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English: skills for learning
English: skills for learning

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1.1 How to read critically

Reading critically consists of constantly asking yourself questions.

  • You may consider your own reactions to the content of the text and its relevance to you personally. Analyse the way in which you plan to use the text and ask yourself:

    • Do I agree with this viewpoint?
    • How does it relate to what I already know?
    • Is this text relevant to my needs? Does it help to answer my questions?
  • You may also wonder how far the content of the text can be trusted, in other words if it is reliable, and ask:

    • Does this text provide facts or opinions?
    • If the text contains facts, has any data been obtained from research? How has the data been gathered?
    • If the text contains opinions, are these supported with evidence and relevant reasons?
    • Is the argument convincing or is it unclear and not completely logical?
  • The issue of objectivity is also important:

    • Could the author be influenced by personal feelings or the context in which he or she writes? In other words, is the author objective?
    • Has the author considered other contrasting viewpoints?
    • What other perspectives or points of view could there be?
  • Finally, it is also very important to find out when the text was written:

    • When was this information produced?
    • Is the data still useful or are more current statistics available?
    • Are the theories in the text still valid or have researchers moved on?

Activity 1

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Below is a paragraph taken from Richard Layard’s article, ‘The secrets of happiness’. This article was first published in 2003 in the magazine New Statesman. If you did the Week 1 quiz you will already have read an extract from this article.

To see how critical reading skills are useful at university, imagine you have to write an essay about the causes of happiness and that you have found Layard’s article in the course materials. Read the paragraph below and critically look at some of the information it contains. Ask yourself the four sets of questions listed above.

It is true that, within any particular society at any particular moment, rich people are on average happier than poorer ones. For example, 41 per cent of people in the top quarter of incomes are ‘very happy’, compared with only 26 per cent of those in the bottom quarter of incomes. The problem is that, over the years, the proportions in each group who are very happy have not changed at all although the real incomes in each group have risen hugely. This is true of all the main western countries.

(Layard, 2003)

Make your notes in the box below before comparing your answers with mine.

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Part of this answer is personal to you, but you might like to read the answer given by Jade, a university student who read Layard’s text when preparing for an essay about the causes of happiness:

This paragraph is definitely relevant to the essay as it looks at income as a cause of happiness.

The content partially related to my experience as I know some wealthy people who are also happy. On the other hand I have also met people who have very little but are extremely happy and I have read of very wealthy cinema and pop stars who are or have been very unhappy.

On a closer look, the text uses the phrase ‘on average’, therefore the author acknowledges that there may be unhappy rich people and happy poor people. The first sentence doesn’t say that all rich people are happy but that they are on average happier than poorer people.

The author’s main point is supported by evidence and this makes it stronger. However, the text does not say which groups of people and which societies were surveyed and who carried out the survey. Would rich people in any society feel happier than poor people? And would all the interviewees define happiness in the same way? The final point seems to relate only to western countries. How about other countries?

Despite these reservations, I think it would be interesting to read the rest of the article, but also think I also need to look for texts reporting different viewpoints. I wonder if happiness could be brought about by other factors because this is what my experience suggests. I have also noticed that Layard wrote this article in 2003 so I would like to read texts reporting more up-to-date research and theories. The course materials are very likely to provide them.