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Critical reading means that a reader applies certain processes, models, questions, and theories that result in enhanced clarity and comprehension. There is more involved, both in effort and understanding, in a critical reading than in a mere "skimming" of the text. What is the difference? If a reader "skims" the text, superficial characteristics and information are as far as the reader goes. A critical reading gets at "deep structure" (if there is such a thing apart from the superficial text!), that is, logical consistency, tone, organization, and a number of other very important sounding terms.
What does it take to be a critical reader? There are a variety of answers available to this question; here are some suggested steps:
1. Prepare to become part of the writer's audience.
After all, authors design texts for specific audiences, and becoming a member of the target audience makes it easier to get at the author's purpose. Learn about the author, the history of the author and the text, the author's anticipated audience; read introductions and notes.
2. Prepare to read with an open mind.
Critical readers seek knowledge; they do not "rewrite" a work to suit their own personalities. Your task as an enlightened critical reader is to read what is on the page, giving the writer a fair chance to develop ideas and allowing yourself to reflect thoughtfully, objectively, on the text.
3. Consider the title.
This may seem obvious, but the title may provide clues to the writer's attitude, goals, personal viewpoint, or approach.
4. Read slowly.
Again, this appears obvious, but it is a factor in a "close reading." By slowing down, you will make more connections within the text.
5. Use the dictionary and other appropriate reference works.
If there is a word in the text that is not clear or difficult to define in context: look it up. Every word is important, and if part of the text is thick with technical terms, it is doubly important to know how the author is using them.
6. Make notes.
Jot down marginal notes, underline and highlight, write down ideas in a notebook, do whatever works for your own personal taste. Note for yourself the main ideas, the thesis, the author's main points to support the theory. Writing while reading aids your memory in many ways, especially by making a link that is unclear in the text concrete in your own writing.
7. Keep a reading journal
In addition to note-taking, it is often helpful to regularly record your responses and thoughts in a more permanent place that is yours to consult. By developing a habit of reading and writing in conjunction, both skills will improve.
Critical reading involves using logical and rhetorical skills. Identifying the author's thesis is a good place to start, but to grasp how the author intends to support it is a difficult task. More often than not an author will make a claim (most commonly in the form of the thesis) and support it in the body of the text. The support for the author's claim is in the evidence provided to suggest that the author's intended argument is sound, or reasonably acceptable. What ties these two together is a series of logical links that convinces the reader of the coherence of the author's argument: this is the warrant. If the author's premise is not supportable, a critical reading will uncover the lapses in the text that show it to be unsound.
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Critical Reading v. Critical Thinking
- 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.
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 HarmonyIn 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 DistinctionIf 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 DoesWe 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
Thinking Critically: Evaluating The EvidenceReading 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.