Think of critical reading as a bit like an autopsy: you have a piece of text laid out in front of you and you need to dissect it. To do that, you need to learn what tools there are, how to use them, and when to select the right one. These reading tools are going to help you to better interrogate the texts you’re given in the exam.
The 4 tools are:
The first tool to use is your Question tool – this is to get to the basics of what you’re dealing with.
As you start reading the text, find out what is going on by asking yourself: who, what, where, when and why.
So who are the people, what are they doing, where are they, when is this happening, and why – why is it happening to them and why is it important.
So if you’re struggling to even understand what on earth is going on in the text, before you even get to all the writer’s techniques, just use the Question tool to ask those basic questions.
Try to clarify any gaps you might have because there might be some difficult words you’ve just never seen before. Perhaps the text is taken from a broadsheet so it has some sophisticated language, or there might be some jargon because it’s on quite a bizarre or niche subject.
You’ll need to try and clear up any confusion you have about the text, especially if a word is in a key sentence. The best way to solve that is to:
- Break the word down to its root; strip it of any prefix or suffix (any letters before or after it).
For example, if you hadn’t come across the words ‘abnormal’ or ‘normalise’ before, you can clarify their meaning by cutting off the prefix of suffix.
Normal | Abnormal | Normalise
- Look at the words around it and check that the root word you have makes sense in the context of whatever else is written.
- And if it doesn’t make sense, then cover it up and fill in the blank! Think of a word that could go in its place.
“She was a multifaceted woman with many talents.”
If you don’t know what ‘multifaceted’ means, cut it to it’s root. What letters before or after the main word can we cut? We have ‘multi’, which we know means ‘many’ (as in, multiple or multiplex). The word ‘many’ is also in the sentence so that goes in our favour; we’re then able to infer that it means the woman has lots of different sides to her. So we could replace that word ‘multifaceted’ with the word ‘interesting’ or something similar, to see if it makes sense. And it does.
“He had a powerful and malignant presence.”
What does malignant mean? What prefix or suffix can we cut to get to the root? We might get to ‘mal’ as in, bad. The words around it don’t help much either – because powerful can be a good or bad trait. But at least we’re now 50/50 as to whether it’s a good thing. But the fact we have a hunch that ‘mal’ means ‘bad’, that helps tips in favour of ‘malignant’ meaning something negative, particularly if we’re aware of the word having other associations (i.e. cancer, a malignant tumour), so we’re fairly sure then that a ‘malignant presence’ must be a negative thing. So to double-check, let’s replace it with the word ‘’unpleasant’ and see if that fits in with other descriptions of him in the text, which it does.
Be aware that the exam board will have deliberately chosen texts that include difficult words that you’re likely to not understand! That might seem cruel, but it’s to test whether you have this skill to clarify meaning and to problem-solve any confusion you get from reading a text.
This next tool is fairly self-explanatory! You just need to look around the text for evidence. The exam will ask you to identify certain words or phrases that suggest a particular meaning. You’ll need to examine the text and sift through it to find the explicit meaning the question is looking for.
Your Infer tool is where you make some informed inferences – or interpretations – about the text, based on any clues, signs, hints, or any patterns you come across.
If this was an autopsy or an x ray you’d be looking for fractures or bruises or marks on the body – anything that gives you subtle hints.
But in language you’re looking for moods and emotive language and semantic fields, and connotations. This helps you to read between the lines and get to the implied meaning, or the intention of the writer, by looking at their techniques and style. It’s also how you can pick up on any bias in the text.