ML2 – Second Language Literacies

A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín

Reflecting about critical literacy in second language acquisition text book courses by Christian González

Since thousands years ago, circa 40.000 years BC, modern humans started to communicate in a different way, they started to represent and to paint symbolic art and figurative representations like bisons, horses and other representative local animals of that time inside  caves, the oldest cave  painting dates from at least 40,800 years BC. Other similar paintings were discovered in Australia 28.000 BC and in Altamira, Spain 12.000 years ago BC. Later on, alphabets evolved from drawings into pictographs, the oldest cuneiform writing system dates back circa 3500 years BC in the ancient Mesopotamian, this writing system was invented by the Sumerian civilization. Sumerians were known as first astronomers, and they represented meaning through pictures that were carved into clay. However, the usage of this language was not good enough to explain nothing more but nouns “though this is still not complete writing, as it fail to use marks that relate conventionally to articulate speech, it is nevertheless the successful conveyance of complex ideas through graphic art” (Roger, 2001) These marks also represented sound of an individual object and were limited to express a more complex language. “Graphic symbols became signs of a writing system only when the phonetic value of a symbol began superseding its semantic value within a system of limited, similar values” (Roger, 2001)

Many scholars believe that writing system evolved independently in many places of the world with different civilizations and cultures as part of a process of human needs in order to communicate with others and as a proof of advance human intelligence. There were other important civilizations and cultures that improved and adopted these writing systems, Egyptians for example used hieroglyphics to represent one word’s beginning consonant, reinforced by signs that helped to understand what is intended. The history of writing and reading is quite wide, both human practices correlated each other, we cannot read without writing and vice versa, we learn to write and read since childhood, we interpret meaning of things using language. We learn the meaning of the things by observing, manipulating, and interacting with them in own our world, reading is not just simply decoding words, it is the knowledge of our worlds, it is the knowledge from the things that surround us and as well as the knowledge of our personal experiences “words should be laden with the meaning of people’s existential experiences” (Freire & Macedo, 1987)

The purpose of this paper is to reflect about the concept of critical literacy and its implications on ESL or EFL text book courses which I have had the opportunity to manage and interact with them in some stages of my life, not only as English teacher but also as an EL learner when I was younger in high school and studying in a private institution very well known in the city. Text books are important in the learning processes; they support the teacher on his path of teaching. They represent the contents of a course, grade, or school year. These contents are really important for students in order to engage them into their learning processes. That is why many aspects of them are really relevant such as: images, found type, layout and design. Behind text books there is a hidden curriculum that in many cases is root it in political, economic, social and cultural interests from the culture of the target language and also in the political and educational policies of  a school. The first text book I want to analyze is the first text I used and from which I started to learn English as foreign language when I was just a seventeen years old teenager. The name of the text book or English course I used in my personal learning was called Berlitz plus. This text book course consists on a set of 12 booklets, one dictionary, 14 audio cassettes and one pronunciation booklet. Berlitz plus presents the topics and grammar contents inside different contexts, stories and narratives presented with illustrations and taken from situations of “real life”. The presentation of the main topics has an audio that is when the learner plays a cassette and develops his listening skills.

Furthermore, after reading and listening a topic the learner has to answer some reading comprehension questions relate with the topic, after doing so, there are some grammar exercises that the English learner has got to complete so as to check learning; this is the scheme and the model that this course uses throughout its all units. Besides, Berlitz text book uses Spanish to convey vocabulary items and grammar topics. One particular thing of this text book is that uses the same characters throughout the units, for example it always uses the Morgan’s family, Mr. Morgan, Mrs. Morgan, they are presented in different situations, places, so the Morgan’s family are the main actors of Berlitz plus, you can find them in the different places such as: at a restaurant, at an office, at a concert, at the health club, at the Doctor’s office, etc. But did this text book really offer me a language that represents different areas of the social sphere, from the Cassany & Castella points of view are that:

(literacy  includes the domain and use of the alphabetic code, the receptive and productive construction of texts, the knowledge and use of functions and purposes from the different discursive genres of each social fields, and the roles that adopt the reader and the author, the social values associated with these roles are (identity, status, and social position), the knowledge that is constructed in these texts that circulates in the community, the representation of the world that they transmit, etc.) (Cassany & Castella, 2010, p. 354)

This text book called Berlitz plus did not offered me a good representation of my world, did not offered me an identity as English learner inside my context, it also did not show me and offered me the construction of social values, it did not teach me how to be a good citizen, and did not teach me how to be an ethical person. Besides, it did not show me what is good and what is bad within those contents.  Instead this course book only offered me recreated situations that were more artificial and acted, representing  different a culture into a context with social and political interests, critical literacy  can be related with power and knowledge, “it would demonstrate modes of critique that illuminate how, in some cases, knowledge serves very specific economic, political and social interests”  (Shor, 1999). Another, important issue is that the text book does not develop within its syllabus or contents; it is the lack of exercises that can develop writing skills.  There is not a gap for practicing writing skills. But why is important to write when learning a second language? I think that if I go beyond the practice of writing as a language skill, not because it is important to reinforce our language abilities but to create self-consciousness about our social context, about our own experiences, and about our own lives.

Another text book course book I want to analyze is one from which I learned many of my language English foundations and also I had the opportunity to work with it for about three years. This text book is called Interchange third edition by Jack C. Richards and it is from Cambridge press, the red one edition interchange one is designed for basic English learners, and it counts with 16 units, that develops four basic language skills, the receptive skills listening and reading and the productive language skills speaking and writing. In addition, this text book introduces grammar structures in a progressive way. The first four units of interchange one third edition are focus on grammatical items, such as: verb to be, possessive adjectives, WH questions, the use simple and the use of would among others, topics are presented first with contextualized conversations and listening exercises, from which the learners should answer some questions relate with the audio exercises, this helps a lot the students to develop their listening for specific information and listening for detail skills. Reading skills are also develop throughout text but these readings are quite inappropriate for the students interests and likes, most of the readings are out of our context and quite boring for almost all the learners I have had the opportunity to read and to work with these activities, for example there is a reading about tip or not tip.  In our culture, Colombians are not very costumed to give tips to waiters, hotel bellhops, hotel maids, taxi drivers, barbers or hair stylists like it says in the reading. There are other readings that are about Christina Aguilera, eBay and what is in a name?  most of the learners find them very boring, and all these reading comprehension activities students may find a lot of new vocabulary items and reading comprehension questions, that the more you try to do these activities in a different way the more the students find them boring, they get easily demotivated only just by reading the heading title of them. Therefore, students do not engage, reading becomes just a mere act of knowledge storage, words, vocabulary items, etc. This is what Freire (1972) calls banking education.

In the long run, the banking model encourages passivity in the students and closes their minds to higher objectives of education, i.e. finding one’s  own voice  in society. The importance of developing voice in students lies in the fact that without daring to oppose and resist ideas, rules, strict structures which might be imposed upon them, students develop a deep sense of silence, submissiveness, and obedience (Izadinia & Abednia, 2010)

The readings are so boring that I start questioning about what am I teaching. I make questions like: Are those readings situated in our social context? Do my students benefit from these readings? Do they create self- consciousness about their lives and the world that surrounds them?

Interchange also counts with audiovisual resources; there are 16 videos, one video per unit, although the publishing year of this edition was 2005, the videos are totally out of this contemporaneous twenty first century context, the videos seem to be from the 80’s, totally out of fashion. However, it does not matter if the videos are quite old for these days, what really matters, is the message that the videos relate with the contents and what they can offer to the learners.  Nevertheless, videos do not have to do with reading and writing but I think is important to mention this aspect in this analysis. There is also one writing activity per unit, these activities vary from  writing a biography, writing different kinds of letters, writing e –mails, to writing a restaurant review or even to writing a magazine article recommending a place to visit. I do not think these writing exercises can make students reflect about their world, about the social, political, and economic problems that we encounter every day, those experiences that shape their lives and transform them into the citizens that they might become. By doing so, students would transform their surroundings and the reality in which they live; according to Freire this is what he claims to be as conscientização “awareness of  the historical, sociopolitical, economic, cultural and subjective reality that shapes our live, and our ability to transform that reality” (Freire, 1998, as cited in Willis a et al, 2008 ) this text book does not encourage students to develop their writing skills , in spite that the level of this book is addressed for beginners, it should at least encourage students to write, and to develop critical thinking “The assumption that the development of CL skills can be postponed until students have achieved higher levels of language proficiency reflects a belief that literacy is a purely psychological or developmental phenomenon”(Lau, 2012)

There is another book I would like to analyze that is called “Up stream” Intermediate B2, by Virginia Evans and Jennt Doolet. With this text I learned a lot when I studied four years ago in another private language center of the city. I will focus only in the reading and also in the writing aspects. I will start first by talking about its readings, the text counts with ten units, in every unit there are two reading sessions, and there are also reading comprehension questions so as to check understanding. There are compelling readings about castles around the world and their history, luxury hotels, famous places like the Rocky mountains, about the body’s natural rhythm, extreme sports, and about how lightning strikes and much more. There are also literature readings about famous authors like Hebert George Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles dickens among others. In some sense, readings are richer than the two texts mentioned above, there are more interesting topics and readings about literature that can develop more critical thinking, because reading comprehension questions are focused not only in the contents of the reading instead, questions are more contextualized in the learners’ lives or can be contextualized in real life situations like social and cultural aspects.

Regarding to the writing exercises, I think that writing exercises in this text book encourage learner’s critical thinking. For example in page 64 there is a writing exercise where learners have to write an essay about, how can we make our planet a safer place for animals?  The text book encourages thinking about the ways of how they can help animals?  There are more examples of critical thinking exercises, for example in page 96 the learners should write an essay where they have to discuss and give their personal opinions about the use of mobile phones at school, in this case students have to think about the pros and cons of this issue, going beyond mobile phones use at schools or educational institutions, makes me think that there is an ethical issue in this writing exercise about if it is good or not that students can be allowed to use mobile phones inside classrooms. From Beck’s point of view “literacy is an act of knowing that empowers individuals because, through it, individuals simultaneously discover their voices and their ethical responsibilities to use literacy for the improvement of their world” (Beck, 2005)

The conclusion of all this is that, I think English text books should develop and should include topics of social, cultural, political, and economic matters that permit learners to develop critical thinking and critical consciousness about their surroundings and about their lives. English text book courses should invite learners to construct a social language from which they can transform their world and transform their realities. Because learning a language it is not just something about learning grammatical structures, or learning languages skills, it should be focused also in the social awakening of the human side.

References

Beck,  A.  S. (2005). A place  for critical literacy. Journal  of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48(5), 392-400

Cassany, D. & Castellà, J. M. (2010). Aproximación a la literacidad crítica. Perspectiva, 28(2), 353-374. doi:10.5007/2175-795X.2010v28n2p353

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. London, UK: Routledge.

Izadinia,  M.  &  Abednia,  A.  (2010).  Dynamics  of  an  EFL  reading  course  with  a  critical  literacy orientation. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 6(2), 51-67.

Lau, S. M. C. (2012). Reconceptualizing critical literacy in ESL classrooms. The  Reading  Teacher, 66(5), 325-329. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01050

Rose, F. (2003). The history of writing. Great Britain: St Edmundsbury Press

Shor,  I.  (1999)  What  is  critical  literacy.  Retrieved  from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html

Willis,  A.  I.,  Montavon,  M.,  Hall,  H.;  Hunter,  C.,  Burke,  L.,  &  Herrera,  A.  (2008).  On  critically conscious   research:   Approaches   to   language   and   literacy   research.   New   York,   NY: Teachers College Press.

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4 comments on “Reflecting about critical literacy in second language acquisition text book courses by Christian González

  1. Chris
    September 12, 2013

    Christian i read your text, and really, i find it as a useful topic to reflect in our practices. Teaching never ends, for that reason tools should be update for the generations we face each time. In that way students can feel contact on what they are experiencing at that moment. “Thanks to the relationship between text and context, people can recreate things” (Freire, chapter 1)

  2. Chris
    September 12, 2013

    Thank you so much for reading my post and for sharing that valuable quote. Yes you made a good point; text books should be updated in accordance with the target culture and also with our own culture, trying always to contextualize the topics and the readings of the world with ours. But I think that labor depends on the teacher’s work, because teachers should look for new ways of developing critical thinking and representing meaning, not only with the use text books, we should then use new literacies (ICT) and make the students use their imagination to represent, critique, to analyze, and to reflect about everyday texts and issues, using different kinds of modes (Multimodality) such as visual, digital, audiovisual, artistic, kinesthetic, etc., in order to transform their world and their lives.

  3. Deninson Vásquez
    September 19, 2013

    Christian, I would like to congratulate you for your text. It is really interesting and something we always have to take into consideration is the social context as you mentioned, and unfortunately one of the biggest disadvantages the textbooks for teaching English have is that they do not correspond to our social reality because we buy them according to a fashionable matter or as a reply to consumerism.

  4. Christian,

    I would be remiss if I did not point out a matter of style in your text: The first paragraph is disconnected from the rest of the paper. The review of the evolution of writing, from the caves to the tablets, while very useful to explain why we need to rethink how we frame reading and writing, here misses the point of what you are trying to convey in the rest of your paper. I would suggest just starting from the second paragraph onwards and, possibly, reorganizing the length of your paragraphs for easier readability.

    Now that we covered the main editorial matters, let us discuss the heart of your paper:

    You touched on some very interesting ideas when you started to question what the books did not teach you and how that is problematic. Your questions of what your books lacked regarding the development of a sense of ethics are crucial if we want to rethink learning and teaching today. Nevertheless, I would caution you against going down the “boring” road. In some sentences, you lost track of the central point that you first developed when discussing the Berlitz book in your reviews of Interchange and Up Stream, which sometimes veered the discussion (albeit accidentally) toward the books’ entertainment value. This is worrisome especially because an apparent focus on entertainment might miss the point about the values and cultural relevance of the content, an argument that I myself (Mora, 2012, in press) have expressed as a necessary point of contention in the curriculum.

    You talked about empowerment (Beck, 2005) and conscientização (Freire, 1979) as important features of the curriculum. I can only wonder why you did not let these two ideas be the driving force behind your paper. You see, the question of “how empowering are the textbooks?” is paramount to reconceptualizing the language curriculum, as you hinted in the conclusion. That focus, which would have offered a stronger tie-in to critical literacy, would have helped reinforce the questions that you first posed in the Berlitz review. My invitation, therefore, is to find one or two foci for your ideas and exploit them. Your three books had interesting examples of empowerment, lack thereof, and the open invitation to a critical consciousness (Willis, et al., 2008) that needs to permeate our curricula. I hope that you will revisit these ideas later in your ML2 journey.

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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