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Critical reading and note-taking are essential steps in preparing for critical review writing

Critical reading and note-taking are essential steps in preparing for critical review writing

According to Queen’s University website, “a critical review of a journal article evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of an article's ideas and content, and it provides description, analysis and interpretation that allow readers to assess the article's value.” With this in mind, it is important that we understand in depth the article by employing the techniques of critical reading and methodical approach to taking notes. In reading Fernsten and Reda’s article, Helping students meet the challenges of academic writing, I followed the steps recommended by Skene, Swales and Feak.

I read the article in three phases. The first step was “skimming the whole text to determine the overall thesis, structure and methodology” (Skene, 1). During this phase, I looked for the authors’ objective, thesis statement, methodology, structure, and conclusion. After grasping the idea of what the authors want to accomplish, I did the second step which is analytical reading, where I examined all the elements of the paper and paying special attention to the development of arguments. Feaks and Swales said that “the articles student are asked to review often have a weakness that can be identified by reflecting on the course readings and lectures” (249). With this concept in mind, I read and took notes of the text with a critical eye. From there, I proceeded to the third step, which is note-taking and adding comments to each element of the article. In addition, I also took a note of important lines in the article that I can cite to support the development of my critical review.

Below are the notes that I took when I critically read Fernsten and Reda’s article, Helping students meet the challenges of academic writing. These notes will be my basis for developing my thesis statement, outline, and initial draft of my critical review assignment.

Authors’ objective: The authors’ objective is to “share strategies that educators can use to assist students in meeting the challenges of academic writing more effectively” (Fernsten and Reda, 171).

Comments:  The authors successfully shared strategies that educators can use to help students overcome ‘negative writer identity’ through the reflective writing process, but they failed to discuss the tools and techniques to become an effective academic writer. The ‘reflective writing’ process is the first step to overcome the writer’s block and to motivate the students to express their thought process in writing. I agree that this step is essential for being able to start writing in a general way, but academic writing requires an analytical and critical understanding of the subject, as well as a technical method of expressing one’s understanding of topic in writing. I think that the authors effectively discussed the psychological aspect of boosting one’s confidence as a writer but unsuccessful in discussing ways to overcome challenging that are specific to academic writing.

Thesis: “Writer self-awareness provides students with a better understanding of the writing process, additional tools with which to attempt writing assignments, and greater confidence to move through the multiple literacy tasks of the academy and beyond” (171).

Comments: Although, the authors elucidated their thesis by discussing the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) ‘Seeing Yourself as a Writer’ project and how this activity can help students become self-aware of their writing process and develop confidence to overcome their negative writer identity, their thesis statement does not directly address their writing objectives, as articulated in the abstract, as well as the title of the paper. The paper talks about overcoming ‘negative writer identity’ and not about meeting the challenges of academic writing per se.

Methodology:  “In order to foreground an understanding of struggling writers, the text begins with a brief review of composition theory and history related to basic writers and identity. It goes on to examine classroom practices that help challenge negative writer identity, especially in relation to formal academic discourses” (171).

Comments:  This paper employs qualitative research approach by reviewing the history of ‘basic writers’ in the USA and by examining the NCTE’s ‘Seeing Yourself as a Writer’ project and classroom practices. The scope of this research is limited because it only examines the topic from one perspective, and their findings are based solely on anecdotal evidences from their classes without conducting an empirical study of the effectiveness of such reflective practices.

Structure “This article briefly reviews a portion of basic writing history in order to familiarize readers with the common positioning and labeling of struggling student writers” (172), and then transitions to the discussion of NCTE’s classroom activities that aim to help students overcome negative writer identity and become self-aware of their writing process.

Comments: The paper is an original research, which “shares strategies that educators can use to assist students in meeting the challenges of academic writing more effectively” (171), as articulated in the abstract. The introduction describes the issue and articulated the questions that the paper addresses. The body discusses the history of ‘basic writers’ in the USA that defines the evolving perception of a struggling writer, and the NCTE’s ‘Seeing Yourself as a Writer’ project that offers an approach to help students overcome their negative writer identity. The body addresses the questions presented in the introduction, but it failed to discuss the paper’s main objective as articulated in the abstract. The conclusion acknowledges that “these practices are certainly one step in creating academic environments that can serve all students in the journey to become better thinkers and writers” (181). Although the paper successfully discussed the first step to overcome the writer’s block, it failed to address what can be done to help students meet the challenges of academic writing.

Introduction: The authors explain based on their observations in the classroom that “many students struggling to become more skillful users of the discourses required in college-level classes have become convinced that they are simply ‘bad writers’ and are stuck in these negative identities and fearful of failure in academic writing tasks rather than seeing themselves as learners, and this affects their ability to plunge into the writing process and in turn results to late submissions and worst, plagiarism” (171).

The paper attempts to answer the following questions:

  • How do students come to understand who they are as writers?
  • What socio-cultural factors shape their views?
  • How can educators help them explore their writer identities and better understand the complex and multi-layered challenges that all writers face? (171)

Citing Brookfield and Uzat, the authors state that “reflective practices can be an effective tool for helping students see themselves as writers learning to negotiate the variety of literacies required in the academy” (171).

Comments:  The introduction clearly stated the thesis, yet failed to directly address the objectives as articulated in the abstract. It successfully explained the problem by citing anecdotal classroom examples and proposed the questions to be solved in this article.

Body:  The first section of this paper explores the theoretical perspective about ‘basic writers’ in the USA since the 1970s and then it develops its arguments by describing “pedagogical practices that can help students question the ‘truths’ they have accepted about their writer identities” (172).

History of ‘basic writers’ in the USA

In the 1970’s, the perception was that basic writers “must improve their cognitive abilities or mental conceptions of writing because they had never really gained knowledge of what one needs to learn to be a ‘good writer’… Even today, that pre-1980s stereotype used by some to describe struggling writers continues” (172). Shaughnessy's idea of writers who are immature or stunted in growth” (172).

In the 80’s, Bartholomae's ‘Inventing the University’ “characterized these students as uninitiated… struggling writers as social and political outsiders, unfamiliar with the discourses required in the academy (172). “He argued, such writers need to assume new value systems and cultural practices before they can take on identities that fit with the academic discourses of the university” (173).

In the 90’s, “Bartholomae's vision of the ‘uninitiated’ is re-imagined through the concept of conflict. Lu's (1992) ‘Conflict and Struggle: The Enemies or Preconditions of Basic Writing?’ contended that the way students’ own discourses are received in the academy can create struggle, tension, and conflict when they try to conform to the institutional requirements of writing (173). Lu's conception of struggle allows educators and students to embrace conflict and uncertainty and to recognize academic writing as privileged in a specific historical and social context” (173).

Comments: This section successfully describes the evolving perception of the ‘basic writers’ in the USA since the 1970’s and smoothly transitions to the discussion of the pedagogical practices presented by the NCTE to help students overcome writer’s block.

“The reflective writing exercises for the classroom that we suggest can make these ideas explicit, helping students better understand the work of writing as they struggle to become more effective writers, negotiating multiple literacies” (173).

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), in its 2008 writing policy brief, notes that writing remains a powerful gatekeeper in schools and calls for various approaches to the teaching of writing in order to decrease the significant gaps that exist between the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Critical reflection is one innovative approach in achieving this goal (173).

Classroom activities

“The NCTE calls for instructional writing practices that are holistic, authentic, and varied, recognizing that twenty-first century literacies will require people to think critically about new writing tasks. The NCTE also contends that writers must be able to modify and monitor their own writing processes” (173-174).

“‘Seeing Yourself as a Writer’ project forced students to identify themselves as writers, critical thinkers, and important sources of information about the practices of writing. This leads to a critical discussion regarding what the label writer actually means” (176).

“Reflective writing is more than just a demonstration of knowledge to a teacher or for writing for a grade, but it encourages students to see writing as a way of thinking” (175).

“One conclusion to this discussion is that writers are people who are trying to communicate in a particular form; writers are people who write – a practice not bound by profession or discipline” (176). 

“Negative labels are not unalterable ‘truths’; each person has power to define oneself as a writer. There is possibility for change, both in how one writes and in one's self-perception” (177).

Comments: This section is the most important part of this article because it addresses the issues raised in the introduction and provides evidence-based explanations to overcome negative writer identity.

Incorporating author's notes

“The ‘self as a writer’ exercise provides a foundation for underlying principles that shape many contemporary composition classes: revision, seeing writing as a process, the importance of self-awareness about the decisions and strategies one employs as a writer, and the socio-political realities of language use in the academy. One useful way to reinforce and re-examine these principles is through ‘Author's Notes’” (177).

“Author's Notes invite students to take themselves seriously as writers who make decisions about their work and who can think critically both their own writing processes and products... These written reflections also assist the teacher, whose responses to student writing can focus on the specific needs and challenges students identify, rather than on ‘correcting’ a student's work. Ultimately, Author's Notes invite both students and their teacher to understand feedback as directed toward improving writing, not simply grading it. Feedback becomes generative as well as evaluative” (179).

Implications for writing-across-curriculum

The authors disclosed that they “have not conducted an empirical study of the effectiveness of such reflective practices. However, we have years of anecdotal evidence from our classes (ranging from basic writing through undergraduate courses in English and education to graduate courses for teachers and teacher-candidates) that such practices do substantially alter students’ self-perceptions as writers and, ultimately, their ability to write more effectively” (179).

However, they mention that “surveys conducted at the beginning and end of the semester suggest that our students see themselves as both more ‘confident’ and ‘competent,’ with many citing their ability not only to perform academic writing tasks, but also to think carefully and critically about the choices they make in completing the varied writing tasks required of them” (179).

They also added that “Reda has experimented with these self-reflective activities throughout 15 years of college-level teaching at three different universities. In those semesters when these activities were included (even if it meant eliminating additional ‘high-stakes’ assignments designed to focus on a particular academic skill), students scored significantly higher, not just on individual papers but in their overall averages for the course. For example, when utilizing virtually the same syllabus, with the exception of the self-reflective writing, students in the ‘reflective practice’ classes earned, on average, grades in the ‘B’ range; those in the other sections earned, on average, Cs” (179).

The authors emphasized that “this approach does not, in any way, sidestep the ever-present institutional imperative of grading, a pressure our colleagues and many of our readers certainly feel on an almost daily basis. Students must receive clear guidance about the criteria by which their writing will be assessed. Depending on the assignment and the class, explicit rubrics can be used to clarify the course's expectations and grading criteria. While some teachers might choose to assess students’ reflective writing through clear criteria, it is certainly possible to simply grade final drafts without considering students’ informal writing” (179).

They mentioned that one of the strengths of reflective writing is that it “allows access to the student-writer's process in a way that the final drafts simply cannot” (180).

“Students need to monitor their own writing and to receive feedback, as well as the confidence to seek it out” (180).

“This approach does not demand that the teacher have specialized training in writing pedagogy. Instead, teachers must be open to experimenting, willing to listen to students, invested in improving students’ learning experiences, and committed to a student-centered approach to the classroom” (180).

Comments:  This section mentions the weaknesses and strengths of the reflective process.


The authors concluded that “struggling writers, especially those whose home discourses differ significantly from those of the academy, can learn to see themselves beyond the lens of failure and deficiency” (181). 

They emphasized that “self-reflective exercises encourage connections between theory and practice, personalizing learning and deepening understanding (Brown 1998), thus providing a more productive writing and learning experience for students and educators” (181).

“Our labels and perceptions have evolved from dismissing basic writers as stunted or unintelligent to an understanding that varied socio-cultural and socio-political factors can limit any student's ability to succeed” (181).

Comments: The conclusion successfully recapitulates the arguments and closes the loop about the thesis that “writer self-awareness will provide students with a new vocabulary, additional tools, and greater confidence with which to approach the writing tasks they are asked to perform, both in the academy and beyond” (181). Its weakness is the fact that it did not offer recommendations on how to help students meet the challenges of academic writing, although it presented classroom practices that “are certainly one step in creating academic environments that can serve all students in the journey to become better thinkers and writers” (181).

 The next preparation steps for writing my critical review are thesis statement development and outline writing.

Works Cited

Fernsten, Linda A., and Mary Reda. “Helping Students Meet the Challenges of Academic Writing.” Taylor & Francis, 4 Mar. 2011,

Queen’s University Website. “Introduction to Research: Critical Reviews.” Research Guides,,to%20assess%20the%20article%27s%20value.

Skene, Allyson. “Writing a Critical Review.” The Writing Centre, University of Toronto,

Swales, John M., and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. The University of Michigan Press, 2012.


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