A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
Giselle Isaza Velásquez
Prof. Dr. Raúl Alberto Mora
Second Language Literacy
Semester I 2014.
Our textbooks through a critical literacy lens
Literacy has been a part of humanity’s development as a social species since the beginning. Now Literacy is seen as a problem in today’s society, but what do the English texts that teach our students a foreign language have to do with it? This paper is an attempt to analyze a text I have been working with for a year at my current place of work as I see it through a literacy lens.
Some useful concepts
Literacy has been a part of humanity’s development since its earliest time. As said by Macedo and Freire (1987), the important thing is to view the word and the world; literacy is the means by which we express and analyze how we see the world. As Macedo and Freire continue, “reading is not merely the decoding of the written word or language”, it is in intimate relationship with world knowledge; the understanding obtained from critical reading implies being able to perceive the relationship between text and context (p.21).
Furthermore, reading and writing have always been considered a part of literacy and cannot be seen separately nor can they be torn apart from language. Since the beginning language has evolved alongside humanity, at first in oral form with an ever changing, multimodal and multilingual nature, full of diversity, (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012) which contributed to the existence of an infinite amount of languages compared to the ones spoken today. Later, language evolved gain into written form, more static, less diverse; “systems of meaning were stabilized, standardized, homogenized and generalized” (p.16). Language turned into an entity with a defined meaning, not one changed by our relationship with the world, but a relationship established by cannon, one that is to be respected, a rule by which anybody who uses the language has to abide by to make communication possible (p.11).
As shown in this brief introduction, literacy is not only reading and writing, it has everything to do with how we see the world around us, how we relate to it and communicate that relationship to others. The term “critical literacy” is related to the way we analyze how language affects our relationship with the world. It can be agreed, as Hammond & Macken-Horarik state, that within every culture there are different interplays of social ideologies, identities and power relations and that language works in ways that affect and challenge those relations. In addition, we can say that the role of critical literacy is to assist students on developing ideas that can explain the ways in which those relations work in society to advantage of some and disadvantage of others. In this way, critical literacy opens doors for discussions on the current status quo and makes it possible for students to form opinions about it which, can make social change possible (Hammond & Macken-Horarik, 1999, p.2).
Critical literacy can be taken to other media such as movies, graphic novels or magazines because according to Chun (2009), when you take the featured language away from the rigid nature of the textbook, other media can help contextualize the language in a different way and show the students how to use it (p.146). When we take critical literacy to the classroom with meaningful material, students have shown interest to relate the material to their own reality outside the classroom and engage in communicational exchanges with their teacher or their peers (p.152). At the end of the day this is what very language teacher pursuits: that the students love the language and use it in their daily lives as much as possible. It is not only important that the students question the world around them, they need to develop a “social conscience served by a critical imagination” and this is why in an era of constant overflow of information, the role of the teacher is not to be overlooked. The teachers’ role is far from easy as we need to be able to develop in the students abilities and skills that transcend the classroom practice (Janks, p.350, 2014).
A Personal Background
When I think about my own journey as an English learner, I realize that it was at first the accessibility of the language that made me become interested in acquiring it. My journey begins long before school, teachers and school books; it began with television and the opportunity to view my own interests in a different language, although I was barely conscious of this at the time. I was a young girl, maybe 5 or 6 years old, when I was already watching TV in English and beginning to understand the words all through context; it was through animated programs and TV shows for children that I learned about 70% of the English I know and love today. So in time I became conscious that I understood another language, different from the one my mom spoke, that I could think in English but that I had to think in Spanish to relate better to other people and do well at school. So my journey in school began, and the few things that the teacher at primary school tried to teach in English (this was a poor school with not many resources), were things that I already mastered and just took the opportunity to practice with my peers. So my first contact with English was not in school, it was through the media, through fun and games, through colorful characters that introduced me to new things and taught me every day something new. This made the experience very magical and meaningful.
So when formal instruction began in High school, English was not just another subject for me, it was an old friend that had been with me since my infancy. As a result of this, my relationship with the textbooks was very different from the relationship my peers had with them. I understood every word on them, I knew the answers to every question or grammar exercise, and for me it was just a matter of reading, as a result the English classroom began to turn into my first teaching experience. It was not an enjoyable experience. My friends did not really want to learn, they just wanted to know what it said in Spanish and for me to translate. I did not have the tools to be a proper teacher nor a good role model to guide me. Looking back at those first textbooks, I can honestly say that the main focus was grammar, although they had pictures and texts, the practice activities all had to do mainly with acquiring vocabulary and grammar practice, as always the instruction would read: “fill in the blanks with the correct preposition…”. Those textbooks did not bring to the table other kinds of skills or resources that could make the topics more attractive or accessible to students.
The text at hand
At first glance, the book I am working with at my current place of work, seems very complete. Every unit follows the same structure: first a picture to provide some context for the vocabulary written on a small square on the side, then follows a dialogue between some of the characters presented throughout the length of the book. After this opening section, the unit continues to offer a small chart with the grammar that is to be studied within the unit; the next five or seven exercises continue to develop this grammar topic with some exercises of sentence completion, listening comprehension, speaking and writing production to be developed in class with the guidance of the teacher. The characters of the book try to be relatable to students but as they are mostly American and white, the students not only find them strange but also far away from their own reality. This fact, in relation to the topics viewed, makes it a hard task for the teacher to elicit in the students communicational exchanges when the books are closed.
As said by many authors, literacy is not only to be proficient in the mechanical aspects of language such as grammar, spelling and vocabulary; literacy has to do with understanding the world and taking that relationship to the people around you using language to express it (Freire & Macedo, 1987). So really the aim of a book like this is not to make a person “literate” in the correct sense of the word, but rather as people tend to see it in relation to the process of merely learning to read or write be it in children or adults (Street & Leifstein, p.3, 2008). These books only focus on the mechanical aspects of language, and not on a real communication in relationship to the student’s world. This could be helped if there were more exercises that questioned the student about relating the contents to his own world, lessons that would motivate them to do research projects to share with their classmates and to try to communicate in a foreign language. As Janks (2014) asserts, “critical literacy education focuses specifically on the role of language as a social practice” and as such this kind of education is called upon to bring genuine language interactions to the classroom.
Therefore, I think it is crucial that textbooks nowadays should be presented in ways that promote critical literacy, not only focus on grammar or vocabulary, but really present material that can be transformed by the students into something that can transcend the classroom. The material is there already; it can be literature, graphic novels or movies, but what authors should commit to is the idea that students can think for themselves and that, when providing good material, the student can find a way to achieve an understanding of the language and go from there into a more profound insight relating the content to his own world, and this interest will motivate him in the end to use the target language.
Chun, C. Critical literacies and graphic novels for English-language learners: teaching Maus. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. International Reading Association. 2009.
Freire, P. Macedo, D. Literacy: reading the word and the world. Bergin & Garvey. USA. 1987.
Janks, H. Critical literacy’s ongoing importance for education. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. International Reading Association. 2014
Kalantzis, M., Cope, B., Literacies. Cambridge. 2012
Hammond, J., Macken-Horarik, M. TESOL Quaterly. University of Technology. Sidney, 1999.
Street, B., Leifstein, A. Literacy: An advanced resource book. Routeledge Applied Linguistics. 2008