A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
By Shirley Correa Herrera
By nature, human beings are social creatures in a permanent and evolving search of identity and relatedness. Since birth, everything around us is given a particular meaning through relationships which not only lead to the establishment of bonds but also to the construction of common and particular interpretations of reality. Due to the fact that such processes take place in a social setting, every emerging socio-historical phenomenon has a strong influence on people’s perception of the world as well as on the way they interact with one another. Such a fact can be interpreted as an unbreakable link between everyday life events and people’s construction of reality and its meanings, which are expressed through diverse forms of literacy that range from basic symbols to complex forms of text that embrace multiple meanings. As for the way meaning emerges in society, Kalantzis & Cope (2012) state: “Meaning occurs in complex overlapping ways that connect closely to shared understandings of place and people’s relations to place and to each other.”
For decades, human beings have strived for interpreting their inner nature by using their reasoning to reach truth and construct knowledge, which both enable them to explain the world and also to define their path leading to their evolution. In this sense, knowledge acts as a tool to shape oneself and participate in the structuring of society. According to Giroux (2004), “Knowledge is about more than understanding; it is also about the possibilities of self-determination, individual autonomy, and social agency.” From this perspective, a knowledgeable individual is empowered not only with the capacity to determine his own identity but also with the possibility to act as a dynamic agent in society. Therefore, any thinking subject is expected to reflect on his reality so that his actions favor his community and result in meaningful contributions aiming at progress and development.
Nevertheless, the processes of reflecting and interpreting reality go beyond the level of significance since plenty of factors converge in our perception of everything existing and occurring around us. Such processes involve deep understanding as well as the establishment of relationships with the world, both of them supported by education which appeared long ago as an answer to the human need of knowledge construction. For centuries, education has been given the role of citizen-raiser in an attempt to advocate social progress. However, always existent complex problems controvert the efficacy of education in a world where individuals have not been able to reach a harmonious coexistence despite their awareness of the damage they made so far in different scopes. War, inequity, non-sustainable development and environmental damage are just some of the proofs of the failure of our educational systems which have not succeeded in their attempt to construct fair societies. Freire would probably describe such a problematic as the outcome of banking education; a sort of teaching designed to train individuals to reach wealth, instead of leading them towards liberation and social awareness.
In order to reach educational goals which favor equity, citizenship and social engagement it is paramount to make take learners to a true level of reflection and creation in the light of critical thinking. In consequence, schools and universities must transcend the traditional tendency to transmit knowledge and reproduce social models which jeopardize student potential. In that sense, traditional literacies should be substituted by critical ones, which empower learners to question their reality, interact in their milieu in a dynamic way, and act with social responsibility, regardless their gender, race, age or social role. In the words of Harste (2013), “Critical literacy invites learners to question commonplace assumptions about knowledge to interrogate multiple perspectives, to focus on the sociopolitical, and to take social action.”
Transformative action implies not only new pedagogies but also new ways of interpreting the world through literacy so that learners are enabled to understand the implications of living in a multicultural world where individuals from a wide range of social contexts interact day by day, always motivated by a desire to be recognized and to be fully involved in cultural and sociopolitical decisions in the light of a participatory policies. Particularly language teachers count not only on subject-specific knowledge related to the development of communicative competence but also on pedagogical training necessary to set in motion a meaningful insight into social realities by means of new literacies. As Morrell (2012) stated: “As teachers of English language arts, part of our responsibility is helping our students to acquire these 21st century literacies without abandoning our commitment to the traditional literacies that have defined the education of the previous centuries.” It is our responsibility, both as citizens and as professionals in this field, to help students explore new perspectives of language simply because it is the main vehicle of communication and interaction as well as one of the key tools for knowledge construction.
Unfortunately, instructional materials for language teaching and learning do not always supply significant tasks structured in contextualized contents with the capacity to transcend written or aural text. One of the reasons of such a limitation is probably the continuity of a language-centered focus in traditional teaching methods whose main goal is to develop student linguistic competence. Conventional teaching methods tend to envision text merely a matter of combining words appropriately in order to convey day-to-day messages, setting aside other dimensions of the language with strong social and cultural implications. That is why this type of materials barely embraces an attempt to develop learners’ sociolinguistic, pragmatic and intercultural competences; a fact that can be proved by analyzing the scarce presence of projects and tasks intended to explore multiple literacies arising from a multicultural world where individuals use more than words to convey thoughts, emotions, beliefs and intentions. In a few words, traditional materials and textbooks usually lack a meaningful relationship with the social reality of learners.
Such is the case of an English book that was used to teach English in an institution where I worked for several years in Bucaramanga. That English series, whose name will be omitted to avoid affecting its credibility, intends to lead students towards an interpretation of foreign cultures and their social codes. However, the tasks it proposes do not go beyond structural exercises focused on form, and readings on habitual and even decontextualized situations introduced through repetitive dialogues. Of course, as most series implemented in English courses by the time, the book described has a progressive sequence briefly announced in the so-called “Scope and Sequence” which somehow guides students in their interrelation and comprehension of topics, all of them split into the traditional language skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking. On the other hand, some additional elements such as photographs and simple mind maps constitute visual aids which might help learners to better concepts and also to associate the language with everyday life. Nevertheless, such aids are too predictable in the sense that they do not allow an insight into language through an interpretation of cultural and social elements. As the photographs it contains were taken with a particular purpose, they tend to be shallow, as the videos and recordings made by actors to recreate predictable situations which ignore the spontaneous and free nature of the language and its reflection of the societies where it is used, lived and interpreted in countless ways. Despite the fact that technology had already reached a privileged place in the world of education by the time such a textbook was designed, it did not get to be properly taken advantage of as a tool to interpret the socio-cultural pertinence of the contents developed.
As a result of all these shortages, key elements such as multiculturality, social responsibility and citizenship are not incorporated in this textbook or in any of its components, neither by means of text nor through visual aids or media, so learners using such a text could not go beyond the simple level of survival communication which is likely to result in repetitive formulas and predicted interpretations of foreign cultures. In other words, such a series serves to develop student linguistic competence; but failed as for promoting social involvement, critical thinking and community construction. Sadly, students following this series may end up by losing their motivation towards English learning; or they could hardly get to a true interpretation of the language itself as well as the native speakers’ idiosyncrasy, sociopolitical phenomenon and cultural codes. In a few words, no critical literacy processes could be reached through such a tool, designed with little understanding of a multicultural world is not the only target language.
Fortunately, nowadays the authors of instructional materials for teaching second and foreign languages are more aware of the importance of social, cultural, political and technological elements not only in the learning process but also in the construction of critical thinking and social awareness. Given the fact that technology is transforming the human notion of relatedness, second language and foreign language classes are the perfect scenario to use it as a dynamic tool when developing projects and tasks intended to foster multiculturality, social engagement and civil participation among students of all ages as they develop their communicative competence in a motivating atmosphere. All types of resources usually implemented by teachers, from traditional textbooks to media samples, should lead to the development of critical pedagogies enlightened by critical literacy in all its forms. Undoubtedly, this purpose must be strengthened by research due to the fact that the critical literacy revolution demands teachers to be adequately trained and updated. In this sense, Au et al. (2000) state: “Research to support educators in narrowing the literacy achievement gap includes studies of efforts to connect literacy practices at home and at school, to promote multicultural teacher education programs, and to bring individuals of diverse backgrounds into teaching and research.”
Being literate in the 21st century is not a matter of reading and writing correctly any more. It means constructing knowledge in a functional way in order to be able to participate actively in a certain social context as critical citizens interested in getting the most out of education. Being literate implies the capacity to make sense of every single type of text either read or written; as well as the ability to interpret every image or sound shared through the media or any similar source. Definitely, such capacities must be linked to a critical position before the reality where the information comes from so that we really succeed in experiencing and taking advantage of the power of language. However, this cannot be done in the frame of traditional education in which teachers usually foster shallow forms of literacy that do not fully involve all the dimensions of language. As Serafini (2011) states: “Incorporating art, media, and semiotic theories and interpretive strategies into the classroom requires teachers to read outside the traditional boundaries of educational course work and curricula. This requires a rethinking of the traditional experiences and readings currently assigned in today’s education classes at university.” In other words, conventional paradigms about the way learners should read or write must be broken for curricula to be renewed in the frame of critical pedagogies which benefit from new literacies as the key to interpret and question the world with social responsibility and cultural awareness.
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