Reading and Responding in Writing to Academic Texts

Reading for academic or professional reasons (although it may be interesting and pleasant) is very different from reading strictly for pleasure. When we read at school or work, we want to get information from a text for some later action. We may want to learn how to calculate stress tolerances for a particular metal being used to build a bridge. If we make a mistake, the bridge could fail and people could die. If we are reading a business proposal, we may need to identify several reasons why a particular plan should go ahead. Our ability to understand and evaluate the proposal critically could result in millions of dollars being earned or lost. Sometimes, at school, we are simply reading an essay to understand the writer’s proposal so that we can critically discuss the value of the ideas presented. This often requires looking critically at how the writer wrote and supported her or his ideas.

Critical reading often requires reading slowly and, often, re-reading. It is useful to annotate (i.e. take brief notes in your own words in the margins of the text) or put your notes on a separate piece of paper.  I recommend using the Cornell Note-Taking System.

Working through your text with a pen and/or a highlighter in hand keeps you focused. Forcing yourself to stop at the end of a paragraph to ask what the main idea of the paragraph was keeps your mind from wandering and ensures that you really do understand what you read. The notes that you take can be used for review and for summarizing and critiquing.

Make notes where you have questions or where the text causes a strong reaction in you.

You will need to write summaries of most of the essays that we read. Summaries can run from 10% to 50% of the length of the original text. HOWEVER, for this class, your summaries should be 1 to 3 sentences long. Identify the main ideas. Most of the essays that we will read will have one to five main points. IN YOUR OWN WORDS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, state the topic of the essay and say, generally, what the writer said about the topic. Don’t include phrases or sentences from the text in your summary. Use your own words.

If you are writing a response to the essay, you should focus on the content of the essay not how the writer wrote.

You also need to go beyond what the writer said. Don’t just say, “The writer said, ‘yadda, yadda, yadda’ and I agree.” If you agree, can you connect what the writer said to a larger context? Perhaps discuss how the situation is the same or different in your country or region? Show that you understand the writer’s main idea.

Do you disagree with the writer? Explain why you disagree.

Your response shows that you are thinking about the ideas presented in the essay.

If you are writing a critique, your focus is on how well the writer conveyed information.  Does the text help you understand the subject? If the essay is persuasive, were you persuaded? Why or why not?

To help with this, answer the following questions:

  • What is the author’s main point?
  • What is the author’s purpose in writing this particular essay?
  • What arguments are used to support the main point?
    • Are these really the most important points?
  • Is the text well-organized, clear, and easy to read?
  • What evidence is used to support the arguments?
    • Is there sufficient evidence for the author’s arguments or do you need more?
      • Be careful here. If the writer’s audience is likely to know something and you are not the intended audience, it is not fair to criticize this particular lack of evidence.
    • Are the author’s facts accurate? (Look at the sources. Do some research.)
    • What assumptions does the writer make? Are the assumptions reasonable?
    • What biases does the author have? How do these biases affect the argument?
    • Does the text present and refute opposing points of view?
      • Was this a serious attempt or just a superficial look at what a few people might say but ignoring strong counter arguments?