Sometimes, as readers, we encounter words in a text with which we are unfamiliar. Using context clues—looking at the words around the unknown word and the sentences around the sentence that uses the unfamiliar term—can help a reader determine the word’s meaning. Use the context of what is around the unfamiliar word to help determine its probable meaning.
Authors may make statements directly to a reader. “Here is what I want you to know or understand or take away from all of this.” But sometimes, the author hints as to what he or she wants the reader to pick up on without stating it directly: this is called an inference. An inference is a conclusion a reader draws based on evidence provided by an author and the reader’s own deductive reasoning. It is not stated outright, but suggested at by the author based on what the author says and how he or she says it.
Authors sometimes try to pass off opinions as facts. Careful, critical readers are on the lookout for this and question the text to ensure that facts are facts and opinions are opinions. A fact is a claim or statement that can be proven as being true or is generally accepted as true. An opinion, while sometimes based on facts, is an expression of someone’s feelings or personal thoughts. Opinions cannot be proven and may not be widely accepted by society. Opinions can be misleading if they are misunderstood to be facts, which is why it is important to be on the lookout for them and be able to discern the difference between the two.
A fallacy is an unsound argument. The argument may sound solid and well-thought out on the surface, but if you question it or start to test it, it falls apart. Authors may include fallacies in their texts because they are trying to persuade the audience and don’t necessarily think the audience will dissect their arguments, or because they genuinely don’t have sound reasoning in their arguments. There are many types of fallacies out there, but here are some of the most commonly found.
An analogy is a comparison between two things. A false analogy occurs when the author wants the reader to assume that just because two things are similar in one aspect, they are are necessarily alike in other aspects. When the two are actually compared, side-by-side, they are very different in the area in which they are being compared. For example, people who have to have their cup(s) of coffee in the morning “to face the day” are equivalent to alcoholics who need that drink before they face their challenges during the day. Both groups are similar in that they have this need for a particular beverage type, but the argument falls apart when you compare relatively innocuous coffee to the dangers of alcohol. The comparison is faulty.
Circular reasoning is, as the name implies, creating an argument where the “proof” is the same as the “conclusion.” A is used to prove B which is used to prove A. There is no logical, linear reasoning; it just goes round and round in a circle. On the surface, circular reasoning can seem sound, but when it is tested there is really little or nothing to substantiate, prove, or support the argument; any “evidence” is missing from the argument. For example, when a child asks his parent why he can’t have ice cream for breakfast and her answer is “because I said so,” that is circular reasoning. Why is mom right? Because mom said she is right. Unfortunately, there’s nothing there to substantiate her being “right.”
A false dichotomy argument, also known as a false dilemma or either-or reasoning, is an argument where only two choices are given, though others may exist, and the argument is set up as “either this or that.” In this fallacy, there may be a plethora of other choices from which to choose, or there may be many degrees of intensity between two given extremes. This argument is false because it doesn’t take into consideration other answer options. For example, Mark walks up to Mindy and says, “I thought you were a moral person, but I didn’t see you at church yesterday.” In this example, the choice is that Mindy is either: (A) a moral person with 100% attendance at church, or (B) an immoral person because she doesn’t have 100% attendance at church. No other options are given, though there may be many. Maybe Mindy was at the homeless shelter helping veterans. Maybe Mindy was ill and couldn’t make it to church. Maybe Mindy was busy robbing a bank and that’s why she didn’t go to church. Mindy’s morality and her attendance at church are not necessarily dependent on one another, but those are the only options the argument provides.
The fallacy of overgeneralization comes when a conclusion is drawn based on a small sampling or a single experience rather than taking into consideration the “big picture.” For example, Sam tells Sally that his grandfather smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 65 years and lived until he was seventy-two. Therefore, Sam concludes smoking can’t be that bad for you. What his argument fails to consider are the hundreds of thousands of people who smoke and die prematurely of lung or heart disease. One “exception” does not make the rule.
A slippery slope fallacy is created when a series of events is explored that may not even be connected. The first event may be rather insignificant, but with each passing incident, things become more and more significant, snowballing into a huge issue. In this fallacy, the next thing you know, it’s disaster! For example, a teacher decides not to allow her students to retake a test because then they are going to want the opportunity to redo every assignment. Or, Alex is trying to lose weight, but he goes to a party and eats chips and dip. Tomorrow he’s going to want to eat chips and dip and fries. Then with fries you need a cheeseburger. And a milkshake. Before he knows it, Alex will gain 25 pounds. There is no indication that the students are going to have any desire to redo any other assignments or that Alex won’t be able to rein himself back in tomorrow and not give in to the temptation of unhealthy food. But it’s a slippery slope and once you start, it’s all downhill from there!
An ad hominem fallacy is one whereby an argument is rebutted by attacking the person making the argument rather than attacking the argument itself. Ad hominem fallacies are commonplace today as it is often considered easier or more effective to attack the person than to attack the message. If there really is no good counter-argument, then attacking the person makes it sound like the argument is a bad idea. For example, when running for Student Council President, Allison claimed that she would work to ensure that the cafeteria served fresh, healthy, vegetarian options for all students. Alfonso attacked Allison’s platform calling her a “granola-loving hippie” who would destroy lunch options for students. Rather than attacking her ideas (which really don’t have a strong counterargument: increasing vegetarian options doesn’t necessarily diminish non-vegetarian options, so who would be complaining and why?), Alfonso attacked her as a person, calling her names and suggesting her proposal was ridiculous.
Many reading experiences today include a written text, as well as a graphic of some sort, such as a chart, graph, or table. You may be expected to determine if both the passage and the graphic give the same information. Other times, you may only have the graphic for information and be asked to glean answers from it, alone.
Bar graphs, also known as bar charts or bar diagrams, use different level bars to compare data among different categories. They may be oriented vertically so that taller bars indicate higher levels of whatever is being charted while shorter bars indicate lower levels. They may also be oriented horizontally so that bars that stretch farther to the right indicate higher levels. Whether vertical or horizontal, the longer the bar, the greater its value on the chart. For example, if you were charting how many students in your class liked cheese pizza versus pepperoni pizza versus veggie pizza, you might have a bar graph that looks like this:
A pie chart, sometimes referred to as a circle chart, is round in shape and is divided into “slices” to indicate numerical proportions to the whole. If the whole pie chart equals 100%, the sections included within it must add up to 100%. Using the numbers from our bar graph above, we could chart the number of students who prefer each type of pizza, with the entire class being the “100%.”
Reading a Scale
Sometimes graphics, like maps, will use a scale to fit an image on the page. For example, they can’t fit the entire state of Texas on book’s page full-size, so it is scaled down so that perhaps 1 inch on the map is equivalent to 100 miles of Texas. To read these scales, it is important to understand what the ratio is so that, as you measure, it is accurate. Graphic scales allow authors to include maps by converting distances into manageable units of measurement in the text.
Legends and Map Keys
Map keys and legends are the symbols used on maps and the explanations of those symbols so that you can access and understand a map. The map key explains what the symbols or colors on a map mean or are meant to represent. For example, a map may include blue lines, orange flames, and brown squares. The map key would explain that the blue lines indicate rivers or streams on the area of the map, the orange flames are campgrounds with fire pits, and the brown squares indicate cabins. Without the map key or legend, the symbols used on a map may be difficult to understand.
Using All Information
When graphics are present, they serve a purpose. Do not overlook them or assume they hold no value. Study the graphics to help the text make more sense and to provide a visual representation of the subject of the text. Remember that textual clues can come in a variety of forms, including maps, charts, graphs, and text that is formatted differently, such as things that are italicized, bolded, in bigger or smaller font size, or in a different font style. Use all of the information provided to access a text, and that includes the words and the images.