Critical reading is really the same thing as critical thinking; its aim it to uncover, unmask, or otherwise discover the assumptions of any given text. It requires training yourself to read – and therefore think – with an open mind and without seeking to agree or disagree with the author. The goal is to discover ideas and information.
In order to do so, and to get the most out of the materials you are assigned, you need to learn to read critically and analytically. That is, to break down an argument into its constituent parts: premises, hypotheses, theorems, conclusions and corollaries, ramifications for other research on the subject. Retrace its major stages and turns, evaluate its strengths, weaknesses, and validity, and consider its larger implications (empirical, theoretical, moral, practical). Here are some useful tips to help guide you.
NOTE: to be critical does not mean simply criticizing – a mistake too often made by students and scholars alike. Critical analysis assumes that written texts are human creations subject to interpretation and evaluation, but to do so requires a serious and judicious assessment of the author’s assertions.
A critical analysis can be broken into three primary components:
1. Preliminary Questions
Why are you required to read this article or book? How does it fit into the larger context of the course? Good professors spend a great deal of time in selecting the materials they use in their courses, in an effort to direct the semester’s conversation in a cohesive, logically developing way.
Next, consider the author of the text; what is the author’s background on this subject? Are you reading the work of an established scholar, or was it written by a journalist or polemicist? The distinction will often be crucial to your evaluation of the text.
Related to this are questions related to the material’s source and audience; what kind of publication are you reading? Who is the publisher? To whom is the author writing? For what purpose?
Once you have a general idea about the “who” and “why” of the text, turn to its content.
First, consider the title of the text; this is the first signal an author gives you in an effort to frame their approach. If the material is a book, look over the table of contents to get an idea of the way in which the author has mapped out the argument. For journal articles, scan for section headings and carefully read the abstract (when provided). It will be easier to pick up the argument(s) in the text if you consider the possibilities in advance.
One of the most important lessons you can learn in college is to read the book the author wrote. Not the book you wish they would have written, or the book you would write if you were in a position to do so. This is their work and your job is to evaluate what is actually on the page. Yes, this will include pointing out omissions, but to stress what is missing from a text is an all-too-common diversionary tactic. Critical readers seek knowledge; they do not “rewrite” a work to suit their own perspective. Your task as reader is to read what is on the page, giving the writer a fair chance to develop ideas and allowing yourself to reflect thoughtfully, objectively, on the totality of the text.
Finally, do not decontextualize what you are reading. To pretend that texts are produced in a historical vacuum will lead you away from the author’s ideas, toward an analysis devoid of a text’s intended meaning.
A well-constructed text will consist of a series of points that when combined amount to a single, overarching argument. If you can craft a single statement that explains what the text is about, you will then be able to more clearly evaluate how the author’s smaller points are crafted so as to lead the reader toward the singular conclusion. If you've read a text with an active and critical eye, you should be able to summarize and reconstruct the main lines of its argument and the justification for its conclusions.
At this point you can turn your attention to analyzing the text further, to determine its assumptions and biases; explicate these. Which are valid and support the author’s argument? Which are not and undermine the argument?
Finally, go back and reconsider why you were required to read this text; how does it build upon what you’ve read so far, and upon what issues should our attention focus next?
To complete your evaluation consider the following:
What is the QUESTION that the text attempts to answer?
How significant is this question?
Who else has asked this question?
How does this question differ from similar questions on the same topic?
How much has been written about this topic?
What subsequent questions emerge as a result of this study?
What is the text’s PURPOSE?
What is the writer's purpose?
To demonstrate knowledge for knowledge sake?
To apply an academic theory to a real-world problem?
To challenge a prevailing theory?
To persuade the reader to accept an uncommon idea?
To persuade the reader to take a certain form of action?
What are the ASSUMPTIONS underlying the text?
What conceptual definitions are provided, and which are assumed?
What theoretical positions are privileged?
Are privileged positions implied or stated explicitly?
What normative values, if any, are assumed or implied?
What is the CLAIM of the text?
Does the claim follow from the evidence and reasons provided in the text?
Is the claim falsifiable?
How broad or particular is the claim?
How qualified is the claim?
How credible and convincing is the EVIDENCE?
What types of evidence are used to support the main claims? (possibilities include statistics, scientific theories, direct observations, anecdotes, quotations, definitions, appeals to emotion, appeals to common sense)
What kinds of inferences were required to interpret the data?
How extensive is the author’s use of REFERENCES?
How extensively does the writer rely on other sources?
Are there frequent mentions of other scholarly books or articles?
How appropriate to the subject matter are the materials cited?
What are some of the IMPLICATIONS of the text?
– From a theoretical perspective
– From a practical perspective
– From an ethical perspective
– For the discipline
– For society