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 in our Classroom

By Andrés Felipe Bedoya

Once I was asked what literacy was and I came up with a quick thoughtless definition.  And even though such definition had a scent of the real meaning of literacy, it was way behind what literacy actually involves.  If you ask me now what literacy is, after being exposed to a great variety of documents and papers, I had rather be humble enough to answer that literacy is really a very complex term as to be defined.  I could not even give you an answer by telling what it is not as almost everything that is related to our existence and our world is closely attached to literacy.  So, you might be wondering the reason why I am intending to write about literacy if I do not really know what it is.  Well, here you will probably find a reasonable answer to such an inquiry.  My intention with this paper is to give a perspective of the impact that critical literacy has on individuals, communities, countries, and continents when implemented in the classroom.  In short, the impact that critical literacy and everything it involves would provoke on humanity.

Literacy has been seen for ages as the capability to read and write.  This means, reading in terms of decoding symbols or images in order to understand a message, and writing in terms of using these symbols or images for expressing such messages.  But this perspective of literacy has been changing ever since Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987) introduced the concept of reading the world instead of reading the word which means going “from functional literacy that focuses solely on developing students’ linguistic skills to critical literacy that aims to give students a language of critique to achieve equality and social justice or effect social transformation” (Edelsky; Lankshear & McLaren; Shor & Freire; as cited in Ko, 2013).

Freire and Macedo (1987) state that “reading a text as pure description of an object (like a syntactical rule), and undertaken to memorize the description, is neither real reading nor does it result in knowledge of the object to which the text refers.”  They see reading as a process of interpreting and reflecting about the world we live in and they reject the idea of exercises that engage students in the memorization of vowels, sounds or syllables in the process of reading learning.  They strongly argue that reading goes beyond that and they suggest that it involves discovering our own universe and world through constantly reading the word.  In this way, reading the word transcends from old memorized formulas to personal life experience interpretations.  Reading is then, a process that “always involves critical perception, interpretation, and rewriting of what is read” (Freire & Macedo, 1987).

Now if we see Colombia in terms of reading from Freire & Macedo’s (1987) perspective, we can see, based solely on personal witnessing and not on classroom research as should be the case, that we are still in need of improving our reading teaching and guiding practices to take readers to these critical dimensions of reading in which they can interpret and take a side based on their knowledge of the world and get them distant from memory reading practices that are seen specially in elementary classes, and superficial literal text readings without looking for inferences that is the case of high school practices.

But finding the way in our country to reach this ideal way of interpreting texts will not be an easy task because as McLaughlin and DeVoogd (as cited in Ko, 2013) sustain, “there is no single method for reading from a critical stance” and students and teachers would have to find the right path during their own practice.   Anyhow, we ought not to be totally negative as there is a variety of strategies to foster critical literacy and therefore critical reading (Luke, as cited in Ko, 2013).  These strategies include, according to Cervetti (as cited in Ko, 2013), “textual analysis, dialogue, and questioning or problem posing” and teachers can certainly be exposed to them in order to implement them in their classrooms.

Now, reading critically as Freire and Macedo propose (1987) is just a part of literacy, which means that there is much more of this term that needs to be understood, analyzed, and more importantly put into practice.  To understand a little better the concept of literacy it could be helpful to review Hilary Janks’ (2014) Critical Literacy’s Ongoing Importance for Education article, and Brian V. Street and Adam Lefstein’s (2007)  Literacy textbook, as they both give us a very enlightening perspective of what literacy mainly deals with. 

On the one hand, Brian V. Street & Adam Lefstein (2007) declare that literacy is worthy of study because

First, literacy is seen as critical for the well-being of individuals and society. […]. Second literacy is high on the agenda in public debates. […]. Third, study of literacy leads to inquiry into a broad range of social, political and ideological issues. (7)

They want to persuade people that literacy can give us insights “about who we are, what we would like to become and how we conduct our communal affairs.” In this way, literacy means an engagement “with a broad range of ideas, in order to form [our]     own opinion” when facing social, political and ideological topics (Street &  Lefstein, 2007).  

On the other hand Hilary Janks (2014); a professor at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa; declares that teachers need to be able to perform five steps in order to develop literacy work in their classrooms.  These five steps are basically the following:

  1. Make connections between something that is going on in the world and their students’ lives, […].
  2. Consider what students will need to know and where they can find the information.
  3. Explore how the ploblematic is instantiated in texts and practices by a careful examination of design choices and people’s behavior.
  4. Examine who benefits and who is disadvantaged by imagining the social effects of what is going on[…].
  5. Imagine possibilities for making a positive difference. (350-351)

These five steps are really enriching if we want our students to face critical literacy work in the classroom.  However, it requires a very big compromise by both, teachers and students in order to be able to obtain and generate the results and impact that this kind of practice entails.

Going back to Colombia, this critical literacy practices could be possible if students and teachers engage in communities of practice in which, as Wenger (as cited in Gregg et al, 2012) proposes, participants are active individuals in both, the practices of social communities and the construction of identities related to such communities. “In this way, we will be detaching a little bit from standardized formulas and will get closer to find local identities within our own communities, keeping a balance that neither will deprive us from the world, nor steal our idiosyncrasy” (Bedoya, 2014).  Besides, our students will get used to examine, analyze and question every single situation that they will deal with along their lives, trying to discoverer the hidden messages in each one of them in order to make the best decisions or take action to improve such situations.

Taking these critical practices into our classrooms will generate a positive impact inside our communities because individuals will learn to be more careful with all the lies that are hidden behind the speeches of those governing us and those providing us with all the products that we daily consume.  They will learn to see beyond and take some time to reflect, explore and examine what really is the intention of those emitting what seems to be a clear message and at the same time they will acquire the capability to imagine the best ways to make changes that will benefit them and their community (Janks, 2014).  Furthermore, these practices will create an environment of equity in which people will live the dream: that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who happens to be in my opinion one of the precursors of critical literacy by once questioning the system of the most powerful nation, in which “we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day” (1963).

In this way, introducing critical literacy in our classroom will contribute to find what we have been looking for in our communities for centuries: a balance of equity that benefits all those who make part of it.  This introduction will eventually be reflected on other communities hopefully expanding to a local, and why not a continental or global scale.  This is certainly a complex task, but we can start moving towards that direction and join those who have already been working on these purposes to make part of all those positive changes that a classroom critical literacy practice involves.  It is also evident that this will not be an easy task as it requires an altruistic spirit whose biggest reward obtained will probably be the satisfaction of contributing with a small piece in a puzzle that needs to be completed in order to have a better world.  We can all be part of this project and we probably will not see a dream world soon, but we will carve a dream classroom at least.

1566 words



Bedoya, A. (March, 2014). ML2 – Second Language Literacies: comments on Critical Literacy and  New Literacy Studies – VIRTUAL SESSION 1.  Accessed March 17, 2014, from

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

Gregg, S., Hoyte, K., & Flint, A. (2012).  “I Could Just Go Free in my mind”: Combining Critical Literacy, Reader Response, and Writer’s Workshop in the Elementary Classroom. Illinois reading council Journal, 40(4), 19-25.

Janks. H (2014).  Critical literaciey’s ongoing importance for education.  Journal of Adolecencent & literacy 57(5), 349-356.

 King, M, L. (1963).  “I have a dream …”.  Accessed March 17, 2014, from

Ko, M. (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.

Street, B. & Lefstein, A. (2007) Literacy: An Advanced Resource Book. New York: Routledge.



One comment on “Critical Literacy in our Classroom

  1. Dr Berry
    April 16, 2014

    Dear Felipe,

    The path to understanding begins with the realization of how much we have yet to learn. That is what keeps scholars grounded and honest. Your opening statement was powerful. After all, the idea of literacy is one that either you take lightly and do a disservice to your students in the process or realize that it’s a complex notion whose implications affect learning and expression. That honestly, if you allow me, puts in a better place to write about literacy that many others who sometimes pontificate about literacy without rhyme or reason.

    As Gloria’s article, rather than engaging in a contextual analysis, you engaged in reflexivity about why we need critical literacy today. That said, I need to take you to task about your interpretation of Freire and Macedo. They didn’t really talk about how reading the world would replace reading the word, as you implied. They talked about how reading the world is part of reading the word, as two inextricably linked events. It is this understanding what has actually encouraged other scholars to expand how we (and I will include myself on that list of scholars, if you don’t mind) understand the “word” to transcend the print text.

    Another thing that is important to clarify is your remarks about Dr. King. I’m not sure if we can call him a precursor of critical literacy or a practitioner of critical literacy via critical consciousness, given his involvement with the Highlander center and Myles Horton (one of the most notable critical pedagogues of the 20th century, who even influenced action research as we know it today). That said, yes, Dr. King’s influence in critical literacy remains important as we think about what kind of society and classrooms we want today.

    Before I finish my review, there is one thing you need to be careful about: For further work, try to use the primary source. There were quite a few moments of “…cited in…” While I understand that the conditions of the assignment may force your hand that way, always try to backtrack the sources and use the original pieces. That solidifies your arguments.

    Finally, I wanted to return to a question you asked in class about functional literacy. While I did provide an answer, after reading this, I’m left wondering why you asked me a question that you yourself answered so articulately.

    Thanks for sharing.


    Dr Berry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on March 18, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged .
%d bloggers like this: