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Reading Critically


This assignment asks students to become critical readers of all texts but particularly news publications. After completing different reading exercises, students will become familiar with the layout and standard features of a newspaper by regularly reading and dissecting a contemporary, local or regional paper.

Newspapers, and the information they contain, are organized and presented in very specific ways. The methods that publishers or editor employ may allow readers to quickly access information or use nontextual data to make a point. Not only did the invention of the printing press in 1440 by Johanes Guttenberg in Germany change the development of Christianity and science through the quick communication of information, but the printing pres+ is also linked to the spread of different ideas related to politics, such as democracy and the rights of men (and women). For example, Guttenberg immediately printed a copy of the Bible that allowed everyday people to have a copy of the sacred texts and no longer require a religious figure to interpret it. Guttenberg also printed the “indulgences” of local Catholic priests in order to show corruption in the Church and the need for reform, thus leading to the Protestant Reformation. By 1499, over 15 million texts had been duplicated by printing presses, creating a demand for literacy across Europe. In the Americas and what is now the United States, printed materials assisted in the spread of religion and in the military and colonial goals of England, Spain and Russia.


Printing Press
Literacy Audience
Objective versus Subjective
Point of View


You will need:
Lesson plan length: 2 – 4 weeks. Students will work in groups of 2 – 3.
Local and regional newspapers.
Presentation tools depending upon class capabilities. low tech: poster board for each group to write out newspaper for display in class room. high tech: computer assisted PowerPoint presentations to post on the classroom website.

Pre-Assessment: Initially, instructors play a directive role in going over the reading, glossary terms. As the lesson progresses, students should break out into groups of 2-3 and the instructor may supervise their work.

Lesson Hypothesis: Newspapers across history have had an explicit goal of relaying information to its readers. Newspapers reveal how its authors prioritize different types of news and may emphasize some information more than others. Which information is more “important” than other information? How do local newspapers organize information both throughout the issue and in individual articles? What are the requirements of the audience and creators of the printed text? This Lesson is designed for students in the 7th grade. In completing this Lesson, students will gain an informed perspective of the Middle Ages, Early Modern, and Modern periods of world history through analytical cultural comparison. Students will survey the spread and impact of cultural values, tenets, and technology between the Eastern and Western worlds. This assignment asks students to trace the origins of modern political thought and discourse. Students use a variety of maps and documents to identify physical and cultural features of neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries and to explain the historical migration of people, expansion and disintegration of empires, and the growth of economic systems.

goals & objectives

In completing this lesson, successful students will:

  • Define and understand the glossary terms included.
  • Gain an informed perspective of the Middle Ages, Early Modern, and Modern periods of world history through analytical cultural comparison.
  • Survey the spread and impact of cultural values, tenets, and technology between the Eastern and Western worlds.
  • Trace the origins of modern political thought and discourse.
  • Explain how major events are related to one another in time.
  • Use a variety of maps and documents to identify physical and cultural features of neighborhoods, cities, states, and countries and to explain the historical migration of people, expansion and disintegration of empires, and the growth of economic systems.
  • Frame questions that can be answered by historical study and research.
  • Distinguish fact from opinion in historical narratives and stories.
  • Distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, essential from incidental information, and verifiable from unverifiable information in historical narratives and stories.
  • Assess the credibility of primary and secondary sources and draw sound conclusions from them.
  • Detect the different historical points of view on historical events and determine the context in which the historical statements were made (the questions asked, sources used, author’s perspectives).
  • Understand and distinguish cause, effect, sequence, and correlation in historical events, including the long- and short-term causal relations.
  • Recognize the role of chance, oversight, and error in history.
  • Recognize that interpretations of history are subject to change as new information is uncovered.
  • Read all enclosed documents, including “The 3-Pass Guide to Critical Reading.”
  • Evaluate contemporary newspapers and the role of information organization in relaying history by completing various critical reading exercises.
  • Consider the role of literacy in passing information from society to society and its differences from an oral tradition.
  • Observe and mark change over time in presenting the “news.”
the lesson

Lesson: Part A: Becoming a Critical Reader: Getting to Know the Newspaper
Introduce this exercise by handing out copies of “The 3-Pass Guide to Critical Reading.” Go over the three passes and then apply them to a current local or regional newspaper.

Instructors should inform the whole class they will read the newspaper each day as part of the next unit of study. Instructors should use the local paper and assign 20 – 30 minutes each day for one week on this exercise. In the classroom have the newspapers stacked on a table or desk so students can pick one up as they enter the room. This should be routine for the next week.

Instructors should give students 10 – 15 minutes at the beginning of each class to pick up a newspaper and read it. If a newspaper is to be shared with another class, stress the need to put the sections back in order. After reading for the required amount of time, students should complete the “Newspaper Activity Sheet” as a group.

Students should share their findings with the class. Students should then select a spokesperson for each group to present the information the group has learned for the day. Instructors should have students rotate as spokesperson each day.

The 3-Pass Guide to Critical Reading. Based on Irene L. Clark's The Genre of Argument. (1998).
This exercise is intended to sharpen active reading skills. When people are inexperienced with published works, they often approach them passively—they simply begin reading to understand the meaning of the text. The problem with this approach is that it adheres to a submissive, rather than to a “take-charge” model of the reading process. Reading submissively implies that a work exists as a separate, valid, believable entity, worthy of serious consideration simply because it has been published. Moreover, the submissive approach does not include the reader-initiated activities of reflecting on the subject and context of the work, questioning the motives, agendas, and qualifications of its author, or evaluating the quality of the argument. Using the 3 Pass Method will better prepare you to critically approach a text.

The First Pass: Reflection and Quick Overview
Reading a published work is something like entering an ongoing conversation. As a student who is being asked to develop a thoughtful position on a complex topic, he or she must be aware that most of the controversies one may encounter in print have been going on for some time. But it is difficult to enter a conversation that started before one has arrived; it means the reader must listen carefully to figure out what the conversation is all about. One can make the process of figuring out a written conversation easier by paying close attention to clues from the text that will help you to make an informed judgment. The first pass over a published work involves assessing what one may already know about the subject matter, the context, and the author, and then examining the easily detectable surface clues that the work provides. In first examining a work, one should ask the following questions.

What do I already know about this topic? Have I been brought up to have an opinion on this topic? Have I heard discussions on this topic or read anything about it? Is there a controversy associated with this topic?

What is the context of the controversy about this topic? Is there some action or policy associated with it? Was it written in response to another piece of writing? For whom is this work being written? Do I know anything about any groups associated with this controversy?

What do I know about the writer of the book or article? Does the text provide information about the writer? Does the author have a title or position that would indicate his or her qualifications on a particular agenda? Can I speculate on what the motive of the author might be?

Can I gain additional insight from any immediately available clues, such as publishing information (title, type of publication, copyright date, other works cited in the bibliography) and organizational clues (section headings, boldfaced subtitles, chapter headings, and table of contents )?

The Second Pass: Reading for Meaning and Structure
During the second pass, one should read the material again reasonably quickly and write a summary of it to refer back to without having to reread the entire text. The summary should give the overall point, as well as record supporting points so that even a reader who has not read the article will understand what it’s about. Also one should take down the publishing information or its citation information in order to be able to find the article or book again.

In reading a text for meaning, it is a good idea to focus on its purpose and structure—that is: Is it a response to another point of view? Can you situate it in a conversation? Is there a controversy associated with it? Does the article or book compare and contrast two or more ideas or recommendations? Does it make a point about cause and effect? Does it pose a question and then answer it? Does it trace the history of something, structuring its information chronologically? Is it developed through the use of many examples?

The Third Pass: Interacting with the Text

Once one understands the meaning and structure of the text, it is time to take charge of the reading, which means reading critically with a questioning attitude toward the material. Now is the time to enter the conversation, and to not accept what one reads unless the evidence is convincing.

Is the argument consistent with what you believe is true or possible about the world and human behavior? Does the main point make sense to you according to your own experience and what you believe is likely to be true? (If it is not, you would then attempt to view the issue from the author’s point of view, trying to understand why the author espouses these beliefs.)

Is the argument supported with appropriate and believable subpoints, examples, and facts? Are opinions presented here as if they were facts? Are main points supported with specific, appropriate details and subpoints, or do they consist simply of observations that the author thinks are true? (Remember, unless a writer is an acknowledged expert, you have no reason to accept his or her point of view, and even experts must provide supporting evidence.) What assumptions lie behind the author’s position—i.e., what underlying values or statements about the world provide the foundation for the main idea?

Is the evidence reliable? Are the arguments logical? Are there fallacies in the reasoning? Can the authorities referred to be trusted? Do the statements from an authority really substantiate what the author is arguing? Is the authority quoted out of context? (Remember, don’t believe everything you read just because an alleged “expert” affirms something. Maintain a skeptical attitude and look for other perspectives on the topic before completely accepting a point of view, especially if it does not seem sensible to you.) Do statistics used as evidence clarify the argument? Do they seem realistic or reliable?

Is the text stylistically trustworthy? Can it assess the quality of the argument based on tone, language, and evidence? Be on the lookout for interpretive words (e.g., ugly, elegant, best, etc.); words used for emotional effect (democracy, freedom, family); excessive use of abstract rather than concrete language (inadequately defined terms such as “family values” or “work ethic.”); ambiguity and distortion.

Exercise 2: What are the 5 W’s of Writing?
Using copies of an article from a local newspaper, instructors should introduce the 5 W’s (Who, What, When, Where & Why?) of standard academic writing and assess the different parts of a news story. Instructors numerically rank the importance of each paragraph in the newspaper with ‘1’ being most important. Next, instructors ask students to select an article from the newspaper and have them assess and rank the sections or paragraphs of the article. Note the patterns that emerge. In groups, instructors have students take turns reading the paragraphs of a news story you have selected.

Instructors write the 5 W’s on the blackboard, leaving space beside each one to record a fact from the news story. Instructors ask students to identify the most important W in the story you have selected ( a sample is included). Instructors write the fact or facts beside the correct W and continue until all of the W’s have been identified. Students should answer the following questions: What information has not yet been covered? This information is often background or historical information that adds color or detail to the story.

Instructors next distribute copies of a different story. Following the example presented on the board, ask students to highlight the 5 W’s and write the 5 W’s on a piece of paper. Instructors ask students to share their findings. Students should select a spokesperson for each group to present the information the group has learned for the day. Have students rotate as spokesperson each day.

Exercise 3: Identifying the parts of a newspaper
Instructors go over glossary terms with students. Students learn to identify parts of a newspaper in order to show how news is categorized and to prepare them for creating their own newspapers related to local history.

Newspaper Activity Sheet: In groups of 2 – 3 students should go through a current newspaper and find examples of the items below. They should keep track of all answers on a separate sheet of paper and record the page number of where the information was found. Next, students write a brief description of the item. When each group has completed the items, instructors have a spokesperson from each group share the answers with the class. After presentations, recapitulate the different parts of the article.

  1. An international dateline. Where is it? When? Why is it important to include this information?
  2. An article that expresses an opinion. What is the opinion? Where is the opinion located in the newspaper? Do you agree with the opinion?
  3. Something interesting to do on the weekend. What is the item you choose? Why? Does it cost any money? Where did you find it in the newspaper? Where will it take place?
  4. A weird story. What is the story? Who wrote it? Where did it occur? Where was it located in the newspaper?
  5. A story that will still be news one month from now. What story did you choose? Why did you choose it? How do you know it will still be happening in one month?
  6. A picture that captures your attention. What type of picture is it? Photograph? Cartoon? Does it include a caption or any text? Is the text important to the picture?
  7. A story of interest to teenagers. Why does it appeal to teenagers? Where did you find the story?
  8. Find a bargain. Where did you find the story in the newspaper?
  9. Something good to eat. Where did you find the story? What makes the item appetizing?
  10. A product you would buy. What is it? How much does it cost? Where did you locate the product?

Exercise 4: Applying the 5 W’s to Multimedia News
This exercise is for classes equipped with multimedia technologies in the classroom, or for classes with access to tools like televisions, dvd players, radio, the internet or related technologies. Instructor will play short segments of the news on the same day from different sources including National Public Radio, local AM news sources, local television reports, and national news reports from television. Ideally the texts used are from the previous day’s news cycle. Students will learn to discern the ways different forms of media make an argument. In so doing, students will see how different news sources prioritize news subjects and explore the role of evidence in creating compelling arguments. Ask students to share their findings. Students should select a spokesperson for each group to present the information the group has learned for the day.


Ask class what they learned about process. Did they enjoy it? How does this activity make students better critical readers? What did they learn about the different types of news and news sources? What other information or activities might be helpful in assisting students? Suggestions for the future?

copyright 2010 the Studio for Southern California History