Critical Reading in the Social Sciences
by Manuel Vallée, Sociology
It is reading actively with the goals of identifying arguments, weighing evidence, evaluating sources, looking for conflicts of interest, and questioning underlying assumptions. It is distinctly different from the passive reading associated with reading for pleasure, which many students mistakenly apply to academic texts. Regardless of discipline, critical reading is an important skill that will help students become more informed and, hopefully, more effective citizens.
What does it mean for the social sciences?
In the social sciences, critical reading also means being aware of how a reading fits into an analytic lineage. That means identifying the research question being asked, what has been said about that question, and what the current author is contributing to the analysis.
What difficulties do students face?
Students at the beginning of their college career might confuse the concept of critique with the idea that they are always supposed to criticize a reading. Others might confuse critical engagement with a text with the hopeless task of distinguishing the part of an article that is objective and factual from the part that is opinion-based, biased, or just plain false.
Where do these difficulties come from?
This confusion stems from a model of teaching prevalent at the high-school level that teaches students to memorize answers that have been coded as “facts” for one-time testing. In general, beginning college students have not been prepared to critically engage with their texts, understand how the texts are part of an intellectual lineage, or question the assumptions that have been built into the particular models of understanding that they have been exposed to in different disciplines.
Therefore, in asking students to become critical readers within many disciplines at the college level, we are asking students to develop a skill set which is diametrically opposed to the one they learned at the high-school level.
How do we help students surmount these difficulties?
To alleviate these difficulties I offer a comprehensive, four-step approach to critical reading as well as suggestions for assignments, in-class discussions, and ways to help students better relate to social science articles.
This approach includes three layers of reading as well as a “response” component. Good readers will reread a piece several times until they are satisfied that they know it inside and out. It is recommended that you read a text three times to elicit as much meaning as you can.
First Reading: Previewing
The first time you read a text, skim it quickly for its main ideas. Pay attention to the introduction, the opening sentences of paragraphs, and section headings, if there are any. Previewing the text in this way gets you off to a good start when you have to read critically.
Second Reading: Annotating and Analyzing
The second reading includes annotating and analyzing the evidence in support of the argument. It should be a slow, meditative read, and you should have your pencil in your hand so you can annotate the text. Taking time to annotate your text during the second reading may be the most important strategy to master if you want to become a critical reader.
Third Reading: Review
The third reading should take into account any questions you asked yourself by annotating in the margins. You should use this reading to look up any unfamiliar words and to make sure you have understood any confusing or complicated sections of the text.
Fourth Step: Responding
Responding to what you read is an important step in understanding what you read. You can respond in writing or by talking about what you’ve read to others.
Below I provide details about the first two levels of reading and the “response” portion of the approach. Additionally, I provide suggestions for critical reading assignments, topics for in-class discussions, and ways to help students better relate to academic texts.
Immediately after reading the article or chapter, write about it for 15 minutes. Do not concern yourself with logic, style, punctuation, or any other standard of “correctness.” If, in the middle of a sentence, another idea comes to you — go with it. The point of this exercise is to get down as many of your impressions of what you have read as possible without having to consider any possible use for what you are writing. Just let yourself think about what you have read and record these thoughts.
Reflect on the Title
Before reading the article or chapter, reflect on its title. Write a paragraph about what is conveyed by the title, what the article’s focus will be, and what you believe the argument will be. Don’t worry about “getting it right,” as that isn’t the point of this exercise. Then read the article in question and, when you are done, summarize the author’s argument. After summarizing the argument, reflect on a) how your reading of the article or chapter was informed by reflecting on its title, and b) whether you were misled by the title.
Reflect on the Abstract
Same as above, but with the article’s abstract instead of the title.
Evaluate the Argument
Read the introduction and conclusion of the article. Then identify the argument of the text. Then take ten minutes to freewrite, identifying what types of evidence the article will need to provide to persuade you of its argument. Read the article, and then write a paragraph that analyzes the extent to which the article did or did not meet your expectations. Were you persuaded by the evidence? Why or why not?
Freewrite about Connections to Other Readings
After freewriting about the article, take a short break, and then do a freewrite on the various ways you think the text links up to the preceding texts covered in the class, and/or themes of the course. What are the similarities and differences in terms of subject matter, research question, geographical focus, temporal focus, type of data, and argument?
Identify Citation Lineages
a) Make a list of the theoretical approaches mentioned in the text.
b) Make a list of the specific authors referred to.
c) Make a list of the key concepts used in the text. (Can the reader glean a working definition of these concepts from the text?)
d) Mark each member of the lists created above in reference to the author’s relationship to it. Does the author mention the theoretical approach, concept, or thinker under consideration as an advance to previous thinking, or does he / she emphasize the limitations of it?
e) What is the author’s main analytical point as opposed to the ideas of other thinkers in the text?
Answer Reading Questions
Another strategy is for the instructor to provide reading questions a few days before the readings are due. These can include standard questions, such as “what is the author’s argument?” and “how does his / her argument relate to the readings that preceded it?” Or the questions can be more specific to the article, such as asking for definitions of key concepts in the reading. The questions provide students with guidance about how to read texts and help focus class discussion around salient points. Also, teachers can provide extra incentive by offering extra credit to students who submit satisfactory written responses to the questions.
Discuss Reading Strategies
Set aside class time for a short discussion about the reading process. Ask each student to share one or more strategies that help them with their reading assignments. This could pertain to places they read, the number of pages they attempt to read at one sitting, comfort of the reading environment, time of day, etc. This exercise will help the students become more conscious of their reading habits or strategies, learn about the reading strategies used by others, and build classroom solidarity.
Have a similar conversation about the difficulties students face vis-à-vis the readings and how they have sought to address those difficulties.
A difficulty experienced by many social science students is understanding that a particular article is a piece in an ongoing analytical lineage. To address this difficulty, below I provide metaphors that help students read analytically within a particular disciplinary lineage. These metaphors also help students understand that the main task that they are expected to master is to understand analytical arguments and the assumptions that those arguments are based on, not only for the author they are reading now but for the authors that the current author is citing.
- The metaphor of a citation lineage: This expression can itself be considered a metaphor. It references the fact that disciplines within an analytic tradition produce texts that are densely referenced and that authors are working within multilayered traditions of citation.
- The metaphor of a conversation: Instead of trying to read for “the facts,” encourage students to see an article as an ongoing conversation in which the current author of the article being read is engaging with other authors’ ideas. These other authors might span large expanses of time and disciplinary space, so the student needs to pay attention to the different authors and concepts mentioned. They need to start to construct a conceptual map for themselves.
- The metaphor of the party: Tell students that reading an analytical article feels very similar to going to a party where they know only one person, but everyone else has been going to the same parties for years. The new person (the student) doesn’t know the prior history of the groups (who hates whom, who used to date whom, for example) and needs to be filled in on the backstory. This is very similar to many disciplines in which the ongoing conversation into which a particular author is making an intervention is quite complex and pulls from divergent sources. When students are first asked to read an analytical argument that is densely referenced, they may get confused and give up. The metaphor of the party lets students know that you expect them to feel over-loaded when they first read an article that is densely layered from multiple citation lineages.
- The metaphor of enemies and allies: This is very similar to the metaphor of the party but emphasizes the fact that the author being read either agrees or disagrees with aspects of the argumentation of the other thinkers cited in his / her own article. Students therefore need to pay attention to tone.
- The metaphor of a language class: This helps students understand that we are giving them “real” articles that will be difficult for them in the beginning. When students start to read this kind of text they might feel like they are being asked to read a third-year foreign language text when they haven’t yet taken the first two years.
Crusius, Timothy and Carolyn Channell (1995). The Aims of Argument, Mayfield Publishing.
Mather, George, PhD Candidate, Anthropology, UC Berkeley. GSI Teaching & Resource Center workshop on critical reading, Spring 2007.
The Writing Center, Cleveland State University. Critical Reading: What Is Critical Reading, and Why Do I Need to Do It?
Writing @ Colorado State University, Critical Reading.
The remainder of Manuel’s document can be viewed in the Appendix: Detailed Description of the Four-Step Approach (pdf).