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Critical Reading Strategies*



This handout outlines some of the basic strategies for critical reading.

1. Annotating

One of the first strategies to begin with is annotating a text. When you annotate, you underline important parts of the text, such as the thesis statement, topic sentences of body paragraphs and explanatory material. Annotating may also include circling key words and writing comments or questions you have about the material in the margins. This is also a very good way to mark material that needs to be studied for exams.  See pages 6 and 72-89 in The Presence of Others.

2. Contextualizing.

When you contextualize a text, you place it within its original historical or cultural context. As a reader you should try to identify this context and consider how this context differs from your own. In order to do this, you need to consider the following:
a. Language or ideas that appear foreign or out of date.
b. Your knowledge of the time and place in which the work was written.
c. The effect these differences have on your understanding and judgment of the reading.

3. Reflecting on challenges to your beliefs and values.

Sometimes our beliefs about an issue are difficult to express because they are so ingrained. In order to discover these beliefs it is important to explore how a text challenges you. Does it make you feel disturbed, threatened, ashamed, or inspired? Many of you may have a strong reaction to some of the essays you read.  This reaction is a good example of an occasion when this type of reading strategy can be used. In order to do this, you might try the following:
a. Identify the points in the text where you feel your beliefs are being challenged.
b. Choose one or two of the most troubling challenges and analyze your feelings about them.

4. Paraphrasing.

When you paraphrase a text, you put it into your own words. This can be helpful in understanding a difficult or ambiguous passage. It is also one of the three ways to incorporate other people’s ideas into your own. The other two are quoting directly and summarizing. Unlike a summary, a paraphrase contains all of the original information. The purpose of a paraphrase is to simplify without changing any information. You are not changing what is said, but how it is said.  See The Bedford Handbook, pages 561-562.

5. Outlining.

This can be used as a preliminary to summarizing. Outlining allows you to identify the basic structure of a text and the main ideas of the text. In an outline you are listing the main ideas and supporting evidence of a text. It is especially important to be able to distinguish between the two. Use your own words when outlining a text.  See The Bedford Handbook, page 483.

6. Summarizing.

Summarizing creates a new text by synthesizing the material of the original. After outlining the text, the information is put together again in your own words. Summarization fosters understanding of the text, as you need to be able to recreate the meaning of the text in your own words.  See The Bedford Handbook, page 561.

7. Exploring the figurative language.

Similes, metaphors and symbols are all examples of figurative language. This type of language helps writers illustrate their points and get the type of reaction they want from the reader.
a. A metaphor indirectly identifies two different things with each other. For example, the ribbon of road winded endlessly before us.
b. A simile makes a more direct comparison through the use of connecting words such as like, as, or appears. The cloud was like a cotton ball.
c. A symbol makes a comparison by making one thing stand for another. For example, when a writer refers to the crown to symbolize monarchy.

8. Looking for patterns of opposition.

A writer may anticipate opposition to his or her views by responding to them in some way. A writer may also have conflicting views about the issues that are presented in the text. When considering oppositions you might think of opposites like, yes, no; black, white; etc. Writers will often present an argument by favoring one side of opposing terms. In order to look for patterns of opposition you might do the following:
a. Make two columns on a piece of paper and in the left-hand column list words and phrases that seem to indicate opposition. In the right-hand column write down the opposite to that phrase. For instance if you wrote down “pleasant dreams” in the left-hand column from Franklin’s essay, you would write down “nightmares” in the right.
b. Make a note next to each pair which one the author prefers.
c. Come to a conclusion about what the writer wants you to believe based on these preferred oppositions.

9. Evaluating the logic of an argument.

The two parts of an argument are claim and support. The claim is what the writer wants the reader to accept. That is, the claim is the idea, opinion, or point of view of the writer. The support is the reasons and evidence that becomes the basis for that claim. Arguments must pass the ABC test. That is the argument must be,
a. Appropriate
b. Believable
c. Consistent
To test an argument for appropriateness you need to analyze it according to logical fallacies, for instance false analogy, non sequitur, post hoc ergo propter hoc. 

To test for believability you will apply other fallacies that relate to reasoning, such as begging the question, generalizations and failing to accept the burden of proof. In testing for consistency you are checking to make sure there are no contradictory statements.  See The Bedford Handbook, pages 506-517.

10. Recognizing emotional manipulation.

Writers are guilty of improper emotional manipulation when they use false or exaggerated appeals. When a writer acts as an alarmist, uses emotionally loaded words, like racist, or tries to vilify the opposition, you, as reader, should be suspicious. Some of the following are fallacies of emotional appeal.
a. Loaded or slanted language: language meant to get a specific reaction from the reader.
b. Bandwagon effect: everyone else thinks this is true and so should you.
c. False flattery: praising the reader to get them to accept the writer’s view.
d. Veiled threat: alarming or frightening readers into believing author.

11. Judging the writer’s credibility.

There are three ways that writers establish their credibility.
a. By showing their knowledge of subject (using facts and statistics)
b. By building common ground with readers (base reasoning on shared beliefs)
c. By responding fairly to objections and opposing arguments (does the writer respond to objections or ignore them and assume everyone agrees with him or her)

12. Analyzing the writing in other disciplines.

Other disciplines have traditional ways of writing about their subjects. As a critical reader, you need to be aware of these differences.
a. What is the subject?
b. What kinds of statements tend to be made about subjects in this field?
c. What key concepts does the reader need to be familiar with?
d. What evidence is valued in this field?
e. How are statistics presented?
f. How is field research presented?
g. How much description and narration is normally used? How much interpretation and evaluation?
h. How are quotations cited?
i. How are other scholars cited?
j. How is the author identified in the writing?
k. Where was it originally published?
l. Which genres are most commonly used in a particular field?

*This material was adapted by Beth Gilmartin, a former writing instructor at Seton Hall, from "A Catalog of Critical Reading Strategies" in Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper, Reading Critically, Writing Well:  A Reader and Guide, Fifth Ed., New York:  Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.


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