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

Critical literacy vs. textbooks in our classrooms


By Claudia Cañas Mejía

The use of textbooks and their components have been very useful tools for English teachers in their classes because they support the development of the topics through different types of materials. But there are some main issues around them that erase that idea; textbooks do not accomplish the main goal that is to develop the language competences that students need to be proficient in the subject. This is, because in some cases, they are just part of the class to have fun or as the route map to follow through the academic year, it does not matter, if what is developed there is what students should learn or not, but this makes teachers’ life “easier”, since “everything” is inside those pages and they do not have to do anything else.  Some other times, they appear just as a requirement from the school managers because of the publishing houses’ offerings to the school. And just few times, they are in the classroom to be a tool to start new discussions around the topics that are proposed there. So, textbooks are in the daily students’ life and teachers are those who have the main responsibility, to take the best advantage from them; that is why in the following lines, there is going to be an analysis in the light of critical literacy towards the textbooks in the classroom; to do this I used two textbooks for fourth and fifth graders, who have English as a foreign language.

For students and teachers, the use of textbooks is a reality in most of the schools.  These tools are apparently used to “develop” literacy but in most of the cases, this is a wrong idea because what the teachers have done, it is just to teach students to memorize letters and decode the text. This is what Freire (1972) calls “education banking”; in other words the teacher has the power (knowledge) and students are just receivers of information.  In this way, the learning teaching process is centered in the teachers as the owners of the true but what (Freire, 1972) suggests about critical literacy, it is the “active participation of students in the learning process through collaborative activities like dialogue”. It is kind of difficult to be in a classroom, with a textbook which does not provide texts related with the students’ life; in other words the topics are not meaningful for them because they are not cultural, academic or personal relevant for them.

The English class should be focused on the development of the language competences; there is also, according to Ko & Wang (2012), a responsibility to develop “critical literacy competency to adequately cope with different ideologies embedded in discourses in the present society”. For example, in an X textbook for fourth graders, there is a unit about “The pioneers”; which is not a topic so related with Colombian culture and the students do not find easily the connection with the topics, they have worked in their social studies course.  In order to have a better understanding of the topic, the teacher needs to go beyond and explains what a pioneer is before starting to develop what is proposed by the textbook; but at the end the main goal of the unit is to present the simple past. The real problem is that in the grade level that students are, they do not have enough understanding of other cultures.

In this regard, Raimes (2002), “foregrounding the significance of factoring students’ interests and voices into class policies, invites teachers to base their decisions on questions such as: “Are the topics culturally appropriate for your students?”, “Will they engage the students’ interests?”, “Is the content relevant and engaging?”.  To select appealing topics for the students is important because it has a high impact on students’ motivation.  Later in the same textbook, there are some activities about a grandpa. It is more related to the students’ life but in this activity, the purpose is just to listen to a conversation and write some numbers according to what they listen.  Keeping in mind critical literacy, it should be better if the students write about their grandpa’s childhood because they do not only practice the language, but also they learn something else about their own culture and in certain cases be nearer to their roots. It is important to highlight that when this happens, it is the teacher who can decide if he wants to go beyond a text.

In the same unit about “the pioneers”, there is a reading about a journey west to Oregon that is not a meaningful topic for Colombian fourth graders.  It is not related with their culture and the named places are not familiar for them because in the social science course, American history is not a topic for elementary school. Izadinia and Abednia (2010) state that teachers “often decide on the content without negotiation with students and let the tastes of some authors, who are usually detached from the realities of students’ lives, determine what students must read and what tasks they must do”.  In this part, it is so important to go deeper because there are some aspects to analyze; starting with the teachers’ decision towards the textbooks because sometimes, they just analyze them keeping in mind the school policies and these are more focused on following the national policies than in the students’ likes or at least students’ age . So, as Izadinia and Abednia (2010) say the decision is in the author’s side that almost always is a foreigner who does not know a lot about the country’s reality and less about the schools’ and students’ realities.

Although, there are a lot of textbooks that are not focused on students’ likes; there are others that try to catch students’ attention with some appealing topics for students.  For instance; new technologies, I found that in the Y fifth grade textbook there is one unit focused on a topic that is so updated for the students and  it is called “In touch”, this is related with the different ways people can communicate nowadays and that each way has a purpose. There are also some readings that show the students that not all communication depends on technology that there are other ways people can communicate: the body language, the sign language and the international marine signal flags.  This way of approaching the topic is an excellent opportunity for the teacher to start with the students a deeper search into the text because they sometimes just conceive the internet and the cellphones (nowadays, smartphones) as the only possible ways to communicate.

Teacher can invite students to think about why the author is interested in showing the other ways to communicate and how and why they differ from those ones they usually use. It is important to state that the textbook does not present the opportunity to do the analysis of the different texts; the authors just propose activities based on grammar, dialogues’ repetition and reading comprehension but this is only from the point of view of getting punctual information and not going beyond the text.  The previous example can be supported by “Critical literacy” (2009) in the Capacity Building Series that expresses that one of the main goals of critical literacy is to prepare students for this “Knowledge Society”, full of information or as Luke names as “a media-saturated world” where students need to know about both basic literacy and critical literacy in order to know the author’s position in the text, how he can identify the text with himself, how text include him in the development of its purpose; among many other questions that readers (in this case students) can have about the text.  This dialogue with the text can help the students to take a position toward it but based on an analysis from their own perspective and not from the position the author offers to the reader, who just reads letters and not go beyond the text. When students start being immerses in the critical literacy, they are becoming more independent readers and make the difference in our society; since they know how to give meaning to the different texts they read. Menezes, C & Fogaça, F (2012) emphasize that are the teachers who should provide students with the opportunities to go beyond the text; also, they have the responsibility to show the students the importance to have the right attitudes to construct and negotiate meanings; which are going to impact their own lives.

Images could not be apart from this analysis; in general, children’s texts are supported with them; since they call students’ attention and help them to have a “better” understanding of the text. It is important to keep in mind that they are also text and carry a meaning, which can be not the same for all the readers.  In the X textbook, that is a book for boys’ and girls’ use; there is a reading which is about a talent contest in a school. This is supported with six images, which are mainly composed by girls (students, a teacher and a grandma); the only male characters are the father and a student in the ballet lesson.  In this, reading, there is only one boy in the class and also, it is not a common class for boys. When a group of students (girls and boys) read the story; they can see this fact, from different points of view, according to their own experiences and one of them can be the discrimination of genre because there are many other activities; where there is an equal genre participation but in some cultures the ballet is only well seen for girls.

Consequently, if we go deeper into critical literacy, it is easy to understand that the main goal is not to complete a textbook just because it is the goal for the academic year but it is based on Burbules, N & Berk, R (1997) to help students to develop “critical thinking skills in order to transform inequitable, undemocratic, or oppressive institutions and social relations”.  If the reading is just done to focus on the language, there is not any dialogue between the reader and the author and the first one is going to read just words but not the world they want to represent.

In conclusion, critical literacy is the opportunity for teachers and students to go beyond the text and also, the way to take a better advantage of the textbook; if it is mandatory to use it, in the classroom. According to Van, C & Cunningham, M (1999) “critical literacy takes learners beyond the development of basic literacy skills such as decoding, predicting, and summarizing and asks them to become critical consumers of the information they receive”. It is the opportunity, to create new meanings for the texts, based on the own experiences and points of view and it is also an invitation for teachers to become critical when it is the time to teach and choose the material to use in class.

1849 words


Burbules, N. C. & Berk, R. (1997). Critical thinking and critical pedagogy: Relations,         differences, and limits. In Critical theories in education Changing terrains of knowledge and politics, ed. Thomas S. Popkewitz & Lynn Fendler, 45-65. New York: Routledge.

Critical literacy Capacity building series.  Secretariat special edition # 9. The literacy and numeracy secretariat. August 2009. P.1

Freire, P. (1972).  Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Penguin Books.

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), 53.

Ko, M & Wang, T. (2012). EFL Learners’ Critical Literacy Practices: A Case Study of Four College Students in Taiwan.  Published online 13 September 2012. (p. 221)

Menezes, C & FogaÇa, F. (2012).  Critical literacy in the English language classroom.    DELTA vol.28 no.1 São Paulo  2012. (p.75).

Raimes, A. (2002). Ten steps in planning a writing course and training teachers of writing. In J. C.  Richards & W. A. Renandya (Eds.). Methodologies in language teaching. An anthology of current practice (p.311). Cambridge University Press.

Van, C & Cunningham, M. (1999). Critical literacy for adult English language learner.


4 comments on “Critical literacy vs. textbooks in our classrooms

  1. Julian E. Zapata
    September 13, 2013

    First, I like the way you told us teachers not to leave all the teaching responsibility and class preparation and development in the textbooks and materials we have in the classroom, Second, I think it was clear the explanation you provided about the textbooks you use, in which there is a big detachment from our culture and context but that at the same time that they try to propose Critical Literacy questions in which we, as techers, should decide if the readings and topics are appealing and interesting for our students and if we can use them in order to promote a discussion or debate that leads into proposals that could embed real changes in students´lives and contexts.

  2. Claudia Cañas Mejía
    October 9, 2013

    Nowadays, teachers and students are called to make academic communities where together they can find the best ways to develop knowledge with the strength of both experiences; as Mora (2011:21) states learning is not an event that just happens in the classrooms anymore; it may now just start in the classroom, but it will go on beyond the classroom. Students can provide many ideas from their own lives what can have an impact on their own process or also help their classmates processes.

  3. ML2
    October 9, 2013

    Dear Claudia,

    I strongly agree with you. Regardless the text we are using in the classroom is our responsibility to help students be critical in front of the information they receive. We can contrast our culture with the one we are learning about and we can also include additional activities, even though, they are not proposed by the curriculum nor by the book.

    I liked the way you analyzed the textbook you are working with in the light of the critical literacy proposal. You clearly explain your ideas and propose ways to include the critical component into our classes.

    Angela Patricia Ocampo C.

  4. In my opinion, your reflection towards the teacher`s role of inviting the students to think about the author`s interest is accurate because this is one of the aspects we have to look for.Furthermore,once the students identify the author`s intention they can start making comparisons and can also start establishing a relationship between the author`s contexts and their own. I also liked what you said about the importance and image can have in a text because it clearly helps pupils understand social contexts and learn from that as a starting point. Very good Claudia.

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This entry was posted on September 9, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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