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Critical Reading

Level 1

  • The answers to these questions should yield concrete, factual information
  • These answers will allow you to assess the nature of the document.
  • Train yourself to highlight, underline (if you own the book), or otherwise note information that will yield answers to these questions.

1. Who wrote this document?

What was the author’s social background and position?

To what groups did the author belong (e.g., class, race, gender, nationality, and so on)?

What most vividly characterizes the author’s identity for you?

When was the document written?

Where was the document written?

2. Who is the intended audience?

What is the relationship between the author and the audience?

Does the language of the document seem consistent with or appropriate to that relationship?

Does the document appear to be directed to more than one audience?

What knowledge is the author assuming that the audience shares?

3. What is the story line?

What is going on in the document?

Can you distinguish between the details of the document and what it is about?

Can you identify the author’s point, thesis, or intention and the proof she or he offers?

Level 2

  • Answers to these questions will allow you to get beyond the essential facts so that you can begin to craft an interpretation of the document.
  • At this level you go beyond the factual content of the document and try to put it into a wider context not necessarily derived from the text itself.
  • If you own the book, jot down answers to these questions in the page margins.

1. Why was the document written?

Was the document written for a public or a private purpose?

If the document was written to convince, what logic does it employ? Are you convinced? Why or why not?

If the document was written to entertain, how did the author try to accomplish that purpose? Was the author successful?

If the document was written to motivate, to what emotions does it seem to appeal? Was it successful or not?

Can you discern the contours of another side of the story?

2. What type of document is this?

What language is the text written in? Is it a translation? Is the language archaic? Has it been modernized?

What are the conventions of the genre in which the document is written?

Does the document conform to your expectations for the genre or does it modify expected conventions?

3. What are the basic assumptions made in this document?

What assumptions are central to the document and stated explicitly by the author?

What central assumptions are left unstated?

How does the author use these assumptions to make his or her point persuasive?

Level 3

  • Answers to these questions will allow you to think historically about the document.
  • At this level you pose your own questions about the past and use this document to answer those questions.
  • These questions are not likely to have definite answers.
  • The rigor and disciplined creativity with which you answer these questions, however, are what make you a good student of history.
  • Answers to these questions are at the heart of your essays, examinations, and theses.

1. Can I believe this document?

Treat the claims of the document skeptically: what is the other side of the story?

What information, which you possess, does the author of the document appear to lack, ignore, or suppress?

2. What can I learn about the society that produced this document?

Many things that are incidental to the author’s purpose--language, structure, assumptions, errors--are significant for understanding the subject, period, or event under study: what are some of them? How do they illuminate or even stimulate your researches?

Based on what else you know, what meaning can you read into this document?

3. What does this document mean to me?

Every historical document had meaning for the society that produced it and for you: is the meaning you attach to the document the same as the meaning it held when it was produced? Related? Quite different? Can you account for the similarities and/or differences?

What significance do you attach to these similarities and/or differences?


*The material for "Critical Reading: The First Step To Good Writing" is largely a prec's of "How to Read a Document," by Mark A. Kishlansky, et al., Sources of the West: Readings for Western Civilization, vol. 1, From the Beginning to 1648 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. xi - xix. In conformance with the standards of the fair use doctrine.


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