Critical literacy

Critical reading involves analysing and evaluating different ideas expressed in your course material. Learn strategies and steps to develop your critical literacy.

What is critical literacy?

Critical literacy is a central thinking skill that a tertiary education seeks to develop in students.

It involves the questioning and examination of ideas, and requires you to synthesise, analyse, interpret, evaluate and respond to the texts you read or listen to.

How do I start this process?

Critical literacy starts with reading or listening. For the purposes of critical literacy in academic writing, we are generally talking about your work with reading texts.

There are two parts to engaging with academic research or texts:

  1. A reporting element where you describe what you’re engaging with; and
  2. A reaction or response element where you then respond to and interpret the text.

The first element is necessary, but the second element is crucial to being critically literate.

Critical questions

The first thing you need to do is to identify key elements of text as you read. To do that, you need to ask questions and make notes.

Reporting/describing questions

  • Who are the authors/researchers? What did they do?
  • What is the main position or argument or themes of the text?
  • How did they do the research? Where was it done? With who?
  • What did they find? What do they conclude or recommend?

Then you need to ask some deeper level questions.

Critical/interpretive questions

  • What are the researchers claiming? Is it in scope with the study? Do the findings support the aims?
  • What are the strengths of the study? Limitations? Weaknesses? What makes you think so?
  • Are any biases evident? Is the source reliable?
  • Is the research pivotal? Important? Why?
  • Is there other research that supports or contradicts it?
  • Is it replicable? Is it applicable to your study?

Tip: the key to recording these thoughts and responses to text is to make organised notes as you read.

Making notes

Try to group notes by some sort of organising principle. This will vary depending on the assignment, but it may be:

  • Topical as determined by the sections of an assignment. E.g. section 1 of the paper might be the research that examines causes of something, while section 2 looks at effects, 3 at solutions
  • Thematic so research is grouped by larger themes
  • By author, grouping together authors/studies by similarity or difference
  • By more generic themes, such as major studies or chronology – ordering by time.

Tip: as you read, make reference notes of the sources, at least author name(s), year and title of the publication.

Next consider the connections or ideas emerging from the groupings and how they fit with the work you are doing.

A useful exercise at this stage is to create a mindmap or flowchart of the notes as a visual representation can give a fresh perspective on how studies relate to each other.

Critical writing

Reporting

When you are reporting on what you have read, you are describing the study.

  • If the idea is clearly finished, use simple past (e.g. Evans (2010) found that…)
  • If the idea still has currency now or is a still-held belief, use simple present (e.g. Wright (2011) maintains that…)
  • If there needs to be a link made from past to now, use present perfect (e.g. Wang and Lu (2015) have shown…)

However, don’t stop there; you need to move on to critical engagement.

Interpreting

There are a range of elements to critically engaging with text. On one level, you might interpret or highlight the significance or importance of the ideas you are reading. For example:

  • Evans (2010) found that the method was successful and this was significant because it represented a major shift from prior research.
  • Wright (2011) maintains that the true focus should be on the method not the outcome, and this is crucial as it highlights a renewed focus on the process of development. This, in turn, suggests that

This type of interpretive language, therefore, is powerful as it shifts your writing from the descriptive to the critical and it also shows your voice – it is you reacting to the ideas in the text.

Other examples of this type of language are:

  • This is important because… This tells us that…
  • This shows* that…  (*suggests/implies/gives the impression/means that…)
  • This is worth noting as/because it…
  • This calls attention to… highlights the need for…
  • This can be illustrated by…
  • What this means* is… (*shows/tells us/reveals/highlights/points to/implies)
  • …importantly* suggests that… (*crucially, significantly)
  • …which points to/suggests the need for…
  • …which is vital/crucial/significant/illustrative as it…
  • …which shows/illustrates that…
  • …meaning that …
  • …illustrating/pointing to the need for…
  • In doing so, it points to…/In so doing, tells us that…

Critiquing

Another key element to critical literacy is to form opinion or response to the value of the text or the research; in other words, to evaluate it.

Perhaps one of the most important things to realise as a student is that you can be critical – you are expected to be. You can do this in a range of ways.

The impulse when attempting to be critical is to look for the negative, however, critique is inherently evaluative and as such can be:

  • Positive (strengths-based), and/or
  • Negative (limitations-based), and/or
  • When appropriate, solutions (action/recommendation-based)

A layered approach

One way to approach the writing of critique is to layer the ideas by reporting, critiquing and offering a response.

Example one

Brent (2010) found that students created highly homogeneous peer groups, based on familial likeness and similarity in social and cultural background. The study, however, was limited in its application as Brent chose to collect data over a short time period at a single site. It may have been more illustrative to broaden the scope of the study to track students’ peer groups over a longer period of time at a range of sites.

Legend: Reporting (what the author found) , Critique (negative limitation from you) , Solution (from you)

Example two (focusing on the critique)

One of the limitations of the research of Manning and Ng (2014) is that it focused solely on student attitudes using a large-scale likert-scale survey. West (2017) points out that consideration of how these attitudinal measures relate to the real-life social and cultural context of the school was not explored in this research. James, in her pivotal 2016 study, however, did exactly that when she studied attitudes towards learning combining a robust, school-wide survey with focused research on 10 key students.

Legend: Critique (negative limitation from you), Elaboration on the critique (using another author) , Solution (from another author, with positive critique)

Functional language of critique

Here are some examples of the language and phrases you can use.

Limitations – negative critique

  • One of the limitations with his explanation is that it …
  • The key problem with this position is that …
  • The study fails to take into account the importance of …

Strengths – positive critique

  • This was significant / influential in that it …
  • This landmark / pivotal / thorough study proposed that …
  • She correctly points out that …

Constructive suggestions

  • The study would have been more useful if it had …
  • The findings may have been more applicable if …
  • The paper may have been more convincing if it …

Similarity/difference

  • Bond (2001) found… Similarly, Bennet (2003) also argued that … Evans (2010) supports these ideas saying that …
  • Unlike Bradley (2001), however, Bennet (2003) maintained that it was more about… while Lee (2004) argued …

More information

Watch this video to see the elements of critical writing broken down and explained, or check out the Academic Phrasebank. It's a great resource to expand your language.

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an appointment or attending one of our drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice