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Academic reading: What is critical reading?

What is critical reading?

The word ‘critical’ means that you do not simply take ideas in a text for granted, but that you evaluate the evidence and arguments. Your critical reading process could start with the assumption that texts are not neutral but try to influence the reader in some way and are themselves influenced by the writer’s beliefs, attitudes, and culture. This process often involves identifying the author’s beliefs and opinions as they are expressed in the text and understanding how these influence the message. When you decide which parts of the text are most important, which are more or less persuasive for your purposes, or which parts are most controversial, you are engaging critically with the text. A further step would be to relate the text to your own existing knowledge and beliefs.

In short, critical reading involves taking an extra (mental) step after comprehension, so that you are able to evaluate the text, draw conclusions and make inferences. Critical reading is effectively using analysis and combining your own knowledge and beliefs with the ideas in the text in order to learn from the passage.

How do texts persuade us?

The first step towards reading texts more critically is to be aware of when and how a text may try to persuade you. There are three main strategies to try and persuade the reader:

  1. Word choice: By using words and phrases that have positive or negative meanings, texts can influence our feelings regarding the content of the text. We distinguish between denotation and connotation. Denotation is about the meaning of the word as you can find it in a dictionary whereas connotation is about the feeling you have about a word. Take for example ‘He is a very unique boy’ and ‘He is a very peculiar boy’. Unique and peculiar both have the denotation of distinctive in nature or character from others. Their connotation is quite different, however. The connotation of the word peculiar is negative while the connotation of the word unique is more positive. This makes the first sentence more appealing and positive; the second sentence would sound more judgmental or even insulting.
  2. Omitting information: Texts may also leave out certain information, especially when this contradicts or challenges the arguments presented in the text. For example, if an author wants to give the reader a negative impression of a historical figure, they might only mention the figure’s bad actions and poor decisions and leave out the positive things they’ve done. In an academic article, an author may have omitted evidence from previous studies that contradict their own argument.
  3. Implication: Texts may imply certain information rather than explicitly state it. We’ll look at this means of persuasion in more detail when we discuss making inferences and analyzing arguments.


In the following examples, identify the word or phrase that was used to persuade you and how it does this.

  1. I recognized the stench of my roommate’s cooking as I entered the apartment.
  2. Journalists have no right to snooping in the royal family’s private lives.
  3. Phileas Fogg was an intrepid traveller.
  4. It’s about time they do something about these vagrants loitering about the park.
  5. A gathering assembled in front of parliament to protest the proposed law.

  1. Stench has a negative connotation and makes you believe the roommate is a poor cook.
  2. The word snoop has a negative connotation, increasing the likelihood you will agree with the statement. If the word ‘investigate’ had been used, you might feel more positive about what these journalists do.
  3. Intrepid has a positive connotation and will leave you with a positive opinion of Phileas Fogg. If the word reckless had been used, you might have a different opinion of this character.
  4. Both the words vagrant and loiter have a negative connotation so you are more likely to agree with the statement. If the words homeless people and sleep had been used, you would probably feel more empathy for the position of the homeless.
  5. A gathering sounds rather peaceful and innocent so you probably feel these people are within their rights to protest. If the word mob had been used, the gathering turns into a crowd of angry and/or violent people and you would probably think an intervention would be appropriate.