ERIC Identifier: ED363869
Publication Date: 1993-00-00
Author: Collins, Norma Decker
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN.
Teaching Critical Reading through Literature. ERIC Digest.
This Digest focuses on developing thinking skills in reading. Tierney and
Pearson (1983) posit that readers draw on background experiences to compose a
text, engaging in an ongoing negotiation to arrive at meaning. This is
fundamental to the act of reading. For this reason, reading offers the potential
for higher level thinking. Essential to the success of higher level reading is
the reader's ability to relate new information to what is known in order to find
answers to cognitive questions.
Another underlying principle in the instruction of higher order thinking
skills in reading is the acceptance of the theme of active learning. Literacy
scholar Paulo Freire contends that those who share in the learning process are
empowered by a critical consciousness of themselves as meaning makers. Freire
supports the position which suggests that it is language that provides the tool
for meaning construction. Language is a thinking process which allows students
to learn and grow.
Paradoxically, educators have had this tool at their fingertips for years,
but have failed to respond to the cries for greater competency by looking to
language as the source for improvement. It is only within the last decade, and
particularly the last five years, that schools have begun to identify ways to
optimize language use to promote higher level thinking.
IMPETUS FOR CRITICAL READING
An impetus for the
re-evaluation of standard teaching methods of reading was the National
Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Report in 1981, which revealed that 85%
of all 13-year-olds could correctly complete a multiple choice check on
comprehension but only 15% could write an acceptable sentence summarizing the
paragraph read. Learners were not able to reconstruct the structure and meaning
of ideas expressed by others.
Not only were students unable to summarize, they were rarely encouraged to
support an evaluative interpretation. Reading instruction reflected the lowest
level of thinking--it lacked critical analysis.
Today, professional organizations and the professional literature support
critical thinking in the classroom and call for teachers to guide students in
developing higher level thinking skills (Neilsen, 1989). Because teaching higher
level cognitive processes requires comprehension, inference, and decision
making, the reading classroom is the logical place to begin. These skills have
been associated with reading instruction for years. Now, instead of being
enrichment skills, they have become core skills.
Teaching students to think while reading is referred to in the professional
literature as "critical reading." It is defined as "learning to evaluate, draw
inferences, and arrive at conclusions based on evidence" (Carr, 1988).
Children's literature is a powerful tool for teaching critical reading. It
offers children the opportunity to actively engage in texts while simultaneously
considering ideas, values, and ethical questions. Through literature, students
learn to read personally, actively, and deeply (Sweet, 1993).
For active, critical reading to
occur, teachers must create an atmosphere which fosters inquiry. Students must
be encouraged to question, to make predictions, and to organize ideas which
support value judgments. Two techniques for developing these kinds of critical
reading skills include problem solving and learning to reason through reading.
Flynn (1989) describes an instructional model for problem solving which promotes
analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of ideas. She states that, "When we ask
students to analyze we expect them to clarify information by examining the
component parts. Synthesis involves combining relevant parts into a coherent
whole, and evaluation includes setting up standards and then judging against
them to verify the reasonableness of ideas."
Beck (1989) adopts a similar perspective, using the term "reasoning" to imply
higher order thinking skills. Comprehension requires inferencing, which plays a
central role in reasoning and problem solving. For Beck, children's literature
has the potential to engage students in reasoning activities.
When literature is approached from a problem solving perspective, students
are asked to evaluate evidence, draw conclusions, make inferences, and develop a
line of thinking (Riecken and Miller, 1990). According to Flynn (1989), children
are capable of solving problems at all ages and need to be encouraged to do so
at every grade level. (See, for example, "Using Fairy Tales"  for young
children; Anton  for elementary children; Johannessen  for middle
school children.) Teachers may want to experiment with a particular children's
book and plan a lesson which places reasoning at the center of instruction.
Wilson (1988) suggests that teachers re-think the way they teach reading and
look critically at their own teaching/thinking processes. She cautions against
skills lessons that are repackaged in the name of critical thinking but which
are only renamed worksheets. She points out that teaching students to read,
write, and think critically is a dramatic shift from what has generally taken
place in most classrooms.
According to Wilson, critical literacy advocates the use of strategies and
techniques like formulating questions prior to, during, and after reading;
responding to the text in terms of the student's own values; anticipating texts,
and acknowledging when and how reader expectations are aroused and fulfilled;
and responding to texts through a variety of writing activities which ask
readers to go beyond what they have read to experience the text in personal
THE ACTIVE READER
Critical thinking implies that a reader
is actively and constructively engaged in the process of reading. The reader is
continually negotiating what s/he knows with what s/he is trying to make sense
of. The role of background knowledge and the student's ability to draw upon it
are essential to critical thinking/learning.
It is not an easy task to incorporate higher level thinking skills into the
classroom, but it is a necessary one. For students to participate in the society
in which they live, they must have experiences which prepare them for life. In
order to become critical thinkers, it is essential that students learn to value
their own thinking, to compare their thinking and their interpretations with
others, and to revise or reject parts of that process when it is appropriate.
A classroom environment which is student-centered fosters student
participation in the learning process. Learning that is both personal and
collaborative encourages critical thinking. Students who are reading, writing,
discussing, and interacting with a variety of learning materials in a variety of
ways are more likely to become critical thinkers.
THE TEACHER'S ROLE
Teachers who encourage pre-reading
discussions to help readers activate prior knowledge or fill in gaps in
background knowledge set the stage for critical reading. They help students
identify purposes for reading, formulate hypotheses, and test the accuracy of
their hypotheses throughout the reading process. In addition, asking students to
examine their own reading and learning processes creates the awareness necessary
for critical reading.
Post-reading activities that extend texts provide an opportunity for teachers
to check for learning. Transforming ideas from reading into artwork, poetry,
etc. is an evaluative, interpretive act that reveals the student's level of
Critical readers are active readers. They question, confirm, and judge what
they read throughout the reading process. Students engaged in such activities
are likely to become critical thinkers and learners.
Anton, T. G. (1990). "Classic Encounters." Learning, 18(8), 37-39. [EJ 415 864]
Beck, I. L.(1989). "Reading and Reasoning." Reading Teacher, 42(9) 676-82.
[EJ 388 672]
Carr, K. S. (1988). "How Can We Teach Critical Thinking?" Childhood
Education, 65(2), 69-73. [EJ 382 605]
Flynn, L. L. (1989). "Developing Critical Reading Skills through Comparative
Problem Solving." Reading Teacher, 42(9), 664-68. [EJ 388 670]
Johannessen, L. (1989). Interpreting and Writing about Literature in the
Junior High/Middle School.[ED 325 853]
Neilsen, A. R. (1989). Critical Thinking and Reading. Bloomington, IN: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Reading/Communication Skills. [ED 306 543]
Riecken, T. J. and Miller, M. R. (1990). "Introduce Children to Problem
Solving and Decision Making by Using Children's Literature." Social Studies,
81(2), 59-64.[EJ 413 991]
Sweet, A. P. (1993). Transforming Ideas for Teaching and Learning to Read.
Washington: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. [CS 011 460]
Tierney, R. J. and Pearson, P. D. (1983). "Toward a Composing Model of
Reading." Language Arts, 60(5), 568-80.[EJ 280 830]
"Using Fairy Tales for Critical Reading. Bonus Activity Book" (1991).
Learning, 19(8), 23-42. [EJ 427 873]
Wilson, M. (1988). "Critical Thinking: Repackaging or Revolution?" Language
Arts, 65(6), 543-51.[EJ 376 160]