Tips for Critical Reading

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Many of my undergrad students ask me about reading tips - how to read academic texts and how to get the most of them. I've heard and read a lot on critical reading, and have made a long list of suggestions that I often refer to when such questions come to me. This time I decided to publish them, so that more people can profit from these tips. Learning how to read strategically, helps students and scholars in general to build good habits of studying and also facilitate the writing of papers works (based on tons of readings).

(0) Before starting to read:

  1. research about the author; which years did he/she lived; which field does the author come from (anthropoloy, mathematics, sociology, engineering); what is important to know about this person?
  2. the article and the key concept(s) discusse – in which historical context has this work been published? Is it a chapter of a book (which one?) or a simple artcle with introduction and conclusion? What is the epistemological base of this text and the knowledge it provides?

This preparation will help situate the article within a bigger picture of academic work & increase your understanding of the reading and its meaning for the society and the field of study.

(1) Start reading with an eye on what is being argued in the essay trying to answer to some of the following questions:

  1. What is the main point? What is the author's argument/thesis statement?
  2. How is the phenomenon being portraied?
  3. How is the argument put together in order to assess how well it explains the phenomenon at hand?

(2) Draft in a few sentences the main idea of the article. In your own words.

(3) Additional points to look at:

  1. What is the author's position on the subject (is he in favour, against, critical, positive...)
  2. How does the author back up their central claim? What evidence does he/she provide?
  3. How is the article structured in terms of an argument? Main themes discussed.
  4. Concepts/themses – what do they link with in some previous readings?
  5. What's the author's theoretical perspective?

(4) For your own writing skills: notice the structure of the article:

  1. how is the thesis statement presented?
  2. central questions posed/answered?
  3. what evidences does the author use to prove his/her statement?
  4. how is the POV of the author brought in? How did he/she backed it up?
  5. what arguments, how many, which examples?
  6. conclusion- what do they write to conclude? Summary, questions.

(5) Ask yourself:

  • what is your point on the issue: do you agree with the author, which parts/arguments do you agree with, whcih ones – you disagree.
  • try thinking of examples in which the article's main point can be applied – everyday life, today's modern context; own experience, other readings.

(6) Some more tips from Deborah Knott's “Critical Reading Toward Critical Writing”

  1. Do not read looking only for information/facts; do read looking for ways of thinking about the subject matter
  2. To read critically is to make a judgement on how a text is argued.
  3. Ask yourself: how does this text work? How is it argued? How is the evidence (facts, examples) used and interpreted? How does the text reach its conclusions?

(7) Looking for ways of thinking:

  • determine the central claims or purpose of the text (its thesis statement)
  • context: what is the audience? Who is it in dialogue with? What is the historical context of this text?
  • what concepts are defined and used? Does it appeal to a theory/theories? Methodology – how is it used to organize and interet data?
  • exmamin the evidence – how is it used to develop the arguement and its controlling claims and concepts?
  • evaluation – assess the strenghts and weaknesses of the argument. Is the argument strong enough (convincing)? Are there gaps, leaps, inconsistences in the argument? What are the unargued assumptions? Are they problematic? What might an opposing argument be?

(8) Practical tips:

  • critical reading needs practice
  • skim some research materials especially intro and conclusions to choose where to focus your critical efforts
  • highlight the arguments: those places in the text where the author highlights her analytical moves, the concept she uses, how she uses them, how she arrives at the conclusions.
  • First, look at the large patterns that give purpose, order and meaning to the examples and facts. The openining sentenses of paragraphs can be important do this.
  • When considering useing a portion of the text for your own text, be aware on how this portion fits into the whole argument from which it is taken. Pay attention to the context.
  • When you quote, use the quotation critically: a) do not substitute the quotation for your own articulation or a point b) introduce the quote by laying out the judgements you are making about it and the reason why you are using it. Often a quotation is followed by a further analysis.
  • In the lectures, listen for ways of thinking and not just for information transmission. The teaching will often explicate and model ways of thinking appropriate to a discipline.

C – claims (author's claims, main points), but also context – historical traditions are very important.
L – logic
E – evidence/counterevidences (is it convincing)
A – assumptions (does the author rely on unstated assumption
R - Arrrguments (think of alternative arguments that the author has not considered).

Sources:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing (D.Kurland)
“Preparing for Class” - Anne Galloway (available on Concordia Moodle)
“Critical Reading Toward Critical Writing” Deborah Knott

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