A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
Teacher’s Responsibility in Critical Literacy
Why teach critical literacy? “Students today experience a constant stream of ideas and information – online, in print, and through electronic games and mass media. As they move into the junior grades, they encounter an ever-widening range of texts. They need skills to determine where to direct their attention and how to interpret messages and use them appropriately.”
Ontario Ministry of Education, 2004, p.9.
We belong to a globalized world; the “global village” imagined by Marshall McLuhan (1968) is fact: a virtual and material world where traditional print and image, canonical genres, and new modalities of information sit side by side—where new and old media build discourse communities and enable political and cultural action. We deal with texts that come from all over the world. The idea of working from students’ interests and expectations is -to some extent- no longer valid because we have to open our minds to discover the new world we have in front of us; where we have to value our own identity and to construct a new vision as we are now citizens of the world.
New communication and information technologies have connected us to the world, the flow of information increases every day. We have access to a wide range of texts that come to us in form of games, songs, images, documentaries, programs, software, publicity, etc. The real and the virtual worlds have intertwined to create a new world. If the world has become more accessible, the words and actions we use to describe it need to change accordingly (Mora Velez, 2010). We need to engage in a more critical analysis of the world and the word. Several scholars (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, 2007; Kist, 2000; Luke, 2004; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; Street, 1984, 1995) have argued, literacy and literacy teaching need to adapt and change in order to respond to what will be expected in the near future.
Interactions and communication have changed. Technology gives us the opportunity to create text and address to a great amount of different kinds of audiences very easily and in a very fast way. These new times are also modifying the skills we need to be better workers (Anstey, 2002; Gee, 2000), better citizens, and ultimately, better human beings (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008). The paradigm today is how to deal with the issue of literacy, the recognition of underlying codes, the construction of meaning and the understanding of values behind each text.
Humankind began writing when they discovered how to carve a rock. Man has been reading and writing for many years, first decoding drawings and later the written word. Printed information, which in a way was out of reach, had the power for more than 500 years; now, the digital and virtual world has empowered us by giving access to knowledge and information. We are no longer marginalized; instead, information has never been as available as it is now. The challenge today is how to interpret, how to convey meaning, and how to establish a critical view instead of just decoding a text. We have to move from reading the world to criticizing the world.
Freire & Macedo (1987) explain 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. Language and reality are dynamically interconnected. The understanding attained by critical reading of a text implies perceiving the relationship between text and context… Reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and rewriting of what is read… Literacy training should not only provide reading, writing, and numeracy, but it should be considered “a set of practices that functions to either empower or disempower people”. We need to establish a critical view of the available information and unveil the political and social implications of every single text. Our task is to discover the intentions of the author and to form our very own opinions by having different versions of the same story and a deep understanding of the underlying assumptions.
By using critical literacy, we stand for justice and equality. We give voice to those who have been silenced by the author and we reconceptualize and recontextualize the text itself. Ko argues that the use of language in fact is political because some persons’ interests are at stake in these literacy practices (2013, 104). By being aware of whose interests are involved in the text we extend our critical understanding of the text, that is, we read between the lines.
In an era of mass consumerism and fast capitalism (New London Group, 1999), critical literacy offers a balance point to counter hegemonic forces and simple solutions to complex issues. Critical literacy is a need, we need to go beyond the understanding of the text to begin finding its deep historical, social and cultural implications.
We are called to use a diversity of text to enhance this critical literacy. Luke (2004) asserts that the term critical literacy refers to use of the technologies of print and other media of communication to analyze, critique, and transform the norms, rule systems, and practices governing the social fields of everyday life. Critical literacy is an overtly political orientation to teaching and learning and to the cultural, ideological, and sociolinguistic content of the curriculum. We need to make explicit the secret world that hides behind every text.
Booth (2008) states that critical literacy has explicit meanings in our educational contexts today. Given the students are constantly exposed to a wide variety of text, both in and out of school, critical literacy becomes a tool for helping them interpret the embedded messages, connecting them to their present understanding of what they know or what they thought they knew and moving them into unfamiliar territory. Critical literacy encourages them to question the authority of texts and address issues of bias, perspective, and social justice that they may contain. Booth (2008) also remarks that critical literacy calls for agency: readers are to recognize how the text is affecting or controlling them; contribute to change and to social justice; confront inequities; and see alternative viewpoint to those presented by the author.
At first, we deal with emerging literacy, where we learn the basics of decoding and constructing texts. Then, we move to a more critical view. Freebody and Luke (1990) define critical literacy as one of four processes that readers should employ when encountering text. Along with the more familiar practices of code breaker (coding competence), meaning maker (semantic competence), and text user (pragmatic competence), we need to consider the practices of reader as text critic. We need to empower ourselves and lift our voice in front of the text, without regarding the nature of it (images, words, sounds, etc.) or the source (printed, media, virtual).
Coffey advices than using critical literacy, teachers encourage students to look at texts from other perspectives and re-create them from the standpoint of marginalized groups in order to analyze the power relations and social inequities promoted by the texts. Cromber (2001) maintains that critical literacies involve people using language to exercise power, to enhance everyday life in schools and communities, and to question practices of privilege and injustice. Critical literacy means practicing the use of language in powerful ways to get things done in the world. In elementary classrooms, teachers work on at least three fronts: they work with children’s existing abilities for critical analysis; they examine examples of writing, drawing, cartoon, film, etc. that take a critical stance; and they offer children new discursive resources. In other words they make available repertoires of language practices that the children do not already have. Critical literacy is not an option, it is mandatory to establish routines in our classroom that empower students to take actions that promotes justice and equality.
Teachers have not been formed in critical literacy. So, we have to read and analyze other teachers’ practices and articles on the topic. There are many scholars who have been doing research on critical literacy and there is a big theoretical framework that we have to study to begin implementing this view of literacy in our classes.
In my experience as language learner, I never had the opportunity to engage in critical literacy activities. I was asked to decode words and sentences to convey a superficial meaning of the text, I was engaged in skimming and scanning tasks, the most challenging questions about the text dealt with multiple choice, matching, and true or false exercises. Neither the text nor the teacher proposed deep understanding of the world-word in the classes.
In my experience as teacher, I have worked with different kinds of institutions and textbooks. At first, as I was not taught to be critical, I never challenged my students to be critical. I focused my practice on communicative approaches, grammar explanations and group activities that helped them develop linguistic skills in the foreign language. The first place where I worked was an institution for young and adult learners that offered students to learn English in a year. The textbook only had a vocabulary focus.
Then I began working in elementary school at different institutions. The textbooks were orientated to a more communicative approach with little focus on reading skills. I was very concerned with the developing of emerging literacy. Texts included phonics, grammar, vocabulary, and very motivated activities for young learners. Students were able to express opinions and connect their learning to their life. So they were able to read the world and the word. But critical literacy was not introduced.
Later, I went to a bilingual institution where books were based on readings. Everything in the curriculum for the classes was around readings, the readings provided the grammar and vocabulary students needed to acquire the language. The readings included critical thinking activities which allowed students to analyze the context of the stories and related to their own lives. They had an acceptable degree of critical literacy because of the variety of genres and topics addressed, but still, neither the text nor the teacher promoted critical literacy, I did not have a concern about it.
Today, I continue working at the same bilingual school. I teach English, Science, Social Studies and Technology in second and third grades. I am using a textbook in the English classes, but it is not the only tool I have. With the development of the communication and information technologies, I have the opportunity to select a variety of material for my classes. Videos, images, publicity, songs, fables, newspapers from all over the world help me construct meaning and connect the knowledge in a cross-curricular way. Students can have a wider view of the world and the social reality. I cannot say that I am working critical literacy, but students are developing an understanding of the world.
The book for the English class motivates students desire to learn, involves them in topics related to their lives, but its approach to reading is not enough to develop critical literacy. In Technology, Science and Social Studies classes, students enroll in conversations where they express their opinions and participate in different kinds of activities that make them reflect on social, cultural, and environmental issues. Through the use of the English language, they show an understanding of the topics and make reflections around them.
In conclusion, I think that it is not the book that makes critical literacy possible in the classroom. It is the teachers’ accountability to select very rich materials, in addition to the available ones in the institution, in their daily practices. Teachers need not only to introduce a variety of texts that leads students to a wide understanding of the present world but also to include critical questions that unveil the intentions of the text. Teachers are called to create an atmosphere where every voice in the classroom counts; where students feel free to express opinions; where students are encouraged to explain positions toward the topics and where respect and tolerance do not mean the acceptance of unacceptable arguments dealing with views of inequality and injustice in society. Critical literacy does not have to do with texts, it has to do with teachers’ political responsibility to educate individuals able to construct a better society.
Booth, David W. 2008. It´s critical: classroom strategies for promoting critical and creative comprehension. (P. 19-27) Pembroke Publishers. Ontario, Canada. Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication. http://www.stenhouse.com/emags/8228-1/pageflip.html
Comber, Barbara. 2001. Negotiating Critical Literacies. University of South Australia, Center for Studies in Literacy,Policy and Learning Cultures 2001. National Council of Teachers of English. April, 2001. Vol. 6, No. 3
Patel Stevens, Lisa and Bean,Thomas W. 2007. Critical Literacy: context, research, and practice in the K-12 classroom. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc. California, USA. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
Lisa Patel Stevens, and Thomas W. Bean, Critical Literacy: context, research, and practice in the K-12 classroom. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, Inc. 2007). Google Books. Ed. Google, 2010.
Forstat, Rachel. Critical Literacy in the 21st Century.
Lau, S. (2012) Reconceptualizing Critical Literacy Teaching in ESL Classrooms. Literacy and Language Learners. The Reading Teacher vol. 65 (Pp.325-339). Newark, DW: International Reading association.
Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. London, UK: Routledge.
Ko, M-Y. (2013). A case study of an EFL teacher’s critical literacy teaching in a reading class in
Taiwan. Language Teaching Research, 17(1), 91-108. doi: 10.1177/1362168812457537
Luke, A. & Woods, A. (2009). Critical literacies in schools: A primer. Voices from the Middle, 17(2),
Shor, I. (1999) What is critical literacy. Retrieved from
Luke, A. (2012). Critical literacy: Foundational notes. Theory into Practice, 51, 4-11.
Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. London, UK: Routledge.
Mora Vélez, R. A. (2010). An analysis of the literacy beliefs and practices of faculty and graduates
from a preservice English teacher education program. Doctoral Dissertation, University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from: