Critical reading is the process of reading that goes beyond just understanding a text.
Critical reading involves:
- carefully considering and evaluating the reading
- identifying the reading's strengths and implications
- identifying the reading's weaknesses and flaws
- looking at the 'big picture' and deciding how the reading fits into the greater academic context (the understandings presented in other books and articles on this topic)
In brief, you are actively responding to the reading. Critical reading is useful at all stages of academic study, but is particularly important when writing an article critique or a literature review.
Critical reading often involves asking questions about the reading. In particular, you are examining the strengths and weaknesses of the reading's argument.
To do this, you need to consider
- the reading's background
- its purpose and overall conclusion (claim)
- the evidence used in the reading
- the logical connections between the claim and the evidence
- the reading's balance
- its limitations
- how it relates to other sources and research
- if the reading is based on research, how this research was conducted
Each of these affects how 'strong' the argument is, that is, how convincing it is.
Note: The questions here can also be used to improve your own writing, especially when you are required to construct an argument.
Before you consider the argument of a reading, you should build up a background picture of the reading.
While you cannot evaluate an argument based solely on the qualifications of the author, their background can give you an indication of credibility or potential bias.
- Are they a recognised academic expert or a new researcher?
- Do they work for a university, the government, an organisation, or a commercial interest?
As with the author, the type of reading can give you an idea of potential bias and the quality / applicability of the information. Is this an academic source? Is it trying to convince you of something or sell something?
- Periodical articles: Is this from a scholarly journal, a magazine, or a newspaper?
- Books: Is this from an academic publisher or a commercial publisher?
- Websites: Is the publishing organisation clearly identified?
Check the URL: Is it governmental (URL ending in .govt.nz/.gov), academic (URL ending in .ac/.ac.nz/.edu), commercial (URL ending in .co.nz/.com) or an organisation (URL ending in .org/.org.nz)?
The reading may be organised and written differently or have different goals depending on the intended audience.
Is it aimed at:
- academics and researchers?
- people in the industry?
- the general public?
Up-to-date information is more useful. Something that was believed to be true in 1982 may have been disproved or improved since then.
Getting the 'big picture' of the reading is essential so that you can see how all the pieces fit together.
The main claim (or argument) of the reading is the point that it is trying to prove. The claim of a reading is often a single statement: the thesis statement. This is often found in the abstract, the introduction, and/or the conclusion of the article.
- Is the main conclusion clear?
- Does the evidence lead to this conclusion?
It is useful to think about the consequences and applications of the argument, as this may uncover particular strengths or further flaws.
- Are the applications practical or meaningful?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the applications?
- What are the costs and benefits of the applications?
The structure of the reading will give you an idea of which points are most important, and which points support the conclusion. Look at
- the introduction
It may be useful to draw a map or diagram of the reading's structure.
It is essential to consider the quality of the evidence in the reading, as this directly relates to the usefulness of the reading.
- Objective facts are generally acceptable.
- Information obtained through research is convincing, as long as the methodology is appropriate.
- Opinions can easily be contradicted by an alternative opinion. They are more likely to be biased.
- Personal experience may not apply to other cases and so is not easily generalized.
- Does the evidence agree with other sources?
- Does the evidence agree with your own understanding of the topic?
- Does the evidence connect to the reading's conclusion?
- Is it enough to support the argument?
- Is the evidence convincing?
Many readings rely on particular theories or models to make their argument.
- Is the theory the best fit for this topic?
- Is the theory properly interpreted and explained in the reading?
- Does the theory explain the entire conclusion or only part of it?
- Are there parts of the conclusion not explained by the theory?
If the reading is based on any kind of research (e.g. a survey, an experiment, a case study), it is important to consider how the research was conducted as this can affect the validity of the findings reported.
- Quantitative research involves measuring (quantifying) and analysing specific numerical or statistical data. It uses mathematical models to interpret data. Studies are designed so that mathematical models can be easily applied to research contexts using experiments and surveys.
- Qualitative research involves the examination, analysis, and interpretation of observations or accounts of events in order to identify themes, underlying meanings, and patterns. This approach does not use mathematical models, but rather interviews, case studies and analysis of written documents.
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, but the type of research will always affect the findings. Is this type of research appropriate for this topic?
The wider the range or sample size of research, the more the findings can be generalised.
- If the research is a survey or questionnaire, how many participants were there?
- Did the participants come from different cultural / social backgrounds?
- Were the participants of different ages / occupations / genders / ethnic groups / nationalities?
Could other research prove this research wrong? This is not asking whether the research is false, but whether it is possible to test its validity. If it is impossible to prove a claim wrong, it is also impossible to prove a claim right; the claim is instead a matter of faith.
If someone else conducted similar research using these methods, would they be likely to have a similar result? If it is impossible to repeat research, it is also impossible to test it.
Were there other methods that may be more effective, more scientific, more reliable, more culturally-sensitive, or more practical? Why weren't they used?
When reading critically it is important to examine the chain of reasoning used by the author, as any gaps or problems can undermine the validity of the conclusion.
Definitions are an important part of academic study; terminology often varies between topics and between authors.
- Is each term that has been used properly defined?
- Are there any terms that could have several different interpretations?
Does every point follow on from the last point? If there is a gap between two ideas, this could be a 'leap of faith' that undermines the overall conclusion.
Is the reasoning logically sound? Some arguments are weak because they rely on faulty logic; these are often referred to as logical fallacies.
In order to read critically you have to consider whether the argument is appropriately balanced, looking at the issue or problem from relevant perspectives.
- What details are missing?
- Are there any claims that seem unusual or extraordinary? You should pay attention to parts of the argument that seem controversial, as there are likely to be other explanations.
It is impossible for a reading to be completely balanced because a conclusion must ultimately be drawn, but some readings are more biased than others.
- Is the reading trying to convince you of something? Why?
- Did the reading push one point of view to the exclusion of others?
Readings are often written from one perspective; what other ways can you look at this topic?
Try, for example, a PESTLE analysis, which examines the political, economic, sociological, technological, legal, and environmental perspectives and implications.
A reading that offers several perspectives is more balanced, and a strong argument must consider and argue against counter-arguments.
- Are you aware of any counter-arguments that exist but were not discussed? This is a sign of a weaker argument.
Some readings will identify their assumptions; this is so that if an assumption is later proven false, it is clear whether the argument is still correct or not.
- Does the reading make assumptions that it does not identify? Hidden assumptions may weaken the argument.
Some theories or principles only apply in certain situations. If a theory is applied outside of those situations, it may weaken the argument.
No reading exists in isolation. You must consider how the reading fits into the 'bigger picture' of the larger academic context.
If the reading disagrees with something from other readings, your textbook, or the lecturer, it may be incorrect. It may also be a controversial or debatable argument, or this reading may be discussing the argument from a different perspective.
When there is more than one way to explain evidence, you must carefully evaluate the plausibility of each explanation.
Knowledge is developed in academia by improving on (or disproving) previous findings, so you should consider whether the reading has the most up-to-date understanding of the topic.
- What may have changed since the reading was written?
References and further reading
Allen, M. (2004). Smart thinking: Skills for critical understanding and writing (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. [Massey Library link]
Flage, D. (2003). The art of questioning: An introduction to critical thinking. Pearson Education. [Massey Library link]
Groarke, L. A., & Tindale, C. W. (2004). Good reasoning matters! A constructive approach to critical thinking (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. [Massey Library link]
Metcalfe, M. (2006). Reading critically at university. Sage. [Massey Library link]
Turner, J. (2002). How to study: A short introduction. Sage. [Massey Library link]