Good researchers and writers examine their sources critically and actively. They do not just compile and summarize these research sources (AKA: articles, chapters, texts, etc.) in their writing, but use them to create their own ideas, theories, and, ultimately, their own new understanding of the topic they are researching. Such an approach means not taking the information and opinions that the sources contain at face value and for granted, but to investigate, test, and even doubt every claim, every example, every story, and every conclusion. It means to engage in an active conversation with the sources and their authors. In order to be good researchers and writers, students needs to be critical and active readers.
This section is about the importance of critical and active reading. It is also about the connection between critical reading and active, strong writing. The information and guidelines provided are fundamental to research and writing, no matter the genre, medium, or academic discipline you read and write in. Every other approach to research writing, every other research method and assignment offered elsewhere in this book is, in some way, based upon the principles discussed in this section.
Reading is at the heart of the research process. No matter what kinds of research sources and methods students use, students are always reading and interpreting texts. Most of us are used to hearing the word “reading” in relation to secondary sources, such as books, journals, magazines, websites, and so on. But even if students are using other research methods and sources, such as interviewing someone or surveying a group of people, they are reading: reading their subjects’ ideas and views on the topic being investigated. Even if students are studying photographs, cultural artifacts, and other non-verbal research sources, they are reading these types of sources, too, by trying to connect them to their cultural and social contexts and to understand their meaning. Principles of critical reading apply to those research situations as well.
Reading and writing are not two separate activities but should be seen as two tightly connected parts of the same whole. That whole is the process of learning and making of new meaning. It may seem that reading and writing are complete opposite of one another. According to the popular view, when we read, we “consume” texts, and when we write, we “produce” texts. But this view of reading and writing is true only if the reader sees reading as a passive process of taking in information from the text and not as an active and energetic process of making new meaning and new knowledge. Similarly, good writing does not magically appear but is usually based upon or influenced by ideas, theories, and stories that come from reading. So, if, as a college student, you have ever wondered why your writing teachers have asked you to read books and articles and write responses to them, it is because writers who do not read and do not actively engage with their reading, have little to say to others.
This section begins with the definition of the term “critical reading.” We will consider its main characteristics and briefly touch upon ways to become an active and critical reader. Next, we will discuss the importance of critical reading for research and how reading critically helps students become better researchers and makes the research process more enjoyable. Also in this section, a student-writer offers us an insight into his critical reading and writing processes. This section also shows how critical reading can and should be used for critical and strong writing.
PART I: Key Features of Critical Reading
Critical readers are able to interact with the texts they read through carefully listening, writing, conversation, and questioning. They do not sit back and wait for the meaning of a text to come to them, but they work hard in order to create such meaning. Critical readers are not made overnight. Becoming a critical reader will take a lot of practice and patience. Depending on a student’s current reading philosophy and experiences with reading, becoming a critical reader may require a significant change in one’s whole understanding of the reading process. The trade-off is worth it, however. By becoming a more critical and active reader, he/she will also become a better researcher and a better writer, hopefully, will find reading more enjoyable by becoming actively involved in the texts.
An interesting passage describing the substance of critical and active reading comes from the introduction to their book Ways of Reading whose authors David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky write the following:
Reading involves a fair measure of push and shove. You make your mark on the book and it makes its mark on you. Reading is not simply a matter of hanging back and waiting for a piece, or its author, to tell you what the writing has to say. In fact, one of the difficult things about reading is that the pages before you will begin to speak only when the authors are silent and you begin to speak in their place, sometimes for them—doing their work, continuing their projects—and sometimes for yourself, following your own agenda (1).
Notice that Bartholomae and Petrosky describe reading process in pro-active terms. Meaning of every text is “made,” not received. Readers need to “push and shove” in order to create their own, unique content of every text they read. It is up to the reader to make the pages “speak” by talking with and against the text, by questioning and expanding it.
Critical reading, then, is a two-way process. Readers are not simply consumers of words, waiting patiently for ideas from the printed page or a web-site to fill their heads and make them smarter. Instead, critical readers interact with what they read, asking questions of the author, testing every assertion, fact, or idea, and extending the text by adding their own understanding of the subject and their own personal experiences while reading.
The following are key features of the critical approach to reading:
- No text, however well written and authoritative, contains its own, pre-determined meaning.
- Readers must work hard to create meaning from every text.
- Critical readers interact with the texts they read by questioning them, responding to them, and expanding them, usually in writing.
- To create meaning, critical readers use a variety of approaches, strategies, and techniques which include applying their personal experiences and existing knowledge to the reading process.
- Critical readers seek actively out other texts, related to the topic of their investigation.
The following section is an examination of these claims about critical reading in more detail.
PART II: Texts Present Ideas, Not Absolute Truths
In order to understand the mechanisms and intellectual challenges of critical reading, we need to examine some long-lasting assumptions about reading.
Perhaps the two most significant challenges facing anyone who wants to become a more active and analytical reader is understanding that printed texts do not contain inarguable truths and learning to questions and talk back to those texts. Students sometimes find that the biggest challenge they face in trying to become critical readers is getting away from the idea that they have to believe everything they read on a printed page. Years of schooling have taught many of us to believe that published texts present inarguable, almost absolute truths. The printed page has authority because, before publishing his or her work, every writer goes through a lengthy process of approval, review, revision, fact-checking, and so on. Consequently, this theory goes, what gets published must be true. And if it is true, it must be taken at face value, not questioned, challenged, or extended in any way.
Perhaps, the ultimate authority among the readings materials encountered by college belongs to the textbook. Students have had to read and almost memorize textbook chapters in order to pass an exam. We read textbooks “for information,” summarizing their chapters, trying to find “the main points” and then reproducing these main points during exams. And it is certainly possible to read textbooks critically and actively. But the challenges which many college students face while trying to become active and critical readers is that they read every text as if they were preparing for an exam on it, as if it was a source of unquestionable truth and knowledge prevents many from becoming active readers.
Treating texts as if they were sources of ultimate and unquestionable knowledge and truth represents the view of reading as consumption. According to this view, writers produce ideas and knowledge, and readers consume them. Of course, sometimes we have to assume this stance and read for information or the “main point” of a text. But it is critical reading that allows us to create new ideas from what we read and to become independent and creative learners.
Critical reading is a collaboration between the reader and the writer. Critical reading offers readers the ability to be active participants in the construction of meaning of every text they read and to use that meaning for their own learning and self-fulfillment. Not even the best researched and written text is absolutely complete and finished. Granted, most fields of knowledge have texts which are called “definitive.” Such texts usually represent our best current knowledge on their subjects. However, even the definitive works get revised over time, and they are always open to questioning and different interpretations.
PART III: Reading is a Rhetorical Tool
To understand how the claim that every reader makes his or her meaning from texts works, it is necessary to examine what is know as the rhetorical theory of reading. The work that best describes and justifies the rhetorical reading theory is Douglas Brent’s 1992 book Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing. Brent’s ideas do a good job demystifying critical reading’s main claims. Brent’s theory of reading as a rhetorical device puts significant substance behind the somewhat abstract ideas of active and critical reading, explaining how the mechanisms of active interaction between readers and texts actually work.
Briefly explained, Brent treats reading not only as a vehicle for transmitting information and knowledge, but also as a means of persuasion. In fact, according to Brent, knowledge equals persuasion because, in his words, “Knowledge is not simply what one has been told. Knowledge is what one believes, what one accepts as being at least provisionally true” (xi). We can interpret these two statements in the following ways:
- Simply reading “for the main point” will not necessarily make the reader “believe” what was read. Surely, such reading can fill one’s heads with information, but will that information become knowledge in a true sense, will it be persuasive, OR will the reader simply memorize it to pass the test and forget it as soon as we pass it? (All of us can probably recall many instances in which we read a lot to pass a test only to forget, with relief, what we read as soon as we left the classroom where that test was held.)
- The purpose of reading and research is not to get as much as information out of a text as possible but to change and update one’s system of beliefs on a given subject (Brent 55-57). If readers are changed or moved by what they read and/or take action because of what wasread, then the text has become persuasive.
Brent further states, “The way we believe or disbelieve certain texts clearly varies from one individual to the next. If a group of people read a text that is remotely controversial to a group of people, some will be convinced by it and some not, and those who are convinced will be convinced in different degrees. The task of a rhetoric of reading is to explain systematically how these differences arise— how people are persuaded differently by texts” (18).
Critical and active readers not only accept the possibility that the same texts will have different meanings for different people, but they welcome this possibility as an inherent and indispensable feature of strong, engaged, and enjoyable reading process. To answer his own questions about what factors contribute to different readers’ different interpretations of the same texts, Brent offers us the following principles summarized below:
- Readers are guided by personal beliefs, assumptions, and pre-existing knowledge when interpreting texts.
- Readers react differently to the logical proofs presented by the writers of texts.
- Readers react differently to emotional and ethical proofs presented by writers. For example, an emotional story told by a writer may resonate with one person more than with another because the first person lived through a similar experience and the second one did not, and so on.
The idea behind the rhetorical theory of reading is that when someone reads, he not only takes in ideas, information, and facts, but instead he “update[s] [his] view of the world.” We cannot force someone to update his/her worldview; therefore, the purpose of writing is to persuade and the purpose of reading is being persuaded. Persuasion is possible only when the reader is actively engaged with the text and understands that much more than simple retrieval of information is at stake when reading.
One of the primary factors that influence the decision to accept or not to accept an argument is what Douglas Brent calls a “repertoire of experience, much of [which] is gained through prior interaction with texts” (56). What this means is that when readers read a new text, they do not begin with a clean slate, an empty mind. However unfamiliar the topic of this new reading may seem to them, they approach it with a large baggage of previous knowledge, experiences, points of view, and so on. When an argument “comes in” into their minds from a text, this text, by itself, cannot change their view on the subject. Prior opinions and knowledge about the topic of the text they are reading will necessarily “filter out” what is incompatible with those views (Brent 56-57).
This, of course, does not mean that, as readers, we should persist in keeping our old ideas about everything and actively resist learning new things. Rather, it suggests that the reading process is an interaction between the ideas in the text in front of us and our own ideas and pre-conceptions about the subject of our reading. We do not always consciously measure what we read according to our existing systems of knowledge and beliefs, but we measure it nevertheless. Reading, according to Brent, is judgment; as in life, we do not always consciously examine and analyze the reasons for which we make various decisions, so evaluating a text often happens automatically or subconsciously (59).
Applied to research writing, Brent’s theory of reading means the following:
- The purpose of research is not simply to retrieve data but to participate in a conversation about it. Simple summaries of sources is not research, and writers should be aiming for active interpretation of sources instead.
- There is no such thing as an unbiased source. Writers make claims for personal reasons that critical readers need to learn to understand and evaluate.
- Feelings can be a source of shareable good reason for belief. Readers and writers need to use, judiciously, ethical and pathetic proofs in interpreting texts and in creating their own.
- Research is recursive. Critical readers and researchers never stop asking questions about their topic and never consider their research finished.
PART IV: Active Readers Look for Connections Between Texts
As stated above, one of the traits of active readers is their willingness to seek out other texts and people who may be able to help them in their research and learning. For many beginning researchers and writers, the inability to seek out such connections often turns into a roadblock on their research route.
For example, many times students are asked to investigate some problem on campus and to propose a solution to it. Usually, a project like this one involves both primary (interviews, surveys, etc.) and secondary (library, Internet, etc.) research. Conducting secondary research allows a writer to connect a local problem he or she is investigating and a local solution he or she is proposing with a national and even global context, and to see whether the local situation is typical or a-typical.
Let’s say a group of students investigates the issue of racial and ethnic diversity on their campus.
The students may have no trouble designing research questions and finding people to interview and survey. Their subjects may include students and faculty as well as a university official. Based on these sources, the group will have little trouble conducting and interpreting primary research that may lead them to conclude that their campus is not diverse enough and that most students would like to see the situation change.
The next step these writers would take is to look at the websites of some other schools similar in size and nature to theirs, to see how their university compares on the issue of campus diversity with others. Some statistics on the numbers of minorities at other colleges and universities that will allow them to create a certain backdrop for their primary research.
But good writing goes beyond the local situation. Good writing tries to connect the local and the national and the global. It tries to look beyond the surface of the problem, beyond simply comparing numbers and other statistics. It seeks to understand the roots of a problem and propose a solution based on a local and well as a global situation and research. However, the primary and secondary research that these students conducted may not allow them to make that step from analyzing local data to understanding their problem in context. They may need some other type of research sources.
So, instead of looking for sources about their specific campus, they may have to broaden their research by looking at diversity within a national or global context. They may need to generalize the problem and, instead of looking at a local example, to consider its implications for the issue they are studying overall. Such research will allow these writers to examine the problem as a whole and to see how it is being solved in other places. This, in turn, may help them to propose a local solution.
Critical readers and researchers understand that it is not enough to look at the research question locally or narrowly. After conducting research and understanding their problem locally, or as it applies specifically to them, active researchers contextualize their investigation by seeking out texts and other sources which would allow them to see the big picture.
PART V: Advice for Critical Readers
The first key to being a critical and active reader is to find something in the piece that interests, bothers, encourages, or just confuses you. Use this to drive your analysis. Remember there is no such thing as a boring essay, only a boring reader.
- Reading something once is never enough so reading it quickly before class isn’t sufficient. Read it once to get your brain comfortable with the work; then read it again and actually try to understand what’s going on in it. You can’t read it too many times.
- Ask questions. It seems like a simple suggestion but if you never ask questions you’ll never get any answers. So, while you‟re reading, think of questions and just write them down on a piece of paper lest you forget them after about a line and a half of reading.
Reading and writing are rhetorical processes, and one does not exist without the other. The goal of a good writer is to engage his or her readers into a dialogue presented in the piece of writing. Similarly, the goal of a critical and active reader is to participate in that dialogue and to have something to say back to the writer and to others. Writing leads to reading and reading leads to writing. We write because we have something to say, and we read because we are interested in ideas of others.
Reading what others have to say and responding to them help us make that all-important transition from simply having opinions about something to having ideas. Opinions are often over-simplified and fixed. They are not very useful because, if different people have different opinions that they are not willing to change or adjust, such people cannot work or think together. Ideas, on the other hand, are ever evolving, fluid, and flexible. Our ideas are informed and shaped by our interactions with others, both in person and through written texts. In a world where thought and action count, it is not enough to simply “agree to disagree.” Reading and writing, used together, allow us to discuss complex and difficult issues with others, to persuade and be persuaded, and, most importantly, to act.
Reading and writing are inextricably connected. The key to becoming an active, critical, and interested reader is the development of varied and effective reading techniques and strategies. This chapter will close with the words from the writer Alex Cimino-Hurt: “Being able to read critically is important no matter what you plan on doing with your career or life because it allows you to understand the world around you.”
Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky, Eds. Introduction. Ways of Reading. 8th Ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
Brent, Douglas. 1992. Reading as Rhetorical Invention. NCTE, Urbana, Illinois. Cimino-Hurt, Alex. Personal Interview. 2003.
Martin, Janette. 2004. “Developing ‘Interesting Thoughts:’ Reading for Research.” In Research Writing Revisited: A Sourcebook for Teachers, eds. Pavel Zemliansky and Wendy Bishop, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. (3-13).
Rich, Adrienne. 2002. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” In Ways of Reading, 6th ed. Eds. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Bedford/St. Martin‟s Boston, (627-645).