A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2)
English Language II
Sandra Milena Henao Henao
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the textbooks I used as English teacher, taking into account the Critical Literacy instruction, and giving it a critical perspective in light of the concepts learned in the course English Language II at the Master Program in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages at UPB in Medellin, Colombia. In order to look at those important aspects we need to explore within the textbooks, it is necessary to review the theories about Critical Literacy and its role in language instruction to support this analysis; in addition, it must be tackled the importance of using textbooks in the language teaching process as one of the most recognized resources for teachers in their different social and cultural contexts.
Critical Literacy Instruction
Critical literacy refers to the ability to read texts in an active and reflective manner, to understand better social and cultural concepts such as power, equality, and justice in human relationships. For these purposes, text is defined as a “vehicle through which individuals communicate with one another using the codes and conventions of society”. (Robinson & Robinson, 2003). Taking this definition into account, texts can be songs, pictures, posters, movies, conversations, television programs, fliers, among others.
CL encourages students to analyze, question and critique issues of power, control and domination, as well as topics of political, economic inequalities and social development, presented in different forms inside and outside their world; thus, they become critical, active citizens, and agents of social change. Freire (1970) in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, provides an example of how critical literacy is developed in an educational context. He proposes a system in which students become more socially aware through critique of multiple forms of injustice. This awareness cannot be achieved if students are not given the opportunity to explore and construct knowledge. He describes a traditional type of education as the “banking concept of education.” This model of education is characterized by instruction that “turns students into containers into receptacles to be filled by the teacher.” (Freire, 1970). He also states that:
… men and women develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation. (Freire, 1970, p.12)
Within the frame of CL, teaching and learning processes must be focused on making students critical members of society, looking at the texts through a lens that faces society standards, evaluating the social construction of a text, and questioning the factors that may have influenced the author to create the text in a specific manner. Moreover, using critical literacy, teachers encourage students to look at texts from other perspectives and re-create them in order to analyze the power relations and social inequities promoted by them.
Behrman (2006) explains that the development of critical literacy encourages social justice and exploration of language and literature in many forms. He suggests that the specific types of lessons examine power relationships that are found in language and literature and that these practices show students that language is never neutral. There is no specific formula for teachers to engage students in mastery of critical literacy; it may vary depending on the subject matter, the population and the students’ social and cultural context. Behrman’s research revealed that the most commonly used practices that support critical literacy include: reading supplementary texts, reading multiple texts, reading from a resistant perspective, producing counter-texts, having students conduct research about topics of personal interest, and challenging students to take social action.
Analysis of the textbook
I have been a state teacher for six years, and since last year Ministerio de Educación Nacional is implementing a textbook for English teaching for the media grades (9º, 10º and 11º). This textbook is only for public educational institutions, it is designed to enhance and increase the English level in order to reach the standards proposed by the Common European Framework and the national standards by MEN, so that students finish high school in a B1 level minimum.
This is a topic-based textbook, because it takes themes and topics rather than language structures, in order to provide specific and meaningful content; it focuses on some micro topics such as globalization, lifestyle, teenagers life, ecology and heath. It is also project-based, because at the end of each module it requires students to perform a project in groups or in pairs, to demonstrate what they have learnt during the lessons; this aims to promote autonomy, self-assessment, creativity, and the integration of the four language skills. The book also intends to integrate transferable skills in its activities like communication skills, organizational skills, problem solving, and analytical skills among others.
Moreover, this textbook implements some theories from the “noticing” approach, which consists basically on helping students to internalize language rules by making them aware of language in context, recognizing new texts, and discovering and making generalizations about how language works in an implicit way. It also enables students to develop some learning strategies to help them in their process; metacognitive strategies such as planning, peer and self-assessment, and monitoring language use; cognitive strategies like guessing words, repeating, learning by heart, and working out rules.
The book is organized by modules; each module is divided into three units and the unit has different lessons. Each module works with a different topic, in which at the end students perform the project; the module starts with an introductory section where students explore the topic, the expected language learning outcomes and the project.
The book presents updated topics and they are contextualized in what nowadays calls the world’s attention: how to take care of the planet, globalization issues, cultural tendencies in young people, ecotourism and places to visit around the country and the world, among others. However, the texts and the activities proposed are just in function of the language learning and use of itself; they engage students in communicating oral and written but it continues being a series of controlled tasks where they use the language to fulfill the activity in the way it requires; it can be said that students do not feel challenged to go beyond on what it asks to do, and to think about the topic from their own context and their own point of view. This does not mean that the activities and the texts are useless; teachers can use those texts and modify their purpose by changing the strategy and giving them an intention where they can be performed from a critical perspective.
Edelsky (1993) states that teachers can foster critical literacy by problematizing texts: putting them up for grabs, for critical debate, for weighing, judging, critiquing, and looking at issues in their full complexity. Green (2001) argues that the relationship between student and texts changes when teachers and students as researchers of language, respect minority cultures literacy practices. In general, teachers develop classroom practices that help students learn how to: identify and assess their own response and relationship to the text, analyze how texts have been constructed and how they influence audiences, evaluate the validity and reliability of the text and its plausible premises, consider the social implications of the above, and take a moral stand on the kind of just society and democratic education we want. (Shor,1999). Taking this into account, teachers have the responsibility to transform the texts proposed in the textbooks, into challenging activities that take students beyond their own perspectives, and adapt what they learn to their own contexts, where they can question, judge, critique and generate events that help them to transform their reality. “Traditionally in reading, the emphasis has been on the author’s power, but in critical literacy, readers who are text critics actively exert their power by questioning the author’s message and its hidden implications.” (McLaughlin & DeVoogd, 2004, p. 151).
Another aspect to analyze from the book is the project work students have to carry out at the end of each module. It is important to highlight the intention of the authors when the book proposes project work in order to develop social skills, as well as cognitive and metacognitive strategies, autonomy, and inquiry. Nevertheless, those performances during project work are in function of the language use, as it was said before; it would be a life-changing event if that project work has an impact in students’ own context, where what they learn can be taken as social practices, creating connections beyond the local through collaborative and collective engagement with the texts and context.
Behrman (2006) catalogued a list of common practices, articulated in six broad categories for critical literacy learning tasks: reading supplementary texts, reading multiple texts, reading from a resistant perspective, producing counter-texts, conducting student-choice research projects, and taking social action. “In order to employ their literacy skills to challenge power structures, students can engage in social action projects aimed at making a real difference in their or others’ lives” (Berhman, 2006, p. 495). He implies that the motivation for social action should not be limited to the use of perceptions of language, power and texts; an outcome of social action should be to move students’ real-life concerns beyond classroom walls. Taking social action requires students to be involved as members of a larger community. (2006, p. 495).
On the other hand, the textbook offers few possibilities for students to use media texts; within all the activities proposed, there are only several chances for them to go through media events. For instance, there are some tasks that require listening to a podcast to fulfill some information needed, pronunciation drills to practice, or dialogues to listen and then students perform. Alvermann and Hagood (2000) state that Critical Media Literacy must be represented as the ability to reflect on the pleasures derived from the mass media and popular culture practices like radio, TV, videos, music, movies, Internet, graffiti, among others. Media must be included in the textbook as an essential practice, because it allows students to have a wider perception of real world so that they can judge and critique based on actual events.
In our role as English teachers, it is our responsibility to empower students in the inquiry of going beyond texts; textbooks could be a useful tool to engage students in Critical Literacy if they are shifted in the way that consciously they are allowed to deconstruct texts and analyze them, taking into account their social and cultural contexts and the transformations they can make to their realities. Comber (2001) says that when teachers and students are engaged in critical literacy, they are able to ask problematic questions about language and power, people and lifestyle, morality and ethics, and about who is advantaged by the way things are and who is disadvantaged. Finally, Greene (2001) reminds us that teachers need a conscious awareness of their own understanding of language and language choices if they are going to help students question and understand how language works and how literacy is used by individuals and groups for particular purposes.
Alvermann, D., & Hagood, M. (2000). Critical Media Literacy: Research, Theory, and Practice in “New Times.” Journal of Educational Research , 93, pp. 193-205.
Behrman, E. H. (2006). Teaching about language, power, and text: A review of classroom practices that support critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 49(6), pp. 490-498.
Comber, B. (2001). Critical literacy: Power and pleasure with language in the early years. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 24(3), pp.168–181
Edelsky, C. (1993). “Education for democracy.” Address to the U.S. National Council of Teachers of English Annual Conference, Pittsburgh, PA. 1993.
English, please! 2. (2014). Colombia: Ministerio de Educación Nacional.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury.
Green, P. (2001). “Critical literacy revisited.” in Fehring, H. and Green, P., Eds. (2001). Critical literacy: A collection of articles from the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association. pp. 7-13.
McLaughlin, M., & DeVoogd, G. (2004). Critical Literacy as Comprehension: Expanding Reader Response. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, pp. 52-62.
Mora, R. A. (2014). Critical Literacy as Policy and Advocacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, pp. 16-18.
Robinson, E. & Robinson, S. (2003). What does it mean? Discourse, Text, Culture: An Introduction. Sydney: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Shor, I. (1999). “What is critical literacy?” Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice. 4,1. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Lesley College. Retrieved from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/index.html