Critical Thinking Skills for the Analysis of Texts
Critical thinking and reading analytically go together. Getting better at one makes you better at the other, and both are essential to developing the mental habits of a disciplined, imaginative and reflective thinker. Many intelligent people are intimidated by the attention, imagination and deductive reasoning demanded by the critical analysis of written texts, but practice and a few basic techniques are all it takes to develop the skill of thinking critically about what you read.
The foundation of critical thinking about a text is objectivity, or the ability to get out of the way and truly listen to the author's message. Setting your own opinions, emotions and presuppositions aside to understand what another person is saying is a learned skill, and one that is increasingly important in the information age. Allow plenty of time to read the text thoughtfully and attentively, and don't try to evaluate, criticize or counter the author's perspectives or arguments until you have read the text all the way through once, focusing exclusively on comprehension. You will know you have completed this step when you can clearly and thoroughly summarize the text in your own words. This is the step at which you should answer the "what" questions. What type of literature is this, what is the author's purpose and what exactly is the author saying?
The next step is to recognize the structure of the text you are reading. Understanding how a text is put together is like reverse engineering. Recognizing the moves the author is making lets you see what he is trying to create, the relationships connecting his ideas and the type of reasoning he is using. Start by determining the role each paragraph plays in the structure of the piece, and recognizing how the paragraphs relate to one another. Is the author making a claim and backing it up with examples? Is he creating an analogy, then explaining its application? Next, do the same thing for each paragraph. What is the paragraph's overall goal, and how does each sentence contribute to that goal? In this step, you should be answering the "how" questions -- how is the author using word choice, logic and sentence structure to create a certain mood, achieve a certain effect and make certain points? How do the parts of the text combine to create the whole?
Implications and Inferences
Take your analysis to the next level by considering the implications of what the author is saying and the inferences that could be drawn from it. Think about what the author would probably feel or argue about an event or topic related to the one your text discusses -- and make sure you can explain why you make that inference. Ask what experiences, emotions or events might have led the author to form the ideas he is expressing. Consider the text's overall tone or mood, and identify the words or images the author uses to create that mood. Compare and contrast the text with others on a similar topic. In this step you should be answering "why" questions -- why does the author believe or feel what he does, and why does the text have the impact it does?
Questions and Counterclaims
By now, you have determined what the author is saying, how he is saying it and what inferences can be drawn from it. The final step is to consider the questions or counterclaims that might challenge the author's viewpoint. If you disagree with the author, take a moment to formulate your arguments against the text and pinpoint the specific assumptions or claims you dispute, or the logical fallacies you recognize. If you agree with or relate to what the author is saying, consider what additional, perhaps stronger, points might be made to support the argument or enhance the emotional effect. In this step, you enter into an imaginary dialog with the author, agreeing with and supporting some points, challenging or questioning others.
Shandi Stevenson is a teacher, tutor and author whose work has appeared in national and international publications including "Shibboleths," "Homeschooling Today," and "Resort Living." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature in English and a Master of Arts in humanities.