STRATEGIES TO CRITICALLY
READ ACADEMIC TEXTS
When you read an academic text, you recreate or co-create the meaning of the text, together with the author. In other words, you negotiate the meaning with the author. Reading is a process shaped partly by the text, partly by the reader's background, and partly by the situation the reading occurs in.
Reading an academic text does not simply involve finding information on the text itself. You need to work with the text. You can only achieve this if you can use a series of categories of analysis, some of which are specific to each academic discipline. Thus, working with a text and recreating its meaning entail both non discipline-specific and specific strategies.
The following general strategies –formulated as questions- will help you to critically read your texts.
1. Why do you read the text? What is the purpose of your reading?
a. What do you need this text for? Try to formulate the purpose in the form of questions.
b. What information are you looking for in the text?
2. What is the context of the text?
a. Who is the author? Is she a critical author? Does the author's opinion reflect the mainstream school of thought?
b. When was the text written?
c. Where was it published? US? Canada? Europe?
d. Who is the audience?
3. What is the main thesis of the text?
a. What are the main claims dealing with the issues you are interested in?
b. What is the author's main argument?
c. What does the author intend to do? Does she intend to challenge an existing position? Does she want to consider a variable that previous researchers have missed? Apply a theory or a concept in a new way?
d. What are the different positions used by the author?
e. What are the arguments used to hold these positions?
f. What are the counter-arguments?
4. Are there any assumptions hidden in the text? If so, you need to deconstruct them.
a. Are there any concepts taken for granted? If so, look for these concepts in the textbook, an encyclopedia, or other reference book.
b. Are there some debates that are taken for granted?
c. Is the author responding to another article or book? If so, briefly read that other article or book.
5. What is the strength or validity of the author's argument?
a. Don't take the author's argument at face value.
b. Try to evaluate the argument's effectiveness in making its claims.
c. What evidence does the author offer in support of her claim?
d. How convincing is the evidence? What about the counter-arguments used?
e. What logical reasoning, if any, does the author use?
f. Is there consistency of thought?
g. Are the examples and evidence relevant?
6. What are the non immediate consequences of the arguments used by the author?
a. What are the implications of the author's thesis?
b. What are the applications of the author's thesis?
c. What connections can you make to other texts?
d. How does this relate to other topics you learned about?
e. Can you relate the author's thesis or arguments to your own experience?
Specific strategies: legal texts
Here are some discipline- specific strategies for reading legal texts:
1. What is the approach to law underlying the legal argument (e.g., positivism, socio-legal, etc.)?
a. If positivist, determine the validity (e.g., look at the jurisdiction) and currency of the argument (e.g., law repealed).
2. What legal theory is the author using in her analysis (Positivist, Feminist, Critical Legal Studies, Sociological Jurisprudence?
3. What is the structure or rationality of the reasoning behind the legal argument (e.g. authority, logical, none)?
4. What is the legal tradition the author is referring to?
5. What are the legal solutions to this same issue in Comparative law?
6. What are the policy implications and social consequences of the author’s thesis and claims?
Specific strategies: Criminology and Criminal Justice texts
The following are specific strategies for reading Criminological and Criminal Justice texts.
1. What is the criminology theory or Criminal Justice model underlying the analysis of the text?
2. What is the validity of the criminology theory or the Criminal Justice model used to explain the problem or issue in the text?
3. What is the structure or rationality of the reasoning behind the criminological or Criminal Justice argument (e.g. authority, logical, none)?
4. What is the solution to this problem in other countries or societies?
5. If the author relies on crime statistics, what are the possible flaws in the collection of criminal data?
6. What are the policy implications, legal issues, and social consequences of the author's thesis and claims?
The following are some techniques that may help you with academic reading.
1. Pre-read the text.
a. Look for clues in the text.
b. Begin by reading the title, abstract, headings, subheadings, introduction, and conclusion.
2. Identify the main ideas of the text.
a. Recognize the topic sentences. The topic sentence states the point of the paragraph, and all of the other sentences support, develop, and explain that point.
b. Recognize summary, support, and transitional sentences.
i. Summary sentences state a general idea or concept. As a rule, topic sentences are summary sentences.
ii. Support sentences provide the specific details and facts that give credibility to the author's point of view. They give examples, explanations, arguments, and offer evidence.
iii. Transitional sentences connect the paragraphs in the text in order to suggest the relationship between one point to another.
3. Mark the text while you read it.
a. Summarize main ideas.
b. Underline relevant information that helps you answer your questions.
c. Take notes.
4. Write a summary of the answer to your questions (purpose).
a. Include your reaction to it.
b. Identify other issues which you think are worth exploring.