Reading literature critically requires a minimum of two separate readings: one reading for understanding of basic plot, or sequence of events and characters, and a second reading to delve deeper into understanding the meaning of the work. During the first reading, the reader should simply enjoy the work.
After the first reading, take some time to let the work "sink in." Think about the characters and events in the story, and note any interesting connections. In the second reading, it can be helpful to take notes, either in the margins of the book, or on a separate sheet of paper. This allows a student to organize and solidify ideas about the work. Try to identify key parts in the story, or characters who are opposites, or repeating symbols or imagery. It can also be helpful and interesting to discuss thoughts about the book with others who have read it, as they may have different insights or divergent feelings about the work.
When reading poetry, it can be difficult to grasp meaning when reading silently. Though embarrassing, reading poetry out loud to yourself can help to elucidate meaning. This can also be useful when facing a difficult portion of prose text.