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2.05 Critical reading

The information and tasks within this page are designed to introduce you to the concept of taking a deeper approach to your learning and in particular to the material you are reading.

How do I read?
Answer the following questions:

1. I tend to read very little beyond what is actually required to pass yes/ no
2. I concentrate on memorising a good deal of what I read yes/ no
3. I try to relate ideas I come across in other topics to what I read yes/ no
4. When I read an article or book, I try to find out exactly what the author means yes/ no
5.Often I find myself questioning what I read yes/ no
6. When I read I concentrate on learning just those bits of information I need to pass yes/ no
7. When I am reading, I stop from time to time to reflect on what I’m trying to learn from it yes/ no
8. When I read, I examine the details carefully to see how they fit in with what's being said yes/ no
9. I like books which challenge me and provide explanations which go beyond the lectures yes/ no
10. I like books which give definite facts and information which can be learned easily yes/ no
11. I read an article straight through from start to finish yes/ no
12. I note down all the facts and figures yes/ no
13. I note the author’s main arguments yes/ no
14. I think about whether the facts supported these arguments yes/ no
15. I make summary notes to use later yes/ no

Based upon the ASSIST Approaches to Studying Inventory.
© Noel Entwistle.


If you have answered ‘yes’ to all or most of questions: 1,2,6,10,11,12,15 you are adopting a SURFACE APPROACH to your learning. You are organising your learning in order to be able to remember facts and figures to use in essays and exams. Many students previous experience of learning is of a school system where exams assessed their ability to memorise and regurgitate and a good student was one who could remember lots of information.

If you have answered ‘yes’ to all or most of questions: 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14 you are adopting what is termed a DEEP APPROACH to your learning. You are thinking critically about the information you read and trying to make sense of it inthe wider context of your studies. This approach to learning and studying shows initiative and understanding and an ability to undertake independent study. Many tutors when questioned would include this in their definitions of an ‘ideal student’.

Can you see the difference between the two approaches?


At this stage you are probably quite a lot of a surface processor with a little of a deep processor. It is quite difficult to change the way you learn but the rewards for adopting a deeper approach are great. If you understand your subject material fully you will be able to apply it successfully whether in an essay or an exam.

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Characteristics of a Surface Approach to Reading

• Intention to complete task requirements
• Memorise information needed for assessments
• Failure to distinguish principles from examples
• Treats task as an external imposition
• Focus on discrete elements without integration
• Unreflectiveness about purpose or strategies
• "I just read through from start to finish."
• "I tried to concentrate on remembering as much as possible."
• "I didn’t remember what I read, because I was just hurrying on."
• Characteristics of a Deep Approach to Reading
• Intention to understand
• Vigorous interaction with content
• Relate new ideas to previous knowledge
• Relate concepts to everyday experience
• Relate evidence to conclusions
• Examine the logic of the argument
• "I tried to get at the main points of the article"
• "I thought about how the author had built up his argument"

Source: www.hope.ac.uk/gnu/stuhelp/reading.htm



Ask yourself the following questions:

- Why am I reading this? What is my purpose? Why is it on my reading list?

- What do I know about the author, the publisher, the circumstances of publication and the type of text? How do these affect my attitude towards and expectations of what I am about to read? Why?

- What are my own views of the event(s) or topic before I start reading this particular text?

- What other texts (written and spoken) on this or similar topics am I familiar with? What are my views about them?


While reading the text highlight the verbs and any modifiers:

Ask yourself what the unmodified verbs tell you about the ‘truth’ value of what the author is saying and how this affects your reading.

eg. ‘…US missiles reduced much of Saddam Hussein’s military machine to a heap of scrap metal’

and what the modified verbs tell you – what is the effect of the modification?
Eg. ‘It was apparently all Britain and America’s fault’

Look at any passivizations and see if you can reconstruct the agent:

Ask yourself what the effect on you as a reader is of

a) passives for which you can find the agent and
b) passives for which you cannot
Highlight significant instances of nominalizations and see if you can reconstruct participants and processes:
eg. ‘…. our airmen ensured that the least possible danger was caused to the people of Baghdad.’

Ask yourself what the effect on you as a reader is
a) if you can
b) if you cannot
eg. ‘We regret any casualties among civilians’

Look at the verbs of reporting (events and other people’s ideas): ask yourself what the selected verbs tell you about the ‘truth’ value of what the author is telling you and what your reaction is.

What is the effect on you of
a) attribution?
b) non-attribution?
Eg. ‘…left-wing MP Tony Benn sourly said the action was an obscenity.’

Look at the way the writer uses quotations, summaries, citations and paraphrase: how do these referencing practices affect your attitude to the text? Is there any ‘slippage’ of voice from attributed to author voice? How does this affect the authoritativeness of the text?

What other texts, genres and what discourses is this text drawing on:

How does this affect your reading of the text? Why?

eg. ‘Military planners and psychologists said that …
eg. ‘Like Luke Skywalker zapping Darth Vadar’
eg. ‘Then, in the old RAF slang, victory should be a piece of cake.’

Examine the author’s argumentation:

Highlight any evidence the author supplies for his/her arguments:

Is there enough evidence? Is it convincing? Can you think of counter evidence or counter examples? How do your answers affect your reading of the text?

Does the author make his/her premises explicit or not? Do you agree with them or not. So what is the effect on you as a reader?

Look at the way the writer uses personal pronouns like ‘you’ and ‘we’ and possessive adjectives:

How does this position the reader? Do you accept that positioning? Why or why not?
Eg. ‘Our heroes’

What labels does the writer use to describe the participants or events (nouns and adjectives) and to describe the processes (verbs)?

What do they tell you about the author’s attitude to his/her message? And to the reader? Do you accept these word choices? Why or why not?

Eg. ‘Collateral damage’

Does the writer use several different words to describe the same participant, event or process? What is the effect on you?
Eg. ‘Why didn’t Iraqi yellow bellies fight back? …planes turn tail … lost their bottle … chickened out … surrendered …’ (all together 12 different ways of representing the Iraqi armed forces as cowards in the headline and first paragraph of a Sun article, 18.1.91)

Look at the author’s choice of metaphors:

What do they tell you about the author’s attitude towards his/her message and the reader? What is your reaction? Why?
Eg. ‘war machine’

What are the ideological presuppositions behind the text?
(These are the linked but unstated things you have to believe to be true before you can accept the stated proposition to be true):
eg. In order to accept as true that the Iraqi armed forces are cowardly for not ‘fighting back’ you also have to accept the following linked unstated propositions: there is only one acceptable response to an attack; all other responses, such as deciding not to respond in order not to sacrifice lives unnecessarily, are an act of cowardice not rationality; the Iraqi were in a position to fight back (quite clearly not the case).

Do you share them?
If so, what is the effect on you as a reader?
If not, what is the effect on you as a reader?

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Ask yourself the following questions:

-Have I fulfilled my purpose(s) for reading? If not, what will I do next?
- Have my views of the event(s) or topic been reinforced or altered in any way? How? Where do I now stand?
-What have I learned? What do I feel? How can I use this reading experience, now and in the future?

Source: Clark, R. Critical Reading, available from: www.lancs.ac.uk/users/furness/criticalreading.htm

Critical Reading of a Journal Article

Try using this method with an article given to you by your tutor, or which you have found yourself. We recommend you use this method a couple of times. The idea is to encourage you not to rush through the article, but to think carefully about each section. Read each section and then write down your answers to the questions before you go on to the next section. It will be hard work, but will also get easier every time you do it! You need to be able to answer all of the following questions.


1. What is the author's goal?
The point of the introduction is to detail the reason behind the research and give an overview of the previous studies carried out in the area. It is essentially a literature review and will also include a description of theories that the author thinks may provide a good explanation of the particular behaviour or phenomena being described. It is useful to try and work out which theory that you think the author might agree with. You may find this difficult at this stage but as you become more familiar with an area and particular authors work you will start finding this much easier.

2. What is the hypothesis or prediction that is being tested?
This should be fairly clear and are usually stated towards the end of the introduction section.

3. How would I design an experiment to test the hypothesis?
This is the most important question for this section and you should attempt to write down an answer before you continue your reading as it will be very difficult to do this once you have read the method section. If the author has done a good job he/she will have convinced you that their particular design is the best approach for testing the hypothesis.


4. (a) Which is the best method?
This doesn't really matter, but if you compare the two, you will be forced to think about this section critically.
(b) Does the author's method test the hypothesis?
This is straightforward - check that the author has done what he/she said he/she was going to do.
(c) What are the independent and dependent variables and what happens in the different conditions if there are any?
Again should be fairly easy. Write them down in a list.

5. From the whole method section what results would you predict?

Do this before reading the results section. If you're struggling have a think again about the hypothesis and the independent and dependent variables. You may find this very hard or even impossible, but list or attempt to draw the possible outcomes.


6. Did your predictions about the results match with those obtained by the researcher?
If not, was your prediction wrong, or are the results hard to believe? Was the author's method appropriate for testing the hypothesis?

7. (a) How would you interpret the results?
Should be fairly straightforward. What do they mean in relation to the hypothesis? Can this be applied? Think about any real-world users of the study. What implications does it have for future research in the area?
(b) Can you draw any applications and implications from your interpretation?
Again, answer these two questions before moving on to the next section


8. (a) Which interpretation of the results suits the data the best?
A good discussion should answer the question(s) set up in the introduction. The author should also present implications and applications of the research. Has the author drawn conclusions that are acceptable in relation to the data? The conclusions drawn may be reasonable but the author may have attempted to generalise these more than is possible.
(b) Is the discussion of the applications and implications convincing?
As well as carrying out a well-controlled experiment a researcher must also consider the rationale and theory that underpin the research. By looking at the author's consideration of the theory and its implications you can get a good idea of the integrity of the work.

Source: www.ibs.derby.ac.uk/~kpat/Israel_cognitive/Reading_journal_papers.rtf

Links to further resources on critical reading

Southampton University
University of Strathcylde

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Last updated: 27 May 2011

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