Critical Reading

What is “critical” reading and why bother?

Critical reading is, among other things, active and engaged reading: to be active in one’s reading means asking questions of and thinking about the text. If you were to speak with the author directly, you could simply ask her about anything you thought was unclear as she spoke. Text–that is, any written communication for the purpose of conveying information (especially those containing arguments)–often functions much like a lecture. They both are prolonged communications that are designed to convey information or arguments. However, if you are present at a lecture, you usually are invited to ask questions to help you make sense of (and perhaps even challenge) the speaker, who is the “author” of the lecture. Because authors of texts are not present to help you through their material, you can instead ask questions of the text to help you make sense of its effect. This can be done in a variety of ways depending upon your purpose for reading.

But why should we go to this trouble? Isn’t reading a fundamentally simple task? The answer is complicated by the nature of what is to be read. An instruction manual on how to assemble a desk is probably much simpler than a scientific article on sustainable management of forest resources. Reading seems like a simple activity, and this assumption that reading should be simple can sometimes be an obstacle. We forget that more difficult material demands more effort to engage the subject matter actively. If we don’t engage that matter actively, we might “get” what the author says, but we can’t evaluate it. We may know what the writer thinks about a subject (or what he wants us to think about it), but we can’t reasonably defend agreeing or disagreeing with his opinion or argument. In short, if we don’t read critically, we can’t say much beyond what the text happens to say; we can’t do as much constructively with that text until we read it critically.

Reading and writing are complementary skills–that is, to a certain extent, our ability in the one influences our ability in the other. Learning to read well (that is, to read critically) is a necessary component of strong writing. For this reason, we recommend discussing critical reading with your students to help them see the connections between reading well and writing well.

Below are just two approaches to reading critically. Think about whether either of these might be helpful and whether you feel comfortable discussing or photocopying and distributing them to the whole class. You may find others online that are easier or more appropriate to issue to your students, depending on the needs of your class.

Critical Reading as Rhetorical Reading

In the book Reading Rhetorically: A Reader for Writers, Brief ed. (2004), John Bean, Virginia Chappell and Alice Gillam explore reading as an activity that is not restricted to academic reading (e.g., reading for class). Taking this broader perspective allows them to quickly make an important observation about the act of reading: we not only read for different reasons or purposes, but also “adjust our reading strategies to fit our purposes.” Their examples quickly illuminate the validity of this:

Consider the intricacies of bus and train schedules, the baffling documentation for a new word processing program, or the densely packed explanations in your college textbooks. How you read these texts will be governed by your purpose. If you need to know when the next train to Richmond leaves or how to import a pie chart into your marketing proposal, you can skip over lots of difficult but irrelevant material. On the other hand, if you are preparing to give a workshop on the essential features of a new computer program or trying to grasp the essential concepts of macroeconomics, you must look beyond specific details and attend to overall patterns and meanings.

—Reading Rhetorically: A Reader for Writers, Brief ed., p. 5

Since our reading strategies are adaptive depending on the text to be read and our purposes for reading it, it becomes clear that students must find ways of adapting their reading strategies to succeed in college. Unfortunately, this process of acknowledgement–that different texts require different strategies–is quite often not discussed with students. For example, one student may not realize that he may need to reread a text in order to understand it. Having read it once, he thinks, is enough. Whatever he missed in his first reading isn’t his fault; it’s just “too much reading” for anyone to have to do. Or he may attribute his lack of understanding to a lack of intellect in himself; rereading a text shouldn’t be necessary. After all, he’s already read it once, so what good will reading it again do?

That there is “too much reading” assigned in class is a common complaint, one that may be enabled by the attitude that “one reading of a text is enough”. If students have no expectation that they may need to spend considerable time (re)reading for class, facing the prospect of doing so may seem groundless to them. Students may also feel ashamed or at fault if they don’t “get it” after reading a text or a chapter the first time. Because many students share this attitude and are rarely if ever engaged in discussions about how they read and why, they often do not improve or expand their repertoire of reading strategies.

Our advice is to reflect on your own reading practices. Think about the strategies you use–skimming, annotating, asking questions, writing an outline of a text as you read, etc.–and why you use those strategies in those contexts. If you can articulate these different strategies and talk about what you do as you read, consider talking with your students about your reading process. If students see that even the professor struggles with difficult texts, has to reread, and spends what may be hours with a book before she “gets it,” then students may learn to feel less intimidated by their reading as well as adjust their expectations about their own reading processes (including their attitudes about (re)reading, what they expect in terms of time spent reading for class, etc.).

Martha Patton’s Evaluative Framework for Critical Reading

Like most any other approach to critical reading, Assistant Professor of English Marty Patton adopts an inquisitive mode when she reads. Specifically, she asks questions related to several aspects of a text, including: the text’s hypothesis or question that it addresses; it’s thesis or claim; the relationship between its author and the reader; the method for approaching its question or hypothesis; the assumptions underlying the argument of the text; the evidence supporting the argument; the use of references in the text; the application of disciplinary conventions shaping the text; and the implications of the text’s argument.

What is the QUESTION or hypothesis that the text attempts to answer?

  • How significant is this question?
  • Who else has asked this question?
  • How does this question differ from similar questions on the same topic?
  • How much has been written about this question?

What is the CLAIM or the thesis of the text?

  • Does the claim follow from the evidence and reasons provided in the text?
  • Is the claim falsifiable?
  • How global or particular is the claim?
  • How qualified is the claim?

What is the RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AUTHOR AND READER?

  • Does the writer take a stance as if he/she is addressing the reader as a peer?
  • Does the writer assume that the reader shares similar background knowledge?
  • Does the writer assume that the reader shares similar theoretical positions?
  • Is the writer’s tone overbearing? Patronizing? Straightforward?
  • What is the writer’s purpose? (Demonstrate knowledge for knowledge sake? Application of a theory to a real-world problem? Persuade reader to accept an uncommon idea? Persuade reader to take a certain form of action? Defend a new method of collecting information? Challenge a prevailing theory? Get published at any cost?)

What is the METHOD by which the author attempts to answer the question?

  • Is this method suitable for the question being asked?
  • Is this method well accepted in the field?
  • Who else has used this method and in what context?
  • How, if at all, is this author varying the method?
  • What are the limitations of this method for this problem?
  • Are those limitations identified?

What are some ASSUMPTIONS underlying the article?

  • If the text is not very current, can we assume anything about its historical and disciplinary context?
  • What definitions are assumed?
  • What theoretical positions are privileged? (Are they implied or stated explicitly?)
  • What methodological assumptions are made?
  • What values, if any, are assumed or implied?

How respectable is the EVIDENCE?

  • What types of evidence are used to support the main claims? (Statistics, anecdotes, quotations, original observations, scientific theories, definitions, appeals to emotion, appeals to common sense?)
  • How adequate is the sampling?
  • How accurate is the data?
  • How directly observed is the data?
  • What kinds of inferences were required to interpret the data?
  • What controls were used?

Use of REFERENCES

  • How extensively does the writer rely on other sources? (Are there frequent mentions of other books or articles?)
  • Do you notice any indirect reference to the work of others?
  • What methods are used to refer to other works: reference by title only, paraphrase, summary, direct quotation?
  • How complete is the documentation? The bibliography?
  • How appropriate are the materials cited?

How consistent are the CONVENTIONS of this text with the currently accepted conventions of the discipline?

  • Particular subsections
  • Sentence style
  • Citation format

What are some of the IMPLICATIONS of the text?

  • For the discipline
  • For the subdiscipline
  • For society
  • From an ethical perspective
  • From a practical perspective
  • From a methodological perspective
  • From a theoretical perspective