Close reading. Credit: Radek Szuban
Practical criticism is a skill required in all three years of the Cambridge English degree. Developed by Cambridge literary critic I. A. Richards in the 1920s, the exercise is designed to make you focus on 'the words on the page.' You are given an unseen text and asked to respond to its form and meaning.
This year, Cambridge students hit the headlines when they were asked to analyse Morrissey's Autobiography (2013) and Andre Letoit's (Koos Kombuis) 'Tipp-Ex Sonate' (1985) (a poem with no words, only punctuation) in their practical criticism papers.
Why not try your hand at practical criticism yourself? The Faculty of English's Virtual Classroom provides a good starting point:
You can also read I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism (1929).