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Book Review How To Write Critical Thinking

Your review should have two goals: first, to inform the reader about the content of the book, and second, to provide an evaluation that gives your judgment of the book’s quality.

Your introduction should include an overview of the book that both incorporates an encapsulated summary and a sense of your general judgment. This is the equivalent to a thesis statement.

Do NOT spend more than one-third or so of the paper summarizing the book. The summary should consist of a discussion and highlights of the major arguments, features, trends, concepts, themes, ideas, and characteristics of the book. While you may use direct quotes from the book (make sure you always give the page number), such quotes should never be the bulk of the summary. Much of your grade will depend on how well you describe and explain the material IN YOUR OWN WORDS. You might want to take the major organizing themes of the book and use them to organize your own discussion. This does NOT mean, however, that I want a chapter-by-chapter summary. Your goal is a unified essay.

So what do I want, if not just a summary? Throughout your summary, I want you to provide a critique of the book. (Hence the title: “A Critical Book Review.”) A critique consists of thoughts, responses, and reactions. It is not necessarily negative. Nor do you need to know as much about the subject as the author (because you hardly ever will). The skills you need are an ability to follow an argument and test a hypothesis. Regardless of how negative or positive your critique is, you need to be able to justify and support your position.

Here are a number of questions that you can address as part of your critique. You need not answer them all, but questions one and two are essential to any book review, so those must be included. And these are ABSOLUTELY NOT to be answered one after another (seriatim). Don’t have one paragraph that answers one, and then the next paragraph that answers the next, etc. The answers should be part of a carefully constructed essay, complete with topic sentences and transitions.

1. What is your overall opinion of the book? On what basis has this opinion been formulated? That is, tell the reader what you think and how you arrived at this judgment. What did you expect to learn when you picked up the book? To what extent – and how effectively – were your expectations met? Did you nod in agreement (or off to sleep)? Did you wish you could talk back to the author? Amplify upon and explain your reactions.

2. Identify the author’s thesis and explain it in your own words. How clearly and in what context is it stated and, subsequently, developed? To what extent and how effectively (i.e., with what kind of evidence) is this thesis proven? Use examples to amplify your responses. If arguments or perspectives were missing, why do you think this might be?

3. What are the author’s aims? How well have they been achieved, especially with regard to the way the book is organized? Are these aims supported or justified? (You might look back at the introduction to the book for help). How closely does the organization follow the author’s aims?

4. How are the author’s main points presented, explained, and supported? What assumptions lie behind these points? What would be the most effective way for you to compress and/or reorder the author’s scheme of presentation and argument?

5. How effectively does the author draw claims from the material being presented? Are connections between the claims and evidence made clearly and logically? Here you should definitely use examples to support your evaluation.

6. What conclusions does the author reach and how clearly are they stated? Do these conclusions follow from the thesis and aims and from the ways in which they were developed? In other words, how effectively does the book come together?

7. Identify the assumptions made by the author in both the approach to and the writing of the book. For example, what prior knowledge does the author expect readers to possess? How effectively are those assumptions worked into the overall presentation? What assumptions do you think should not have been made? Why?

8. Are you able to detect any underlying philosophy of history held by the author (e.g., progress, decline, cyclical, linear, and random)? If so, how does this philosophy affect the presentation of the argument?

9. How does the author see history as being motivated: primarily by the forces of individuals, economics, politics, social factors, nationalism, class, race, gender, something else? What kind of impact does this view of historical motivation have upon the way in which the author develops the book?

10. Does the author’s presentation seem fair and accurate? Is the interpretation biased? Can you detect any distortion, exaggeration, or diminishing of material? If so, for what purpose might this have been done, and what effect does hit have on the overall presentation?

These questions are derived from Robert Blackey, "Words to the Whys: Crafting Critical Book Reviews," The History Teacher, 27.2 (Feb. 1994): 159-66.

S. Zabin, 2-6-03


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Writing a Critical Review

A critical review is not to be mistaken for the literature review. A 'critical review' is a complete type of text, discussing one particular article or book in detail. The 'literature review', which also needs to be 'critical', is a part of a larger type of text e.g. a chapter of your dissertation.

Most importantly: Read your article / book as many times as possible, as this will make the critical review much easier.


Contents

1. Read and take notes
2. Organising your writing
3. Summary
4. Evaluation
5. Linguistic features of a critical review
6. Summary language
7. Evaluation language
8. Conclusion language
9. Example extracts from a critical review
10. Further resources


Read and Take Notes

To improve your reading confidence and efficiency, visit our pages on reading.

Further reading: Read Confidently

After you are familiar with the text, make notes on some of the following questions. Choose the questions which seem suitable:

  1. What kind of article is it (for example does it present data or does it present purely theoretical arguments)?
  2. What is the main area under discussion?
  3. What are the main findings?
  4. What are the stated limitations?
  5. Where does the author’s data and evidence come from? Are they appropriate / sufficient?
  6. What are the main issues raised by the author?
  7. What questions are raised?
  8. How well are these questions addressed?
  9. What are the major points/interpretations made by the author in terms of the issues raised?
  10. Is the text balanced? Is it fair / biased?
  11. Does the author contradict herself?
  12. How does all this relate to other literature on this topic?
  13. How does all this relate to your own experience, ideas and views?
  14. What else has this author written? Do these build / complement this text?
  15. (Optional) Has anyone else reviewed this article? What did they say? Do I agree with them?

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Organising your writing

Summary

You first need to summarise the text that you have read. One reason to summarise the text is that the reader may not have read the text.
In your summary, you will

  • focus on points within the article that you think are interesting
  • summarise the author(s) main ideas or argument
  • explain how these ideas / argument have been constructed. (For example, is the author basing her arguments on data that they have collected? Are the main ideas / argument purely theoretical?)

In your summary you might answer the following questions:

    Why is this topic important?
    Where can this text be located? For example, does it address policy studies?
    What other prominent authors also write about this?

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Evaluation

Evaluation is the most important part in a critical review.

Use the literature to support your views. You may also use your knowledge of conducting research, and your own experience. Evaluation can be explicit or implicit.

Explicit evaluation

Explicit evaluation involves stating directly (explicitly) how you intend to evaluate the text.

e.g. "I will review this article by focusing on the following questions. First, I will examine the extent to which the authors contribute to current thought on Second Language Acquisition (SLA) pedagogy. After that, I will analyse whether the authors’ propositions are feasible within overseas SLA classrooms."

Implicit evaluation

Implicit evaluation is less direct. The following section on Linguistic Features of Writing a Critical Review contains language that evaluates the text.

A difficult part of evaluation of a published text (and a professional author) is how to do this as a student. There is nothing wrong with making your position as a student explicit and incorporating it into your evaluation. Examples of how you might do this can be found in the section on Linguistic Features of Writing a Critical Review.

You need to remember to locate and analyse the author’s argument when you are writing your critical review. For example, you need to locate the authors’ view of classroom pedagogy as presented in the book / article and not present a critique of views of classroom pedagogy in general.

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Linguistic features of a critical review

The following examples come from published critical reviews. Some of them have been adapted for student use.

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Summary language

  •     This article / book is divided into two / three parts. First...
  •     While the title might suggest...
  •     The tone appears to be...
  •     Title is the first / second volume in the series Title, edited by...The books / articles in this series address...
  •     The second / third claim is based on...
  •     The author challenges the notion that...
  •     The author tries to find a more middle ground / make more modest claims...
  •     The article / book begins with a short historical overview of...
  •     Numerous authors have recently suggested that...(see Author, Year; Author, Year). Author would also be once such author. With his / her argument that...
  •     To refer to title as a...is not to say that it is...
  •     This book / article is aimed at... This intended readership...
  •     The author’s book / article examines the...To do this, the author first...
  •     The author develops / suggests a theoretical / pedagogical model to…
  •     This book / article positions itself firmly within the field of...
  •     The author in a series of subtle arguments, indicates that he / she...
  •     The argument is therefore...
  •     The author asks "..."
  •     With a purely critical / postmodern take on...
  •     Topic, as the author points out, can be viewed as...
  •     In this recent contribution to the field of...this British author...
  •     As a leading author in the field of...
  •     This book / article nicely contributes to the field of...and complements other work by this author...
  •     The second / third part of...provides / questions / asks the reader...
  •     Title is intended to encourage students / researchers to...
  •     The approach taken by the author provides the opportunity to examine...in a qualitative / quantitative research framework that nicely complements...
  •     The author notes / claims that state support / a focus on pedagogy / the adoption of...remains vital if...
  •     According to Author (Year) teaching towards examinations is not as effective as it is in other areas of the curriculum. This is because, as Author (Year) claims that examinations have undue status within the curriculum.
  •     According to Author (Year)…is not as effective in some areas of the curriculum / syllabus as others. Therefore the author believes that this is a reason for some school’s…

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Evaluation language

  •     This argument is not entirely convincing, as...furthermore it commodifies / rationalises the...
  •     Over the last five / ten years the view of...has increasingly been viewed as ‘complicated’ (see Author, Year; Author, Year).
  •     However, through trying to integrate...with...the author...
  •     There are difficulties with such a position.
  •     Inevitably, several crucial questions are left unanswered / glossed over by this insightful / timely / interesting / stimulating book / article. Why should...
  •     It might have been more relevant for the author to have written this book / article as...
  •     This article / book is not without disappointment from those who would view...as...
  •     This chosen framework enlightens / clouds...
  •     This analysis intends to be...but falls a little short as...
  •     The authors rightly conclude that if...
  •     A detailed, well-written and rigorous account of...
  •     As a Korean student I feel that this article / book very clearly illustrates...
  •     The beginning of...provides an informative overview into...
  •     The tables / figures do little to help / greatly help the reader...
  •     The reaction by scholars who take a...approach might not be so favourable (e.g. Author, Year).
  •     This explanation has a few weaknesses that other researchers have pointed out (see Author, Year; Author, Year). The first is...
  •     On the other hand, the author wisely suggests / proposes that...By combining these two dimensions...
  •     The author’s brief introduction to...may leave the intended reader confused as it fails to properly...
  •     Despite my inability to...I was greatly interested in...
  •     Even where this reader / I disagree(s), the author’s effort to...
  •     The author thus combines...with...to argue...which seems quite improbable for a number of reasons. First...
  •     Perhaps this aversion to...would explain the author’s reluctance to...
  •     As a second language student from ...I find it slightly ironic that such an anglo-centric view is...
  •     The reader is rewarded with...
  •     Less convincing is the broad-sweeping generalisation that...
  •     There is no denying the author’s subject knowledge nor his / her...
  •     The author’s prose is dense and littered with unnecessary jargon...
  •     The author’s critique of...might seem harsh but is well supported within the literature (see Author, Year; Author, Year; Author, Year). Aligning herself with the author, Author (Year) states that...
  •     As it stands, the central focus of Title is well / poorly supported by its empirical findings...
  •     Given the hesitation to generalise to...the limitation of...does not seem problematic...
  •     For instance, the term...is never properly defined and the reader left to guess as to whether...
  •     Furthermore, to label...as...inadvertently misguides...
  •     In addition, this research proves to be timely / especially significant to... as recent government policy / proposals has / have been enacted to...
  •     On this well researched / documented basis the author emphasises / proposes that...
  •     Nonetheless, other research / scholarship / data tend to counter / contradict this possible trend / assumption...(see Author, Year; Author, Year).
  •     Without entering into detail of the..., it should be stated that Title should be read by...others will see little value in...
  •     As experimental conditions were not used in the study the word ‘significant’ misleads the reader.
  •     The article / book becomes repetitious in its assertion that...
  •     The thread of the author’s argument becomes lost in an overuse of empirical data...
  •     Almost every argument presented in the final section is largely derivative, providing little to say about...
  •     She / he does not seem to take into consideration; however, that there are fundamental differences in the conditions of…
  •     As Author (Year) points out, however, it seems to be necessary to look at…
  •     This suggest that having low…does not necessarily indicate that…is ineffective.
  •     Therefore, the suggestion made by Author (Year)…is difficult to support.
  •     When considering all the data presented…it is not clear that the low scores of some students, indeed, reflects…

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Conclusion language

  •     Overall this article / book is an analytical look at...which within the field of...is often overlooked.
  •     Despite its problems, Title offers valuable theoretical insights / interesting examples / a contribution to pedagogy and a starting point for students / researchers of...with an interest in...
  •     This detailed and rigorously argued...
  •     This first / second volume / book / article by...with an interest in...is highly informative...

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Example extracts from a critical review

Writing Critically

If you have been told your writing is not critical enough, it probably means that your writing treats the knowledge claims as if they are true, well supported, and applicable in the context you are writing about. This may not always be the case.

Example extracts from a critical review

In these two examples, the extracts refer to the same section of text. In each example, the section that refers to a source has been highlighted in bold. The note below the example then explains how the writer has used the source material.    


Example a

There is a strong positive effect on students, both educationally and emotionally, when the instructors try to learn to say students’ names without making pronunciation errors (Kiang, 2004).

Use of source material in example a: 

This is a simple paraphrase with no critical comment. It looks like the writer agrees with Kiang. (This is not a good example for critical writing, as the writer has not made any critical comment).        


Example b

Kiang (2004) gives various examples to support his claim that “the positive emotional and educational impact on students is clear” (p.210) when instructors try to pronounce students’ names in the correct way. He quotes one student, Nguyet, as saying that he “felt surprised and happy” (p.211) when the tutor said his name clearly. The emotional effect claimed by Kiang is illustrated in quotes such as these, although the educational impact is supported more indirectly through the chapter. Overall, he provides more examples of students being negatively affected by incorrect pronunciation, and it is difficult to find examples within the text of a positive educational impact as such.

Use of source material in example b: 

The writer describes Kiang’s (2004) claim and the examples which he uses to try to support it. The writer then comments that the examples do not seem balanced and may not be enough to support the claims fully. This is a better example of writing which expresses criticality.

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Further resources

You may also be interested in our page on criticality, which covers criticality in general, and includes more critical reading questions.

Further reading: Read and Write Critically

We recommend that you do not search for other university guidelines on critical reviews. This is because the expectations may be different at other institutions. Ask your tutor for more guidance or examples if you have further questions.

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