What is Critical Reading?
Critical reading does not mean criticizing or finding mistakes in a text or an article. Critical reading means noticing techniques that writers use to convince readers to accept ideas or information. Readers who recognize these techniques can evaluate a reading selection more easily. Critical reading is a skill used in everyday life. For example, in college, choosing an answer on a multiple choice test requires critical reading skills. Purchasing a product online is another example of a task that requires critical reading skills.
Critical readers do not automatically believe that everything they read is true. They ask themselves questions about the text. For example, they might ask if the author is well-known. They might ask if the author is an expert on the subject. They also ask what the author’s purpose is for writing. Is it to present facts or statistics, or is it to persuade or convince the reader to believe something? In addition, critical readers are aware of the author’s approach. Is the information presented in an objective or critical way? Does the writer reveal a subjective (positive or negative) attitude toward the subject?
Identifying and Evaluating the Main Idea
Critical reading means analyzing ideas and then deciding whether to accept them, reject them, or think about them further. In order to analyze ideas, good readers first identify the main idea. Finding the main idea is key to understanding the writer’s argument. Good readers skim the reading and find the main idea before reading the main article. This results in faster and more effective reading.
Critical readers also evaluate the main idea. They do this by asking questions. Does the main idea seem important? Does it seem logical? Does it allow for other viewpoints? Does the author insist that this viewpoint is the only valid one? If the main idea doesn’t seem important or logical, critical readers pay close attention to the details the author uses to support it.
Examining the Evidence to Support the Main Idea
Paying close attention to the details means examining the evidence the author uses to support the main idea. Evidence may include facts, statistics, examples, experience and opinions. The critical reader asks two key questions. The first is, “Is the evidence adequate?” The reader decides whether the author has provided enough support for the main idea. One or two examples are usually not enough to support a viewpoint. If the support is inadequate, the critical reader will not accept the author’s opinion as true.
The second question is, “Does the evidence seem accurate?” The reader considers the source of the information. The reader also considers the methods that were used to collect the facts. If the source is questionable, the support may also be questionable. If the method is unreliable, the facts may be unreliable as well.
Analyzing the Presentation of Evidence
Critical reading also requires the reader to recognize errors in the author’s thinking. Errors weaken the author’s support and, thus, the author’s ideas. For example, the author may use circular reasoning. This is simply repeating the main idea in different words without adding any reasons or evidence to support the main idea. The author may also try to distract the reader with a red herring. A red herring is an idea or statement that distracts or leads the reader away from the issue. Finally, the author may make a hasty generalization. This means the author bases a conclusion on very little evidence or support.
Putting It All Together
Critical readers understand both what a text says and how it says it. Therefore, critical reading means the following three things:
1. Recognizing the techniques authors use to convince the reader to accept the ideas as presented.
2. Evaluating the text in light of these techniques.
3. Deciding whether to accept or reject the text, or to gather more information before making a decision.
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