Borrowed/Adapted from The Little Seagull Handbook, 3e W-16
We read newspapers and websites to learn about the events of the day. We read cookbooks to find out how to make brownies; we read textbooks to learn about history, biology, and other academic topics. We read short stories for pleasure — and, in literature classes, to analyze plot, theme, and the like. And as writers, we read our own drafts to make sure they say what we mean. In other words, we read for many different purposes. This chapter offers strategies for reading texts — and the arguments they make — with a critical eye.
Reading with a Critical Eye
Different texts require different strategies. Some can be read quickly, if you’re reading to get a general overview. But most of the time you’ll need to read carefully, skimming to get the basic ideas, then reading again to absorb the details. Following are some strategies for reading with a critical eye. What do you know about the topic — and what do you want to learn? It always helps to approach new information in the context of what we already know. Before you begin reading, brainstorm what you already know about the topic. List any terms or phrases that come to mind, and group them into categories. Then, or after read- ing a few paragraphs, list any questions that you expect, want, or hope to be answered as you read, and number them according to their importance to you. Finally, after you read the whole text, list what you learned from it. Compare your second and third lists to see what you still want or need to know — and what you learned that you didn’t expect. Preview the text. Start by skimming to get the basic ideas; read the title and subtitle, any headings, the first and last paragraphs, the first sentences of all the other paragraphs. Study any visuals.
Consider the writing context [and the rhetorical situation]. What is the purpose of the text — to inform? persuade? entertain? Who is the intended audience? If you’re not a member of that group, are there terms or concepts you’ll need to look up? What is the genre — a report? an analysis? some- thing else? What do you know about the writer, and what is his or her stance — critical? objective? something else? Is the text print or electronic — and how does the medium affect what it says?
Think about your initial response. Read the text to get a sense of it; then jot down brief notes about your initial reaction, and think about why you reacted as you did. What aspects of the text account for this reaction?
Annotate. Highlight key words and phrases, connect ideas with lines or symbols, and write comments or questions in the margins. What you annotate depends on your purpose. If you’re analyzing an argument, you might underline any thesis statement and the reasons and evidence that support it. If you’re looking for patterns, try highlighting each one in a different color.
One simple way of annotating is to use a coding system, such as a check mark to indicate passages that confirm what you already thought, an X for ones that contradict your previous thinking, a question mark for ones that are puzzling or confusing, an exclamation point or asterisk for ones that strike you as important, and so on. You might also circle new words that you need to look up.
Play the believing and doubting game. Regardless of how you actually feel about what the writer says, list or freewrite as many reasons as you can think of for believing it, given the writer’s perspective, and then as many as you can for doubting it. This exercise helps you consider new ideas and question your current ideas — as well as clarify where you stand in relation to the ideas in the text.
Analyze how the text works. Outline the text paragraph by paragraph. If you’re interested in analyzing its ideas, identify what each paragraph says. Are there any patterns in the topics the writer addresses? How has the writer arranged ideas, and how does that arrangement develop the topic? If, however, you’re concerned with the way the ideas are presented, pay attention to what each paragraph does: does it introduce a topic? provide background? describe something? entice you to read further?
Summarize. Restate a text’s main ideas in your own words, leaving out most examples and other details. This approach can help you both to see the relationships among those ideas and to understand what they’re saying.
Identify patterns. Look for notable patterns in the text: recurring words and their synonyms, repeated phrases and metaphors, and types of sentences. Does the author rely on any particular writing strategies? Is the evidence offered more opinion than fact? nothing but statistics? Is there a predominant pattern to how sources are presented? As quotations? paraphrases? summaries? In visual texts, are there any patterns of color, shape, and line? What isn’t there that you would expect to find? Is there anything that doesn’t really fit in?
Consider the larger context. All texts are part of a conversation with other texts, and that larger context can help you better under- stand what you’re reading. What’s motivating the writer? What other arguments is he or she responding to? Who is cited?
Be persistent with difficult texts. For texts that are especially challenging or uninteresting, first try skimming the headings, the abstract or introduction, and the conclusion to look for something that relates to knowledge you already have. Then read through the text once just to understand what it’s saying and again to look for parts that relate to other parts, to other texts or course information, or to other knowledge you have. Treat such a text as a challenge: “I’m going to keep working on this until I make sense of it.”