How to Create Critical Readers: The 3 Keys

A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to become a reader.

When teachers make time every day for students to curl up with books they love and engage in the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests of reading ability—frequent, voluminous, self-selected reading—they’re helping students become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers.

And that is the goal of The Reading Zone. Just as important, along the way we hope students will become smarter, happier, more just, and more compassionate people because of the diverse worlds they experience within those hundreds of thousands of lines of black print.

Here are a few more reasons why it’s so important to give children time, choice, and access, when it comes to books and reading.


We know that students need time to read, at school and at home, every day. We understand that when particular children love their particular books, reading is more likely to happen during the time that’s set aside for it—that the only surefire way to induce a love of books is to invite students to choose their own. So teachers help children select enjoyable books, develop and refine literary criteria, and carve out identities for themselves as readers. We get that it’s essential that every child we teach be able to say, “These are my favorite authors, genres, books, and characters this year, and this is why.” Personal preference is the foundation for anyone who will make of reading a personal art.


Starting in kindergarten and going straight through until the end of high school, free choice of books should be a child’s right, not a privilege granted by a kind teacher. Our students have shown us that opportunities to consider and reconsider books make reading feel sensible and attractive to children right from the start—and that they will read more books than we ever dreamed possible and more challenging books than we ever dreamed of assigning.


We’ve learned, too, that students need access to a generous assortment of inviting titles. Instead of investing in an expensive core reading program, our school makes individual books the budget priority. No child ever grew up to become a skilled, habitual, critical, passionate reader via a fat textbook.

And we’ve learned that we need to read a lot of the books we hope students will, so we can make genuine, knowledgeable recommendations, offer help as readers need it, and teach children one at a time in the daily, quiet conversations of reading workshop.

To learn more about The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Passionate, Skilled, Habitual, Critical Readers, 2nd Ed., you can purchase the book here.

About the author:

Nancie Atwell founded the Center for Teaching and Learning in 1990. She taught grades 7–8 writing and reading for forty years. She is the first classroom teacher to receive the major research awards in the field of language arts, the M.L.A. Mina P. Shaughnessy Prize and the National Council of Teachers of English David H. Russell Award. She has won many other awards for her contributions to education, including the inaugural Global Teacher Prize, presented by the Varkey Foundation. 

10 Prompts to Invite Students to Write About Their Reading

Literary criticism is a way to make sense of someone else’s writing and the experience of reading it. When I write about a book in one of the journals I’ve kept for years, it helps me sustain the pleasure of a transcendent reading experience or solve the puzzle of an unsatisfactory one. It’s an opportunity to step away from the world of the story while I linger on its borders and explore the new perspective that reaching the final pages has granted me. As a critic, I can make broad, deep assessments of the author’s style and themes, the growth of the characters, and the essential questions. Did I like it? Would I recommend it? Whom should I foist it on—or caution to avoid it?

All readers deserve opportunities to go back into selected titles that lured them into the reading zone, step outside the zone, and consider what the author did to invite them in and keep them there. In reading workshop, I encourage students to do this by writing regular literary letter-essays.

Every three weeks, the students in my class locate their marble composition notebooks, which we call a critic’s journal, and choose the next title they’ll critique. It must be a book they’ve finished, so they can fully consider the theme, authorial choices, narrative voice, character development, and other literary features in the context of a complete works of literature; they also select an excerpt from the book to include, one that supports their assertions. A letter-essay is in-depth analysis, not a collection of first—or even most-of-the-way-through—impressions.

Students skim or reread the book—which is necessary to taking a critical stance—collect their impressions, and determine a direction for their critique. Then they frame their criticism as a letter of at least three pages to me or a friend in the class—an authentic audience for their opinions—and receive a response that may push their thinking but always respects and expresses genuine interest in their literary analysis.

I always distribute a packet of letter-essays by former students, and we read these and tease out two lists of criteria: one that details what mustappear in a letter-essay and another that outlines what might also be included.

Additionally, some kids find it helpful to refer to a list of paragraph openers when taking on the voice of a critic and transitioning from one point to the next in their letter-essays.

Here are 10 prompts I encourage students to choose from to help them get started:

  1. I was surprised /angry about/moved by/amused at/confused when… because…
  2. I notice how the author…
  3. I wish that the author…
  4. This author’s writing reminds me of…
  5. I think the main character’s problem…
  6. I think the way the author resolved the main character’s problem…
  7. The structure of the story…
  8. This is how I read this book:
  9. I think a theme (what the book is about beyond its plot) is…
  10. I rated this one ____ because…

The letter-essays that result are insightful takes on literature. They’re valuable to me, too, for the insights they give me into what students are observing, wondering about, and responding to as critics.

To learn more about The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Passionate, Skilled, Habitual, Critical Readers, 2nd Ed., you can purchase the book here.

About the author:

Anne Atwell Merkel has taught middle-school English since 2009. Currently a teacher of grades 7-8 writing, reading, and history at the Center for Teaching and Learning, she is also the coordinator of CTL's intern program for visiting tteachers.