The aim of critical reading

time to complete: 10 minutes

What is the aim of critical reading?

The aim of critical reading is not to find fault, it is not looking for problems but to assess the strength of the evidence and the argument.

It is just as useful to conclude that a study, or an article, presents very strong evidence and a well-reasoned argument, as it is to identify the studies or articles that are weak.

A practical starting point therefore, is to consider what you read not as fact, but as the argument of the writer.

Taking this starting point you will be ready to engage in critical reading.

How to critically approach a text

Read extensively

When studying at university, it is impossible to read everything in great detail. Therefore, you must develop the skills of reading only what you need, the parts you need and being critical enough to decide when to stop reading something.

Intensive reading = reading everything.

Extensive reading = reading a bit from a lot of sources.

Clear purpose

If you don’t, you will be led down lots of unhelpful roads which will waste your time and distract you from your essay focus. Good readers think about the purpose of reading first.

Your purpose may be clear:

e.g. I’m going to read this article to find out what methods the researcher used for gathering this type of data, as I want to get ideas on how I will carry out my own investigation.

Or it may be more vague:

e.g. I’m going to read this book chapter to see if there are any insights into this specific topic. I will skim read it and scan for keywords. If I don’t find anything directly applicable to my specific thesis, I won’t take any notes.

Questions to ask yourself before and while reading

What is the benefit of having a specific question in your mind before you read or while you are reading a text? Well, reading with a purpose, e.g. being aware of what information you are looking for, can help you read more effectively.

But, what kind of questions should you ask yourself before you start reading or while you are reading? To find out, click on the categories (adapted from Gillet 2020).

1. Why are you reading this text? What is your purpose?
2. What type of text is it: research report, essay, textbook, book review?
3. What do you already know about the subject of the text?
4. What else has been written on the subject of the text?
5. What controversies (if any) exist in this area?

1. Who is the author? What do you know about the author? What authority does the author have?
2. Who is the intended audience?
3. What is the author’s purpose? Why has the text been written?
4. What is the source of the text? Is it reputable? Who is the publisher? What
reputation do they have?
5. What is the date of publication? Is it appropriate to the argument?
6. What is the writer’s attitude towards the topic?
7. What conclusions are drawn?

1. Is there a clear distinction between fact and opinion?
2. Is evidence used to support arguments? How good is the evidence? Are all the points supported?
3. In an experimental study, was the sample size adequate and are the statistics reliable?
4. Are there any unsupported points? Are they well-known facts or generally accepted opinions?
5. How does the writer use other texts and other people’s ideas?
6. Are the writer’s conclusions reasonable in the light of the evidence presented?
7. How do the conclusions relate to other similar research?

1. What assumptions has the writer made? Are they valid?
2. What beliefs or values does the writer hold? Are they explicit?
3. Look at the language that is used. Is it always possible to identify participants, i.e. who does the action, and processes; what happens? e.g. compare: the government increased taxes; they increased the taxes, taxes were increased; taxes increased; the taxes increased, there was an increase in taxes.
4. Look for emphatic words such as it is obvious, definitely and of course.
5. Look for hedges: possible, might, perhaps.
6. Look for emotional arguments, use of maximisers: completely, absolutely, entirely, or minimisers: only, just, hardly, simply, merely.

1. What are the sources and assumptions the researcher is depending on? Do you agree with them? Are there alternative sources that disagree with the ones used by the author? Have author’s assumptions or sources used ever been questioned or proved wrong?
2. What method of data collection/study design did the researcher use? Are they appropriate to the research project? Does any theory oppose these methods?
3. How does the researcher analyse the data? Is it thorough? Does any research criticise this approach?
4. How does the researcher interpret the results? Do you agree with their interpretation?
5. How has the researcher linked findings to a wider context? Do you think the connections they make are valid?
6. Why did the researcher decide to do this in this way? For example: measurements, timing, equipment, control of outside factors, and following of standard procedures. Thinking about how they did what they did may help you to make decisions about your own research.