Critical thinkers examine what they read with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. Their curiosity drives them to learn more about the subject. Their skepticism drives them to question the truth in what they read. A strong high school reader needs that combination of curiosity and skepticism to distinguish fact versus opinion in a text. Critical reading leads to a higher level of comprehension where the reader decides whether to trust the text.
Try this: Take a highlighter to a news article from a website, magazine or newspaper. Read through it, highlighting everything that is clearly represented as a fact. Look for numbers. Look for historical information or references to current events. Look for technical information. Every fact you find will be verifiable. You will be able to find another source with exactly the same information. Do some Internet searches to verify the facts, which teaches you to be a curious reader who wants to know more about a topic and the kind of skeptical reader who doesn't accept every printed word as fact.
Even when writers are supposed to stick to facts, they sometimes interject opinions in their writing. To spot opinions, look for language that signals the writer’s values creeping into the writing. Words such as “best” and “worst” and their synonyms should alert skeptical readers to an opinion. A statement such as, “Seat belts are the best way to prevent injuries in car accidents” sounds true, but auto-safety experts might disagree. Often writers state opinions as absolutes, using language such as “everyone” and “no one.” To counter that, you should ask yourself whether a writer’s statement is always true and whether everyone would agree with the idea.
Writers can be very convincing about stating their opinions and surrounding them with facts. You must consider the topic and the writer’s purpose. When writing about controversial topics such as gun control or the death penalty, all sides of an issue should be covered equally and represented without judgment. Otherwise, the author’s purpose may have been to persuade you to one side. Rather than accepting the truth of what the writer says, try to form fact-based arguments against writer’s propositions. If you can argue against what the text says using facts, then you know you have been reading an opinion piece.
Question the Text
Kelly Gallagher, a California high school teacher, literacy consultant and author of several books on literacy, uses an activity called “20 Questions” to challenge his students to think about texts. He will introduce the opening of an article and direct the class to come up with a list of questions about the topic, the writer and the purpose of the text. You can also do this on your own. When you start off asking questions and continue to ask questions as you read, you are more likely to look at the text with the combination of curiosity and skepticism that supports comprehension and helps distinguish fact from opinion.
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