A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
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:
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.
Bedoya, A. (March, 2014). ML2 – Second Language Literacies: comments on Critical Literacy and New Literacy Studies – VIRTUAL SESSION 1. Accessed March 17, 2014, from https://ml2secondlanguageliteracies.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/critical-literacy-and-new-literacy-studies-virtual-session-1/
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 http://www.archives.gov/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
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.