A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
Learning English has embraced a wide part of my life. First, it started as a hobby with my teenage friends trying to decipher the lyrics of the English songs of the time. Then, as I grew older, mastering the English language opened me a door on what I wanted to be my future as a professional. I wanted to be able to teach others what I had learned so far and the need to be in constant updating was one additional reason to enroll in these studies.
Through all this long process, I have worked with many sorts of books, at university for instance, we used a book in which many different kind of people and their culture were depicted, and all material turned around those main characters. It did not have a recording, but we used to go to the language lab to compensate this. Then, other types of books started to appear, with CDs and workbooks for additional practice.
When I began to work as a teacher for the first time, I was asked to follow a book series which consisted of three levels and each level included a student book, a work book, a teacher’s book, and audio material. Every unit was a single page long and it featured a key grammar point and it was composed by a reading or a dialogue in audio as well as in written form; also it incorporated colorful, attractive illustrations that represented the content. Before going to the reading of the unit we had to cover some key vocabulary and the grammar points each unit was especially designed for. Usually, the dialogues and readings were humorous and represented everyday situations.
As stated by Luke and Woods (2009) “the term literacy traditionally referred to the mastery of skills, processes and understandings in making meaning from and through written texts”. What we used to understand as literacy some years ago has remarkably changed during the last few years. Reading in our textbooks only entitled that comprehension meant answering some questions at the end of a reading selection. Instruction mostly focused on strategies which helped second language learners answer reading comprehension questions. While this is an important part of the process, comprehension should also include finding a personal meaning on what has been read and finding out a connection to ourselves.
Freire and Macedo (1987) explained that “Reading does not consist merely of decoding the written word or language; rather it is preceded by, and intertwined with knowledge of the world” It means then, being able to go further from what the text specifically shows and says, and being able to interpret what goes beyond what has been written and make any connections with the context we live in. Recognizing this, I realize that most of the activities that were carried out to support the lessons were just reading to understand what was literally said in the reading selection of each unit.
We need our students to produce higher level thinking questions in order to make them become critical, to develop critical thinking skills and to question the status quo. They have to step away literal comprehension; and think critically about the message a text may or may not contain. Just as argued by Freire and Macedo (1987), “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world”.
Essentially, then, critical literacy is language use that questions the social construction of the self. When we are critically literate, we examine our ongoing development, to reveal the subjective positions from which we make sense of the world and act in it. All of us grow up and live in local cultures set in global contexts where multiple discourses shape us. (Shor, 2010, p. 2)
Additionally, Shor roughly states that critical literacy could be the solution to many issues in education. If every person were taught to think, read and act in a critical manner, society would absolutely benefit. We are shaped by the culture, school, family and context we grow up and live in and even like this we find very huge differences between the same family members or among students of the same school. Consequently, the final result of instruction cannot be predicted. But anyway, it is important to teach and learn how to be critical before a text and obviously this will transform the way we see and face everything we do.
Abednia and Izadinia explained that “One way in which teachers can make learners familiar with the nature of CL and critical reading is to provide them some short readings about these concepts which have been written in simple, non-academic and accessible language.” They also suggest negotiating the topics of readings with the students so they can capture their attention. Then, the role of students would substantially change according to what Abednia and Izadina argued, “In CL students are encouraged to approach texts in a questioning manner, challenge received knowledge, and, instead of taking in knowledge passively, construct it actively and autonomously.”
It is sometimes difficult for us to get our ESL students to give answers to questions we do in class, in a less traditional way, going out the text and engaging them into talking about a more real world, introducing them into a more familiar context. They are afraid of the limitations they have when using the language to express their opinions and to talk about their reality. But, as Lau argued, (2012) “…CL learning can be easily integrated with basic language and demonstrate that ESLs are quite capable of complex learning language when they are given adequate support.” So, it is important to bring socially relevant issues to class for the sake of getting our students motivated and less apprehensive to participate.
Another important aspect when dealing with CL is that, as Mora (2010) said “Nowadays, words, images and sound comprise what we call a text. Text is no longer linear.” Therefore, a wide variety of texts types should be included in a lesson, such as pictures, magazines, newspapers, textbooks, advertisements, videos and also blogs and websites. All this material must be relevant,interesting and appropriate to the age of students, their context and the kind of learner we are dealing with. Indeed, all these texts forms have to be analyzed with critical eyes before, during and after being adopted.
Taking into account that CL is more than a tool for instruction, we need to be careful on many of the aspects it involves, because as Lee (2011) explained,
It also foregrounds the importance of situating literacy education in a sociopolitical context in that as no social practices are neutral, neither are literacy practices. Literacy should be examined critically to see how it is used to position us. Critical literacy, in this sense, is not limited to the mastery of reading and writing.
Accordingly, it is paramount to teach learners to constantly challenge themselves and the society, in order to understand what is going on around us and to try to figure out the psychological, social, cultural or political reasons and implications behind each text and, eventually to be able to respond to the demands of this world and to generate a better society by means of more competent people.
As a conclusion, I would like to say that although the text had its limitations as a final product for the reasons I have mentioned here, it still was a valuable tool for the purpose they were looking for. They were not expecting people to think critically, neither analyze nor build a discourse. They just wanted to improve the learner’s language skills as we still do in many classes. Most of the tasks were focused on grammar exercises, role plays, fill in the blanks and obviously in answering yes-no questions as well as information questions from the reading selection. Students seemed to enjoy the lessons and their English level certainly improved.
Since the world and its demands are in constant change, particularly now that technology is everywhere, it is undeniable we have to be prepared for the new challenges we will have to face. Instruction on CL connects students to change; it makes classrooms a place where not only teachers but also students share opinions and thoughts, so that everyone can have a voice. CL views instruction in a totally different way, it makes us acknowledge that even in our English classes we need to foster the development of critical thinking skills which are vital to human action, personal growth and social transformation.
Luke Allan. (2012) “Critical Literacy: Foundational Notes”
Mora Velez, R,A(2010). An analysis of the literacy beliefs and practices of faculty and graduates from a preservice English teacher education program (Unpublished doctoral dissertation.)University of Illinois.
Shor Ira.(Fall 1999) ” What is Critical Literacy” Volume I, Issue 4,
Freire Paulo. (1970) “ Pedagogy of the Oppressed” 30th Anniversary Edition.
Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. London, UK: Routledge.
HAMMOND, J. and MACKEN-HORARIK, M. (1999), Critical Literacy: Challenges and Questions for ESL Classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 33: 528–544.
Lee, C. J. (2011). Myths about critical literacy: What teachers need to unlearn.
Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 7 (1), 95-102. Retrieved September 3, 2013 from