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Critical reading Making judgements about a text

In academic contexts you cannot assume that everything you read is a simple representation of the facts. Every area of study has many different perspectives, and you will need to understand not only what a writer is saying, but how and why he is saying it, in order to judge how credible the information are arguments are. This involves reading critically. This section explains in detail what critical reading is, compares critical reading to active reading, and explains how to read critically by considering the author and source, the evidence the writer uses, and the assumptions and bias the writer may have. There is also a checklist to help you check your understanding of this section.


What is critical reading?

The most common form of the word critical is 'to criticise or find fault with something'. This is different, however, from the meaning of the word when used in phrases such as critical thinking, critical writing or critical reading. In this context the word means 'exercising careful judgement and evaluating the evidence'. Critical reading, therefore, involves questioning a text, rather than assuming everything it contains is factual. This means that in addition to what a text says, the reader needs to consider how it says it, who is saying it, when it was said, where it was said (i.e. published), and why it was said (i.e. the writer's purpose), in order to be able to evaluate the evidence and make a careful judgement as to how trustworthy the information is. This may be important in deciding whether and how to use this source, for example in your own writing.


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Critical reading vs. active reading

Many authors equate critical reading and active reading, though in fact they are not the same. Active reading involves engaging with a text in order to understand what it contains. This could mean highlighting key words and phrases, making annotations in the margin, testing yourself as you read, discussing with or explaining it to someone else after reading, as well as reading critically by asking questions about the text. Critical reading is therefore a form of active reading, but is only one of several ways to read actively. This means that it is possible to read a text actively, for example by highlighting it and making annotations, without reading critically.


How to read critically

In order to read critically you will need to ask certain questions about the text. One area to consider is the author and source. Questions for this area can be asked before you read the text, and are mostly quite straightforward. Answers to these questions may help you decide whether the text is worth reading at all. Another area to consider is the evidence the writer uses to support his points. These questions are more difficult, and require careful reading of the text and consideration of the meaning. Being able to answer questions such as these will also improve your ability as a writer. A final area to look at is the assumptions and bias which the writer may have. These are the most difficult questions, and may need you to analyse the language the writer uses in order to answer them.


Questions on each of these areas are given below. There are 20 questions in total. These questions can be asked in any order, and you do not need to find answers to all of them. Some are wh- questions, while others are yes/no questions. The yes/no questions have been phrased so that the answer should be 'Yes' if this it is a reliable source, while the answer 'No' would indicate some potential problems. If there are too many 'No' answers it would indicate that this is perhaps not a source you should be using.


Author/source

The following questions relate to the author and source.

  1. Who is the author? Is the author an expert in this field?
  2. What is the source of the text? Is it trustworthy?
  3. When was it published? Is it recent?
  4. Who is the intended audience?
  5. What is the author's purpose? Is it a neutral purpose (e.g. to explain or to inform) rather than a more biased purpose (e.g. to persuade)?

Evidence

The following questions relate to the evidence the writer uses.

  1. How strong is the evidence?
  2. Are all the points made by the author supported by evidence?
  3. Does the writer avoid making unsupported generalisations?
  4. Is there a clear distinction between fact and the author’s opinion?
  5. Are citations used? If so, are the cited sources trustworthy and recent?
  6. If there are any images or diagrams, are they clear? Do they relate directly to points in the text and support the author’s argument?
  7. If it is a research article, is the methodology valid (e.g. sample size, method of sampling)? Are the limitations clear? Are the results consistent with the objectives?

Assumptions/bias

The following questions relate to the assumptions the writer has, and any potential bias.

  1. What assumptions has the writer made? Are they clear to the reader? Are they valid?
  2. What is the author’s stance (i.e. position) on the topic? Is this explicit?
  3. Does the writer present a balanced viewpoint? Are other viewpoints considered (e.g. via counter-arguments)?
  4. Does the writer represent the ideas of others accurately?
  5. Are the writer's conclusions reasonable in the light of the evidence presented?
  6. Is the writer's language neutral? Does the writer use tentative language (e.g. It appears that... This may be caused by...) and avoid the use of emphatic words/phrases (e.g. It is obvious... Clearly... Of course...)?
  7. Does the writer avoid using emotional language and dramatic images?
  8. Are the examples representative and free from bias?

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Checklist

Below is a checklist for critical reading. Use it to check your understanding of the information on this page.


Area OK? Notes/comment
I know what critical reading is.
I know the difference between critical reading and active reading.
I know the different areas to consider when reading critically.
I know some questions to ask about the author and source.
I know some questions to ask about the evidence used.
I know some questions to ask about the assumption and bias of the writer.


References

Gillett, A. (2015) . Available at http://www.uefap.com/reading/crit/critfram.htm (Access Date 12 December, 2016).


Kurland, D.J. (2000) What Is Critical Reading?. Available at http://www.criticalreading.com/critical_reading.htm (Access Date 12 December, 2016).


The Open University (2016) Active reading. Available at http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/skillsforstudy/active-reading.php (Access Date 12 December, 2016).


Unilearning (2000a) How to read critically. Available at http://unilearning.uow.edu.au/reading/2a.html (Access Date 12 December, 2016).


Unilearning (2000b)Critical reading checklist. Available at http://unilearning.uow.edu.au/reading/2b.html (Access Date 12 December, 2016).


University of Leicester (n.d.) What is critical reading. Available at http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/critical-reading (Access Date 12 December, 2016).


Walden University (2016)Critical Reading . Available at http://academicguides.waldenu.edu/ASCsuccess/ASCcriticalreading (Access Date 12 December, 2016).



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