Life presents us with a variety of reading situations which demand different reading strategies and techniques. Sometimes, it is important to be as efficient as possible and read purely for information or “the main point.” At other times, it is important to just “let go” and follow a good story.
At the heart of writing and research, however, lies the kind of reading known as critical reading. Critical examination of sources is what makes their use in research possible and what allows writers to create rhetorically effective and engaging texts.
Critical readers are able to interact with the texts they read through careful listening, writing, conversation, and questioning. They do not sit back and wait for the meaning of a text to come to them, but work hard in order to create such meaning.
Becoming a critical reader will take a lot of practice and patience. Depending on your current reading philosophy and experiences with reading, becoming a critical reader may require a significant change in your whole understanding of the reading process. The trade-off is worth it, however. By becoming a more critical and active reader, you will also become a better researcher and writer.
Last but not least, you will enjoy reading and writing a whole lot more because you will become actively engaged in both.
Critical reading is a two-way process. As a critical reader, you are not a consumer of words, waiting patiently for ideas from the printed page or a website to fill your head and make you smarter.
Instead, as a critical reader, you need to interact with what you read, asking questions of the author, testing every assertion, fact, or idea, and extending the text by adding your own understanding of the subject and your own personal experiences to your reading.
The following are key features of the critical approach to reading.
The goal of an active reader is to engage in a conversation with the text he or she is reading. In order to fulfill this goal, it is important to understand the difference between reacting to the text and responding to it.
Reacting to a text is often done on an emotional level, rather than on an intellectual level. It is quick and shallow.
EXAMPLEIf you encounter a text that advances arguments with which you strongly disagree, it is natural to dismiss those ideas out of hand as wrong and unworthy of your attention. Doing so would be reacting to the text based only on emotions and on your pre-set opinions about its arguments.
It is easy to see that reacting in this way does not take the reader any closer to understanding the text. A wall of disagreement that existed between the reader and the text before the reading continues to exist after the reading.
Responding to a text, on the other hand, requires a careful study of the ideas presented and arguments advanced in it. Critical readers who possess this skill are not willing to simply reject or accept the arguments presented in the text right away after the first reading.
Additionally, responsive readers learn to avoid simple “agree/disagree” responses to complex texts. Such a way of thinking and arguing is often called “binary” because it allows only two answers to every statement and question. A much more nuanced approach is needed when dealing with complex arguments.
|Reacting to Texts||Responding to Texts|
|Works on an emotional level rather than an intellectual level||Works on an intellectual and emotional level by asking the readers to use all three rhetorical appeals in reading and writing about the text|
|Prevents readers from studying purposes, intended audiences, and contexts of texts they are working with||Allows for careful study of the text's rhetorical aspects|
|Fails to establish dialogue between the readers and the text by locking the readers in their pre-existing opinion about the argument||Establishes dialogue among the reader, text, and other readers by allowing all sides to reconsider existing positions and opinions|
|Binary Reading||Nuanced Reading|
|Provides only "agree or disagree" answers||Allows for a deep and detailed understanding of complex texts|
|Does not allow for an understanding of complex arguments||Takes into account "grey areas" of complex arguments|
|Prevents the readers from a true rhetorical engagement with the text||Establishes rhetorical engagement between the readers and the text|
To illustrate critical reading principles, consider the following two reading responses. Both texts respond to a very well-known piece: “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the letter, King responds to criticism from other clergymen who called his methods of civil rights advocacy “unwise and untimely.” Both student writers were given the same response prompt:
“After reading King’s piece several times and with a pen or pencil in hand, consider what shapes King's letter. Specifically, what rhetorical strategies is he using to achieve a persuasive effect on his readers? In making your decisions, consider such factors as background information that he gives, ways in which he addresses his immediate audience, and others. Remember that your goal is to explore King's text, thus enabling you to understand his rhetorical strategies better.”
Student A's Response
Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a very powerful text. At the time when minorities in America were silenced and persecuted, King had the courage to lead his people in the struggle for equality. After being jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote a letter to his “fellow clergymen” describing his struggle for civil rights. In the letter, King recounts a brief history of that struggle and rejects the accusation that it is “unwise and untimely.” Overall, I think that King’s letter is a very rhetorically effective text, one that greatly helped Americans to understand the civil rights movement.
Student B's Response
King begins his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by addressing it to his “fellow clergymen.” Thus, he immediately sets the tone of inclusion rather than exclusion. By using the word “fellow” in the address, I think he is trying to do two things. First of all, he presents himself as a colleague and a spiritual brother of his audience. That, in effect, says, “You can trust me because I am one of your kind.” Secondly, by addressing his readers in that way, King suggests that everyone, even those Americans who are not directly involved in the struggle for civil rights, should be concerned with it— hence the word “fellow.” King’s opening almost invokes the phrase “My fellow Americans” or “My fellow citizens” used so often by American Presidents when they address the nation.
King then proceeds to give a brief background of his actions as a civil rights leader. As I read this part of the letter, I was wondering whether his readers would really have not known what he had accomplished as a civil rights leader. Then I realized that perhaps he gives all that background information as a rhetorical move. His immediate goal is to keep reminding his readers about his activities. His ultimate goal is to show his audience that his actions were non-violent. In reading this passage by King, I remembered once again that it is important not to assume that your audience knows anything about the subject of the writing. I will try to use this strategy more in my own papers.
In the middle of the letter, King states, “The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” This sentence looks like a thesis statement and I wonder why he did not place it towards the beginning of the text, to get his point across right away. After thinking about this for a few minutes and rereading several pages from our class textbook, I think he leaves his “thesis” until later in his piece because he is facing a not-so-friendly (if not hostile) audience. Delaying the thesis and laying out some background information and evidence first helps a writer to prepare his or her audience for the coming argument. That is another strategy I should probably use more often in my own writing, depending on the audience I am facing.
Source: This content has been adapted from Lumen Learning's "Research and Critical Reading" tutorial.