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Social Sci LibreTexts Critical Reading and Rhetorical Context

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    Reading and Rhetorical Context

    We have looked at the use of rhetoric from the viewpoint of a writer. Consider how the same elements hold true from the viewpoint as a reader.

    As a reader, pay attention to these factors that shaped the document. Consider:

    • What do I know about the author, just by reading this text? How does the author’s experience or education shape the reading?
    • What do I know about the goals for this work, just by reading this text? How do these goals influence what actually appears in the text?
    • What do I know about the intended audience for this work? Am I a member of that intended audience?

    In the following video, see how reading can literally "change your brain" to help with learning:

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Reading Can Change Your Brain! Authored by: Seeker. All Rights Reserved. Standard YouTube license.

    Critical Reading

    Life presents us with a variety of reading situations, which demand different reading strategies and techniques. Sometimes, it is important to be as efficient as possible and read purely for information or “the main point.” At other times, it is important to just “let go” and turn the pages reading a good story although this sometimes means not thinking deeply about the story you are reading. At the heart of writing and research, however, lies the kind of reading known as critical reading. The critical examination of sources is what makes their use in research possible and what allows writers to create rhetorically effective and engaging texts.

    Critical readers are able to interact with the texts they read through carefully listening, writing, conversation, and questioning. They do not sit back and wait for the meaning of a text to come to them; instead, they work hard in order to create such meaning. Critical readers are not made overnight. Becoming a critical reader takes a lot of practice and patience. Depending on your current reading philosophy and experiences with reading, becoming a critical reader may require a significant change in your whole understanding of the reading process. The trade-off is worth it, however. By becoming a more critical and active reader, you will also become a better researcher and a better writer. Last but not least, you will enjoy reading and writing a whole lot more because you will become actively engaged in both.

    Critical reading, then, is a two-way process. As reader, you are not a consumer of words, waiting patiently for ideas from the printed page or a web-site to fill your head and make you smarter. Instead, as a critical reader, you will interact with what you read, asking questions of the author, testing every assertion, fact, or idea, and extending the text by adding your own understanding of the subject and your own personal experiences.

    The idea behind the rhetorical theory of reading is that when we read, we not only take in ideas, information, and facts, but in the process we also “update our view of the world.” This is what it means to be a monitoring citizen. You cannot force someone to update his or her worldview; therefore, the purpose of writing is persuasion, and the purpose of reading is to be persuaded. Persuasion is possible only when the reader is actively engaged with the text and understands that much more than simple retrieval of information is at stake when reading.

    Key features of the critical approach to reading:

    • No text, however skillfully written or authoritative, contains its own, pre-determined meaning. Audiences bring their education, situated knowledge, and experience to bear on texts in order to better understand their meanings.
    • Readers must work hard to create meaning from every text. All complex texts contain surface meaning and subtext. Often, readers have to think of the bigger picture in making sense of how a subject can influence broader culture.
    • Critical readers interact with the texts that they read by questioning them, responding to them, and expanding them, usually in writing.
    • Critical readers actively search for related texts to place these works in conversation with each other to advance important ideas. Consider how subjects from your other courses and experiences connect to the sources you are reading.

    Advice for Critical Readers

    The first key to being a critical and active reader is to find something in the piece that interests, bothers, encourages, or just confuses you. Use this to drive your analysis.

    • Reading something once is never enough, so reading it quickly before class just won’t cut it. Read it once to get your brain comfortable with the work; then read it again and actually try to understand what’s going on in it.
    • Annotate the text while you read. Annotation is a key reading-writing activity. Writing while you read allows you to have a conversation with the text. It keeps your brain active while you read, it clarifies questions that you might want to bring to class, and it gives you a place to start your writing because you've already thought about it. We cannot overstate the importance of annotation while reading. There are a number of ways to annotate, and strategies for that are explained below.
    • Ask questions. It seems like a simple suggestion, but if you never ask questions you’ll never get any answers. So, while you’re reading, think of questions and just write them down on a piece of paper lest you forget them.

    Evaluating Information with Critical Thinking

    Evaluating information can be one of the most complex tasks you will be faced with in college. But if you utilize the following four strategies, you will be well on your way to success:

    • Read to understand, by using text coding
    • Examine arguments
    • Clarify thinking
    • Cultivate “habits of mind”

    1. Read for Understanding Using Text Coding

    When you read and take notes, use the text coding strategy. Text coding is a way of tracking your thinking while reading. It entails marking the text and recording what you are thinking either in the margins or perhaps on Post-it notes (if your copy of the text is from the library or rented). As you make connections and ask questions in response to what you read, monitor your comprehension and enhance your long-term understanding of the material.

    With text coding, mark important arguments and key facts. Indicate where you agree and disagree or have further questions. You don’t necessarily need to read every word, but make sure you understand the concepts or the intentions behind what is written. Feel free to develop your own shorthand style when reading or taking notes. The following are a few options to consider using while coding text.

    Shorthand Meaning
    ! Important
    L Learned something new
    ! Big idea surfaced
    * Interesting or important fact
    ? Dig deeper

    2. Examine Arguments

    When you examine arguments or claims that an author, speaker, or other source is making, your goal is to identify and examine the hard facts. You can use the spectrum of authority strategy for this purpose. The spectrum of authority strategy assists you in identifying the “hot” end of an argument—feelings, beliefs, cultural influences, and societal influences—and the “cold” end of an argument—scientific influences. The following video explains this strategy.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Critical Thinking: Spectrum of Authority. Authored by:UBC Learn. All Rights Reserved.Standard YouTube license.

    3. Clarify Thinking

    When you use critical thinking to evaluate information, you need to clarify your thinking to yourself and, maybe, to others. Doing this well is mainly a process of asking and answering probing questions, such as the logic questions discussed earlier in this chapter. Design your questions to fit your needs, but be sure to cover adequate ground. What is the purpose? What question are we trying to answer? What point of view is being expressed? What assumptions are we, or others, making? What are the facts and data we know, and how do we know them? What are the concepts we’re working with? What are the conclusions, and do they make sense? What are the implications?

    4. Cultivate “Habits of Mind”

    “Habits of mind” are the personal commitments, values, and standards you have adopted about the principles of good thinking. Consider your intellectual commitments, values, and standards. Do you approach problems with an open mind, a respect for truth, and an inquiring attitude? Some good habits to have when thinking critically are: being receptive to having your opinions changed, having respect for others, being independent and not accepting something is true until you’ve had the time to examine the available evidence, being fair-minded, having respect for a reason, having an inquiring mind, not making assumptions, and always, especially, questioning your own conclusions—in other words, developing an intellectual work ethic. Try to work these qualities into your daily life.


    This page most recently updated on June 6, 2020.

    This page titled Critical Reading and Rhetorical Context is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .