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Relationship Between Clear Writing And Critical Thinking

In the Education Tips series, education experts offer suggestions about how you can improve your English skills. This week, Babi Kruchin, a lecturer at the American Language Program at Columbia University in New York City, talks about writing and critical thinking.

For VOA Learning English, this is the Education Report.

Developing ideas in writing is the greatest problem that students face, says Babi Kruchin.

She serves as a lecturer in the American Language Program at Columbia University in New York City.

Students, she says, can learn language rules, vocabulary words, and even how to structure essays. Learning how to develop ideas in writing is what proves most difficult for them.

Why is critical thinking important?

When Kruchin talks about the development of ideas in writing, she is referring to critical thinking – the ability to think clearly and form a judgment.

Writing, she says, shows how a person thinks. Students who have not learned to think critically often have a hard time developing ideas in writing.

Schools and employers put a high value on critical thinking skills. The importance of critical thinking shows up on standardized tests, such as the SAT with its "Critical Reading" and "Writing and Language" sections.

Such tests measure how well students understand arguments, judge information, and make inferences. These skills are very important for success not only in school, but also in the workplace.

Diane F. Halpern is a professor of psychology emerita at Claremont McKenna College in California. She writes that critical thinking is an important skill to develop in life.

"Critical thinking is using the skills or strategies that are most likely to lead to a desired outcome. It is the sort of thinking we should be engaging in when deciding what and whom to believe, which of two job offers to accept, or whether vaccinations really do cause autism."

Halpern adds that critical thinking is a skill that is important in the modern job market.

"Those who care about the future for today’s children understand that the jobs of the future will require the ability to think critically. So let’s be sure that our students are ready for college, careers and citizenship by including deliberate instruction in critical thinking. It is probably the most difficult topic to teach and learn, but it is also the most important."

Critical thinking is hard to teach and hard to learn

Babi Kruchin of Columbia agrees that critical thinking is hard to teach and difficult to learn. She says that students can overcome grammar and vocabulary problems. Developing an original idea, then supporting it, is what students find difficult.

"Sometimes the writer might think 'Oh! I have the topic sentence, I have the supporting details.' But there is no depth of thought … How do you really analyze and interpret and explain all these ideas?

"You can take care of the grammar, you can take care of the vocabulary, you can take care of the format, but the depth of development – the critical thinking part of writing – is, I think, the greatest issue that any domestic or international student faces

"It's not articles, it's not conjunctions – because these are all teachable things, and these are all learnable things. And critical thinking is also teachable, and students are able to learn, but it's harder to teach and to learn."

Practical tips:

So, if learning critical thinking is difficult, what can you do?

Kruchin suggests that students can start improving their writing and critical thinking skills by reading.

Students, however, should not read without a goal in mind. Students should be active readers by studying how other writers build their arguments. In other words, they should consider the critical thinking of each author they have read.

Kruchin says that students should consider the writing of an author by asking a few simple questions while reading:

"How is the content organized here? How is the writer connecting these ideas? Look at the quote that the writer used. What comes after this quote? Does the writer just leave it as is, or analyze it and adds his or her own idea?"

The goal of this exercise, Kruchin says, is for students to develop the ability to understand how others think. In addition, it helps students to discover the critical thinking resources that they have inside themselves.

"Because writing is thinking, it is a reflection of how somebody thinks. So it is the constant exercise of seeing how other authors think and then training the students to …

"I don't think we teach critical thinking. It is almost a way to get the students to see inside and see that yes, they do think critically – we all have opinions, we all have judgments. But how do we voice them in an academic form?

"It is an exercise in using the resources that are already exist within the students. I don't believe they are less intelligent; some may not be as well trained in this discourse."

What can you do?

The next time you are reading a book or an opinion piece in a newspaper, try to ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • What is the argument that the writer is making?
  • What evidence does the writer use?
  • How does the writer present their ideas?
  • How is the writer connecting their ideas?
  • How does the writer evaluate information?

Asking these questions will give you a point to start understanding how other people think. It will also help you to think about how you can write better – and practice your critical thinking skills, too.

I’m John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

refer – v. to have a direct connection or relationship to (something)

critical thinkingn. actively turning a thought or information over in one's head and following its path to the end and decision; the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.

objective – adj. based on facts rather than feelings or opinions

analysis – n. a careful study of something to learn about its parts, what they do, and how they are related to each other

evaluation – n. a judgment about the value or condition of (someone or something) in a careful and thoughtful way

inference – n. the act or process of reaching a conclusion about something from known facts or evidence

analyze – v. to learn the nature and relationship of the parts of (something) by a close and careful examination

resource – n. an ability to deal with and find solutions for problems

Clear Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Clear Writing

The argumentative essay is the kind of writing that most demands critical-thinking techniques. An argumentative essay aims at defining and defending a position; and principles of critical thinking help us keep the essay focused on its subject, with arguments that genuinely support its position. Thus Chapter 2 will first devote itself to organization, which can help your writing overcome the illogicality and irrelevance that often plague argumentative essays. We then turn to clarity in communication, and the threats to clarity from ambiguity and vagueness.

  1. The argumentative essay tries to support a position on an issue.
  2. Good argumentative writing is organized. Clarity of structure is most often threatened by eccentric organization of material; lack of clarity is best prevented through reliable writing practices.
  3. Good argumentative writing is also clear. A piece of writing can be hard to understand when it uses words poorly.
  4. Clarity at the level of meaning (in words and phrases) is most often threatened by ambiguity and vagueness.
  5. Persuasive writing differs from argumentative writing in aiming mainly at winning agreement from others, rather than (the argumentative ideal of) establishing objective grounds for a claim.
  6. Good writing avoids reinforcing biases about race and gender.

1. The argumentative essay tries to support a position on an issue.
  1. Our purpose is to produce essays that persuade people, not by tricking them, but by presenting claims that support their conclusions.
  2. A good argumentative essay is well organized and clear: It is then both easier to understand and more persuasive.

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2. Good argumentative writing is organized. Clarity of structure is most often threatened by eccentric organization of material; lack of clarity is best prevented through reliable writing practices.
  1. The writer of an organized essay will focus its issue, stick to that issue, arrange the parts of the essay logically, and be complete.
    1. An organized essay begins with a clear statement of the issue to be addressed and the position taken on that issue.
    2. Every claim made in an organized essay bears on the issue.
    3. The parts of the essay follow a logical sequence. Normally the position being defended comes first and then the supporting reasons, with additional material as the need for it arises.
    4. A good essay is as complete as space permits. Every argument referred to gets developed; every disputable claim comes with some defense.
  2. Good writing practices make it easy to stick to these guidelines.
    1. After completing a draft, outline the essay. Evaluate your outline for coherence and focus.
    2. Revise an essay repeatedly.
    3. Get comments on the essay from someone else.
    4. Read the essay out loud to catch problems with grammar or punctuation.
    5. After finishing, set the work aside for a while and return to it for more revisions.
  3. Another good general writing practice is the avoidance of certain common pitfalls of the argumentative essay. Watch out for these.
    1. Windy preambles waste time with broad opening remarks about the importance of the issue to be discussed, the centuries that have been spent debating it, and so on.
    2. Stream-of-consciousness rambles are found in disorganized essays that simply list thoughts as they come to the writer's mind.
    3. Knee-jerk reactions emerge in essays written by people who record their automatic response to some issue without thinking it over.
    4. A glancing blow deals with a topic tangentially--the writer takes on the subject of U.S. foreign policy by chatting about that nice Micronesian family that moved in next door.
    5. Another kind of essay lets the reader do the work, offering bits of argumentation or abrupt shifts of direction and expecting the reader to see the logical structure behind them.

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3. Good argumentative writing is also clear. A piece of writing can be hard to understand when it uses words poorly.
  1. We can avoid certain kinds of problems by defining the key terms in a claim.
    1. Definitions serve a number of purposes, but they almost always aim at the general purpose of facilitating understanding.
      1. Stipulative definitions assign a meaning to a word: "We will call those data that help predict the economy's future 'leading indicators.'"
      2. Explanatory definitions illustrate the implications of an already known but difficult concept: "Every use of the word 'beauty' implies some suitability to a purpose."
      3. Precising definitions narrow down the meaning of a potentially unclear term: "By 'walking' we will specifically mean 'moving under one's own power while keeping at least one foot on the ground.'"
      4. Persuasive definitions aim at influencing their audience: "That word 'casualties' refers to our sons and daughters killed in battle."
    2. Different structures of definitions can achieve these purposes.
      1. One may define by example, naming representative members of a group: "Ants are typical insects."
      2. One may define by synonym, substituting a word or phrase with the same meaning: "'Ophidophobia' is the fear of snakes."
      3. One may define by analysis: "Precipitation is water that reaches the earth's surface from the atmosphere as the result of meteorological causes."
    3. Whatever kind of definition you use, be aware that many words also carry an emotive or rhetorical force, that is, the coloration of feeling that a word arouses. "Steed" and "horse" have the same literal meanings but different emotive force.
  2. We can avoid other problems simply by not loading our writing down with too many words or too many twists in grammatical structure. Avoid complexity and prolixity.

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4. Clarity at the level of meaning (in words and phrases) is most often threatened by ambiguity and vagueness.
  1. A claim is ambiguous if it can have more than one meaning, without clues from the context about which meaning to assign.
    1. We call the claim semantically ambiguous if its multiple meanings result from the ambiguity of a word or phrase.
      1. This is an ambiguity about what the parts of a claim mean when taken individually.
      2. "Our cabdriver is green" may mean that the driver seems to be carsick, or lacks experience: The word "green" has not been pinned down.
      3. The best solution to semantical ambiguity is the replacement of an ambiguous term with an unambiguous one.
    2. When the sentence's ambiguity derives from its structure, we have a syntactically ambiguous claim.
      1. Syntactical ambiguity arises more often as the sentence grows more complex, for modifying phrases and pronouns leave room for multiple interpretations.
      2. The words in "This is a small men's college" are all perfectly clear on their own, but the arrangement lets them refer either to a small college for men or to a college for small men.
      3. Replacing a word will not remedy most syntactical ambiguities: We need to rewrite the sentence (e.g., "This is a small college for men").
    3. Grouping ambiguity occurs when the reference to a group of individuals may be taken as applying either to the individuals taken separately or to the group as a whole.
      1. This is a type of semantical ambiguity.
      2. "Flies outweigh humans" takes the individuals separately if it says that one fly outweighs one human; it refers to the collection as a group if it says (truly) that the mass of all flies exceeds that of all humans.
    4. The unclarity in grouping ambiguities makes possible certain fallacies that we may therefore classify with ambiguities.
      1. The fallacy of composition is the mistaken belief that what holds of things individually must hold of them collectively--for example, the conclusion that a shirt made of the best material must be the best shirt.
      2. The fallacy of division attributes the group's characteristics to all of the group's members: "America is rich, so all Americans must be rich."
    5. Classifying ambiguities correctly is far less important than spotting and avoiding them.
      1. Common sense often tells us the intended meaning of a claim. But you are still better off writing so as to keep ambiguity to a minimum.
  2. A claim is vague when its meaning is excessively inexact.
    1. Whereas an ambiguous claim has too many meanings (all of which may be clear), a vague claim has no clear meaning at all.
    2. We can't avoid certain degrees of vagueness in ordinary speech and writing; but we must take pains to avoid undesirable degrees of vagueness.
    3. Intrinsically vague words have no defining borders: "bald," "rich," and "heap" all have some quantitative meaning, but no precisely delimited one.
    4. Vagueness can also enter a claim at the level of vague comparisons. Especially in advertisements and political speeches, people praise an object or idea with comparisons that leave out essential information (such as what the thing is being compared to). Five critical questions help us evaluate such comparisons:
      1. Is important information missing? That is, has the comparison left out some relevant data?
      2. Is the same standard of comparison being used? The "apples and oranges" problem.
      3. Are the items comparable? In such instances, you should watch for the appeal to exceptional cases, such as the safety record of one company's heaviest car as opposed to another company's lightest.
      4. Is the comparison expressed as an average? Here too, information may be missing.
      5. What does the comparison mean by "average"? The word "average" is ambiguous in that it can refer to a mean (arithmetic average), a median (halfway point), or a mode (most frequently occurring figure).

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5. Persuasive writing differs from argumentative writing in aiming mainly at winning agreement from others, rather than (the argumentative ideal of) establishing objective grounds for a claim.
  1. Assuming a perfect audience of critical thinkers, the best persuasion is good argumentation.
  2. In imperfect circumstances, it helps to remember some principles of persuasion, handy both for strengthening your own arguments and for spotting in someone else's essay.
  3. Still, all writing is writing for an audience, and certain principles of persuasion will help you get a good argument across.
    1. Discuss your opponent's point of view but not your opponent as a person. (The alternative is ad hominem rhetoric, both bad argumentation and offensive to readers; see Chapter 6 for more information.)
    2. Discuss what opponents of your position might say.
    3. Speak sympathetically of views opposed to your own.
    4. Concede the merits of an opponent's argument.
    5. When more issues exist than you have room to handle, focus on the important ones.
    6. Rebut objections to your view before presenting your own arguments.
    7. Open with the best argument you have.

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6. Good writing avoids reinforcing biases about race and gender.
  1. There are ethical and nonethical reasons for writing this way.
    1. Our writing and speaking habits may reinforce unjust stereotypes.
    2. Writing that avoids biased language is also more effective by achieving greater precision and eliminating even the appearance of prejudice in the author.
  2. The most common bias involves treating one type, usually the white male, as the standard or norm.
    1. This often translates into people's mention of someone's race or ethnicity only when that person is not a white European. Mention the group a person belongs to only when it is relevant.
    2. In cases of gender, the bias involves using male pronouns as generic pronouns. This practice contributes to the invisibility of women in language.
      1. One remedy is to replace "he" by "he or she," and so on.
      2. A more natural-sounding remedy puts sentences into the plural, thus eliminating any need for gendered pronouns.
      3. In many instances, you can rewrite a sentence so that it requires no personal pronouns at all.

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