DEVELOPING CRITICAL READING IN THE EFL CLASSROOM
Critical reading is a skill highly necessitated in both academic and everyday lives. A critical reader is able to detect bias, prejudice, misleading opinion, and illogical conclusions, in a text. As a reading skill which involves critical thinking competence, critical reading can be defined as the process of understanding, questioning, and evaluating a text, which is carried out actively and consciously, in order to well assess the accuracy and validity of a writer’s ideas. As a skill, critical reading could be developed through learning and practices.
Keywords: critical reading, critical thinking, fact, opinion, fallacious thinking, hasty generalization, equivocation, name-calling, statistical slips.
Some years ago while I was trying to provide the students who attend my reading classes in the English Department of the Faculty of Education and Teacher Training of the Christian University of Indonesia Jakarta with up-to-date reading materials by selecting some texts from English newspapers and magazines, I realized that some of the materials attempt to influence the reader’s thinking and behavior. This incident reminded me that writers do not only aim to communicate information, experience, or amusement. Some writers also use texts, such as editorials, opinion columns, advertisements, propaganda bulletins, sermons, and political statement, as an instrument of persuasion. In general, there’s nothing wrong to deal with persuasive texts. It is only wrong if we allow ourselves to be unknowingly influenced just because we passively absorb other people’s opinions without trying to find out whether they are truly sound or not. For that reason, we should also help our students develop critical reading skills, in addition to the literal and literary reading skills.
By mastering critical reading skills, for instance, they will be able to weigh public issues and make intelligent choices among political candidates. Critical reading will also enable them to detect misleading advertisement claims, recognize the best values, and avoid spending their money foolishly. In short, it is an essential ability because we are living in times of advanced technology and the widespread expansion of information, when each individual needs to be a critical reader to uncover bias, prejudice, faulty reasoning, misinformation, and illogical conclusions presented in texts. And since it is a skill, it can be developed and refined with practice. This article aims to share my personal experiences combined with some principal concepts of critical reading skills in order to suggest some tips for helping our students develop critical reading skills.
What is Critical Reading?
‘Critical reading’ is basically a reading process which involves critical thinking. Thus, to define critical reading necessitates an understanding of the meanings reading and critical thinking. Recent theories view reading as a process of not just extracting meaning from a text but a process of connecting information in the text with the knowledge the reader brings to the act of reading. Reading, in this sense, is “a dialogue between the reader and the text” (Grabe, 1988: 56). It is seen as an active cognitive process in which the reader’s background knowledge plays a key role in the creation of meaning (Tierney and Pearson, 1994). Thus, reading is not a passive mechanical activity but purposeful and rational, dependent on the prior knowledge and expectations of the reader.
In literature various definitions of critical thinking exist, ranging from ones which envisage critical thinking as a broad construct (Davidson and Dunham, 1997) which concentrates primarily on reasonable and reflective thinking which is focused on what to believe or do, to others which view it more narrowly or exclusively to a certain content area (McPeck, 1981). For Marshall and Rowland (1998), critical thinking occurs when students question their own beliefs or what they are told. In parallel with this, Kurland (2000b) states that Critical thinking is a technique for evaluating information and ideas, for deciding what to accept and believe. Scriven and Paul (1996) define critical thinking as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Others see critical thinking as the ability to distinguish between facts and opinions, judgments and inferences, and objective and subjective impressions. Synthesizing these definitions, we will see that critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively analyzing, questioning, judging, and evaluating information obtained from texts, experience, and reflection. A person with adequate critical thinking will question, challenge, analyze, and evaluate any ideas or opinions he gets. He will never passively absorb other people’s opinions without trying to find out whether they are truly sound or not.
By combining the meaning of critical thinking with the meaning of reading, we can say that critical reading is the application of critical thinking in a reading activity. In this sense critical reading can be defined as an active and purposeful process of comprehending, questioning and evaluating printed material and in order to react intelligently to the writer’s ideas. According to Kurland (2000a), “Critical reading refers to a careful, active, reflective, analytic reading” which involves reflecting on the validity of what one has read in light of his prior knowledge and understanding of the world. To illustrate, a critical reader will question and detect the use of overgeneralization in the statement running: “Marriage just cannot survive these days. Three friends of mine who got married last year are already divorced.” Although the writer provides a factual statement to support his opinion, it is not enough. Three couples with marital problems do not confirm that all marriages are doomed to failure. To take another example, a critical reader will presumably find it easy to judge this: “John succeeded leading some big money-making enterprises. There’s no doubt he will make our nation prosperous. Vote for him in the general election.” The use of the propaganda technique called ‘transfer’ in this statement is very clear. One’s success in leading companies doesn’t guarantee his success to lead a nation.
The definition and illustrations above present us five important features of critical reading. First, the first obligation of a critical reader is to understand the author’s message. To achieve it, he must approach the reading with an open mind and a willingness to accept new ideas or another point of view. Although he has some doubts about the material before he begins reading it, he must give the writer an opportunity to present his position. He must avoid letting his personal biases or prejudices interfere with clear thinking and objectivity. Having understood the message, he then questions it, reflects it, and reacts to it in terms of his own knowledge and experience. It is in this stage that he interacts with the writer. Cautiously, he detects any unsupported assumptions, contrived relationships, faulty reasoning, illogical conclusions, the author’s competence, point of view, and prejudices. At the same time he also should be alert to his own prejudice as he judges the material he is reading.
Second, critical reading is a high-level of comprehension skills, because a good critical reader is able to go beyond the literal interpretation of what he reads. In other words, he reads between the lines to determine what the author means by what he is saying. He knows how to question, analyze, and form judgments. He sorts facts from opinions, searches for causes, and considers the author’s qualifications and purpose. His mind is alert to unfounded assumptions, fallacious reasoning, and illogical conclusions. By thinking for himself, he does not necessarily accept the biased viewpoints and propaganda of writers who are trying to influence him.
Third, unlike basic literal comprehension, critical reading requires the reader to interact with the writer. The reader must understand the writer’s message, question it, and react to it in terms of his own knowledge and experience. He is probing, comparing, and reflecting as he thinks along with the writer about the ideas that have been set forth. Because of this interaction, the reader has not only absorbed the writer’s thoughts, but also adapted them in light of his own background to fit his purposes.
Fourth, critical reading requires wide knowledge. The more experiences and information a critical reader has concerning a subject, the better qualified he is to read it critically. One cannot think about nothing: one must have knowledge of what he is going to criticize. When a reader is familiar with a topic, he can recognize misleading statements, make intelligent comparisons, and be aware of significant omissions. He finds that the material either expands the concepts he already has or fails to harmonize with what he has experienced.
The Process of Critical Reading
As a process of questioning and evaluating printed material by involving one’s ability to think critically and to react intelligently to the writer’s ideas, critical reading is carried out by asking oneself certain questions as he is reading in order to interpret the author’s ideas critically. Thus, critical reading is basically not more than keeping on asking relevant critical questions towards the text one is facing. And since different kinds of text may demand a different type of thinking or reaction on the part of the reader, a fixed procedure for critical reading cannot be formulated. However, based on my several years experience in teaching critical reading, the process of critical reading can be described in the following steps:
- Identifying facts, in which the reader tries to clearly recognize what the author is saying. Examining the source, during which the reader critically looks at the author and his or her competence, reliability, and probable viewpoints or biases.
- Analyzing the material by examining the author’s assumptions and the logic and accuracy of these assumptions and conclusions; recognizing the inferences that the reader is supposed to make.
- Detecting the implications present in the author’s diction, style, or tone; and by recognizing the author’s use of propaganda tricks, fallacious thinking, statistical slips and emotional appeals.
- Comparing a selection with other sources that may present conflicting viewpoints. This fourth step is especially necessary in college assignments and profitable in such area as political science, sociology, psychology, history, law, journalism, as well as in literary critics, essays, biography, and much expository material.
The Components (Sub-Skills) of Critical Reading
Based on the steps of critical reading described above, it is clear that critical reading basically covers the activities of consciously asking some critical questions towards the texts one is facing. The following critical questions, adapted and compiled from Sparks and Johnson’s (1980), Kurland (2000a), and Spache and Berg’s (1994), are suitable for most kinds of printed matter: (1) Are the statements fact or opinion? (2) What is the author’s purpose or motif in writing this material? (3) What is the author bias? (4) How is the author qualified to write this particular material? (5) How recently was the material written? (6) What do I know about the publication of this material? (7) Who is the target reader? (8) Do I accept, reject, or defer judgment on the author’s material? (9) How has the author organized his material? (10) Does the writer employ emotionally toned words? (11) What is the relationship, if any, of the author’s ideas to my own experience? (12) What analogies exist in the reading? (13) What are the cause-and-effect relationships, if any? (14) What, if anything, is irrelevant in the reading? (15) Is there any fallacious reasoning or misuse of statistics in the reading? (16) What comparison can I make of present reading with previous reading? (17) What inference might I draw from knowledge I have gained?
Techniques to Promote Critical Reading
To be able to effectively put the questions into practice, students need to master the conceptions from which they are originated. Thus, the first step we should do to help students to read critically is to make them familiar with critical reading sub-skills and assign them to recognize these sub-skills in actual texts. Based on an analysis on the seventeen questions above, I found eight groups necessary critical reading sub-skills students need to master in order to be a critical reader. I usually include explanations and practice on these sub-skills in my critical reading classes.
1. Distinguishing Fact from Opinion
In general, the texts we read combine statements of opinion with statements of fact. Statements of opinion express a person’s individual response to the surrounding world. In contrast, statements of fact describe the world without interpreting it. Unlike statements of opinion, statements of fact can be tested for accuracy through your own personal observation or through examining historical records and scientific reports.
The ability to distinguish statements of fact from statements opinion is a very necessary skill to develop since it helps readers decide whether an author’s opinions are justified or unjustified. An opinion is justified if the author provides a number of convincing facts to support his or her personal belief. Such opinion is worthy of serious consideration. readers may even want to make it their own. On the other hand, reader should beware of the statements of opinion that lack of factual support–called unjustified opinions, and they should be treated with skepticism. readers certainly do not want to take them seriously without doing further reading on the subject.
2. Interpreting Connotations of Words
In many texts, especially those aimed for persuasion, authors often deliberately use the connotation associated with certain words to make their writing persuasive or convincing. In their trials to appeal to emotions in order to make their ideas acceptable and believable, or to influence their readers’ thinking, writers always use highly connotative language. They are aware of the truth in the principle that it is not always what we say but how we say it that influences people. Thus, while reading, readers would do well to think about the connotations of the words used. If they do, they will be less likely to be influenced without being aware of it. To see the high importance the ability to interpret connotations, let’s take the following two reviews of the same book:
(1) The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas is a highly imaginative novel; reading it, I entered into a dream world, filled with the most extraordinary and unique fantasies.
(2) The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas is a highly unrealistic novel, filled with the most extraordinary and eccentric fantasies. Reading it, I felt as if I were having a weird nightmare.
In the first description, phrases like highly imaginative and unique fantasies are used because they have positive associations that might persuade someone to buy the book. In the second description, the author has a very different intention in mind and therefore employs phrases like highly unrealistic and eccentric fantasies because they usually have negative connotations.
3. Discovering the Author’s Point Of View
In many writings, writers often try to persuade readers to accept their beliefs. To achieve it, in addition to the use of unjustified opinions and connotative meanings, they can also use a ‘special’ point of view, or the point through which the author considers, presents or communicates his messages or ideas. Due to the fact that someone’s perception and consideration are highly influenced by his political inclinations, religion, sex, nationality, or geographic background, some writers are apt to be biased. That is why recognizing the writer’s point of view is crucial for readers in order to detect his purposes or biases. By understanding their point of views, for instance, readers will not find it difficult to understand why most Indonesian educators see the inclusion of religion into the public school curriculum essential whereas American educators see it unessential.
4. Recognizing Crooked and Fallacious Thinking
The development of critical reading skills entails the advancement of a clear and perceptive out-look, and the advancement of a clear and perceptive outlook necessitates the ability to think logically and to recognize and analyze instances of crooked and fallacious thinking. Much human misunderstanding and blunder arises because many people are not aware of the fact that their trends of thoughts, and thus their communication processes, are frequently muddled, illogical and fallacious. Although such innocent, though troublesome, blunders may well be good-humouredly regarded as part of human weaknesses, we should be aware some people sometimes consciously take advantage of general ignorance and weaknesses of others. In persuasions and discourses, such people subtly use crooked tricks of argument to insidiously influence their readers or listeners. In reading, it would therefore be wise to consider common forms of crooked and fallacious trends of thought.
To help students to read critically, I think they need to be familiar with the following twelve common crooked and fallacious thinking. So, any time they find any of them in texts, they will not be easily deceived.
(a) Hasty or Over-Generalizations
(b) Attack on The Person
(c) Appeal to The Emotions
(d) Circular Argument
(e) False Analogy
(g) Either-or Assumption
(h) Talking ‘What is’ to Be ‘What Ought’
(i) Jumping From a Non-Inclusive Proposition to an Inclusive Conclusion
(j) Supposing the Whole to Be Like the Parts
(k) Asking False Questions
(l) Taking What are Mere Coincidences to Be the Causes (Non-Sequitur)
5. Detecting Propaganda Devices
Encyclopædia Britannica (2008) defines propaganda as “the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth).” A propagandist usually wants others to take a certain attitude or make a certain decision; he intends to influence them so that they act in a manner desired by him; and he tries to achieve his purpose by the use of suggestion and spurious arguments. The predetermined goal which the propagandist tries to achieve may be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Whatever the end, propaganda devices may be employed in its realization, and the same devices may serve the most divergent purposes.
Readers are fooled by propaganda chiefly because they appeal to their emotions rather than to their reason. They make them believe and do something they would not believe or do. And since it appeal more to readers’ emotions; they often don’t recognize it when they see it. However, they can more easily recognize propaganda when they see it if they are familiar with the following seven common propaganda devices:
(a) Glittering Generalities
(b) Name Calling
(e) Plain Folks
(f) Card Stacking
(g) Band Wagon.
6. Recognizing Statistical Slips
At present days, many people seem to be bothered by the reading of facts presented in mathematical form. This ignorance of mathematical terms and concepts is quite widespread. As a result, those who present facts to the public through mathematics can easily deceive the average reader. Statistics and charts are manipulated to prove almost anything to the naïve consumer. Unless readers learn to read mathematical materials critically, they also will be easily deceived by the unscrupulous statistician or chart maker. The followings are the most common statistical slips readers need to know in order to guard themselves against being misled by misused statistics.
(a) deceptive sample
(b) misleading average
(c) plausible charts and graphs
(d) presentation of facts without a reference point
7. Making Inference
Inferencing is a mental process by which we reach a conclusion based on specific evidence. It is very crucial in reading because readers get much of what they understand through a text indirectly, or by inferencing. A text does not contain a meaning. Readers construct meaning by what they take the words to mean and how they process sentences to find meaning. Readers draw on their knowledge of the language and of conventions of social communication. They also draw on other factors, such as knowledge of the author, the occasion, or the audience. They infer unstated meanings based on social conventions, shared knowledge, shared experience, and shared values. They make sense of remarks by recognizing implications and drawing conclusions.
8. Other Factors of Critical Reading
In addition to the aforesaid sub-skills mentioned, critical reading also necessitates the readers’ ability to discover the author’s competence, intention, attitude, and bias; to figure out the time and policies of publication; and to identify the target readers. The readers’ realization on these factors will enable them to decide whether a text is worth reading or not. For instance, a textbook printed fifty years ago should practically be ignored for it must have been out-of-date. To give another example, a book about practical guide to child rearing written by a person who has had children is more reliable than one written by a person who has never had children.
When the conception of each factors or sub-skills is familiar enough to the students, they are then assigned to read texts designed to empower them to detect and consider any connotative meanings, fallacious thinking, propaganda techniques, etc. incorporated in the text. This is the second stage we should do to help students to read critically. The incorporation of the elements of critical thinking into material will encourage learners to question texts and add linguistic value to the textbook and classroom (Paran, 2003). (As a sample, some items of exercise I use in my critical reading classes are provided in appendix section). When they finish doing it, they can discuss what they have got with their classmates. Such activity will instill the habit of involving critical thinking in reading.
Finishing the second step, students are then assigned to read authentic texts which contain various biases, prejudices, faulty reasoning, misinformation, and illogical conclusions. When they have finished reading the texts, they are assigned to answer Wh-questions dealing with the materials they have read. Such questions, rather than the close or yes/no questions, require students to think deeply and use complex language to respond, and thus promote the students’ critical thinking.
In order to promote the students’ critical thinking in discovering the author’s competence, intention, attitude, and bias; they could be provided with two texts that present totally different views on the same matter and invite students to discuss and debate the issue. When selecting the texts, the teacher has to pay attention to the content to ensure that it corresponds with topics that students are genuinely interested in. The teacher can also find texts that contain a foreign perspective about the students’ country or culture, so that they can see themselves through the eyes of others.
Since critical reading is a complex process due to the great number of sub-skills and factors getting involved in it, developing it can be time-consuming and difficult for EFL students. Despite this fact, like other language skills, it can be accomplished with practice, and it is worth the effort. To help students master it, the teacher should start by familiarizing them with critical reading sub-skills and assigning them to recognize these sub-skills in actual texts. When the students have mastered these sub-skills, they are then assigned to read texts purposively devised to detect and consider any connotative meanings, fallacious thinking, propaganda techniques, statistical slips, and illogical conclusion in existence. Finally, after successfully finishing the second stage, students are then assigned to read authentic texts containing various biases, prejudices, faulty reasoning, misinformation, and illogical conclusions. This reading activity is then followed by assigning them to answer Wh-questions dealing with the materials they have read. Such activity will promote the students’ critical thinking because Wh-questions usually trigger the students to think deeply and use complex language to respond.
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Aik, Kam Chuan and Stephen Edmonds. 1976. Critical Thinking: Selected Topics foDiscussion and Analysis. Kuala Lumpur: Longman Malaysia Sendirian Berhad.
Davidson, B., and Dunham, R. (1997). Assessing EFL student progress in critical thinking with The Ennis-Weir Critical Thinking Essay Test. JALT Journal, 19, 1, 43-57.
Encyclopædia Britannica (2008)
Grabe, B. 1997. Discourse analysis and reading instruction. In Functional approaches to written text: Classroom applications, ed. T. Miller, 2–15. Washington, DC: United States Information Agency.
Kurland, Daniel J. 2000a. “What is Critical Reading?” Retrieved February 10, 2007 from http://www.critical-reading.com/
_______ 2000b. “Critical Reading vs Critical Thinking.” Retrieved February 10, 2007 from http://www.critical-reading.com/
Paran, A. 2003. Helping learners to become critical: How coursebooks can help. In Methodology and materials design in language teaching: Current perceptions and practices and their implications, ed. W. A. Renandya, 109–23. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language Centre.
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Scriven, M. and R. Paul. 1996. “Defining critical thinking: A draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking.” Retrieved August 15, 2002 from http://www.criticalthinking.org/university/univclass/Defining.html
Spache, George D. and Paul Conrad Berg. 1994. The Art of Efficient Reading (4th ed.). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
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- Read the following paragraphs and answer the questions that follow.
Zamrud Katulistiwa—First Review
For the colorful story of Indonesia’s growth as a nation, there is more lively reading than the Indonesian History series edited by Anwar Suripto, and this fifth volume is another rich slice of anecdotes, vivid characterizations of public figures, and fascinating insights into the life of the biggest nation in South East Asian region. … It is enlightening to see history from the Indonesian perspective.
(a) Did the reviewer create a favorable or disapproving tone, and how did he set it?
(b) Did he tell you anything objective about the book or its author; its accuracy and completeness, the viewpoint and competence of the author, or his use of documentary or research sources?
(c) If you were seeking a good Indonesian history book, would the review just quoted influence you to make Zamrud Katulistiwa your selection?
Zamrud Katulistiwa—Second Review
The book is excellent journalism (even assuming that accuracy is still an aim of the journalist) and bad history. Indeed, it is not really a history at all, but a collection of tales told by a man of considerable ability but signifying very little. Quite clearly, readability and drama were the author’s paramount aims; significance, balance, and accuracy were well down the list. … Even accepting Mr. Suripto’s apparent aims and assumptions he can be faulted for inadequate knowledge and poor historical judgment. … Nonetheless, Suripto achieved his major object. He has written a colorful and dramatic book. His generalizations are fascinating: sometimes brilliant in insight and imagery, sometimes daring, sometimes absurd. If he cares little for issues, his treatment of people is often superb. Zamrud Katulistiwa will not last long, but it is a good fare.
(a) Did the second reviewer create a favorable or disapproving tone, and how did he set it?
(b) Did he tell you anything objective about the book or its author; its accuracy and completeness, the viewpoint and competence of the author, or his use of documentary or research sources?
(c) Now, would you use Zamrud Katulistiwa as a source of historical information?
2. Read the following paragraph and answer the questions that follow.
A recent study by the Rand Corporation estimates that American teen-agers watch at least five hours of television per day. Teenagers should not be allowed to watch this much television; it’s not good for them. Accustomed to the bright images of television, teen-agers will lose interest in books and reading. They won’t want to do any homework because compared to television, homework will be too boring. It is not accompanied by enough pictures, and there isn’t any music. If this trend toward more and more television viewing continues, the future generation will not be able to read, write, or think. þ
(a) What is the main idea of the paragraph?
(b) Is the main idea justified?
3. Read the following paragraph and answer the questions that follow.
Dog is the most faithful animal in the world. It is ready to sacrifice its life to guard its master. Realizing this, it is important for scientists to study how to train people like a dog. There is no doubt that if we design such training, the world will be peaceful because all people are faithful one to another.þ
(a) What is the main idea of the paragraph?
(b) Does the writer adequately support his/ her opinion? If not, what type of fallacious thinking is employed in it?
4. Read the following sentences and decide what propaganda techniques they represent.
___ Forty million Indonesians drink Kapal Api. Why not you?
___ Everything in our newspaper is important. Read Ibukota Post!
___ An honest American, Richard Reeves believes in freedom and love of fellow man.
___ Come to Bali, where you can enjoy paradise-like life.
5. Read the following paragraph and answer the questions that follow.
A sociological study on single people conducted in Jakarta was completed recently. 35 adult males and 35 adult females were asked to fill in a questionnaire in order to see whether they tended to get married or to stay single. The results showed that poor adult males were more likely to be single than wealthy adult males. The results for females were the opposite. Wealthy women were much more likely to be single than poor women. Another interesting finding in the study was that women would like to get married when they were between 24 to 35 years old, whereas men thought it’s quite OK if they got married when they were between 30 to 50 years old. þ
(a) What is the main idea of the paragraph?
(b) Does the writer adequately support his/her opinion? If not, what statistical slip does the writer use in the paragraph?
Note: This paper was presented in the FKIP-UKI English Department Bimonthly Collegiate Forum held on August 10, 2007.