Critical Reading for Beginners

Introducing Beginners to Critical Reading

By: Mubarak Abdessalami



     I.      Meeting Critical Reading 
II.      Teaching Critical Reading 
III.      Knowing Active Reading 
IV.      Practicing Critical Reading 
    V.      Sample Critical Reading Test 
VI.      Conclusion 

Key words

Critical Reading, Critical Thinking, Active Reading, Evidence, Analysis, Synthesis, Inference,


v     What do you expect from this paper?
v     Are you willing to reread in case you lose concentration?
v     Are you prepared to read this paper entirely?
v     How are you reading this paper? by skimming or scanning it?
v     Are you looking for specific information?
v     Are you curious about critical reading?
v     How can beginners benefit from critical readers?

         You aren't meant by these questions actually. This is how normally each one of us should deal with texts. Reading with an idea in mind facilitates engagement and understanding. This paper is not about increasing reading speed, neither is it about criticising or undermining texts. It is rather about critiquing a text to get the best of it, and this needs lots of training from the very early years of high school because in college and university, it would be too late. At college, critical reading is what students usually do to approach texts.

         Teaching reading and comprehension is a matter of time, age and stages, but teaching the learners how to read critically is a matter of willingness, motivation and involvement. Besides, critical reading is more recommended now than ever before because the sources of information are so abundant that we hardly know which is the most interesting. Some of them have to be read actively and critically so as to unveil their weak evidences and wicked purposes and to sift texts for not being fooled, screwed or disillusioned. Some others are also to be read critically so as to get the gist of them and obtain new valid knowledge.

         In this paper, I will restrict myself to the benefits beginner learners can get from critical reading in their studies. I will try to simplify the significance of critical reading in connection to critical thinking. In another step, I'll move to talk about why we should imperatively teach critical reading especially in this technological era when the students are bombarded by messages from everywhere even via their mobile phones. They must know how to deal with any of the messages they receive especially those sent for commercial purposes or propaganda. Meanwhile, I won't miss talking about the importance of active reading as the students are used to being receptive and passive consumers of data. I'll practically show how this could be feasible in a classroom setting first and shortly afterwards it becomes a habit in their interactions with the world around them.

         I intend to widen the novice teachers’ scopes about the purpose of teaching reading nowadays. A decade ago, this was just not so imposing, but today, technology has changed our life tremendously. We need to know how to deal with unexpected reading experiences. Technological devices have made youngsters encounter various unidentified pieces of written material. Reading critically, therefore, has now become an urgent necessity.

I. Meeting Critical Reading

         Please, help me welcome Critical reading! Critical reading means dealing with texts consciously by adopting a sceptical approach while reflecting and pondering on the information and ideas in that text. In other words, it is thinking deeply about the arguments and statements you read and questioning their validity or rationality. The students simply need to analyse and evaluate what they read with a critical thinking eye.

         Critical reading is a level of understanding of a text that allows the learners to evaluate the writer’s attitudes, ideas, arguments and above all purpose. It is an aware reading process through which lots of actions are taken at the same time. Any learner, nowadays, has to be a critical thinker to solve problems and make good decisions. Critical reading is part of critical thinking for it improves the reader’s capacities to understand any given text in terms of content, arguments, purpose and the writer’s intention from delivering it.

         Unlike the University students, who have to use this for their academic studies, high school students needn’t skim, scan, or anticipate. All that they need is a deep understanding of the text to critique it with an unbiased intention. They also need to use their schemata to question the content, the diction, the structures and so on. Critical reading practice allows learners to avoid being controlled by the ideas of others: that’s why critical reading is, like critical thinking, a means to take control of your conscious thought processes by thinking beyond the obvious.

II. Teaching critical reading

         Most students think that the tests on reading comprehension exist only but in the classroom; they are not aware that they encounter several forms of reading tests daily. Anything they read -even signs and commercials in the street- are challenging reading tests that have to be approached critically. However, the word “critical” is a much unprejudiced term that has nothing to do with fetching for mistakes and faults in what is read.

         The students are used to reading a text and answering the comprehension questions besides the “True or False” task basing their answers on what the text says. This may be the case in early primary school years; however, in secondary levels, we need to train the students to go beyond the written text and try to read between the lines. They must base their answers on what the text means. This is a question of reading with the aim of reaching deep understanding of any given text by analysing and evaluating its content thoroughly. Non-critical readers take content as facts and a source of new knowledge, whereas critical readers see the text as an individual view of one facet of facts that is subject to analysis and questioning. That’s why they no longer need to know what the text says, but rather what the text wants to say.

         Teachers have to encourage students to read critically so that they do no longer focus on understanding what the text says only, but also to try to understand what message is beneath the “subtle” way any given writer might have used to present the topic. This requires some skills like analysis and inferences from evidence within the text. Consequently, the text would then be understood as a presentation, among other viewpoints, seen from a specific angle. Any topic that a writer talks about could be found elsewhere with different perspectives, content, language, and structure. Nothing is to be taken for granted and to be memorized unthinkingly.

         All the same, restatement is not enough, the learners need to go a step further and try to interpret the text. Interpretation, here, means, analysing the given text and asserting a general meaning for the text as a whole. That’s to say, to discover the writer’s purpose, and the implicit means he uses to persuade the readers of his or her point of view. The students should learn how to unveil subliminal messages and immediately react positively or negatively depending, of course, on the amount of strong evidence provided by the author of the text. There is possibility that some tricky writings use a series of statements that are backed up by “fake”, misleading or unsound evidence. This training will surely allow the students to recognize bias, drives and fallacies deployed to transmit the hidden purpose from delivering the text.

         Teaching critical reading is not only a school business, it is a living matter. The students will sooner or later come across lots of texts which contain different evasive statements and styles of persuasion like in booklets, propaganda, tempting advertisements, visual images on television or internet and the manipulations of language during conversations in real life situation. For all these reasons, the learners have to be disposed, motivated, involved and very concerned to have the chance of reading properly.

III. Knowing Active reading

         Reading is a dynamic and meaning-constructing interaction between the text and the brain (Synthesizing). In other words, it is an active process. Any learner who is supposed to read critically must be an active reader. Active reading doesn’t mean close and careful reading of a text only. The learners have to be vigilant enough, while reading, so as to be able to identify and analyse all those aspects used to lead or control the meaning. This is the best way to become able to think deeply about them and to take advantage from them to subsequently form a clear idea about the whole text. This is what we can call inference, but it does in no way mean reading with the intention of just looking for mistakes and deficiencies in the text as this has nothing to do with the academic approach of analysis, Synthesis, and inference.

         Besides this, Fallacies are the most dangerous tools used in a text. It is not easy for the learners to spot them unless they are exposed to lots of practice. These fallacies include vague and unsupported statements like when some subtle statements start with “the majority of people agree …, most villagers approve…, most citizens do this, why don’t you? Scientists revealed …, the major party of the community protest against … and so on”. These bandwagon fallacies are to be spotted right away because they are not supportable evidence and that they have no basis. More than that, they exert a bad effect on youngsters. The students have to be trained on asking texts for providing strong and valid evidence to back up the points they are presenting. On the other hand, some authors deliberately rely on the passive voice to mystify a great deal of evidence. Fresh readers cannot escape from the trap of accepting the implication blindly as a lot of misleading arguments are put in such ambiguous but compelling styles. They just cannot recognize that the arguments are loose because the doers are vague characters or unidentified agents.

IV. Practicing Critical Reading

         If we continue testing reading in the same old ways, the learners will never meet their needs and expectations to face the challenges of the 21st century. What we generally do is just checking if they understand what the text says, whereas the learners actually need to know what the text means. So, teaching critical reading should start now, but in a mild way so as not to burden them with hard obligations. We have to provide the students with the necessary tools and practice to be able to rationally judge the texts that they might encounter in their real future life. They need self confidence and an unshakable belief in their potential to logically and fairly weigh and assess arguments in any text.

         If we all believed that school is a building which has four walls with the future inside, we should take it as such literally. The kids of today are the adults of tomorrow, and the problems of tomorrow are completely unknown to us. Reading critically will help them with their higher studies and give them power to actively and confidently interact with different sorts of challenges in life. That’s the furthest goal from this kind of practice.
         The following sample reading test is not supposed to destabilize the learners or scare them; that’s why it is designed in the conventional testing mode they are familiar with. All the rubrics of conventional reading tests are there except for the little changes occurring here and there unnoticed to introduce them gradually to accepting doing the test with a few more requirements to work out their brains and stir their cognitive abilities.

         The other aim of the exercise is to make the students aware of the importance of critical reading in preparing for good critical writing. You’ll see how students can identify the opinions in the reading and exploit them perfectly well in writing to show they understand the text as it should be. The writing section is based essentially of the amount of assimilation the students have got from the text and react to that accordingly.

V. Sample Reading Test

~ What do you think about Jamal? ~

             Hi, my name is Jamal. I usually get up at seven o'clock in the morning.  It's early, but it is OK. First, I often wash my hands and face, and then I always play video games on my smartphone until 7:30. Next, I have a big breakfast: three glasses of tea, two eggs and some bread and butter. After that, I get dressed, pack my school things and leave for school at about 7:45. I always go there on foot because it is not far. After I come back home, I eat a sandwich for lunch and go out. I never go to school in the afternoon because it is boring. I usually go to the stadium to play football with my friends. In the evening, before I have dinner, I often watch TV for an hour. Later, I chat with my friends on the internet. Finally, I usually go to bed at about midnight. I am happy with life like this.

Question the content carefully


            A.  Answer these questions
1. What time does Jamal wake up?

2. What is Jamal?

3. What does he usually do in the morning?

4. What does he do in the afternoon?

5. What does he do in the evening?

6. Do you like Jamal’s life style? Why or why not?

            B. Are these sentences True or False? Justify

1. Jamal usually gets up early. ___________

2. Jamal is a clean boy. ___________

3. Jamal has got a bike. ___________

4. He has dinner after he watches TV. ___________

5. Jamal goes to sleep early. ___________

            C. What do the underlined words in the text refer to?

1. "there" (line 6) _______________     2. "it" (line 7) _______________

            D.  Find the opposite of these words in the text.   

1. late  ______________2 . small   __________________
3. close  ______________   4. come in  ______________
5. interesting  _______________  6. sad  ________________

            E.  Find 3 of Jamal’s Opinions in the text    
1. ________________________________________________
2. ________________________________________________
3. ________________________________________________

II.     WRITING   
                Write a paragraph about Jamal's daily routines.These Questions may guide you

v     What time does he usually get up in the morning?
v     What does he do then?
v     How does he usually go to school?
v     How often does he go to school in the afternoon?
v     Why does he usually go to school?
v     What does he have for lunch?
v     What does he do before he goes to bed?
v     What do you think about Jamal?

N.B: It is not necessary to answer all the questions above. They are there for guidance only. Start with the following sentence.

Jamal usually gets up at 7 O'clock in the morning...

         As you can see the test is put in the usual reading comprehension test format the students are used to. However, some specific tormenting inquiries are inserted to progressively change the tide of tradition towards more critical thinking efforts wanted exerted by the learners. Let’s see why they are there and what effect they would have on the testees once they have to sit for an exam.

1. Comprehension => Rubric A => Question 6

- Do you like Jamal’s life style? Why or why not?
         This question is a little challenging for beginners because it calls for taking a strict position towards the mode of life Jamal leads with enough justifiable arguments tending persuasion. So the teacher is not required to test the position per se, but rather the ability of the learners to clarify their choices and to manifesting their active interaction with the text and the question’s implication as well. The teacher’s role is only to accept whatsoever well thought of positions with solid arguments and evidence from the text. Reading critically should be clear in this answer otherwise the students are still unable to see beyond the big picture.

         One of my students says she likes Jamal’s way of life because he looks free to do whatever he wants. She just hurried to see freedom in Jamal’s life style without considering other factors. I accepted her choice momentarily until she got sure she could elaborate on this sort of freedom by considering other factors such as the parents, the school authority and so on. By the way, she had changed her mind when she discovered she had missed to take into consideration such elements that could have been easily read between the lines. She corrected herself as soon as I had asked them to detect Jamal’s opinions in the text. We’ll come to this later on, when we discuss “rubric E”.

2. Comprehension => Rubric B => Question 1

- Jamal usually gets up early.
         Here the students are required to say if the sentence is true or false and justify the answer with solid evidence. There are two possible answers expected. Non-critical readers’ answer and it could be this
- True: Jamal says “It is early, but it is OK”.
The critical readers, on the other hand, are expected to have a completely different answer. They would question the statement and try to evaluate it sceptically.
- False: 7 O'clock is not early at all.
The teacher can easily see the effect; the student doesn't just understand the text, but analyses and synthesizes the information provided.

3. Comprehension => Rubric B => Question 3

- Jamal has got a bike. 
         Still in the True or False rubric, the learners are confronted with another very challenging situation. Here again, the teacher would expect two opposite answers. Non-critical readers would answer it FALSE based on the information provided by Jamal in the text that he usually goes to school on foot. They infer that since he goes to school on foot, this means he hasn't got a bike. Whereas, the missed piece of information “[school] is not far” is overlooked. The fact that he goes to school on foot doesn't mean he hasn't got a bike, but rather because school is not far. If they were active readers, they would certainly take that piece of information into account.

         Well, the critical readers among the students would analyse the statement carefully and infer that it is more likely to be TRUE (a young boy without a bike is somehow weird), provided that both possibilities are correct. He might have a bike that he rides in errands, but he never uses for going to school because the distance is so short between his house and school that he can just walk it. The good critical readers, however, would not answer TRUE or FALSE, but they would write “can’t say”, because no clear evidence is provided in the text about this point.

         Needless to remind you that in conventional reading tests type, the teachers ask the students to base their answers completely on the text; which means that they should take from the text not add information to it. Sticking to the text in answers is actually what traditional methods stress severely. Consequently, correct answers are identical in all the testees papers. That’s why no active critical reading is developed. What about academic studies? These same students will soon be required to go beyond the text, to read actively, critically and creatively.

4. Comprehension => Rubric E => Question 1

- Pick out 3 of Jamal’s Opinions in the text.
         This question particularly is meant to train the students to distinguish between facts and opinions. This will, later on, protect them from fallacies where the opinion is presented as a refutable fact. This exercise help the students get aware of such things as “since it is in the text, so it is true for everybody”. The students easily find the three opinions notably,
1. 7 O'clock in the morning is early, but it is OK
2. School is boring
3. “I'm happy with life like this”
No one agrees with these opinions (including my student I mentioned above). The students have to think about such points of view and try to find why they are so abnormal. “School is boring” is what the students would find a little odd. The teacher can go a bit further to ask them about the role of parents and school to redress these strange attitudes.

5. Writing => paragraph writing

         The teacher could ask them to write a paragraph talking about their daily routines, but it would be better to ask them to write a paragraph about Jamal for two urgent reasons:

1. To change the “I” of the text into a “he”. And this is a purely grammatical exercise.
2. To encourage them write critically. They would include all their remarks into their writing like; “Jamal usually gets up at 7 O'clock in the morning, and he thinks it's early. …”

         Finally, don't just underestimate this generation. Although they look lethargic and passive, they are keen on breaking the old outdated norms, and they look very motivated when challenged. They may astonish you. Good luck

VI. Conclusion

         When the students become acquainted with reading actively, critically and creatively, teachers will never be obliged to advise them to read only interesting pieces of writing to protect them from ill-intentioned writings. Now, no fear for them as everything will become interesting, and they can take profit from it. Once they are able to distinguish the strong from the weak or the winding evidence, and they can read between the lines, they are shielded against any tricks or logical fallacies susceptible to influence them negatively.

         The learners will quickly take it for granted that each piece of writing is a potential subject for assessment and debate, rather than for blind approval. It is true that they rarely, if never, read anything beside their textbooks; and even textbooks are occasionally opened (Arum and Roksa). They must persevere engaging with texts to get the most out of them, they have no choice as far as they are students. However, this active and critical approach to texts could also be beneficial for them when they read something on some facebook walls, or when they watch a video on YouTube. They will at least learn to adopt a positive sceptical method to dealing with what they read, see or hear.

For More Information about Critical reading

1. In print, critical reading and writing (Longman series in college composition and communication) by Martin Stevens
2. Critical reading and writing by Martin Stevens, Jeffery Kluewer (Longman Publishing Group, 1983)
3. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by R. Arum and J. Roksa.

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