Towards the Critique: Teaching EAP Students to Be Critical

Tania Pattison PhotoTania Pattison

For EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teachers, it may not be enough these days to teach standard essays and research skills. In order to prepare students adequately for their future studies, EAP teachers at CEFR levels B2 and above need to go further. Recent corpora-based research has shed new light on the genres of writing that our students should expect to encounter in their future studies; for example, in research carried out in the UK, Nesi and Gardner (2012) identified 13 genres that undergraduates could be expected to write; these include essay, case study, narrative recount, and more. One that is common across the disciplines is the critique.

What is a critique?
As Nesi and Gardner put it, “The central purpose of Critiques is to demonstrate and develop understanding of the object of study and the ability to evaluate and/or assess its significance” (2012, p. 94). This could take several forms; depending on their field of study, students may be asked to review books, articles, films, plays, and works of art; they could be asked to evaluate financial data, legislation, government policy, and business operations, or they could be required to analyze critically the results of an experiment, a process, or a system (Nesi & Gardner, 2012). In other words, understanding is not enough; students need to use their critical thinking skills to respond to something they are studying and to express a judgment about its value or usefulness. In the EAP class, the item being subjected to critical analysis is usually a written text.

Learning to be critical
Most EAP students, I have found, are not really clear about what being critical actually entails; many think it has something to do with being negative, and it comes as a bit of a surprise when I tell them that while the word critical often does suggest a negative reaction, critical analysis does not necessarily involve looking for problems within the text. I like to draw students’ attention to people who work as critics of movies, music, restaurants, and so on; these people write reviews that may be positive, negative, or a little of both.

Another thing worth emphasizing to students is that a critique is not an emotional response. Students may be predisposed to disagree with any text that goes against their own personal beliefs, which may have their basis in religion or politics. It is important to emphasize the need to look objectively at the author’s argument and to come to a reasoned analysis, not an emotional outburst.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks, however, to critical analysis in the EAP class is another word beginning with c: culture. Students experiencing the North American academic environment for the first time might feel that critical analysis is a “western” skill, something that is not expected in higher education in their own country. They might wonder what gives them the right to make judgments about something in print, most likely written by someone older and wiser. Here, I don’t hesitate to take a little time to familiarize my students with the work of Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede. Of the criteria established by Hofstede to explain cultural differences in communication, the two that are of most interest to us are power distance and individualism.

Power distance refers to the degree to which cultures accept inequality in the distribution of wealth, authority, and knowledge. In countries with high power distance (for example, many Asian and Arab nations), it is accepted that teachers and printed materials are sources of wisdom, experts that must be respected. Questioning a recognized authority may be considered disrespectful. On the other hand, in countries with low power distance (the USA, Canada, Australia, and many European nations), teachers and printed materials do not necessarily have all the answers; it is good scholarship to evaluate and critique authoritative sources.

Individualism describes the extent to which individuals are more important than groups; the opposite, collectivism, emphasizes the importance of group membership and group ideas. In countries with high individualism (the USA, Canada, Australia, and many European nations), a student’s analysis and interpretation of a text will be welcomed as a sign of independent thought. On the other hand, in countries with high collectivism (again, Asian and Arab nations), accepted wisdom is more important than individual thought. A student may be reluctant to express an opinion that is different from that of other class members (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005).

This leads to an important point: don’t assume that students from certain parts of the world cannot respond critically to a text. It is often just that they have not been expected to do so, and without an understanding of western educational practices, they may feel very uncomfortable doing so. It is our task as EAP teachers to enable students to make this transition.

Questions critical readers ask
Over several years of teaching advanced-level EAP, I developed a systematic approach to teaching students to be critical; specifically, I came up with a series of questions readers should be asking about a text. It is important to keep in mind that even at the highest levels of EAP, standard reading tasks like comprehension questions and vocabulary development should not be ignored; critical analysis skills should be taught alongside these other skills, not in place of them.

My ten questions are as follows (sample activities are from Critical Reading, published by Pearson ELT Canada in 2015).

Questions about the circumstances of publication of a text

1.  Where was this text published? Is it academic/peer-reviewed? How do I know? Why does it matter?

Show students a checklist of things they can look for when assessing whether or not a text is academic; this will include length of the article and of individual paragraphs, vocabulary, complexity of sentences, references, abstract, use of color, pictures, statistics, and quotations. Compare three or more articles on related topics; together, reach a judgment about the origins and reliability of each text.

2.  When was it published? Is it still of value?

3.  Who wrote it? Who is this person? What do I know about the author and his or her credentials? What biases might the author bring to the text?

Look at what causes bias (e.g., age, gender, political beliefs, religion, occupation). Then present a text that contains a number of quotations from people with very different opinions. Analyze each person quoted for background, credentials, and possible bias.

4.  Why did this author choose to write this particular text? What were his or her goals in writing the text? To convince the reader to follow a course of action, to entertain, to give a warning, to sell something… or something else? Which audience did the author have in mind?

Questions about the content of a text

5.  Does the article present facts or opinions? How do I know?

Look at language features associated with facts and opinions. Choose a text on a controversial topic that contains both. Ask students to identify (a) clear facts; (b) opinions; and (c) information that is probably factual, but that requires confirmation elsewhere.

6.  How does the author try to convince me? Has the author conducted empirical research? If so, it is sufficient/convincing? Are there any flaws in the author’s methodology? Is the sample size large enough? Is the author justified in reaching his or her conclusions? Would the same results appear elsewhere?

Teach the steps of the scientific method. Bring in a research report; analyze the method used, participants, validity of results, and strength of conclusion reached.

7.  Does the author use other types of support? For example, does the author quote from others (who?), use anecdotes, or use visual evidence such as charts, graphs, photos, and so on?

8.  How does the writing style of the author contribute to the effectiveness of the text? Does the author mask a shaky argument with the use of persuasive language? How can we recognize such language?

Questions about the text in context

9.  Does the article support or contradict other information? If it is from an academic journal, does it support any particular school of thought within a discipline? If it contradicts other information, how do I deal with this?

10. Does the article support or contradict what I know about this topic from my own experiences?

Explain why bringing one’s own experiences to a text might be culturally challenging, but demonstrate that the reader is the third component of the reader–author–text triangle. Find an academic text on a topic the students are familiar with. Can they identify any inaccuracies in the text? Do they agree with everything being said?

Writing the critique

If students are familiar with the questions above and are comfortable addressing them, they are ready to write a critique. The critique I ask my students to write for their first experience of this genre is very simple, with four sections (note that subheadings are not used):

1. Introduction: This includes key information (name, author, date, place of publication) about the text.

2. Summary: The main ideas are presented.

3. Analysis: This is the longest and most detailed section; the writer has plenty of freedom here to focus on whichever aspect(s) of the text are most worthy of discussion.

4. Conclusion: A brief summary of the ultimate value of the text.

As a teacher, your first task is to find a text that students can respond to easily. Choose a text that is not too long (around 1,000–1,200 words works well), and not so dense in content and vocabulary that students will struggle to understand it. If this is your students’ first time writing a critique, I would suggest you choose a newspaper editorial or a piece from a news magazine that may have some connection to their own lives. In my own classes, I have used texts on government cutbacks in education, the practice of bell-curving student grades, and the value of an arts education.

It is important at this stage to ensure students know the difference between a critique and a persuasive essay or research paper—genres with which they are almost certainly more familiar. This is the most common problem I see among my own students; they easily fall into the trap of arguing for or against the topic rather than critiquing the text. In my own classes, I don’t require students to do any research for the review; if they want to check something, that is fine, but I am more interested in their own thoughts based on the text in front of them.

When it comes to writing the critique, a combination of individual and group activities often works well. Here is one approach that I have used successfully; ideally, this process takes place over several days.

1. Start off with some general background questions about the topic to get students thinking about the issues. You may want to address some crucial vocabulary at this stage. I usually prepare a handout to accompany the text, which also includes the list of questions above.

2. Have students work in pairs or threes to read and summarize the article in class. For a 1,000-word article, I usually suggest a short summary of 200 words. Allow students enough time to write a summary that they are happy with. Invite pairs/groups to share their summaries with the class, and identify together the key points of the article.

3. Draw students’ attention to the list of questions above. Put students into groups of three or four and give them time to discuss these aspects of the text (not every question will be applicable to every text). At this stage, students may look up the author or the newspaper/magazine to identify any possible bias. They may well disagree in their assessment of the article; it is worth emphasizing again that there are no “right” or “wrong” opinions, and they will be rewarded for expressing an opinion. This may be hard for them to grasp.

4. The actual writing of the critique takes place at home when students are able to reflect on the discussion they have had in class and to formulate their individual response. Students should not simply answer the ten questions in turn; they should use those questions as a guideline for the expression of their own response to the text.

The ability to be critical is a key skill for EAP students. While your students may have little experience in this area, they can and should be shown how to systematically approach and evaluate a text if they are to succeed in their future studies.

Hofstede, G., & Hofstede, G.J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Nesi, H., & Gardner, S. (2012). Genres across the disciplines: Student writing in higher education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pattison, T. (2015). Critical Reading. Montreal: Pearson ELT Canada.

Tania Pattison is the author of Critical Reading (Pearson Canada, 2015). She has taught EAP in Canada and the UK and has developed curriculum for three EAP programs. Based in Ontario, Canada, she is now a full-time writer and editor of ELT materials.