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Academic genres: the Critical Response

Academic genres: the Critical Response

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What is a Critical Response?

  • a type of writing task, requiring different sections depending on the task requirements
  • it may be a ‘response’ to a concept, or an article, or more than one article
  • at REW, it requires only two sections: Summary and Discussion

Why is it useful?

  • It requires the highly valued academic skills of summarising and critical thought.
  • It requires the ability to develop a clear and logical ‘academic argument’, which is extremely important for university and beyond.
  • It is a relatively flexible genre, which is both challenging and useful for international students in terms of preparing them for university.

What does my summary need?

A summary can be written in different ways, but ultimately it should:

  • give the most important content from a text (whether listening or reading)
  • have different wording (i.e. no language copied from the original)
  • be significantly shorter than the original

What does my discussion section need?

In each discussion paragraph, you should:

  • give one paraphrased idea from the original article/s
  • show your 'response' (whether you agree / disagree / partially agree)
  • develop your response with more detail

Let's look at some strategies for writing both of these sections. 

How do I summarise?

There are many ways to approach this process, but here’s one of the most effective ways:

1. Find the main ideas in your article/s.How do you do this? Look for the following:

  • ‘strong’ language, usually shown by adjectives or adverbs (e.g. the most significant / the main reason / terrible / amazing / the best / the worst )
  • powerful grammatical structures e.g. short strong simple sentences or sentences that show emphasis (‘It is for this reason that X is important.’ /  ‘What makes this significant is...’ / ‘Most importantly, this means...’)
  • questions (these sometimes introduce main points, especially if they are at the beginning of a paragraph)
  • cause / effect language

 2. Paraphrase the main ideas.

The easiest way to do this is by annotating. This means changing the words of the original (and may also include changing word forms and word order of words from the article) and then writing your paraphrases in note form beside the text. Why is this the easiest way? Because then you can copy directly from your notes without worrying about plagiarism.

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That’s fine, but don’t expect to pass REW exams or university courses!

3. Organise your ideas then start writing.

Do a quick plan from your notes to make sure you:

  • include important points
  • paraphrase everything
  • have a logical order
  • can see where main points can be connected 

Here's an example of a plan:

example of a note plan

Ideas from article 'Not so clever country?' in RMIT English Worldwide Advanced Passport book

Now you're ready to write! Remember to first put your heading: Summary. 
 
Your first sentence should include: 

  • the author’s full name (or authors' names if you have two or more)
  • the title of the article/s
  • the year of the article/s
  • the overall topic of the article/s (or their overall position/s)

 Then, connect all of the main points together using: 

  • your own words (avoid copying anything from the original article)
  • cohesive devices        
    • linking words e.g. First / The author adds that / Thirdly, / Her last point is ...  *use the author's family name after the first sentence
    • referents e.g. this / it / the / which
  • a range of reporting verbs (e.g. claims / states / believes / argues / points out / thinks)
  • different sentence structures (simple, compound, complex – if you don’t know how to do this, watch this video)
  • academic vocabulary including appropriate collocations

Let's look at an example of a single summary. Note the reporting verbs (in yellow) are in present tense. Even if some of your main points have different verb tenses, you should always keep reporting verbs in present simple. 

example of summary

Summary based on article in RMIT English Worldwide Advanced Passport book

What if I need to talk about two articles?

Then you can either summarise them separately or together – use the one you prefer or the most suitable according to the number of main points in the articles. If you put the summaries together, you will have contrasting language between the different articles’ main ideas e.g. while / whereas / but / however. If you do two separate summaries, you will only need one contrast linking word in the first sentence of second article’s summary.

You can see all these concepts highlighted below in the example of two summaries:

example of two summaries

Summary - two ways (based on material in the RMIT English Worldwide Advanced Passport book)

What do the colours highlight? 

Hopefully you noticed the following:

It’s important that these are all varied. Why? Because this shows that you can:

  • control a range of grammatical structures
  • create cohesion (i.e. your sentences flow – like a river!)
  • use a range of academic and less common vocabulary (including collocations) accurately and appropriately
  • follow academic convention (do things how they want you to at uni)

Note: style variations are possible. For example, if you do summaries separately, you may still like to introduce both authors and articles in the first sentence (like if you put them together) and then do them separately after the first sentence. 

What about the discussion section?

I’m glad you asked! This is where you put your own ideas in response to the author’s ideas. Depending on your task requirements, you may need two, three, or even four discussion paragraphs in this section. Each one will show your response and support for your response to an idea from the original article.

What is support?

It’s any extra information that makes your ideas more clear. For example, you might use a reason or two, an example or two, a fact or statistic, or an explanation of a situation to make your response more credible (logical and believable). In reality, you’ll probably mix a few of these together. In the end, what matters is that someone should be able to read what you’ve written and then clearly understand why you’re supporting or criticising what the author has said.

Actually, you can. In fact, you should! The entire academic world in our context is based on shared knowledge, so we all have a responsibility to think carefully about anything we’re told, compare it with what we know, find out more about it, and develop an informed perspective on it that we can support with logical reasoning and evidence. If you don’t do this, you are not meeting the expectations of the academic community. 

How can I write a discussion paragraph?

There are many ways, but here’s a good way to try.

1. Choose an idea from the original article.

2. Think about it. What do you know about it? Do you agree or disagree? Partially agree? Why? This is your response and it needs to be very clear throughout the paragraph.

3. Plan the explanation of your response by thinking of ways to support it. To do this, imagine someone doesn’t believe you and keeps asking you ‘Why do you think that?’  or ‘Why does that matter?’. That way you will explain your response and support it with enough detail. Try to think of one or more of the following:  

  • explanation
  • example/s
  • reason/s
  • facts / statistics if you can remember them

4. Write!

Exactly like in your summary, use:

  • your own words (avoid copying anything from the original article)
  • cohesive devices
  • different sentence structures 
  • academic vocabulary including appropriate collocations

There’s one more step that we haven’t looked at yet... Can you guess what it is?

5. Edit what you’ve written! This means re-reading your writing, looking for mistakes and checking that what you said makes sense. This is vital for two main reasons:

  • to ensure that your final text is accurate (in a perfect world, with no mistakes!)
  • to improve your ability to check your own writing

What mistakes should you look for? Check:

  • subject verb agreement
  • nouns – are they countable? Should they be singular or plural? Do you need an article?
  • verb tenses – are they the right ones?
  • linking words + grammar – did you write a clause (subject + verb...) after linking words like ‘because’? Did you write nouns or verb-ing after linking propositions like ‘due to’ and ‘because of’?
  • cohesion – did you use words like ‘this’, ‘it’, ‘the’, and ‘which’ to refer to other things in the paragraph?
  • sentence structure: e.g. do you have one subject and one main verb in each clause? 

Let’s look at three already edited examples with three different responses. Find the paragraph that:

  • supports the author’s idea
  • partially agrees with the author’s idea
  • disagrees with the author’s idea

example paragraph edits

Here are some questions to help check if you understand the paragraph structure:

  1. What is the red section in each paragraph?
  2. What’s the yellow?
  3. What’s the green?
  4. What are the underlined words/phrases?

See if you were right:

Answers

  1. the author’s idea
  2. my response language
  3. support for my response
  4. linking devices (i.e. things that create cohesion)

When you write your discussion paragraph, you might use language like this to make your response clear. Which ones are used in the example above? 

Why is there no conclusion in these critical responses? It's because they're not a necessary requirement of a critical response task at REW, although it's ok if you want to write a conclusion once you're sure you have a clear summary and discussion section. In other places around the world, you may always need to do a conclusion. This is why we need to check every time what the task requirements are! 

Because it's so important to check your own writing, try these ideas if you're not confident about editing:

  • watch the sentence structure video on this blog
  • try Tense Buster at the RMIT Learning Lab
  • download a grammar app (try these)
  • buy a grammar or academic writing book (see your teacher or a Study SupportTeacher for suggestions)
  • ask someone like a Study Support Teacher for help 

After you've tried these steps, show someone your writing and get their feedback. With a summary, someone must be able to understand the main ideas without seeing the original text, and showing another person is a good way to check this. If they ask questions about what you wrote, you might need to re-write it more clearly! 

It also helps if you read other people’s writing. Everyone has their own personal writing style, and being exposed to these is helpful for you in terms of developing your style.

What are you waiting for? Get started writing the best critical response you've ever written! Comment below with your questions or thoughts.

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