What Is Critical Reading?
Note: These remarks are primarily directed at non-fictional texts.
To non -critical readers, texts provide facts. Readers gain knowledge by memorizing the statements within a text.
To the critical reader, any single text provides but one portrayal of the facts, one individual’s “take” on the subject matter. Critical readers thus recognize not only what a text says, but also how that text portrays the subject matter. They recognize the various ways in which each and every text is the unique creation of a unique author.
A non-critical reader might read a history book to learn the facts of the situation or to discover an accepted interpretation of those events. A critical reader might read the same work to appreciate how a particular perspective on the events and a particular selection of facts can lead to particular understanding.
What a Text Says, Does, and Means: Reaching for an Interpretation
Non-critical reading is satisfied with recognizing what a text says and restating the key remarks.
Critical reading goes two steps further. Having recognized what a text says , it reflects on what the text does by making such remarks. Is it offering examples? Arguing? Appealing for sympathy? Making a contrast to clarify a point? Finally, critical readers then infer what the text, as a whole, means , based on the earlier analysis.
These three steps or modes of analysis are reflected in three types of reading and discussion:
- What a text says – restatement
- What a text does – description
- What a text means – interpretation .
You can distinguish each mode of analysis by the subject matter of the discussion:
- What a text says – restatement – talks about the same topic as the original text
- What a text does – description – discusses aspects of the discussion itself
- What a text means – interpretation — analyzes the text and asserts a meaning for the text as a whole
Textbooks on critical reading commonly ask students to accomplish certain goals:
- to recognize an author’s purpose
- to understand tone and persuasive elements
- to recognize bias
Notice that none of these goals actually refers to something on the page. Each requires inferences from evidence within the text:
- recognizing purpose involves inferring a basis for choices of content and language
- recognizing tone and persuasive elements involves classifying the nature of language choices
- recognizing bias involves classifying the nature of patterns of choice of content and language
Critical reading is not simply close and careful reading. To read critically, one must actively recognize and analyze evidence upon the page.
Analysis and Inference: The Tools of Critical Reading
These web pages are designed to take the mystery out of critical reading. They are designed to show you what to look for ( analysis ) and how to think about what you find ( inference ) .
The first part —what to look for— involves recognizing those aspects of a discussion that control the meaning.
The second part —how to think about what you find— involves the processes of inference, the interpretation of data from within the text.
Recall that critical reading assumes that each author offers a portrayal of the topic. Critical reading thus relies on an examination of those choices that any and all authors must make when framing a presentation: choices of content, language, and structure. Readers examine each of the three areas of choice, and consider their effect on the meaning.
Critical Reading, at its Core, Plain and Simple
Non-critical (or pre-critical) reading is concerned with recognizing what a text says about the topic. The goal is to make sense of the presentation as a sequence of thoughts, to understand the information, ideas, and opinions stated within the text from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. This is a linear activity.
Critical reading is an analytic activity. The reader rereads a text to identify patterns of elements -- information, values, assumptions, and language usage-- throughout the discussion. These elements are tied together in an interpretation, an assertion of an underlying meaning of the text as a whole.
Critical thinking involves bringing outside knowledge, biases, and values to bear to evaluate the presentation and decide what ultimately to accept as true.
The initial step of critical reading involves recognizing a text as a presentation in its own right. This step is concerned with identifying such elements as
- The existence of a beginning,middle, and end
- The use of illustrations to explicate remarks
- The use of evidence to support remarks
- The use of stylish language to portray topics
- Organization, or a method of sequencing remarks – such as whether chronological, different aspects of the topic, steps in a logical sequence
The next step involves describing the nature of these aspects of the text, of classifying the nature of the material within the text
- The nature of the examples – what the examples are examples of
- The nature of the evidence – what kinds of authorities are invoked, what types of evidence are provided
- The nature of the choice or terms– what types of terms are applied to what topics
The final step involves inferring the underlying assumptions and perspectives of the discussion, taking into account of all of the elements of the text being as they are throughout the text as a whole. This step is concerned less with sequential development and more with recognizing patterns of elements interwoven throughout the presentation as a whole.
- What is achieved by describing topics a certain way
- What is assumed by selecting certain types of evidence
Throughout, critical reading relies on abstracting, on classifying the nature of things,
- The nature of the structure of the text
- The nature of the language employed
- The nature of the examples invoked
- The nature of the illustrations brought to bear
- And the nature of the thinking that would explain all aspects of the text being as they are.
In the end, readers must take control of the text, not just repeat its assertions. At its core, critical reading involves becoming the author of one's own understanding.
Critical Reading v. Critical Thinking
We can distinguish between critical reading and critical thinking in the following way:
- Critical reading is a technique for discovering information and ideas within a text.
- Critical thinking is a technique for evaluating information and ideas, for deciding what to accept and believe.
Critical reading refers to a careful, active, reflective, analytic reading. Critical thinking involves reflecting on the validity of what you have read in light of our prior knowledge and understanding of the world.
For example, consider the following (somewhat humorous) sentence from a student essay:
Parents are buying expensive cars for their kids to destroy them.
As the terms are used here, critical reading is concerned with figuring out whether, within the context of the text as a whole, " them " refers to the parents, the kids, or the cars, and whether the text supports that practice. Critical thinking would come into play when deciding whether the chosen meaning was indeed true, and whether or not you, as the reader, should support that practice.
By these definitions, critical reading would appear to come before critical thinking: Only once we have fully understood a text (critical reading) can we truly evaluate its assertions (critical thinking).
The Two Together in Harmony
In actual practice, critical reading and critical thinking work together.
Critical thinking allows us to monitor our understanding as we read. If we sense that assertions are ridiculous or irresponsible (critical thinking), we examine the text more closely to test our understanding (critical reading).
Conversely, critical thinking depends on critical reading. You can think critically about a text (critical thinking), after all, only if you have understood it (critical reading). We may choose to accept or reject a presentation, but we must know why. We have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as to others, to isolate the real issues of agreement or disagreement. Only then can we understand and respect other people’s views. To recognize and understand those views, we must read critically.
The Usefulness of the Distinction
If critical thinking and critical reading are so closely linked, why is this still a useful distinction?
The usefulness of the distinction lies in its reminder that we must read each text on its own merits, not imposing our prior knowledge or views on it. While we must evaluate ideas as we read, we must not distort the meaning within a text. We must not allow ourselves to force a text to say what we would otherwise like it to say—or we will never learn anything new!
Reading Critically: How Well Does The Text Do What It Does
We can think of a writer as having taken on a job. No matter what the topic, certain tasks must be done:
- a specific topic must be addressed
- terms must be clearly defined
- evidence must be presented
- common knowledge must be accounted for
- exceptions must be explained
- causes must be shown to precede effects and to be capable of the effect
- conclusions must be shown to follow logically from earlier arguments and evidence
As critical readers and writers, we want to assure ourselves that these tasks have been completed in a complete, comprehensive, and consistent manner. Only once we have determined that a text is consistent and coherent can we then begin to evaluate whether or not to accept the assertions and conclusions.
Thinking Critically: Evaluating The Evidence
Reading to see what a text says may suffice when the goal is to learn specific information or to understand someone else's ideas. But we usually read with other purposes. We need to solve problems, build roads, write legislation, or design an advertising campaign. We must evaluate what we have read and integrate that understanding with our prior understanding of the world. We must decide what to accept as true and useful.
As readers, we want to accept as fact only that which is actually true. To evaluate a conclusion, we must evaluate the evidence upon which that conclusion is based. We do not want just any information; we want reliable information. To assess the validity of remarks within a text, we must go outside a text and bring to bear outside knowledge and standards.
What is Critical Thinking?
No one always acts purely objectively and rationally. We connive for selfish interests. We gossip, boast, exaggerate, and equivocate. It is "only human" to wish to validate our prior knowledge, to vindicate our prior decisions, or to sustain our earlier beliefs. In the process of satisfying our ego, however, we can often deny ourselves intellectual growth and opportunity. We may not always want to apply critical thinking skills, but we should have those skills available to be employed when needed.
Critical thinking includes a complex combination of skills. Among the main characteristics are the following:
We are thinking critically when we
- rely on reason rather than emotion,
- require evidence, ignore no known evidence, and follow evidence where it leads, and
- are concerned more with finding the best explanation than being right analyzing apparent confusion and asking questions.
We are thinking critically when we
- weigh the influences of motives and bias, and
- recognize our own assumptions, prejudices, biases, or point of view.
We are thinking critically when we recognize emotional impulses, selfish motives, nefarious purposes, or other modes of self-deception.
We are thinking critically when we
- evaluate all reasonable inferences
- consider a variety of possible viewpoints or perspectives,
- remain open to alternative interpretations
- accept a new explanation, model, or paradigm because it explains the evidence better, is simpler, or has fewer inconsistencies or covers more data
- accept new priorities in response to a reevaluation of the evidence or reassessment of our real interests, and
- do not reject unpopular views out of hand.
We are thinking critically when we
- are precise, meticulous, comprehensive, and exhaustive
- resist manipulation and irrational appeals, and
- avoid snap judgments.
We are thinking critically when we
- recognize the relevance and/or merit of alternative assumptions and perspectives
- recognize the extent and weight of evidence
- Critical thinkers are by nature skeptical. They approach texts with the same skepticism and suspicion as they approach spoken remarks.
- Critical thinkers are active, not passive. They ask questions and analyze. They consciously apply tactics and strategies to uncover meaning or assure their understanding.
- Critical thinkers do not take an egotistical view of the world. They are open to new ideas and perspectives. They are willing to challenge their beliefs and investigate competing evidence.
Critical thinking enables us to recognize a wide range of subjective analyses of otherwise objective data, and to evaluate how well each analysis might meet our needs. Facts may be facts, but how we interpret them may vary.
By contrast, passive, non-critical thinkers take a simplistic view of the world.
- They see things in black and white, as either-or, rather than recognizing a variety of possible understanding.
- They see questions as yes or no with no subtleties.
- They fail to see linkages and complexities.
- They fail to recognize related elements.
Non-critical thinkers take an egotistical view of the world
- They take their facts as the only relevant ones.
- They take their own perspective as the only sensible one.
- They take their goal as the only valid one.
Choices: The Ingredients of Texts
When examining a text, we would like to look for those elements, obviously, that control the meaning of a text. But what are they?
We can find a useful analogy between photography and texts. Photography seems objective. Photographs record "what's there," and nothing more. Or so it might seem.
In fact, all photographers make choices that affect the final photograph. Anyone taking a picture must select
- the situation—where to be, and when
- the camera and lens—whether to view a wide or narrow angle, with or without filters that adjust the color balance or image
- the film—whether to use black and white or color film, slide, print or digital film, and the sensitivity of the film to low light (ASA rating)
- the settings—the effects of the lens opening (f-stop) and exposure time (shutter speed) on the sharpness and clarity of the image
- the shot—where to aim, what to focus on, and when to click the shutter
Finally, photographers must choose how to process the film and develop subsequent prints—factors that further affect the clarity and impact of the final image.
A single photograph can only depict one portion of a particular scene at a particular instant as seen from a particular perspective. Every photograph presents a subjective view of the world. This is not to say that photographs do not have value. Clearly they do. While the selection may be subjective, the image may indeed provide an objective account of that portion off reality. Yet the choices outlined above ultimately control any meaning a viewer might find in the final print. Photographs don't lie, as the saying goes, but they do offer only select testimony.
As with photography, all written expression involves choices. Imagine you are seated before a blank page. What choices must be made?
For openers you have to say something. Whether you start with an observation, a statement of belief, or simply a thought, you have to say something. We'll call that content.
Having decided on something to say, you have to decide how to phrase your remark. What words will you use? Different terminology, after all, can change the meaning of a remark. Will you claim someone cheated, bent the rules, or committed a crime? Will you refer to President Bill Clinton, William Jefferson Clinton, or Monika's Bill? We'll call that a choice of language.
Finally, you cannot simply rattle off disconnected remarks. (Well, you could, but they would have little meaning!) The remarks must be related to one another, from sentence to sentence and within the discussion as a whole. We'll call that structure,
Critical readers are consciously aware ofthe choice ofcontentThey look at the content, at the evidence marshaled for an argument, the illustrations used to explain ideas, and the details presented within a description. That uniqueness is defined by choices of content, language and structure. . They distinguish between assertions of fact, opinion, and belief. They are aware whether evidence consists of references to published data, anecdotes, or speculation, and they evaluate the persuasiveness of a text accordingly.
Critical readers are aware of how languageis being used. They notice whether a text refers to someone as a "bean counter" (no respect) or "an academic statistician" (suggesting professionalism), whether some is said to have "asserted a claim" (with confidence, and no need for proof) or "floated a claim" (without backing, as a trial balloon). And they draw inferences from the choice of language they observe.
Critical readers are aware of the structure of a discussion, both in terms of the movement of ideas from beginning to end and in terms of the relationship of ideas throughout the discussion. They distinguish between assertions offered as reason or conclusion, cause or effect, evidence or illustration. They recognize patterns of contrast and distinguish whether contrasting ideas are shown to be dissimilar, competing, or contradictory.
All authors confront three areas of choice:
- the choice of content
- the choice of language
- the choice of structure
Choices must be made in each of these areas, and each choice contributes to the thought of the text as a whole.
Note that we do not list elements such as tone, style, perspective, purpose, and message. While these are all useful perspectives for discussing texts, they are all based on, and reflect, the choice of content, language, and structure.
Implications For Reading
To non-critical readers, texts provide facts. Knowledge comes from memorizing the statements within a text. To the critical reader, any single text provides but one portrayal of the facts, one individual's “take” on the subject. The content of a text reflects what an author takes as “the facts of the matter.” By examining these choices, readers recognize not only what a text says, but also how the text portrays the subject matter.
The first step in an analysis of a text, then, must be to look at the content, at the evidence marshaled for an argument, the illustrations used to explain ideas, and the details presented within a description. Not that any particular author/text is necessarily wrong. We simply recognize the degree to which each and every text is the unique creation of a unique author. That uniqueness is defined by choices of content, language and structure.
Critical reading thus relies on an analysis of choices of content, language, and structure.
- Critical readers are consciously aware of the act of choice underlying the content. They distinguish between assertions of fact, opinion, and belief. They are aware whether evidence consists of references to published data, anecdotes, or speculation, and they evaluate the persuasiveness of a text accordingly.
- Critical readers are aware of how language is being used. They notice whether a text refers to someone as a bean counter (no respect) or an academic statistician (suggesting professionalism), whether some is said to have asserted a claim (with confidence, and no need for proof) or floated a claim (without backing, as a trial balloon). And they draw inferences from the choice of language they observe.
- Critical readers are aware of the structure of a discussion, both in terms of the movement of ideas from beginning to end and in terms of the relationship of ideas throughout the discussion. They distinguish between assertions offered as reason or conclusion, cause or effect, evidence or illustration. They recognize patterns of contrast and distinguish whether contrasting ideas are shown to be dissimilar, competing, or contradictory.
These web pages examine each of the three areas of choice. They considers their effect on the meaning, and how readers might identify and respond to them.
Implications For Writing
Your first step as a writer is to generate some content, to put forth assumptions, evidence, and arguments that you can then defend and from which you can draw conclusions.
Having generated some initial discussion, the task as editor is then to adjust the discussion to assure that it presents a coherent, consistent, and comprehensive discussion As we shall see in Chapter Twelve, what we take as evidence lies at the basis of all argument, and shapes and predetermines the outcome of an argument.
Writing is ultimately concerned with
- what we say (content),
- how we say it (language), and
- the flow from one assertion to another, how ideas connect to one another to convey broader meaning (structure).
We may initially write in an unstructured manner, concerned simply with getting some ideas on the page rather than in creating a finished document right off the bat. Revision and editing then focuses on two concerns:
- correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation
- ensuring a coherent flow of ideas.
To ensure a coherent flow of ideas, we must focus on the three areas of choice:
- providing appropriate and sufficient arguments and examples?
- choosing terms that are precise, appropriate, and persuasive?
- making clear the transitions from one thought to another and assured the overall logic of the presentation