Critical Reading of
An Essay's Argument:
Some logicians call
it "critical reading." Others call it "close reading," or
"active reading," or a host of other terms. All these labels
refer to the same general process. This website attempts
to define more clearly what it is, and to outline a strategy
for it. I expect such readings from the class, so it behooves
students to give this website itself a close reading. Print
out a copy if you want one for reference.
Educated adults exist
in a delusional state, thinking we can read. In the most
basic sense, we can. After all, we've made it up to this
point in the sentence and understand it all, right? And
what about all those hundreds of books we read before now?
These statements are only partly true; I am here to tell
you the opposite. Odds are, some of us can't read, at least
not as well as we would like. Too many college students
are capable of only some types of reading, and
that painful lack reveals itself when they read a difficult
text and must talk critically about it.
Mortimer Adler speaks
of an experience while teaching an honors course that illustrates
the problem perfectly:
What I am going to report
happened in a class in which we were reading Thomas
treatise on the passions, but the same thing has happened
in countless other classes with many different sorts
material. I asked a student what St. Thomas had to say
about the order of the passions. He quite correctly
me that love, according to St. Thomas, is the first of
all passions and that the other emotions, which he
accurately, follow in a certain order. Then I asked him
what that meant [and how St. Thomas arrived at
that sequence]. The student looked startled.
Had he not answered the question correctly? I told
him he had, but
repeated my request for an explanation. He had told me
what St. Thomas said. Now I wanted to know what St.
meant. The student tried, but all he could do was to
repeat, in slightly altered order, his original answer.
became obvious that he did not know what he was talking
about, even though he would have made a good score
any examination that went no further than my original
question or questions of a similar sort. (How
to Read a Book:The
Art of Getting a Liberal Education
It was clear from context
that the student above had read the entire work, and the
student clearly understood the conclusion of Saint Thomas's
argument. However, he did not understand the most important
part: how Saint Thomas reached that conclusion.
He grasped the external features of the treatise, but he
did not comprehend its internal anatomy of ideas. Though
intelligent and possessing a keen memory, the student had
learned to read in a certain way that was only useful for
extracting information. He had not learned how to read beyond
that level. He had not practiced reading in a way that allowed
him to grapple substantively with an idea. Thus he could
not provide any useful commentary of his own, only summary.
The act of reading
to extract information and
reading critically are
vastly different. The current educational system in American
primary schools (and many colleges) heavily emphasizes the
first type of reading and de-emphasizes the latter. In many
ways, this tendency makes sense. Reading to extract information
allows a student to absorb the raw materials of factual
information as quickly as possible. It is a type of reading
we all must engage in frequently. However, each type of
reading calls for different mental habits. If we do not
learn to adjust from one type of reading to another when
necessary, we cripple our intellectual abilities to read
critically. If we cannot read critically, we cannot reach
the ultimate goal of reading
syntopically or synoptically* (which we
will discuss later in this webpage).
But let's not get ahead
of ourselves. What are the differences between (1) reading
to extract information and (2) reading critically? Why are
the differences between the two skills so important?
- They have different
goals. When students read
to extract information, usually they seek facts and
presume the source is accurate. No argument is required.
On the other hand, when students read critically, they
try to determine the quality of the argument. The reader
must be open-minded and skeptical all at once, constantly
adjusting the degree of personal belief in relation
to the quality of the essay's arguments.
- They require
different types of discipline.
If students read for the purpose of learning raw data,
the most efficient way to learn is repetition. For instance,
in grade-school, when youngsters memorize the multiplication
and division tables, they read and recite them over
and over again. On the other hand, if students read
critically, the most effective technique may be to break
the essay up into logical subdivisions and analyze each
section's argument, to restate the argument in other
words, and then to expand upon or question the findings.
- They require different
types of mental activity. If
a student reads to gain information, a certain degree
of absorption, memorization and passivity is necessary.
(We can't memorize the multiplication charts effectively
if we waste time questioning whether eight times three
really does equal twenty-four.) If a student is engaged
in reading critically, however, that student must be
active, active, active! He or she must be prepared to
preread the essay, then read it closely for content,
and reread it if it isn't clear how the author reached
the conclusion to the argument. The critical reader
must take the time to consider the argument from numerous
angles including logical, rhetorical, historical, ethical,
social, and personal perspectives. In short, critical
readings means actually thinking about the
subject, moving beyond what the original essay concluded
to the point of how the author reached that conclusion
and the degree to which that conclusion is accurate.
- They create different
results. Passive reading
to absorb information can create a student who (if not
precisely well-read) has read a great many books. It
results in someone who has, in the closet of the mind,
a staggering number of facts to call to memory at any
moment. It creates what many call "book-smarts." However,
critical reading involves original, innovative thinking.
It creates a person who intentionally and habitually
reads with the mental habit of reflection, intellectual
honesty, perceptivity to the text, subtlety in thought,
and originality in insight. Each method of reading has
its place, but critical reading is too often supplanted
by reading for information.
- They differ in the
degree of understanding
they require. Reading for information is the more basic,
and thus more fundamental, of the two reading skills.
If one cannot make out the meaning of individual words,
it is pointless to try and evaluate their importance.
However, reading critically is the more advanced of
the two, because only critical reading equates with
full understanding. To illustrate the difference,
imagine the following situation. If a worker were watching
the monitors at a nuclear power plant, it would take
little brainpower to "read" the dials and determine
that "The Geiger counter reads 150 rads." That is one
type of understanding, the understanding of fact. The
worker has read every word on that gauge, and can repeat
it word for word. A far more important type of understanding
is the ability to discern what that statement means
for the reader in practical terms, i.e., what the implications
are. Does it mean the nuclear power plant is running
within normal parameters? That it is leaking toxic waste?
That the villagers below the plant are all going to
die because of cancerous tumors? That the reactor vents
should be shut? This type of understanding, the ability
to take the statement, think through the implications,
and put the fact into a meaningful context for oneself
and one's community, is central to critical reading.
Ultimately, what we
want is the conscious control of our reading skills, so
we can move back and forth amidst the various types of reading.
How do we do that? The techniques will vary from reader
to reader, but in a surefire way to achieve critical reading
and true understanding of a text is to be systematic and
thorough. The following outline contains five general stages
of reading. You should follow this with every assigned text.
(Each label in the outline is anchored to a fuller description.
You can go directly to the term by clicking on it, or leisurely
scroll down to read each in turn).
(Examining the text
and preparing to read it effectively)
what the author argues, what the author concludes, and
exactly how he or she reached that conclusion)
examining, and expanding upon what the author says with
your own arguments)
IV. Syntopic or Synoptic
the author's argument in a larger context by considering
what several others have written or argued bout the same subject)
(Ensuring that you
won't forget your new insights)
I know what your initial
response is: "Five stages! For each essay? Isn't that excessive?"
Not at all. It is necessary if you want to truly
understand an essay's argument, rather than merely extract
a conclusion. "But that will take hours!" Indeed, it may
at first. But keep in mind three important factors:
(1) The reward doesn't
come from finishing the essay first or speed-reading through
the text in breath-taking time. The reward comes from actually
understanding new material, from learning and thinking.
Student A (Johnny) zips through an assigned reading in thirty
minutes, but after two days (or even two hours), he can't
remember what he read when he arrives in class. That zippy
fellow wasted thirty minutes of his life. He might as well
have spent that time cleaning his toenails. In contrast,
Student B (Janie) spends an extra half-hour with the text,
re-reads it, and actually sets aside time to systematically
explore it. She has a far greater chance of retaining the
material, and better opportunity for some profound thinking
to germinate in her skull.
(2) Some of these reading
habits actually save readers time and mental effort.
Many students naively pick up a difficult text, plunge into
it without preparation, and find themselves reading the
same paragraph five times trying to understand it. If they
had taken five minutes of time for Pre-Reading
(Stage One), and systematically looked for the overall structure
of the essay with Interpretive Reading (Stage Two),
they might be able to puzzle out that tricky paragraph the
first time rather than the fifth. Many of these stages,
especially Pre-Reading and Post-Reading, only take four
or five minutes to do.
(3) The process of critical
reading gets faster the more you do it. Once the habit becomes
ingrained, critical readers do not slavishly need to follow
the five stages I've outlined above. They finish up the
Post-reading Tasks (Stage Five) while still working on Synoptic
Reading (Stage Four). They simultaneously work on Stage
Three and Two. They leave out parts of Stage One because
they realize it won't be useful for this particular reading.
They move back and forth between stages with the ease of
a god because they have mastered the methodology. That state
will happen for you too, but first you must work on each
individual stage, sequentially.
Let's cover each stage,
one by one, in outline format.
You can save yourself
time by taking five to ten minutes to skim and "pre-read"
the text before you read the whole essay through. It will
give you some context for the argument, which will help
you understand difficult passages and get a general sense
of where the essay ends up before you dig into a reading
of the whole work.
How long is the essay? You may want to budget enough
time to read it fully without interruption. If it
is unusually long, you might want to schedule a short
break mid-way through the writing to avoid getting
"burnt out" and not finishing.
Examine the title. Different titles make us react
in different ways. What rhetorical expectations does
it create? What expectations in terms of the essay's
content? Sometimes, you can determine the author's
focus on the subject in advance by looking at the
label he gives. It can also provide rhetorical hints
on how the author is positioning readers to react
to his argument. For instance, labeling an essay "Politics
of Expansion in the Western Hemisphere" has a different
effect from labeling an essay, "Nazi Politics in America."
The author of the first title wants to put a positive
spin on the subject-matter, but the second author
wants to put the subject-matter in a negative historical
- Author: See if the book contains information about
the author. If you are trying to judge the value of
his ideas, it makes sense to see what (if any) expertise
the author might have in this area, and what sort
of perspective the writer might have.
- Beginning and Ending:
To get a sense of where the essay goes, read the first
few paragraphs and the last few paragraphs before
you read the whole essay. Doing that isn't cheating.
If the argument is a complicated, this knowledge can
help you keep your bearings and avoid getting lost
mid-way. You will know in advance where you will
end up, which gives you a better chance to determine
how the author arrives at that conclusion.
The human mind has an
easier time dealing with material if it can classify it.
As you skim, determine the following as best you can:
- Subject Matter:
What does the general
subject matter appear to be? Create a brief but exact
definition of the subject matter, such as "politics--ancient
Greece" or "environmental issues--American." As you
read the essay, double-check to make sure it is still
talking about that subject-matter. Perhaps what initially
seemed like the main issue is not really the point.
If part of the essay talks about one subject, and
later discusses something different, you must determine
what the larger category is that encompasses both
- Kind of Essay:
Skim through the essay quickly,
glancing at each page. What kind of essay is it? Is
its argument about factuality? About an analysis of
history? Is it a political treatise? A scientific
discourse? An argument about the ethics of a certain action?
for Structural Analysis: "Seeing the Skeleton"
- Overt Subdivisions:
As you skim, look for sub-divisions clearly marked
within each chapter or essay. Identify areas with
extra space between lines or paragraphs, which may
indicate a change in subject matter.
As you read, scratch out an outline of the major parts
of the essay.
When you have a complete outline of the major
of the essay, think about the relation of each major
part to the others. (Mortimer Adler calls this "seeing
the skeleton.") What is the effect of presenting
the parts in that order? Was that order necessary?
Is it organized chronologically? From least important
to most important? Does it use one premise as
foundation of later arguments and build each argument
afterward on the premise that came before?
- The Basic Problem:
What is the author's point? Define the problem the
author is trying to resolve in a single sentence.
If you can't define it in a single sentence, you probably
don't have a clear idea of what the essay's purpose
- Ask Questions About the
Essay Before Reading It:
As soon as you determine what the author is trying
to do, make a list of questions that will help you
spot important bits. For instance, after reading the
opening and closing of an essay about poverty, you
might think. "That's an odd conclusion. How does the
author reach the conclusion that 4% poverty is necessary
for economic health? Why that percentage? How did
the author deal with the ethics of intentionally leaving
people poor? Why did the author avoid talking about
attitudes toward the poor until so late in the essay?"
Write questions down as they occur to you, and when
you have finished with the essay, see if you can come
up with an answer to them.
Doing this sort of
Pre-Reading only takes five or ten minutes, and it prepares
you to read
the entire essay with much greater odds of understanding
it on the first shot, letting you focus much more energy
on making connections between each section. It also prepares
your mind to begin thinking about the main issues before
they appear within the text. Then you can move below
to Stage II: Interpretive Reading.
You've skimmed through
the essay briefly to get the gist of it. Now, Interpretive
Reading requires you to read
through the whole essay slowly and carefully, looking at
every single sentence, every single word. Don't skim now!
You had your chance for that during Pre-Reading. In practical
use, Interpretive Reading can sometimes be done at the same
time as Stage III (Critical Reading). However, the two are
distinct in their purposes. Interpretive Reading occurs
when we make sure we really understand the author's ideas.
Too many students agree or disagree with an author's conclusion
without really understanding how the conclusion was reached.
It is pointless to agree or disagree with an idea we don't
understand. In the words of Wayne Booth, readers must "understand"
the argument (or see how the argument works) before they
can "overstand" it (take a meaningful position concerning
the merits or flaws of the conclusion).
A. Look for
the Important Words
- Recurring Words:
Do words appear repeatedly throughout the essay? They
may be important to understanding it. Write them down
in the margins or in a notebook. Mortimer Adler wrote:
"An essay is all a blur for students who treat everything
they read as equally important. That usually means
that everything is equally unimportant" (219). To
avoid that bland sameness, identify the terms that
seem pertinent to the argument as a whole.
- Unknown Words:
Are there words you do not know? Look them up
dictionary. All of them. (It's good for your vocabulary,
and you can't really understand what the author
saying if you don't know what the words on the page
mean.) If you are reading a pre-20th century
try the Oxford
English Dictionary to
find possible outdated meanings. One student in
class was confused by an essay for hours, but as
soon as she bothered to look up the word prelapsarian,
the whole essay suddenly made sense, as the idea
prelapsarian paradise was central to the author's
argument about religious belief in America.
- Oddly Used Words:
Sometimes, an author will use the word in a way
implies a special sense or meaning. For instance,
John Locke and Thomas Jefferson make a distinction
between "Natural Rights" and "Civil Rights." Karl
Marx means something quite specific by "Proletariat."
When you sense such a pattern, make a note. Try to
interpret how the author is using the words differently
than most people do or how you use it.
- Identify Ambiguous Words:
Sometimes, confusion can result when the author uses
the word in one sense, but the reader interprets the
word in another sense. For instance, "Save
soap and waste paper." Is
the word waste functioning as an adjective
describing paper? Or is it a verb telling the reader
what to do with paper? If you find something confusing,
look for words with multiple meanings. Likewise, abstract
or vague words can become confusing. Try substituting
synonyms and see if you can make sense of the passage
Ever read through a difficult passage seven times
in a row? Find that your eyes slide over the words,
but at the bottom of the paragraph you can't remember
a single bit of what you read? To avoid this tragedy,
make a habit of repeating passages in your own words.
Readers do not intellectually possess the subject-matter
until they make it their own by translating it into
their own, familiar terminology. Do it aloud, or write
brief paraphrases of hard passages in the margin.
If you are truly reading critically, at the end
each paragraph you should be able to give a one-sentence
summary of what that paragraph said. You might
make a two or three word summary at the top of every
couple of pages, then a longer two- or three-
summary at the end of the reading.
and Identify the Parts You do not Understand.
- Mark Confusing Sections:
Many students read
through a tough essay all the way through. When it
is complete, they are confused, but they are unable
to indicate what confused them. As you read, keep
note of whether or not you are understanding the material.
As soon as you realize you are lost, make a note in
the margin or jot down a question-mark so you can try to remedy your confusion
at the specific moment you start getting confused.
- Reread Confusing Sections:
the passage after some thought is all it takes to
make a confusing passage clear. Take the time to slowly
re-read it. Try rewriting the passage in your own
words once more.
- Talk it over with other
Ask other students who have read the passage to explain
it to you. If you are both confused, talking about
it may be all you need to break the mental barrier.
- Sleep on it:
Sometimes putting the essay aside for the day and
returning to it fresh in the morning is a good way
to cure confusion. It gives your subconscious mind
a chance to chew on the problem.
If we have finished
interpretive reading successfully, and we fully understand
every tidbit of the author's argument, we can now do a fair
and honest job of critical reading (at last!). It is important,
however, that the reader fully understands how the author
reached his conclusion before determining whether or not
the reader agrees. It is also important not to fall into
the common misconception that critical reading is "doubting
everything you read." As our good friend Mortimer J. Adler
again reminds us: we must understand and then assess the
debate, and there is no reason we must find fault in every
You must be able to
say, with reasonable certainty, "I understand," before
you can say any one of the following things: "I agree,"
or "I disagree," or "I suspend judgement." I hope you
have not made the error of supposing that to criticize
is always to disagree [and to be completely skeptical].
That is an unfortunate, popular misconception. To agree
is just as much an exercise of critical judgement on
your part as to disagree. To agree without understanding
is inane. To disagree without understanding is impudent.
--"The Etiquette of Talking Back." How to Read a
Book (page 241)
Let us clear up that
misconception. Critical reading is not
simply the act of doubting everything we read. Certainly, healthy
amount of skepticism is an important part of intellectual
rigor, and it is better than naïve acceptance of every
printed statement. Still, critical reading is more than
paranoid doubt, or trying to "slam" every essay the reader
finds. Critical reading is different than skeptical reading.
Critical reading is the deliberate act of testing concepts,
trying ideas on for size. A critical reader tries not only
to think of arguments to refute what he reads, he tries
to think of extra arguments to support it. Only then does
he weigh the argument carefully and come to a decision.
He also tries to determine in what ways the argument may
be relevant and relate those idea to his own life. Rather
than merely seeking to "trash" an argument entirely, the
wise reader acknowledges that some parts of an argument
are more compelling than others, and tries to figure out
why. Consider three scenarios and ask yourself which one
illustrates the most thoughtful and respectful reading:
(1) You draft a letter
to your local congressman, arguing for new safety laws
to prevent automobile wrecks. You show it to a friend
#1, asking him for input. He skims through it, then
it to and says. "I agree
with you. Pages two, six, and eight are convincing.
looks really good. You are sure to convince the governor.
Send it off."
(2) You show it to
a friend #2, asking him for input. He reads through it
for several hours, and marks up all the margins with comments
like these: "Why
should I trust the figures from the safety commission
about the number of deaths? Why should I care about traffic
safety issues? Human error will always exist. Frankly,
I don't see much point in trying to obsess over the problem.
You have not convinced me, and I doubt that you ever will.
The whole issue is boring."
(3) You show it a
friend #3, asking him for input. He reads through it for
an hour, then says, "The
part about human lives being more valuable than the costs
of machinery makes sense to me. I wonder, however, about
the issue of consumer choice. Shouldn't different individuals
have the right to make individual decisions about their
own safety? If you can convince me that consumers rarely
make good choices, I will agree that legislation should
step in and enact new laws. Until then, I will only be
Of course, most people
would quickly agree that friend #1 is the least critical.
He is convinced too easily, and he doesn't appear to be
doing much thinking about the issue.
Many students might
think that friend #2 (the one who is questioning every
and statistic) is the most critical of the readers. He
is probably the most difficult to convince, but
not because he's being critical. Being hostile and suspicious
of everything is not critical thinking. Critical
thinking is knowing when to be suspicious and when to be
accepting. Friend #2 is asking questions of the author,
but they aren't necessarily very good questions. He clearly
cannot make mental connection as to why the issue is important.
Why should he care about issues of traffic safety? Egad!
His very life depends upon it if he ever drives! He asserts
that human error will always exist. True, but that doesn't
mean safety is irrelevant, or that we can't take steps
reduce human error in drivers, even if we can't eliminate
these errors entirely. That would be like arguing we should
eliminate fire departments since fires will never be 100%
Of the three responses,
I would find friend #3 to be the most critical because
he is willing to change his mind about the proposed argument.
Mindlessly chanting "no no no you can't convince me" is
no more intelligent than mindlessly asserting "I agree
However, the key is that reader #3 is only partially convinced.
He will immediately change his mind if the writer can
him of certain points first, and he makes it clear what
those points are. He is critical in that he has clear criteria
that must be met before he is convinced, not because he
has the habit of questioning everything. You can be critical
and open-minded at the same time. To achieve this state,
follow these suggestions:
A. Ask Questions
- Talk Back to the Text:
Talk back to the author. He doesn't have the last
say on the subject. You do. He had his chance earlier.
If you have been reading critically, you must have
been thinking; you have something to express in words.
If you aren't creating responses to the text as you
read, paragraph by paragraph, you aren't really thinking.
You are merely absorbing the text and falling into
passive reading for information. Take the time to
jot down responses, even if only a few words, as you
write: "Huh?" "Yes!" "I dunno." "Not in the case of...."
"I disagree here because...." You get the idea. When
you talk back to the text, you can expand on the author's
ideas with original ones.
- Ask Questions to the Text:
The key to convert yourself from a passive reader
to an active one is simple. You must ask questions,
and then you must try to answer them. Thinking can
only express itself overtly in language. If I tell
you, "Think about starvation," your thoughts probably
consist of disconnected images of suffering you've
seen on television. There's very little direction
implied in that command. However, if I ask, "How could
we prevent starvation?" Your brain probably will start
whirring, generating lists, considering various approaches
to dealing with the issue. Questions by their very
nature generate thinking, provided that we take the
time to try and answer them. So, as you read, ask
"why did the author say that?" Or "What does this
part mean?" Asking and answering questions forces
you to read actively rather than passively.
It forces you to think, and that's the point of critical
- Ask Questions About Yourself:
What is your attitude toward the issue? What are your
pre-judgments about the issue? Does your attitude
affect how receptive you are to the author's viewpoint?
What preconceptions do you have about the topic? What
past experiences have you had that are pertinent to
the issue? Monitor your own emotions as you read.
Do certain sections make you feel pleased? Guilty?
Angry? Annoyed? Smug? Saddened? Do you think the author
intended to create that effect? If not, where did
that emotional response originate?
- Ask Questions About Context:
Think about the author. Why do you think the author
takes the position he or she does? Is there a personal
investment in the matter? What larger social, economic,
geographical, or political circumstances might have
influenced the creation of this piece of writing?
Read between the lines and think about the context
in which the material was originally written and what
that might mean today. Are the original conditions
so different today that they render the argument invalid
in other circumstances? Or does it hold just as true?
- Ask Questions About Broader
author asserts that X is true. What logically follows
if we accept that statement? Ideas do not exist in
a vacuum; they spread outward like ripples in pond
water. If an essay asserts that all life is holy,
and killing any other living organism is always an
absolute wrong, does that imply we should stop using
pesticides to kill bugs? We should outlaw fly-swatters?
That we should cease washing our hands with soap lest
we kill innocent bacteria? That capital punishment
is unethical? Euthanasia? What follows from that statement
if you accept it unconditionally? If we can't accept
it unconditionally, what exceptions must we take into
- Seek Relevant Connections:
So what? Why does it matter? Why should you care?
How does the argument have personal importance to
you? Does it have communal importance for those around
you? How does it connect to your life now? Thirty
years from now? Essays on economics have implications
for people who aren't economists themselves. Arguments
about education and public welfare have implications
for anyone who goes to school or who pays taxes. Arguments
about raising children one way or another not only
have implications for potential parents, they also
affect everyone who must live with the next generation
of youngsters. It is the sign of a weak or lazy intellect
to suggest that such material has no relevance in
the individual's life. Apathy is an intellectual sin,
and boredom the fruit of that vice. Seek out the relevant
connections, and you will find them. If the topic
doesn't seem important to you immediately, why does
the author think it is important?
Make your Mark, Answer Your Own Questions
- Make Notes in the Margin:
When you underline or mark important passages, jot
down quick reactions like "wow!" Or "huh?" Or "maybe."
Yes, it will reduce the resale value of that textbook
by ten or twenty dollars at the end of the term, but
consider that you are paying thousands of dollars
more in tuition in order to extract the information
within it. Making notes will help you extract and
remember that material more effectively, as well as
find the exact passage that confused or dazzled you.
Active reading implies a reaction on your part. If
you have prejudices against marking up a book (they
are, after all, holy objects), use a notepad, or jot
down some ideas on stickit notes. Or compromise and
write your notes on the inside cover, or the back
of the book, rather than on every page.
- Make Notes to Bring to
Class: When it comes
time to write responses to what you have read, you
will dazzle the class with your brilliance if you
take the time to jot down your profound thoughts so
you don't forget them. It will also make it easy to
review. Active Reading implies activity on your part.
Synoptic or Syntopic Reading
this juncture, you are probably a better reader than 90%
of students, and you stand to gain much more from the material
you read. The next level of expertise is synoptic or syntopic reading. The term is Mortimer
Adler's. It means the student juxtaposes one reading with
other works or arguments on the same subject. Think about
it. If you wished to truly understand a subject, say the
history of the civil war, would you pick one book and read
only it? Of course not. That would result in a limited understanding
at best, at worst the skewed viewpoint of only one author.
Synoptic reading occurs when an individual does a close
reading of several sources, and then compares and contrasts
them. Many of the readings in this class will serve well
for synoptic readings. Several of them address similar issues
but present radically different conclusions.
A. Seek Confirmation
- If the author's argument relies
heavily on certain matters of factuality, double-check
to make sure those facts are accurate. Consult a current
encyclopedia, a relevant and trustworthy website,
or other handy resource. This is especially relevant
in older works from previous decades that might be out of date.
- If two people agree completely
on everything, one of them is redundant. One way of
getting closer to the "truth" is through dialectic
and debate. Juxtapose the author's argument with arguments
from people who disagree. Often, multiple points of
view will complement, complicate and enrich your understanding
of the problem.
- Of course, disagreement merely
for the sake of disagreement is pointless if all that
results is a jumble of clashing ideas. It is up to
you to wade through discordant writings and re-harmonize
them by weighing the various arguments, incorporating
them into a whole, and adding to it your own thoughts.
If you have done all
of these steps, you are a critical reader. The only item
remaining is wrapping up the process with post-reading.
Post-Reading is the
stage that wraps up this long process. Here, you attempt
to create a conclusion to all the previous work. When you
post-read, do the following things.
A. Review and Double-Check:
- Review the
notes you took while reading. Make sure you have answered
all the questions you have raised during Pre-Reading
and Critical Reading. If there are any unanswered
questions, take a final crack at solving them before
you set the book aside.
the main argument and the conclusion of the essay
in a single sentence. As advertising agents say, if
you can't write down the idea on the back of a business
card, you probably don't have a clear idea. If you
can't summarize the argument in a single-sentence,
go back and re-read the essay at Stage II: Interpretive
- Assess your
reaction. What convinced you and what did not? Why?
How did you respond to the essay as a whole? Why?
- Explain, in your own words,
how the author reached his conclusion.
- Explain why you found it convincing
- Explain how it matches or doesn't match what other writers have to say on the same topic from your synoptic reading.
This technique involves
time and effort on your behalf, but it will pay off in making
you the best reader possible.
for Further Reading
If you are interested
in further improving your ability to read, I would recommend
How to Read: the Art of Getting a Liberal Education
by Mortimer J. Adler. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940).
It is a bit dated, and its section on reading poetry is
a bit simplistic and touchy-feely for my tastes. However,
it is central to my thinking about what constitutes critical
thinking in this website. You will find it is still valuable
for thinking about how to improve yourself as a careful
and close reader of texts and for obtaining the best education
possible from your assigned readings in any class.
Click here for A
Brief Outline of Critical Reading (the material covered
in this webpage)
Click here to go back
Note: The terminology used for the fourth stage varies in Adler's sources. His original 1940 publication referred to it as syntopic. It implies several topics placed side by side for analysis. However, in 1972, Mortimer Adler teamed with Charles Van Doren to create a heavily revised version published with Touchstone Books. Here, in the first print-run, the two switched to the term synoptic, which implies several items seen together at once. I have arbitrarily chosen syntopic here for my handouts because my personal copy is an edition using the former term.