Chapter 4: Thinking Critically about Texts

Introduction to Chapter 4

In college, students are expected to not only read and understand texts, but to also use critical thinking to interact with texts and the ideas they present.

This chapter will provide some strategies to think critically about texts. You will learn how to explore the ways a text affects you, how to stop and respond to a text, how to consider the author’s purpose and effectiveness, and how to make inferences.

4.1       Explore the Ways the Text Affects You

When you work with a text, you enter into a conversation with it, responding with your thoughts, ideas, and feelings. The way each of us responds to any text has a lot to do with who we are: our age, education, cultural background, religion, ethnicity, and so forth.

As you explore a text, be aware of how you are responding to it.

  • Are you reading or exploring easily and fluidly, or are you finding it difficult to navigate the text? Why do you believe this is so?
  • Do you find yourself responding with some sort of strong emotion? If so, why do you think that may be happening?
  • Do formatting or structural issues (examples: unusual use of punctuation, use of dialect or jargon–specialized vocabulary) affect your navigation of the text?
  • Can you identify with the text’s central idea or the information it is sharing?
  • Have you had any experiences like those being described? Can you identify with the story?
  • Are you able to identify the surface meaning?
  • Have you explored the text’s deeper, hidden messages?
  • Do you need to look up any words or do any quick research? If so, does this help you better understand the text?
  • What questions do you have about the work?

4.2       Stop and Respond to the Text

Whenever you finish a bit of college reading, it is worth your time to stop and respond to the text. This not only helps you think about the content and what it means to you, but it also helps cement it within your memory, allowing you to recall the key ideas later and to apply them in other reading and writing situations.

Here are two ideas for post-reading reflection:

  • Write in a personal reading journal.
  • Write a “minute paper.” To do this, take one minute to jot down a few sentences about something you learned or discovered while reading. Or ask yourself a question about the reading and write an answer.

Check Your Understanding 4.2: Reflecting on What You Have Read

First, read the New York Times article, “Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style” by Dan Bilefsky (found at www.nytimes.com). Remember to use pre-reading strategies (explored in chapter 2) and then actively read by using annotation (explored in chapter 3).

Next, write a minute paper (see the description above) by jotting down a few sentences in response to one of these questions:

  • Do you agree with the idea that the period is going out of style? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree that ending a text message with a period affects the meaning of the message? Explain.
  • What does the author mean when he suggests that leaving the period out of text messages is “the punctuation equivalent of stagehands who dress in black to be less conspicuous”?

Go to the end of this chapter to the section “Answers for the Check Your Understanding Activities” to read more.

 

4.3       Examining the Author’s Purpose and Effectiveness

A critical reader aims to answer two basic questions:

  1. What is the author doing?
  2. How well is the author doing it?

What is the author doing?

To answer “what is the author doing?” begin by carefully examining the following:

  • What are the author’s claims (a claim is what the author says is true)?
  • What is the evidence (evidence is what the author offers to support what they say is true)?
  • What are the assumptions (assumptions are what the author says is true or will happen without giving any support)?

It may be helpful to try to see the argument from different angles:

  • How else could the author have written this piece?
  • What other kinds of evidence could have been used?
  • What difference would that other evidence make?
  • How has the author constructed his or her argument?

How well is the author doing it?

To answer “how well is the author doing it?” consider the following questions:

  • How effective is the introduction? Why might the author have started the piece with this paragraph?
  • Are the main ideas supported by solid evidence?
  • What evidence does the author use? Is it effective? Useful? Can you think of other evidence?
  • Is the author biased or neutral? How do you know?
  • Does the conclusion effectively tie the argument together? Could you draw a different conclusion from this evidence?
  • What kind of language is used? How would you describe the author’s style?
  • How is the piece organized?

4.4       Making Inferences

An inference is a conclusion that has been reached based on reasoning and considering evidence. Making inferences is a comprehension strategy used by proficient readers to “read between the lines,” make connections, and draw conclusions about the text’s meaning and purpose.

You already make inferences all of the time. For example, imagine you go over to a friend’s house and they point at the sofa and say, “Don’t sit there, Cindy came over with her baby again.” What could you logically conclude?

First, you know there must be a reason not to sit where your friend is pointing. Next, the reason not to sit there is related to the fact that Cindy just visited with her baby. You do not know what exactly happened, but you can make an inference and do not need to ask any more questions to know that you do not want to sit there.

Imagine you witness the following unrelated situations—what can you infer about each one?

  1. You see a woman pushing a baby stroller down the street.
  2. You are at a corner and see two parked cars at an intersection, and the driver in back starts honking his horn.
  3. You are walking down the street, and suddenly a dog comes running out of an opened door with its tail between its legs.

For the first, you probably came up with something simple, such as there was a baby in the stroller.

For the second, you might have inferred that the first car should have started moving, or was waiting too long at the corner and holding up the second car.

For the third, you could reasonably guess that the dog had done something wrong and was afraid to get punished.

You do not know for 100% certainty that these inferences are true.  If you checked 100 strollers, 99 times you would find a baby, but maybe one time you would find something else, like groceries.

To make inferences from reading, take two or more details from the reading and see if you can draw a conclusion. Remember, making an inference is not just making a wild guess. You need to make a judgment that can be supported, just as you could reasonably infer there is a baby in a stroller, but not reasonably infer that there are groceries, even though both would technically be a “guess.”

When you are asked an inference question, go back over the reading and look for hints within the text, such as words that are directly related to the question you may be asked (such as for a multiple choice test) or words that indicate opinion.

Here is an example:

Hybrid cars are good for the environment, but they may not perform as well as cars that run only on gasoline. The Toyota Prius gets great gas mileage and has low emissions making it a good “green” option. However, many people think that it is unattractive. The Prius also cannot accelerate as quickly as other models, and cannot hold as many passengers as larger gas-fueled SUVs and vans. Compared to similar gas-fueled options, hybrid cars also cost more money up front. A new hybrid car costs almost $3,500 more than the same car configured to run just on gasoline.

Which of the following can you infer from the passage?

  1. Hybrid cars are more dangerous than other options.
  2. Toyota is making a lot of money from the Prius.
  3. Cars that use gasoline are going to destroy the environment.
  4. Hybrid cars may not be the best choice for everyone.

All four answers are about hybrid cars in some way, but none of the answers can be found directly from the text. Read through and see what hints you can find from the text.

You will notice right away that there is nothing about car safety in the passage at all, so you can eliminate choice 1.

Choice 2 is implied: if the car cost $3,500 more than other cars, then Toyota would be making a lot of money by selling the car. But is it the most reasonable conclusion? To be sure, you need to go through all of the answers—don’t just stop when you find one that looks okay.

You may think that choice 3 is true. After all, people want to make hybrid cars because they believe that emissions are contributing to environmental damage, but this is not mentioned in the paragraph. Even if you think it is true, the answer has to be supported by the text to be the correct answer to the problem.

Choice 4 could be inferred from the text. If a person had a large family, was short on money, or needed a car that could accelerate quickly, then a hybrid might not be the best choice for them.

Now compare choice 4 with the other possible answer, choice 2. Now you are thinking choice 2 might not be as good an answer because you do not know how much it costs Toyota to make the cars, and you do not know how many they sell, so you cannot reasonably infer that they are making a lot of money!

Choice 4 has to be the correct answer.

Watch the video below that discusses a useful strategy to help you when making inferences while reading:

 

 

Answers for the Check Your Understanding Activities

4.2 Reflecting on What You’ve Read

How did this activity work for you? The way that e-communication is changing the ways we interact is certainly fascinating. Do you agree?

Keep an eye on the emails, texts, and instant messages you receive in the next couple of days, watching how these people use periods and other punctuation. Do your observations echo the points made in the article?

 

Licenses and Attributions

CC Licensed Content, Shared Previously:

  • Introduction to Chapter 4 was authored by: Pamela Herrington-Moriarty. License: CC BY-NC 4.0
  • Sections 4.1 and 4.2 were adapted from Part 1: Working with Texts, The Word on College Reading and Writing; authored by: Monique Babin, Carol Burnell, Susan Pesznecker, Rose Rosevear, and Jaime Wood. License: CC BY-NC 4.0
  • Sections 4.3 and 4.4 were adapted from Reading Critically and Making Inferences; authored by: Elisabeth Ellington and Ronda Dorsey Neugebauer. Provided by: Chadron State College. Project: Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. License: CC BY: Attribution

Video Content

  • Inference” authored by blumeanie07. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License

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Integrated Reading and Writing Level 2 by Pamela Herrington Moriarty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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