what is critical reading

Critical readers thus recognize not only what a text says, but also how that text portrays the subject matter.  They recognize the various ways in which each and every text is the unique creation of a unique author.

Critical reading goes two steps further.  Having recognized what a text says, it reflects on what the text does by making such remarks.  Is it offering examples?  Arguing?  Appealing for sympathy?  Making a contrast to clarify a point? Finally, critical readers then infer what the text, as a whole, means, based on the earlier analysis.

These three steps or modes of analysis are reflected in three types of reading and discussion:

  • What a text says restatement
  • What a text does description
  • What a text means interpretation .

You can distinguish each mode of analysis by the subject matter of the discussion:

  • What a text says – restatement – talks about the same topic as the original text
  • What a text does – description – discusses aspects of the discussion itself
  • What a text means – interpretation — analyzes the text and asserts a meaning for the text as a whole

Analysis and Inference: The Tools of Critical Reading

These web pages are designed to take the mystery out of critical reading. They are designed to show you what to look for ( analysis ) and how to think about what you find ( inference ) .

The first part —what to look for— involves recognizing those aspects of a discussion that control the meaning.

The second part —how to think about what you find— involves the processes of inference, the interpretation of data from within the text.

Recall that critical reading assumes that each author offers a portrayal of the topic. Critical reading thus relies on an examination of those choices that any and all authors must make when framing a presentation: choices of content, language, and structure. Readers examine each of the three areas of choice, and consider their effect on the meaning.

Goals of Critical Reading

Textbooks on critical reading commonly ask students to accomplish certain goals:

  • to recognize an author’s purpose
  • to understand tone and persuasive elements
  • to recognize bias

Notice that none of these goals actually refers to something on the page. Each requires inferences from evidence within the text:

  • recognizing purpose involves inferring a basis for choices of content and language
  • recognizing tone and persuasive elements involves classifying the nature of language choices
  • recognizing bias involves classifying the nature of patterns of choice of content and language

Critical reading is not simply close and careful reading. To read critically, one must actively recognize and analyze evidence upon the page.

Choice: Texts

As with photography, all written expression involves choices. Imagine you are seated before a blank page. What choices must be made?

For openers you have to say something. Whether you start with an observation, a statement of belief, or simply a thought, you have to say something. We’ll call that content.

Having decided on something to say, you have to decide how to phrase your remark. What words will you use? Different terminology, after all, can change the meaning of a remark. Will you claim someone cheated, bent the rules, or committed a crime? Will you refer to President Bill Clinton, William Jefferson Clinton, or Monika’s Bill? We’ll call that a choice of language.

Finally, you cannot simply rattle off disconnected remarks. (Well, you could, but they would have little meaning!) The remarks must be related to one another, from sentence to sentence and within the discussion as a whole. We’ll call that structure,

  Critical readers are consciously aware of the choice of content They look at the content, at the evidence marshaled for an argument, the illustrations used to explain ideas, and the details presented within a description.   That uniqueness is defined by choices of content, language and structure. .  They distinguish between assertions of fact, opinion, and belief. They are aware whether evidence consists of references to published data, anecdotes, or speculation, and they evaluate the persuasiveness of a text accordingly.

  Critical readers are aware of how language is being used.  They notice whether a text refers to someone as a “bean counter” (no respect) or “an academic statistician” (suggesting professionalism), whether some is said to have “asserted a claim” (with confidence, and no need for proof) or “floated a claim” (without backing, as a trial balloon).  And they draw inferences from the choice of language they observe.

  Critical readers are aware of the structure of a discussion, both in terms of the movement of ideas from beginning to end and in terms of the relationship of ideas throughout the discussion.  They distinguish between assertions offered as reason or conclusion, cause or effect, evidence or illustration.  They recognize patterns of contrast and distinguish whether contrasting ideas are shown to be dissimilar, competing, or contradictory.

All authors confront three areas of choice:

  • the choice of content
  • the choice of language
  • the choice of structure

Choices must be made in each of these areas, and each choice contributes to the thought of the text as a whole.

Note that we do not list elements such as tone, style, perspective, purpose, and message. While these are all useful perspectives for discussing texts, they are all based on, and reflect, the choice of content, language, and structure.

Choices: The Choice of Structure

The third area of choice open to an author, and hence the third area to focus when analyzing and constructing texts, involves structure.

Here we look at two meanings of structure, following the two parts of analysis. The first sense of structure we examine is in the sense of parts coming together to form a larger unit. The second sense is in terms of the relationships between parts.

Choices: The Choice of Content

People obtain information and ideas from many sources. They meet people, attend classes, and overhear conversations. They watch television, listen to the radio, read newspapers, and surf the Internet. Some information they gain vicariously, some they seek out. They experience some things first-hand, on their own; others they experience second-hand, through the reports of others.

Any two people will have different experiences. They will be in different places and see different things. They will meet different people and be influenced by different values and information. They will come to be interested in different topics, concerned with different issues, and hold different beliefs.

From our unique knowledge and experience, we each make sense of the world. We come to accept different assertions as “the facts” of the matter. We make evaluations, form opinions, assert priorities, and arrive at conclusions. We reach—and preach—different perceptions and understandings of the world.

Example: America

Imagine someone asked to list examples of American culture. They might mention the space shuttle, rap music, “Jeopardy,” teen pregnancy, or Little League baseball. All of these are examples of American culture, yet each portrays America differently. The picture offered depends on the evidence chosen. America is all of them, you say? But it is also so much more. Any list would be incomplete, but one portrayal of realityExample: Time Capsules.

Recognizing Parts

Analysis makes sense of something by breaking it into parts. Instead of examining a whole all at one time, we examine smaller, more isolated portions.

Consider the following string of letters:


To make sense of the whole, we try to break it into more manageable, and hopefully more meaningful, parts. Initially we might see clusters of letters within the string:


From one perspective, we have grouped similar elements together, X’s with adjacent X’s and O’s with adjacent O’s. From another perspective, we have separated the whole into parts, either X’s or O’s. Either way, we break the whole into parts. Writers use this process when they signal

  • the boundary of words with spaces,
  • the boundaries of sentences with periods,
  • the boundaries of paragraphs with indentation,
  • the boundaries of sections with headings

Readers use this model when they group words within a sentence into phrases or group paragraphs of a text into larger sections.

From another perspective, we can analyze the earlier string as patterns (of X’s or O’s) running throughout the string.

XX      XX        XX           XXXX        XXX
OO      OO      OOOO         OOO          OOO

We use this model when examining patterns of content or language usage throughout a portion of a text. In the above example, we recognize that certain elements go together to form parts or patterns. Part and parcel of this action is recognizing how those elements go together—and giving them a name. When we group items we classify them under a common heading. We recognize what they have in common and how they differ from other items. With texts, we talk about kinds of evidence, kinds of language usage, kinds of structure. As we shall see in detail below, much of critical reading depends on not only seeing what the examples are, but what the examples are examples of.

Recognizing Relationships

Forming parts is only the first step in analysis. We must then recognize how the parts are related to each other.

In the discussion here, we are concerned with

  • how words are related to form phrases and sentences
  • how sentences are related to form paragraphs
  • how paragraphs are related to form complete texts , and
  • how patterns of content and language are related to shape the thought of a text as a whole .

The first case, grouping words to find meaning within sentences, involves the study of English grammar (see the Appendix). The remaining cases can be discussed in terms of the same set of relationship categories. The primary relationships of concern throughout our discussion are:

  • elements in a series : a listing of similar items, often in a distinct order, whether in terms of location, size, importance, etc.
  • time order or chronological listing : a series of events in order of occurrence
  • general/specific relationship : examples and generalizations
  • comparison : similarity and/or difference (contrast)
  • logical relationships : reason/conclusion, cause/effect, and conditional relationship between factors
  • Implications For Reading
  • All reading is an active, reflective, problem-solving process. We do not simply read words; we read ideas, thoughts that spring from the relationships of various assertions. The notion of inference equations is particularly powerful in this regard. Readers can use the notion of inference equations to test whether or not the ingredients for a given inferences are indeed present. To show lying, for instance, a text must show that someone made a statement that they knew was incorrect and that they made that assertion with the specific purpose of deception. If they did not know it was wrong at the time, it’s an error, not a lie. If they did not make the statement for the specific purpose of deception, we have a misstatement, not lying.

Restatement: Reading What a Text Says

Reading what a text says is more notable for what it does not include than for what it does.

Reading what a text says is concerned with basic comprehension, with simply following the thought of a discussion. We focus on understanding each sentence, sentence by sentence, and on following the thought from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph. There is no attempt to assess the nature of the discussion and no concern for an overall motive or intent. Reading what a text says is involved with rote learning.

Restatement generally takes the form of a summary, paraphrase, or précis. Restatements should avoid the same language as much as possible to avoid plagiarism and to show understanding. Reading what a text says is common under a variety of circumstances:

  • when learning the definitions and concepts of a new discipline,
  • when there is agreement on the facts of a situation and their interpretation,
  • when a text is taken to offer a complete and objective presentation, or
  • when the word of a specific author or source is accepted as authoritative.

Readers simply accept what a text states.

When first studying any academic topic, your initial goal will be to understand what others have discovered before you. Introductory courses ask students to learn terms, concepts, and data of the particular area of study. You are expected to use your imagination and your critical faculties to understand the concepts; you are not expected to question the assertions. The goal is to learn the commonly accepted paradigm for discussing topics in that field of study.

Finally, remember that repeating the assertions of a text need not suggest a denial of critical thinking, merely a postponing of, or preparation for, critical thinking.

Description: Describing What a Text Does

Read an essay about AIDS, and you think about AIDS. But you can also think about the essay. Does it discuss preventive strategies or medical treatments? Or both? Does it describe AIDS symptoms or offer statistics? Is the disease presented as a contagious disease, a Biblical scourge, or an individual experience? What evidence is relied on? Does it quote medical authorities or offer anecdotes from everyday people? Does it appeal to reason or emotions? These are not questions about what a textsays, but about what the textdoes.They are not about AIDS, but aboutthe discussionof AIDS.

This second level of reading is concerned not only with understanding individual remarks, but also with recognizing the structure of a discussion. We examine what a text does to convey ideas. We might read this way to understand how an editorial justifies a particular conclusion, or how a history text supports a particular interpretation of events.

At the previous level of reading, restatement, we demonstrated comprehension by repeating the thought of the text. Here we are concerned with describing the discussion:

  • what topics are discussed?
  • what examples and evidence are used?
  • what conclusions are reached?

We want to recognize and describe how evidence is marshaled to reach a final position, rather than simply follow remarks from sentence to sentence.

This level of reading looks at broad portions of the text to identify the structure of the discussion as a whole. On completion, we can not only repeat what the text says, but can also describe what the text does. We can identify how evidence is used and how the final points are reached.

A Variety of Descriptive Formats

Here we look at various models for describing the development of thought within a discussion as a whole. We shift from a focus on the trees, if you will, to the forest.

Recognizing Structure: An Analogy

To a casual observer, a tennis match consists of one person serving the ball, another returning it….over and over again. To someone who sees no structure, the game is simply a series of disconnected events. To someone who understands a tennis game, play is divided into games, games into sets, and sets into matches. The game has a structure. We make sense of the game as a whole by understanding each action within the overall structure of the match as a whole. Winning a point, for instance, has different implications at different parts of the game. Winning a point may be a minor occurrence early in the game, or match point at the end of the game.

Just as a tennis match involves more than exchanging serves, a text consists of more than simply a series of assertions. The notion of discussion, itself, suggests a starting point and a journey to other ideas. Let’s say an essay starts:

We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all people are created equal.

Where could the discussion go from here?
it could

  • explain or explicateone of the topics mentioned:
    What do we mean by “created equal”? Equal how?
  • offer reasons or evidencefor the assertion:
    How self-evident? Why equal?
  • draw a conclusion or inference
    Does this imply people should be treated, or how government should be formed?
  • look at related thoughts
    Other statements may or may not be truths, or may be truths but may not be self-evident.
  • examine historical examples
    What role does this idea play in the French Revolution? The Russian Revolution? The American Revolution?

A text could do any, all, or none of the above. It all depends on where the author wants to go.

Different authors will choose to follow different lines of argument and different paths for the discussion to different conclusions. To fully understand the discussion as a whole, to understand the remarks within the context and in relationship to each other, we must be aware of the direction the discussion takes.

Whatever a text may say, however a text may be organized, readers assume that the material upon the page is the realization of a plan. If a text is well written, there is a logical structure to the argument. There is a clear beginning and end, a clear starting point on which reader and writer can agree, and a clear conclusion developed and supported by the earlier material. There is a clear intent and purpose to the remarks and the overall organization. We know where the author is going, and can watch as the text progresses to a seemingly inevitable conclusion.

As when on a trip, readers want to know the ultimate destination and how long it will take to get there. As they travel/read, they want to be able to recognize the route or plan. We want to know whether a story or article is one page or seventeen so that we might allocate our time and attention effectively. The shorter the piece, the longer we might dwell on each argument. The longer the piece, the more we might continue on when confused to see if the later material makes things clearer. We want to have a sense of where a text or argument ends so that we can see our progress in perspective.

To recognize a plan we must possess a double awareness:

  • what the essay asserts about people and the world—what the text says
  • how the discussion within the essay is structured—what the text does

We want to recognize an underlying strategy to the remarks, a sequence by which remarks play different roles in the development of the final thought. As with the tennis match, we anticipate a conclusion and try to recognize where we are at any step along the way.

A Variety Of Descriptive Formats

What a text “does” can be described in a variety of ways. Different models and terminologies view the structure of texts differently. Some models overlap one another, and aspects of a variety of models can be brought to bear to capture insights about any single text.

Here we look at five models.

  • Beginning, Middle And End Model: Changes In Topic
  • The Relationship Model
  • The Rhetorical Model
  • The Role Model
  • The Task Model

These models are explained at Descriptive Formats: Ways to Desribe a Discussion

All of these models have a common purpose: to describe the flow of discussion and/or indicate how arguments are advanced. In practice, you should draw on as many models as you can to describe the structure of a presentation.

The ideas here should be familiar to most readers. The point is not that you must use all of these models in a discussion of a text, but that models and terminologysuch as thiscan be used to recognize and discuss what a text does at any point in the discussion.

NOTE: We should note one additional factor. We can often describe one remark in a variety of ways. Just as a person may, at the same time, be a son, father, and brother to different people, or a politician may hold views to the right of one politician and to the left of another politician, so a single sentence can be described in a variety of ways.

A sentence may be a reason, an explanation, or a description in relationship to different remarks. This is one reason for having a number of descriptive models. To truly describe something we often have to describe if from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of different relationships to other things.

Example: A Solution

The following passage is from a chemistry textbook.

A SOLUTION is a mixture of two or more substances dispersed as molecules, atoms or ions rather than as larger aggregates. If we mix sand and water, the sand grains are dispersed in the water; since the grains are much larger than molecules, we call this mixture a suspension, not a solution. After a while, the sand will settle to the bottom by gravity. Imagine doing this experiment with finer and finer grains. When the grains are small enough, they will not sink to the bottom, not matter how long you wait. We now have a colloidal dispersion. Though we cannot see the individual grains, the mixture appears cloudy in a strong beam of light (Tyndall effect). If, however, we stir sugar with water, the grains disappear and the result is a liquid that does not scatter light any more than water itself. This is a true solution, with individual sugar molecules dispersed among the water molecules.

What have we here?

A SOLUTION is a mixture of two or more substances dispersed as molecules, atoms or ions rather than as larger aggregates.

The passage opens with a definition of “solution.” Note that a solution is not simply a mixture of

two or more substances
but of

two or more substances dispersed as molecules, atoms or ions

We must note the complete noun phrase.

The passage continues:

If we mix sand and water,

We recognize the beginning of a hypothetical experiment, presumably as part of an explanation

the sand grains are dispersed in the water;

further description of experiment.

since the grains are much larger than molecules,


we call this mixture a suspension, not a solution.

An alternative situation and alternative definition of a suspension

After a while, the sand will settle to the bottom by gravity.

continuing description of hypothetical experiment

Imagine doing this experiment with finer and finer grains.

continuing description of hypothetical experiment

When the grains are small enough, they will not sink to the bottom, not matter how long you wait.

same experiment, different size particles.

We now have a colloidal dispersion.

and third definition: colloidal dispersion.

Though we cannot see the individual grains, the mixture appears cloudy in a strong beam of light (Tyndall effect).

further description of colloidal dispersion.

If, however, we stir sugar with water,

additional change in experiment

the grains disappear and the result is a liquid that does not scatter light any more than water itself. This is a true solution, with individual sugar molecules dispersed among the water molecules.
final explication of a solution, emphasizing the size of the dispersed material as molecules.

A critical, self-aware reader thus reads on two dimensions: both what the text says and what it does. Indeed, each feeds the other recognition. Each is impossible without the other.

Implications For Reading

A description of a presentation might draw on any or all of the previous models at various levels of discussion. Differing perspectives might be employed at different levels of analysis.

The goal of each is the same: to isolate elements that shape how ideas are portrayed within the discussion. We can ask why a statement is included in a text— which is like asking why a speaker would bother saying it. What does it help accomplish? What purpose does it serve? How does it lead into or follow from other remarks? How are the ideas connected?

The Relationship Model

Statements, and hence ideas, are usually related to each other in one of the following ways:

  • sequence or series
    a listing of similar items, often in a distinct order, whether in terms of location, size, importance, etc.
  • time order/chronology : a series of events in order of occurrence
  • general/specific relationship: examples and generalizations
  • comparison
    difference (contrast)
  • logical relationships
    conditional relationship between factors

These relationships are usually signaled by an appropriate term, such as one of the following:

  • sequence or series:
    next, also, finally, lastly, then, secondly, furthermore, moreover
  • time order/chronology :
    before, after, then, since, soon, until, when, finally
  • general/specific relationship:
    examples, such as, overall, for instance, in particular
  • comparison
    • similarities
      similarly, like, in the same way, likewise
    • differences (contrast):
      however, unlike, otherwise, whereas, although, however, nevertheless, still, yet

logical relationships

    • indicating reason/conclusion, cause/effect, and/or a conditional relationship between factors:
      hence, because, if, therefore, so, since, as a consequence, in conclusion

These relationship concepts and terms can be used to discuss connections between paragraphs or larger sections of a text, as well as the relationship of patterns of content or language throughout a text. A particular fact may serve as a reason for a certain conclusion, a cause for a given effect, or an example for a generalization. An assertion isn’t a reason, after all, until it is used as the basis for reaching a conclusion. An assertion doesn’t necessarily specify a cause until you assert an effect resulting from it. And any single sentence can be, at once, both a conclusion for the preceding discussion and an assumption for the following one.

Implications for Writing

“What to say…what to say.” It’s the traditional writer’s lament. “Where do I start?” “What should I say?” But writing is more than saying. Writing a text–producing a completed text, not just writing sentence after sentence–involves constructing a discussion. To “make a case” does not mean to simply say certain things.

To make a case a writer must construct an argument, piece together examples and illustrations and justifications and explanations and conclusions. It’s not only what we say, it’s also what we do. As we’ve seen above, many ideas are conveyed not by stating them so much as by the reader inferring them from the relationships of ideas within the discussion.

When we know exactly what we want to say, we simply go out and say it. Other times, we have to assemble our evidence and our thoughts. We weigh which remarks should come first, and what additional evidence and arguments are essential to our conclusion. However we start, after some initial writing all writers must become readers. We must realize not only what we have said, but what we have done. And we must evaluate how what we have done will get us where we want to go. What additional ingredients are required? What other aspects must be considered? What misunderstandings must be prevented? This process is facilitated by two concepts: the notion of structure, and the notion of doing as well as saying.

The models for describing texts suggest other ways of outlining a text. We can outline not only shifts in topic, but also shifts in tactics, as when we shift from introduction to explanation to argument as with the rhetorical model. We can outline in terms of tactics of enticing, addressing, and convincing the reader as with the role model. We can outline in terms of similarities, differences, and logical implications as with the relationships model. And we can mix the various models.

Finally, we can outline not only from beginning to end, but also in terms of patterns running throughout a text. We can outline the various viewpoints to be evaluated or the various participants to be discussed to make sure we hit all the required bases throughout the discussion.

The better the writing, the more the sentences clearly follow from, and lead, to one another. Writers can lead their reader and assure their own structure by making sure to include transition and relationship words. A sign of poorer writing is independent, disconnected thoughts—and with that assertions that are not supported by details, reasons or examples.

The Rhetorical Model

An alternative model looks at the rhetorical nature of remarks. This model uses categories such as the following:

  • definition : indicating what a term means
  • explanation : discussing what an idea means
  • description : indicating qualities, ingredients, or appearance
  • narration : recounting events
  • elaboration : offering details
  • argumentation : reasoning, or otherwise defending an idea
  • evaluation : judging or rating

In very general terms, we argue and evaluate positions, define and explain concepts, describe objects, and narrate events. Aspects of any or all may appear anywhere in a discussion.

Recall the observation that relatively specific remarks tend to support other remarks by offering description, reasons, or examples. This model describes that process.

The Role Model

A text can also be examined according to the roles different portions play within the discussion. Roles might include:

  • Raise an initial idea, topic, or question
  • Shape the scope or direction of the discussion
  • Discuss and/or explain an idea
  • Conclude the idea or otherwise draw elements together
  • Add material for emphasis, clarification, or purposes of persuasion,

Remarks carrying out these roles can be found throughout a discussion, at all levels of analysis.

The Task Model

The final model presented here reflects tasks that different elements fulfill within a discussion.

What has to be shown to reach a particular conclusion? What evidence is required? What authorities would be applicable? What assumptions must be made? Whether we are trying to shape our own thoughts or evaluate the effectiveness of a presentation, we can attempt to determine the ingredients necessary to make a certain point.

To show a lie, for instance, we have to indicate a statement that contradicts the speaker’s beliefs, and that the speaker intended to deceive. Without these specific elements, we might simply have someone misspeaking, more a case of ignorance than deceit.

We might think of this model somewhat in the way we think of recipes. Recipes indicate not only the ingredients, but also how they are mixed, not only what to include, but also what to do. Recipes indicate steps to be accomplished and the ingredients with which each step is executed.


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