the ways in which so many of [his] students succeeded in not learning that which [he] was teaching them so well." (Felder, 2005).

So he began to collect data from student essays and interviews in order to understand the intellectual progress of students through time. After many years of interaction, reflection, and study, he designed a nine-step model of intellectual development that describes the steps students move through as they progress from simplistic black and white thinking to more complex and integrated thoughts and actions. He published his findings in Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years (1970). In it, he also discusses ways that faculty can identify stages and implement interventions that help students move along the continuum.

There are four broad categories, within which the nine stages lie:

Read more about the stages HERE

Perry found that most entering college freshmen were at the Dualistic level. In this stage, students:

He also found that most graduating seniors only progressed to the next broad category, Multiplicity. In this level, students:

A few students reach Relativism stages by graduation. In this stage, students:

Only rarely do students reach the upper levels of dev elopement: Commitment with Relativism, characterized by individuals who can:

back to top

Perry recommended employing the following strategies to help students move through the levels:

Harvard was strictly male as Perry did his research, so his findings are one-sided in that regard. Baxter-Magolda continued the work to include gender-related patterns (see reference below for more information).

Baxter-Magolda, M.B. (1992). Knowing and reasoning in college: Gender-related patterns in students intellectual development. Jossey-Bass.

Felder, R.M., & Brent, R. (2005). Understanding student differences. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(1), 57-72.

Perry, William G., Jr. (1970). Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the
College Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

back to top

Critical Literacy

Getting students to think critically about what they are reading and learning can be a challenge. Using a critical literacy approach to texts can be another tool in your arsenal to support student intellectual development. 

A critical literacy approach asks students to take an active, challenging approach to texts and information by questioning many aspects of the text including the author's purpose in writing, the role of language, power, and social practices as they relate to content. (2006).

Critical Literacy also provides students and faculty with a means to uncover social injustices and to promote positive change. It empowers students to make a difference in their worlds based on their critical reading around topics of interest.  In a college setting, this aspect of critical literacy lends itself very well to the service learning approach to teaching (

The features of critical literacy - from About English (2006):

  1. Asking questions of the text to deconstruct its features and structure: Why was the text written in this way?
  2. No longer considering texts as timeless, universal, or unbiased -Examine the underlying values and beliefs of the authors, consider more deeply the role of the reader in order to develop alternative interpretations of the text.
  3. Exploring alternative texts to fill in the gaps. Asking - what might be missing from the original text and why? Does the text present unequal positions of power?
  4. Considering the time and culture when the text was written. What were the beliefs and values of the author at the time? Is this different or similar to what we find today? Are there other reasons for the difference, such as social, psychological, cultural, or political changes that have occurred over time or because of place?
  5. Working for social equity and change. Through our questioning, we begin to understand the connections between language, feeling, and attitudes and the ways that language can be used to sway readers towards different outcomes. Taking a critical approach can help learners to uncover bias and take action to remove injustice.

To incorporate a critical literacy approach in your classes, you could

A) Ask students to consider and discuss the various aspects of a text described above. For a list of questions pertaining to each feature, go to:

B) Use a lesson plan with the following framework:

(07/17/2006). Critical literacy. Retrieved July 23, 2007, from About English - Critical Literacy Web site:

Motivation - > Gap -> Strategies - >Reading to Learn - >
Intellectual Development
- > Embedding Skill Building

Academic reading is definitely a multi-layered, complex set of processes which need to be mastered by college students. What are some general strategies that you can embed into your courses that will help students' reading skills to grow? Go to Embedding Skill Building

About Us | Home | Contact Us | ©2009 Pennsylvania State University