This document is about how to read critically. Every piece of writing, no matter how simple, aims to convince its audience. It wants something from you: maybe something benevolent, maybe not. A wise reader needs not only to understand what the author is saying, but what he or she wants to accomplish. This requires reading closely, with an awareness of your own thought processes as you read, and an enhanced consideration of the writer’s goals and strategy. Such skill will serve you well every time you read an advertisement, listen to a political speech, follow the news, or even just watch a TV drama. It is also especially important in history, where we must read documents from and about many different kinds of people and places.
In this course, we’ll be reading two very different types of writing: academic writing, such as articles, textbooks or other secondary material that is written in a modern style, and historical documents, which may be written in older, unfamiliar styles. This document applies to academic writing.
It presents habits of mind (and eye and hand) you can develop to better comprehend an author’s communication, purpose, and context.
Looking for Cues
The first step in critical reading is to understand the author’s words and ideas: the signal they are trying to transmit. Fortunately, most authors want you to understand them, and accordingly they have encoded their ideas in a structure that offers cues, visual or verbal, intended to orient you.
Modern academic and popular writing, such as your textbook, includes lots of visual cues. Almost all printed books today have titles, headings, and subheadings. Look at your textbook. Some parts of it are written in bigger, bolder letters. The size (and maybe color) of these headings is usually hierarchical: the more important titles are bigger, and the less important stuff is smaller. If you subtract all the regular text, and just leave these headings, you’ll have an outline. This outline will give you important clues about how the author has organized their thoughts. As you read, keep track of where you are in the outline and how the part you’re reading now connects to other parts of the writing.
In addition to graphic and design elements, modern non-fiction has developed certain conventions. Many familiar elements of writing that you know from English class are (ultimately) aids and cues, letting you know where they are in the author’s overall argument. They are the verbal equivalent of visual cues, such as titles, headings and introductions.
Introductions and Conclusions: Most chapters (and articles) have a paragraph at the beginning that summarizes the whole argument, before it is presented, and end in a paragraph that sums everything up. These paragraphs serve as sign-posts: the introduction lets you know what’s coming. The conclusion helps you remember what has come before. You may also see mini-introductions and mini-conclusions inside of subsections or chapter of larger pieces.
Thesis statements: A thesis statement is a one sentence summary of the author’s whole argument. Authors usually put it at the end (the last sentence) of their introduction. Here the author presents their most important idea; you should pay special attention to it.
Paragraph divisions: A paragraph by convention generally contains one related chunk of ideas. When an author makes a new paragraph, this is their way of telling you they have changed topic.
Topic Sentences: The first sentence of a paragraph usually summarizes the paragraph to follow. Again, it is another signal from the author, to you, the reader.
Once you know what to look for, these elements of writing help orient you. They tell you what authors think important, and reveal the architecture of their arguments.
Conventions such as thesis statements, topic sentences, and so forth have evolved for a purpose. They aren’t just the invention of English teachers to torment you. Use them to quickly identify the important ideas in your reading and to anticipate the flow of the author’s presentation. If you get confused and bogged down in details, go back to the skeleton. See why the author is telling you these facts now, and how he or she intends them to fit into the bigger picture.
You can also use them to skim. Very often, just reading the first paragraph (introduction) or last sentence of the first paragraph (thesis statement) will tell you, in brief, what the whole piece of writing is about.
One of the most important skills in critical reading (and one of the most difficult) is to slow down. In casual reading, we often skim and skip. We jump to the author’s main idea (or what we think the main idea is). Once we “know” what the author is saying, we ignore other details that don’t quite fit. If we encounter a confusing sentence or statement, we just let our eye slide over it. This kind of fast reading is essential in our busy, information-filled lives. For familiar topics, using familiar cues, on familiar texts, it serves us well. But fast reading is poison when confronting a document that contains unfamiliar ideas, uses obscure words, or follows an unfamiliar style. In addition to skimming for structure and main ideas, you should also read the whole piece closely, paying careful attention to difficult sections.
When reading critically, you need to slow down. Once you have decided to read a section closely, make your eye focus on every word. Make your brain process each thought. Don’t skip ahead. One really good way of doing this is with a finger or a note card. (A technique I use.) Put the card under the line you’re reading, so that it covers up everything else, and you can’t skip ahead. Advance it slowly.
Words, Words, Words
You will often encounter unfamiliar words. Don’t just skip them. If an author is using an unfamiliar word often, chances are it is an important clue to their thinking:
Use a dictionary. Academic writing often contains words that are not part of everyday English. In everyday reading, you can afford to ignore an unfamiliar word or two. But that’s very dangerous when reading critically. So look the words up in a dictionary. Perhaps write the definition above the word in your book, so you don’t forget between looking it up and rereading the sentence. (I do this when translating.) E-readers will let you highlight and post a note.
Use a GOOD dictionary. Your ordinary, Webster’s dictionary isn’t going to cut it. Historical documents may contain really unusual words, maybe ones that nobody has used for hundreds of years. They may also include words that look familiar, but have unfamiliar meanings. (For example, nowadays the word “minister” means “preacher” or “priest.” But in older documents, it often means “government official,” as in “prime minister.” If you don’t know this, you may think a document is about religion when it’s about government business.) I suggest looking up truly obscure words in a big dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary, which is particularly helpful in including historical meanings, and telling you when that meaning entered the language.
Realize that Dictionaries are Fallible. A dictionary only tells you how words have been used, by most people, most of the time. Sometimes a particular source or author may use a word in a way that is not standard. Perhaps the author is a scientist, and is using it in a specialized sense. Perhaps the artist is a lawyer, using a term of art, such as “guilt” which has a specific legal meaning. Perhaps, the word is used in a funny way in a particular culture or area. Perhaps the author is just eccentric. But you should be prepared to determine what a word might mean by its context, and use this to temper the “official” dictionary definition.
Some writing for this course may be in a more complex style than you are used to using. Academic writing uses more sub-clauses and employs longer sentences than popular writing. If you are having trouble following a sentence, break it down grammatically. What is the main verb? What is the main subject? What sub-clauses are there? How do they relate to the main clause?
If you remember how make sentence diagrams, you may find it useful to sketch out a troublesome sentence on some scratch paper.
Try rephrasing the sentence into modern English. How would someone express the same idea today?
Historical documents are even trickier. Styles of writing have changed over time. Nowadays, we favor short sentences that resemble ordinary speech. In Ye Olden Times ™ people preferred sentences that resembled Latin. The Latin periodic sentence is one such abomination from the shambling past you may encounter. A periodic sentence presents a series of subordinate clauses, qualifiers, and conditions, culminating in a main verb somewhere near the end. When (or if) you encounter such a monster, you need to slow down and apply the techniques above.
When reading critically, you should circulate through these questions and techniques as you proceed. Normally, when we read casually, we start at the first word, read to the last word, and then put the writing away. But when reading critically, you will often need to read the writing several times: perhaps once to start, then again to identify cues. You may want to read any difficult portions again slowly, with a dictionary at hand.
Once you think you have a good idea what the author is saying, you should confirm that your theory is correct. Don’t simply assume that your first impression is complete. Look at the source again. What have you missed? What doesn’t fit with your understanding? What do you wish you knew? These are the areas to which you should pay extra attention. Particularly in historical sources, the author may be expressing a viewpoint which is radically different or alien to your own, one which it may take you several tries to process and identify. You don’t have to agree with the author, but you do need to understand what he or she actually says.
As you read and use these techniques, figure out which ones work for you and which ones do not. Not everyone’s mind works in the same way. My favorite technique may simply annoy you, or vice versa. But the most important principle remains: keep returning to the writing, identify any gaps in your understanding, and puzzle them out.
Reading as Judo
The critical reading skills you learn in this course can be applied to every message you encounter in life. Think of it as self-defense. If every author has a purpose, then every message they aim at you has a purpose too: whether they want you to buy something, to vote for someone, to believe something, or do something. You need to be able to clearly receive their message, and then to understand why it was sent and what it intends. Critical reading is a tool that enables you to process, comprehend, accept, and reject messages thoughtfully. If you can process the complex language and difficult viewpoints found in history, you can process anything.
Please use this checklist as you read, as a way of keeping these techniques in mind.
|Critical Reading Strategy||Yes||No|
Have I identified any visual clues (headings, sub-headings, fonts and so forth) in the reading?
Have I identified the verbal clues in the reading?
Have I used the various cues to help determine the writing’s argument and structure?
Have I read the writing slowly enough?
Have I identified those parts of the reading which I find most difficult?
Have I attempted to parse difficult sentences grammatically?
Have I looked up difficult words in a dictionary?
Have I checked the dictionary definition versus the use of the word in context?
Have I reviewed the writing after my first reading?
Have I identified where my initial understanding was incorrect or inadequate?
Have I reread and corrected my understanding of these portions?
Have I made notes on items to remember?