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Reading Critically

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: September/October 1995
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Two concerns that every home-school parent should address in the area of literature are that 1) children must be exposed to a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction, and 2) they must learn to analyze and evaluate whatever they hear or read.

Activities that require children to draw conclusions and support their opinions will make comprehension skills meaningful and useful. Keep in mind that discussions and composition topics should be narrow enough to require specific (not vague) support and limited enough to maintain interest. I only cover one or two skills for any one piece of literature.

Following are a few examples for discussion or compositions.
Skill: Understanding character development. Using inference.
What kind of person is the main character? Use examples from the story to support your opinion.
Which character did you admire most? Explain why. Provide illustrations from the story to support your choice.

Skill: Understanding theme, point of view, or main idea.
What is the author's basic theme, message, or point of view? This is not usually stated, only implied, and can be summed up in one or two sentences like a proverb. It could be right and true, such as "hard work pays off," or it could be false and wrong - "it doesn't matter who gets hurt if you're having fun." Use examples to prove that this is the author's point of view.
Read a fable or parable. Try to figure out the moral or meaning of the story yourself, then compare with the stated meaning.

Skill: Understanding plot development: conflict and resolution.
Choose a problem presented in the story and write it clearly. List (or tell) the facts and the solution presented. Do you think this was a logical solution based on the facts? Do you think it was the best solution? If not, offer your solution and explain why it would be better.
Were the problems solved in ways acceptable to this type of fiction? That is, if it was a fairy tale, there could be magic involved; a tall tale could have something funny and ridiculous; but if it was a realistic fiction, is the solution realistic?

Skill: Identifying facts and opinions.
Read articles (e.g., editorials or reviews) in newspapers and magazines. Underline facts and circle opinions. Make a pile of articles that convinced you to agree with the author and a pile of those that did not. Put a number on each article.
Make a chart with the headings: Fact, Opinion, Convinced? Down the side list the numbers you used to label the articles. Now, fill in the number of facts and opinions in each article and write yes or no under "Convinced?" Did the articles that convinced you have more of either facts or opinions than the others? If there was no pattern, what did convince you?

Skill: Understanding propaganda techniques. Use of inference.
Figure out and state what an advertisement is declaring important in order to convince you to buy the product.
Make up your own product and an advertisement to sell it. Which techniques did you use?

Skill: Using figures of speech
Find a metaphor or simile that you thought was effective and explain why you think it creates an image better than a longer explanation would have. (A metaphor compares two things by writing as if one is the other: The runner was lightning on the track. A simile compares two things using the words "like" or "as." The boy was as quiet as a mouse.) The Psalms provide plenty of examples.
Find or write an example of personification. (This gives an object, animal, or idea the qualities of a person - thought and emotions. The sea wailed and moaned.) How does personification affect the mood? Change the mood by writing the description without personification.

Skill: Discerning truth and error
When reading nonfiction, children too often simply take it all in, never deciding whether or not what they are reading actually has merit. To replace passive acceptance with active thinking, help your students do the following:

  1. Have a purpose for reading so that they are reading for meaning.
  2. Question the reasonableness of what they are reading.
    How does it compare with what you already know?
    What proof does the author give?
    What is implied (rather than stated)?
    What conclusions can you come to?
  3. Accept or reject new ideas based on what they already know.
    Are the author's points valid?
    (Editor's note: How do they line up with Scriptural truth and proven facts?)
    If you decide the author's points are valid, add that information to what you already know, or change your opinion, giving up any faulty ideas you had that contradict the better information.

Always encourage your children to give reasons for their opinions. Feel free to disagree with them, but support your points.

This interchange helps them practice thinking and reasoning. They will learn to change their minds when they see good evidence. We could teach them what to think, but if we don't also teach them how to think, they will be easy prey for anyone with an emotionally charged message.





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