Critical Reading Study Guide for the English Basics
Analyzing the Text
When you are reading, especially nonfiction texts, it is important to analyze the text. This means examining in close detail what you are reading and questioning it as you go.
About the Author
Anyone can write. How do you know the person writing is a trustworthy source for the topic they are writing about? Analyzing the author is an important element of critical reading. You don’t want to be fooled by someone who has a mastery of language: just because he or she knows how to write well and it sounds good doesn’t mean that person is a credible source. Be sure to analyze the writer as well as what he or she writes. The following are some things to consider as you analyze and question the author.
Why did this person write this piece at this time? What is the author’s purpose in putting this text out there for others to read? Is the author trying to persuade the reader? Entertain the reader? Inform the reader? Identifying the author’s reason or purpose for writing the text will prepare you for how to read and interpret it. If the author is trying to entertain, then perhaps you won’t be as critical or questioning as if the author is trying to persuade you of something. And if the author is writing to inform the reader of something, you may question his or her credentials to be able to do so. Is this author an authority on the subject? Does the author reference knowledgeable, trustworthy sources to support his or her statements? This is why determining the author’s purpose is important.
Doesn’t an author write for whoever will read it? Well… no. Authors write with a particular audience in mind. They must focus their efforts in some way so that they know what kind of diction to use, how to organize and structure it, and what kind of content will be most effective. As a reader, it is important to determine the intended audience for a text because it may not be you! That doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t read it; it simply means that you must consider this when you do read it. If you are not the intended audience, you may not be persuaded by the arguments presented, for example. But if you know that going in, you can objectively evaluate the text based on your understanding of who the intended audience is.
Tone refers to how the author feels about the topic about which he or she is writing. Tone is created by an author’s diction and style and conveys his or her attitude toward a topic. Analyzing the author’s tone is important because it gives insight into any sort of bias or preconceived notions the author may be coming in with, which may affect the reader. Tone can generally be described in one-word adjectives, though a text will probably have several tone words appropriate to describe it. For example, an author’s tone may be arrogant, assertive, compassionate, or humorous. Remember that tone is different from mood: tone is what the author feels about a subject, and mood is how the reader feels as a result of reading a text.
An author’s argument is the claim (or claims) and statements an author makes in support of his or her position on a topic. Arguments are most prevalent in persuasive texts, though they may be present in other genres as well. Authors should support their arguments with evidence or support that will convince readers to agree with his or her position. The arguments and their evidence are the elements of the text that should be most closely analyzed by a critical reader.
About the Text
In addition to questioning and analyzing the person writing a text (the author) and his or her motivations for doing so, it is also important to question and analyze what the author writes (the text itself). The following are things to consider with regard to the text as you read.
Questioning the Text
Critical readers question the text as they read because thinking matters. Questioning the text is a skill applied by perceptive readers wherein they question what they are reading rather than just accepting it because the author says so. Questioning the text requires a reader to think about and consider what the author wants him or her to believe and to weigh whether or not an author’s views are worthy of the reader’s agreement and support. This practice involves an inner conversation by the reader with him or herself about comments or ideas that catch attention, points the reader wonders about, or questions and doubts that arise during the reading. The idea is not necessarily to find answers to these questions, though sometimes with further reading answers appear; the idea is to question and challenge the text and not just to accept it without consideration.
What a Text Says vs. What a Text Does
When you analyze a text as a reader, you must look at both what the text says (its content) and what it does (its purpose and rhetorical elements). Analyzing what a text says requires basic comprehension and the ability to follow the author’s train of thought through a text. What a text says is something that can be summarized by a reader explaining the text to someone unfamiliar with it.
Analyzing what a text does requires deeper level of scrutiny. To analyze what a text does means identifying and evaluating its purpose, argument, audience, and the rhetorical elements used in its structure. To analyze what a text does, consider questions like: How is this text organized? What evidence is presented? What methods does the author use to convince his or her audience? What diction is used and why did the author choose those words? These kinds of higher-level thinking questions test the text in a tougher way than just recognizing the big picture idea of what it says.
Reading to Understand vs. Reading to Evaluate
Readers read on a variety of levels. The two most basic are reading to understand and reading to evaluate. Reading to understand is just that: reading to comprehend and literally realize what is happening as described by the words on the page. Reading to evaluate requires a higher level of thinking. Reading to evaluate means assessing what is read and determining what part(s) to accept or believe and what part(s) might need to be disregarded. When you read to evaluate a text, you appraise it in terms of the validity of the author’s argument, its relevance, the evidence presented, and the author’s credibility. It goes far beyond general reading for understanding. However, reading to evaluate cannot take place until the text has been read for understanding.
Main Idea vs. Supporting Detail
When analyzing the main idea and supporting details, the most important thing is to make sure that you can tell the difference between the two. The main idea is the main point. A text may have a main idea as a whole, but each paragraph should also be built around a main idea. The main idea is generally found in the topic sentence, which is usually the first sentence of a paragraph.
Everything that supports or explains or provides more information about the main idea is a supporting detail (because they support the main idea). Supporting details include sentences that provide more information about the main idea or examples of things that would relate to the main idea.
When analyzing the main idea and supporting details of a text, key things to consider include: Is the main idea relevant? Is it important and worth thinking about? Is the main idea clear and concise or is it too big to deal with effectively (does it need to be narrowed down)? Are the supporting details relevant to the main idea? Are the supporting details credible and believable? Do the supporting details support the author’s main idea and serve a legitimate purpose?
Connotation and Denotation
Words have two levels of meaning: connotation and denotation. Denotation is the literal dictionary definition of what a word means. When you look up a word in the dictionary, you find its denotation.
Connotation is the emotional baggage that a word carries with it. How a word will affect a reader and make that person feel is the connotation. Words can have a positive connotation or feeling like modest or youthful, a negative connotation like miserly or pushy, or they can be neutral and not really elicit an emotional response from a reader.
Here are some examples of words that mean basically the same thing, but which have different connotations. In each example, the positive connotative word comes first and the negative connotative word comes second:
In these pairs of words, there is probably one you would prefer be used to describe you and one you would prefer not be used. That is because although they have the same basic denotation, their connotation is quite different.
Direct and Indirect Language
In both fiction and nonfiction, authors can provide the reader information directly or indirectly. Direct language is when the author states something openly and directly to the reader. For example, “Mr. Severs was a dishonest man.” This kind of direct language tells the reader exactly what this person is like and how the reader should view him.
Indirect language uses inferences and suggestions to guide readers toward their own conclusion without directly stating how the author wants them to interpret something. For example, the author may provide some examples of dishonest dealings Mr. Severs has been involved in or share comments other people have made about the kind of person Mr. Severs is. The author is not telling the reader outright what kind of man he is, but is using indirect language to guide the reader to the same conclusion. When you have to gather evidence from the text to form your own conclusion, the author is using indirect language. Critical readers need to be on the lookout for both direct and indirect language usage, both for clear understanding of the text and to evaluate text effectiveness and possible bias involved.
Everybody has bias, and authors are no exception. Bias just refers to a preference someone has for one thing more than another. In itself, bias is just a condition, but it can become negative when it is acted upon in discriminatory ways. In a text, a critical reader wants to be aware of any bias the author might be showing toward the subject of the text or toward the audience. Identified bias can help a reader accurately evaluate the text.
Bias can be overt and easy to spot or it can be subtle and implied. Critical readers identify author bias and evaluate the extent to which it affects his or her presentation of the topic. An author may include his or her opinion (bias) but how does that affect the reader’s interpretation of the subject? Does it make the author seem one-sided? Does the author treat one side more favorably than another? Bias isn’t necessarily bad and it doesn’t negate valid arguments, but it does need to be recognized, acknowledged, and evaluated for its effect on the reader.
Using the Text
Critical readers know how to use the text for their own purpose. When they read something, they lock it in their knowledge and experience vault and can use it later. Synthesizing the information connects what is read to experience or understanding the reader already has; drawing conclusions helps the reader identify the author’s underlying message and evaluate the information and support provided; and making predictions activates a reader’s prior knowledge to anticipate what he or she should expect in a new text.
Synthesizing information means determining what is important in a text and organizing it in your mind to summarize or determine the overall message. When you synthesize information, you create original insight and understanding into the ideas presented and put the pieces together to show understanding and application to your own life or experiences. Synthesizing information can also include combining elements of multiple texts into a cohesive whole, again to understand the overall message and how the pieces connect and relate to one another.
When you read, you will be drawing conclusions along the way. This means using information that is implied or inferred to make meaning out of what is not stated outright by the author. Drawing conclusions requires a reader to “read between the lines” and look for the underlying message the author is really trying to express. These conclusions should be based on textual evidence and support, however, and must make logical sense based on what the text says.
Making predictions before and while you read will help guide your reading. When you make a prediction, you use textual clues like titles, headings, charts, graphs, images, etc., and your own personal experience to make an educated guess about what the reading will cover or what might come next. For example, if you see a text that includes an image of a jaguar lounging in a tree in the jungle, you may predict that the reading will be about jaguars. If there is a chart about employment growth, chances are good the text will be about employment gains and not about sending a man to Mars. Making predictions is a smart skill because you can use it to check your comprehension and consider what made you think something was going to be present in the text or not.
Sometimes reading selections will include graphics or images to support the reading. These graphics include charts, graphs, pictures, maps, photographs, or other images. Use these reading graphics to better understand the context of the words.
What to Look For
Consider how the graphic might help provide clues about the content of the text. What insight does it provide? How can it help you make a prediction about what to expect in the reading? Does the graphic act as supporting evidence for the claims made in the text? In examining the reading graphics carefully, the critical reader can gain valuable insight. Don’t just glance over them!
Reading graphics can provide important information that is easier to visualize than to understand by reading about. Numbers, especially, can have a bigger impact on a reader when presented in a chart or graph than just listed in a paragraph. Photographs or illustrations give the reader a visual of exactly how or what the author wants the reader to envision. Maps assist readers to geographically place references to locations with which they might be unfamiliar. So when you look at a reading graphic, study it to determine what information it is providing and then connect that information when you read the text.
Charts and graphs can visually represent trends or patterns that will help a reader understand ideas presented in a text. Following the lines of a graph or looking at the distribution of colors on a pie chart can aid a reader in understanding a text.
The idea of including reading graphics is to aid the reader. However, as with the text itself, a critical reader must evaluate the effectiveness of the graphics provided. Do the graphics used support the text? Does the text further explain the information provided in the graphics? The text and the graphics should work together and not detract from or contradict one another. Critical readers check to make sure this is not the case.
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