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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 Aquinas's treatise on the passions, but the same thing has happened in countless other classes with many different sorts of material. I asked a student what St. Thomas had to say about the order of the passions. He quite correctly told me that love, according to St. Thomas, is the first of all passions and that the other emotions, which he named 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. Thomas meant. The student tried, but all he could do was to repeat, in slightly altered order, his original answer. It soon became obvious that he did not know what he was talking about, even though he would have made a good score of 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 36)

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).

I. Pre-Reading (Examining the text and preparing to read it effectively)

II. Interpretive Reading (Understanding what the author argues, what the author concludes, and exactly how he or she reached that conclusion)

III. Critical Reading (Questioning, examining, and expanding upon what the author says with your own arguments)

IV. Syntopic or Synoptic Reading (Putting the author's argument in a larger context by considering what several others have written or argued bout the same subject)

V. Post-Reading (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.

I. Pre-reading

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.

A. Preliminary Examination
  • Length: 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.
  • Title: 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 context.
  • 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.

B. Classification

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 subjects.
  • 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?

C. Skimming 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.
  • Outline: As you read, scratch out an outline of the major parts of the essay.
  • Relations: When you have a complete outline of the major parts 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? Why? Is it organized chronologically? From least important to most important? Does it use one premise as the 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 is.
  • 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.

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 in the dictionary. All of them. (It's good for your vocabulary, and you can't really understand what the author is saying if you don't know what the words on the page mean.) If you are reading a pre-20th century text, try the Oxford English Dictionary to find possible outdated meanings. One student in my 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 of 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 that 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 that way.

B. Paraphrase and Summarize

  • Paraphrase: 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.
  • Summarize: If you are truly reading critically, at the end of each paragraph you should be able to give a one-sentence summary of what that paragraph said. You might also make a two or three word summary at the top of every couple of pages, then a longer two- or three- sentence summary at the end of the reading.

C. Locate 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: Sometimes, rereading 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 Readers: 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.

III. Critical Reading

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 argument:

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 returns it to and says. "I agree with you. Pages two, six, and eight are convincing. It 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 partly convinced."

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 fact and statistic) is the most critical of the readers. He is probably the most difficult to convince, but that's 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 to 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% preventable.

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 with everything." However, the key is that reader #3 is only partially convinced. He will immediately change his mind if the writer can convince 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 reading.
  • 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? Why?
  • Ask Questions About Broader Implications: The 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 account?
  • 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?

 B. 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.

IV. Synoptic or Syntopic Reading

Congratulations! At 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.

B. Seek Disagreement

  • 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.

C. Seek Synthesis

  • 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.

V. 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.

B. Summarize:

  • Restate 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 Reading.
  • Assess your reaction. What convinced you and what did not? Why? How did you respond to the essay as a whole? Why?

C. Explain:

  • Explain, in your own words, how the author reached his conclusion.
  • Explain why you found it convincing or not.
  • 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.

Suggestions 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 to Composition Resources.

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.


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Copyright Dr. L. Kip Wheeler 1998-2018. Permission is granted for non-profit, educational, and student reproduction. Last updated April 24, 2018. Contact: kwheeler@cn.edu Please e-mail corrections, suggestions, or comments to help me improve this site. Click here for credits, thanks, and additional copyright information.