- Merriam-Webster Online
I’ve always winced a little when I hear Leaders say, "Use only LLL-approved sources." Yes, Leaders are obligated to use the most up-to-date LLL resources first when helping a mother. And a Leader should consult a PL Leader if her own resources don’t cover a helping situation.
Yet Leaders are empowered (although not obligated) to use non-LLL sources in unusual situations, as long as they "read them critically and carefully, evaluating them in light of LLL recommendations" (2003 Leader’s Handbook, p. 165).
In critical reading, we not only examine the writer’s arguments or conclusions, but also try to determine the writer’s purpose and assess the writer’s credibility. This involves reading to understand not only what is said but also how it is being said.
Applying critical reading skills can increase the reader’s understanding even when the topic is something about which she has limited experience or knowledge, thus empowering the reader.
Critical reading and critical thinking skills go hand in hand, and we use them every day in many different settings. In critical reading, though, we consciously use these skills, described formally as analysis, inference, and logic.
Analysis means breaking down the whole into component parts. We apply analytical skills in critical reading, for example, when we make sure we understand every word, looking up technical terms we don’t know; identify what is background information, data, and conclusion; or identify the topic sentence and supporting statements in a complex paragraph.
Inference and logic are used to derive sensible conclusions from the facts that are presented. When critically reading, we consciously ask whether we agree with the conclusion presented, or whether there are alternative interpretations. We ask whether a writer constructs an argument that leads from facts to conclusion in a logical and step-by-step manner. Ideally, there will be no gaps that leave the reader wondering how the writer got from A to B.
Every writer has a purpose, but it isn’t always apparent to the reader. No writer can be absolutely objective, and discerning the writer’s purpose is useful as a way to gain insight into her perspective. The format of the article, its focus, its intended audience, and the publication medium (and who underwrites it—subscribers, advertisers, or those seeking to publish) all provide clues to that purpose.
The “gold standard” for publication of original research articles is peer-reviewed scholarly journals. These narrowly focused articles’ purpose is usually to present new findings to other researchers (the audience) so they can be evaluated and replicated.
Review articles summarize and evaluate previously published original research on a topic. They are published in trade or scholarly journals or books for a wider audience of researchers, scientists, and clinicians, with a purpose of reader education. Reports and articles published in magazines, newspapers, or newsletters have more of a focus on newsworthiness and timeliness. Their purpose can generally be described as reader education, but sometimes falls into persuasion or even entertainment. The audience may be broad or narrow, technical or lay.
Marketing materials and advertising come in many forms, but their purpose is always to convince the reader of something (often to buy a product). The type of publication and the article’s focus are both indications of the intended audience. Vocabulary and sentence structure, the amount of background information, and the level of technical depth in an article offer clues to assumptions about the reader’s education level, knowledge, and experience in the topic.
All of the types of publications described above are available online, so critical reading is always required to determine the writer’s purpose for material obtained from the Internet.
How much knowledge does the writer have about the topic? Look for information about the writer’s background and credentials. In an online publication it may not be on the same page but should be somewhere on the site. If no individual writer is listed, try to find information about the publisher of the website itself. Credible writers will accurately credit the sources of the information they use. Are the sources primary or further removed? Are they available to the reader through libraries or other archives, or are they in-house or obscure publications?
Take into account the writer’s interest in your conclusions. A writer publishing on a commercially funded website may avoid offending the underwriter. The same is true for original research funded commercially. Look for the assumptions that have been made. Sometimes these are stated at the beginning; sometimes they are unstated. This can become an issue when reading information about parenting practices such as sleep behavior or babies’ crying. Inferior spelling and grammar always reflect poorly on writer and publisher.
When considering breastfeeding research, the further removed the publication is from the original source, the more room there is for misinterpretation and oversimplification. It can be helpful to first determine the conclusion, if there is one. Do the authors see it as definitive or only suggestive? Look for ways in which the scope of the topic or argument is limited. One of the ways in which this is done is by defining key terms ("for the purpose of this study ________ means…"; "defined in this case as…"). This can be especially relevant for conditions, such as colic or reflux, which are used to describe a variety of symptoms. Another is by using qualifying terms or phrases ("in my experience," "under circumstances where").
If you’re reading a research article, look at the methods section. Use your analytical skills to ask such questions as
How is breastfeeding defined? Is exclusive breastfeeding distinguished from mixed?
- How many people are in the study? The higher the numbers, the more reliable the results.
- Statistical methods, which are used to address the limitations of study size, can be complicated and confusing. In general it is good to understand common statistical terms such as “confidence interval” and “significance” (resources for statistics are listed at the end of this article).
- How do conditions of the research compare to those of mothers you help?
- Is data presented or cited that supports the arguments and conclusion? This is a question that can be asked of any informational writing.
Beware of "should" arguments. An example of this can be found in some marketing material for dietary supplements. The information focuses on the known role of the vitamin, coenzyme, or other supplement in some biochemical process. The argument is that taking the supplement will enhance the biochemical process, thus improving some performance outcome ("it 'should' work"). But are studies cited showing that taking the supplement actually improves performance?
Are the arguments in support of a conclusion developed in a logical, step-by-step fashion? Does the conclusion drawn by the writer mesh with your own, or are there other interpretations of the information presented? Finally, is the conclusion in alignment with LLL recommendations?
Remember,you are not alone! PL Leaders are available to help you evaluate information from non-LLL sources, especially if the information you find conflicts with LLL materials.
A critical reader is aware of the biases she brings to her topic. For instance, Leaders operate on certain assumptions: breastfeeding is the superior form of infant nutrition and nurturing; in most cases it is possible to continue breastfeeding while taking a medication. Ideally we will apply the same critical reading to works that agree with our assumptions as to those that do not.
Critical reading involves adopting sort of a "show-me" attitude. We all possess the skills required, and in critical reading we consciously apply them to understand both what is said as well as how it is said. In doing so, both the mothers we help and we ourselves can make more informed choices.
Kurland, D.J. (2000). How the Language Really Works: The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing. http://www.criticalreading.com/criticalreadingthinkingtoc.htm (accessed 3/10/14).
Lim, L. Reading Journal Articles. Successful Learning 2003 http://www.cdtl.nus.edu.sg/success/sl12.htm (accessed 3/10/14).
Leader’s Handbook, 4th edition. Schaumburg, Illinois: LLLI, 2003; 165-166.
Office of Educational Support Services, Case Western Reserve University. How Do I Sharpen My Critical Reading Strategies? http://studentaffairs.case.edu/education/learning/onepagers/doc/readingstrategies.pdf (accessed 3/10/14).
Help with Statistics
Coggon, D et al. Epidemiology for the uninitiated, 4th edition. BMJ Publishing Group 1997.
Motulsky, H. Intuitive Biostatistics. 1995; New York: Oxford University Press.
Filling Out Forms—exquisitur (Jason Hickey)
British Medical Journal printed my drawing—Giulia Forsythe
Judith and Walls of Books —signalstation (Michael Van Vleet)
Woman with checkbook—Betsssssy