The making of a critical reviewer

Nagalakshmi Thirumalaiappan

I used to ask the students to introduce themselves with their aim, hobbies and any specific interest or passion that they have on the first day of their class. Some students who may not have any hobbies like ‘singing’, ‘drawing’, ‘dancing ‘etc., would say ‘reading’ as their hobby. When asked about their favourite authors and the genre of books they prefer, they may fail to give a concrete answer. Though they read books, they may not be critically analyzing or categorizing the books, identifying the uniqueness or any specific style in narration, plot construction or characterization of the author. Then I realized reading is a linear process or is like travelling one-way. Critical analysis of any book demands a skill which some students may possess inherently, and for others, it needs to be cultivated. Teachers can scaffold the students to develop critical reading skills by giving practice and exposure to book-review writing.

Laying the foundation for critical thinking skills with critical reading
Critical reading enables students to develop their critical thinking skills which involve being rational, open-minded, and cultivating the discipline to process the learning without any biases. This gives one an awareness of his own feelings on the subject, makes one reorganize his/her thoughts, prior knowledge and understanding in order to accommodate new ideas or viewpoints. A non-critical reader reads a text to get facts, gain knowledge by memorizing the information which is surface level learning whereas a critical reader reads a text not only for facts but for how the text portrays the subject matter. A non-critical reader stops at some point after discovering the facts. A critical reader goes deeper to evaluate the content and presentation to decide on what to accept and what not to. Critical reading recognizes the different ways in which each and every text is the unique creation of the author. Assigning students to write a book review or expecting them to reflect on the books they read without teaching is akin to making the students fly without parachutes. At the primary level itself, students need to be trained on book-report writing as this sets the stage for book-review writing later. The following strategies are best suited for young adults which involve three stages of book-report writing.

Strategies that can be adopted by teachers to teach book-report writing

a. Prior to reading a book:

  • Students need to be told about the title, subtitle (if any), author, editor, illustrator, publisher, year of publishing, and the blurb.
  • For primary and young adults, the features of fiction, non-fiction, comics, plays, etc., can be highlighted with some reference to popular writers and prominent works of the category.
  • This may help students to select a book according to their choice and thereby identify the genre of the book.
  • Students can be encouraged to write a book-report for story books by Indian or foreign authors, or for a short story, comics or children’s authors such as Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Geronimo Stilton, Ruskin bond, J.K. Rowling and others.

b.During reading a book:

  • Students can be advised to take note of the characters, their nature and any specific feature in terms of plot construction, characterization, dialogue, use of imagery and language.
  • Those who are good at drawing can be asked to draw some pictures depicting the theme, scene, characters of the story/novel and to try their hand at creating their own illustrations.

c. Post-reading a book:

  • Students can be encouraged to write a book report by stating the category of the book, characters, a small summary of the story and can express their views about the book without dwelling too much on the negative aspects but projecting the positive features of the story.
  • This book-report writing is easier and sets the stage for book-review writing. Constant practice develops the writing skills of the students.
  • Teachers and parents can prepare some practice book-report formats according to the level of the students.
  • To motivate the students, they can be advised to file their book-reports. Whenever they complete reading a book, they can write a book-report and then file it. This file is a testimony for the students as more book-reports will indicate the number of books read by the students. The teacher or parent periodically checking the files to find out who has read what and filed the most number of book-reports will facilitate rewarding the student and eventually increase the spirit of motivation among the students.

Conclusion
These strategies not only give exposure to reading and writing but also develop critical thinking skills. When the students reach the tertiary level with this scaffolding for writing book-reports, it will be easier to write a book review which demands more skills than book-report writing. Curricula across boards do not have much in store for developing creative writing skills of the students. Parents support their children in other major subjects and are not keen in developing reading and writing skills of the children outside the prescribed texts. This type of exposure gives the students an edge in this world of competition.

Some samples of the book-reports written by grade 4 and 5 students are shown. Teachers and parents can prepare similar or modify the format according to the level of the students.

Reference: http://www.criticalreading.com/critical_reading.htm

The author is a teacher and working in developing the language skills of underprivileged and tribal students. She can be reached at nageethirumalai @yahoo.co.in.