Critical literacy is an instructional approach, stemming from Marxist critical pedagogy, that advocates the adoption of "critical" perspectives toward text. Critical literacy encourages readers to actively analyze texts and offers strategies for what proponents describe as uncovering underlying messages. There are several different theoretical perspectives on critical literacy that have produced different pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. All of these approaches share the basic premise that literacy requires the literate consumers of text to adopt a critical and questioning approach.
According to proponents of critical literacy, the practice is not simply a means of attaining literacy in the sense of improving the ability to decode words, syntax, etc. In fact, the ability to read words on paper is not necessarily required in order to engage in a critical discussion of "texts," which can include television, movies, web pages, music, art and other means of expression. The important thing is being able to have a discussion with others about the different meanings a text might have and teaching the potentially critically literate learner how to think flexibly about it.
For post-structuralist practitioners of critical literacy, the definition of this literacy practice can be quite malleable, but usually involves a search for discourses and reasons why certain discourses are included or left out of a text.
Two major theoretical perspectives within the field of critical literacy are the Neo-Marxist/Freirean and the Australian. These approaches overlap in many ways and they do not necessarily represent competing views, but they do approach the subject matter differently.
- 1 Neo-Marxist/Freirean
- 2 Australian
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 Further reading
- 6 External links
Critical literacy practices grew out of the social justice pedagogy of Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire, as first described in Education as the Practice of Freedom published in 1967 and his most famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. Freirean critical literacy is conceived as a means of empowering unempowered populations against oppression and coercion, frequently seen as enacted by corporate and/or government entities. Freirean critical literacy starts with the desire to balance social inequities and address societal problems caused by abuse of power. It proceeds from this philosophical basis to examine, analyze, and deconstruct texts.
This perspective is reflected in the works of Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux, and Jean Anyon, among many others. The Freirean perspective on critical literacy is strongly represented in critical pedagogy.
Other philosophical approaches to critical literacy, while sharing many of the ideas of Neo-Marxist/Freirean critical literacy, may be viewed as a less overtly politicized expansion on these ideas. Critical literacy helps teachers as well as students to explore the relationship between theoretical framework and its practical implications.
Australian researchers and educators (including Allan Luke, Michele Anstey, Geoff Bull, J. Elkins, Peter Freebody, and the New London Group, among others) have made major contributions in recent years to the field of critical literacy. While Neo-Marxist/Freirean critical literacy proceeds from a desire to remedy social inequities, this body of work begins with an analysis of text and proceeds from there. This school of thought is not necessarily opposed to the use of critical literacy to address issues of social justice, but its enactment does not proceed from an assumption of exploitation and abuse of power. "Australian" critical literacy is researched and practiced in many countries. The philosophical underpinnings do not necessarily originate in Australia, but many researchers currently associated with the work are based in that country and Australia has incorporated many of the practices into its national curriculum.
From this philosophical perspective, critical literacy is the belief that interpreting literature is more than simply decoding the words of a text. It is necessary to understand that language is a social construct and that it is never neutral. It is used to inform, entertain, persuade and manipulate. The philosophy behind critical literacy is that it is necessary to learn how language works in order to be a more skilled user of language in terms of both comprehending and composing.
The use and relevance of critical literacy has been disputed. Some believe it to be innapropriate, and feel that texts are constantly deconstructed and over analysed to destruction.
Portions of the following sections are from a document distributed to secondary school students in Australia detailing the basic tenets of critical literacy.
- Multiple Readings: Texts, of themselves, do not have any central integrity. There is no one indisputable way a text can be read. It may be read in different ways by different people. The different readings will be determined by factors such as the context and the reader's discursive background. A reading of Jane Austen's Emma, from the point of view of a member of the upper class English, could be quite different from that of a servant at that time. Again, a reading made in 1820 could be quite different from one made in 2000. Readings may be broken down into categories:
- Dominant reading: The readings of texts are not totally chaotic and usually most people construct more or less the same meaning of a given text. A slight variation on this dominant reading is the preferred meaning which refers to the meaning that the composer of the text had in mind for the readers. This of course is usually applicable to advertising texts.
- Alternative readings: These refer to readings made of a text that differ from the dominant reading but nevertheless are not markedly different and could still be supported by a number of readers. Parents, for example, might read Looking for Alibrandi in a different way to its intended teenage audience.
- Resistant reading: This is reading 'against the grain'. a minority reading that is not in accord with the majority of readers or the intentions of the composer. Many feminist readings of traditional texts, for example, could fit into this category.
This is not merely its setting in time and place. "Context refers to the multitude of factors which shape the meaning of a text within the social framework of its reading. This framework may include particular ideas about the text's history, but is also powerfully shaped by competing beliefs and practices in the present. (Moon,1992). This means that the context is constantly shifting and that the nature of the reader, and the time that it is read, are significant.
This suggests that the 'meaning' or reading of a text is determined by a huge range of social, cultural, time, composer, reader factors.
An example of context may be considered in terms of the movie Dead Poet's Society. This is set in the USA in the early 1960s, a time when teenagers had little individual freedom and the will of the parents was very strong. But not all American teenagers were in this category and not all parents exerted power. In turn this was all influenced by class, politics, religion etc. Furthermore this was the view as presented by the film's director and this needs to be examined. And again, the particular understanding of the viewer might 'vary' the context.
This refers to all the language associated with a particular life experience or identity construct (e.g. race, social class, gender, sexuality, age, etc.). Hence one can have the discourse of school or the family or childhood that are closely related to the related sociocultural identities. Discourses overlap and constantly change. One can belong to a wide and ever changing number of discourses and they all can affect the way one makes meaning of texts. The language features can include the words (lexicons I of the discourse ego for school - timetable, parade, etc.,. the way words are expressed, the exclusive jargon, the operating power structures in the language etc.).
Each person has a unique personal and discursive background. This is shaped by the discourses that one has been involved in and have operated on us. Thus it could include one's upbringing (family, social class, traditions, religion etc.), one's friends, one's school, education, experiences one has had, ones gender, hobbies and interests and so on.
As a result of one's discursive background, their view of the world and how they read texts are shaped by a multiplicity of previous experiences and readings. Whenever one looks at something they shift through all of their knowledge to make meanings. One combines texts to create a complete picture. This combination of texts is referred to as intertextuality. If, for example, one is watching a movie which includes a villain one of the ways that they assume that he or she is a villain is through the knowledge that they bring to this current text from previous texts -.i.e. clothes, facial expression, gestures etc. In this way, a reading can become richer. It can also explain why some people sometimes have difficulty making meaning of some texts; they may have limited intertextual experiences to draw on.
View of the world
Refers to the way the author chooses to show/paint the world. This view might be political, economic or social or a combination of these. Sometimes this is known as ideology.
A text's view of the world is also influenced by the author's discursive background. Ergo if an author likes a place, they write about it in a positive way; if they hate it they say negative things. They try to sway ones opinion.
Often the view of the world in a text does not agree with ones own view - it contradicts it, but, as a reader, one still reads the text and understands the author's message or viewpoint.
The view of the world often emerges from a reading of the text as a whole. Sometimes it emerges through one (or more) characters and sometimes the views of characters differ and therefore create conflict. A view of the world can sometimes be called a Version of Reality.
Gaps and silences
A gap of silence is when it is really quiet in a gap. These occur frequently in texts. They are created when the author, intentionally or unintentionally, chooses to include some pieces of information and omit others. The gap has been specifically placed to develop reader positioning further. An example of this could be an ad for shampoo would tell you the many benefits of the product however, fail to release to the public that animal testing has been used in the creation of this product.
A difference is generally seen between gaps and silences.
- A gap is a place in a text where something is left out and it is up to the reader to fill in (or maybe not fill in) the blank. When one reads a text one generally does this without thinking. A movie, for example, usually has enormous gaps to be filled or meaning will be restricted. This filling in process is helped by one's discursive background.
- A silence is when the viewpoints/voices of a certain person or group is left out or never heard. Frequently, for example, the view of a minority group is silenced in a text. On occasions they may be present but they are not given a role to enable their voice to be heard.
When constructing a text, an author inherently frames the content or character of the text using a certain attitude or point of view. This is called positioning. One may read the text in the way it is intended (which would be a preferred reading) or one may interpret it differently. For example, a woman may read a text on a rape differently from a man. One might also reject the reading or skew; for example, an advertisement may attempt to construct one as a certain archetype who desires a certain product when in fact one may resist this positioning. Positioning need not be static and could change as the text develops.
A character in a text may be granted (or denied) empowerment. This can be called agency. For example a member of a marginalised group may be very well aware of his or her deprivation but is unable to do anything about it - lack of agency.
Texts are considered social/cultural constructions. This means that they are assembled from a wide range of varied and possibly contradictory elements. Deconstruction is a critical practice which focuses on contradictions and" slippages" of meanings in order to remind one that meanings one makes when one reads are neither obvious or neutral. Deconstruction does not point out contradictions in order to 'destroy' texts but to improve ones reading of them (Moon, 1992)
Other language practices
- Naturalisation - This refers to a process by which, over time, an attitude or belief develops, not through its essential truth but, because it is repeated over and over again and is not challenged. The marginalisation of some racial groups is an example of this.
- Marginalisation - There is where, through language practices (including positioning and gaps and silences) a person or group is denied mainstream status and is literally pushed to the margins".
- Valorisation - This refers to the situation where a person, belief or subject is accorded enhanced status greater than that which would be normally accorded to it. For example, some boys' football teams are valorised in schools.
- Nominalisation - This is when the responsibility is shifted away from the actual cause. It becomes less threatening or anonymous (or almost natural or expected). For example "the oil tanker disaster has killed millions of birds" is more direct than "millions of birds were killed after the oil spill".
- Privilege - Sometimes in a text a particular character, or ideology, is given greater moral standing or worth over another. This position or person or ideology is privileged.
- Personalisation - This is when an author of a text (frequently a speech) introduces a personal note to increase empathy between speaker and audience, e.g. through the use of personal pronouns such as I, we, you, and me.
- Denotation/connotation - Denotation is the practice that allows a meaning to be made. A connotation is an understanding of the significance of the meaning ego a uniform denotes the rank of say, captain. The assumed power of this rank is the connotation.
- Collectivisation - This refers to the language practice of broadening the base from the singular to the plural It increases the power of the position. ego 'we' or 'us' instead of 'I 'or' 'me'.
- Foregrounding - Frequently, in a text, a particular aspect stands out in relation to all other aspects. This feature (person or thing) has been foregrounded, usually with a purpose, for example the romance between the boy and girl in Titanic.
- Binary Opposition - This is an organising principle suggesting that things are opposite or do not have much in common - i.e., black/white, man/woman, best/worst. It supports the tendency to look at things in terms of simple contradictions and also has implications of power and conflict. . Rationalisation. This refers to the process where a perceived problem/issue may be 'explained away' or minimised by a subject. The explanation, however, may not always be convincing to the audience.
- Representation - Texts do not mirror or reflect transparently the real world. Rather they represent or construct versions of reality mediated by the ideologies or values or worldview of the composer (and indeed the reader/viewer/listener, Representations are textual constructions.
- Hagood, M. (2002). "Critical literacy for whom?",Reading Research and Instruction, 41, 247-264.
- Cadeiro-Kaplan, K. (2002) Literacy ideologies: Critically engaging the language arts curriculum. Language Arts, 79, 372-381
- Sinfield, Ivor., Hawkins, Lise (2006). " CRITICAL LITERACY: Policy and Practice.", ". Orbit 36: 27.
Lankshear, C. & McLaren, P. (Eds.) (1993). Critical literacy: Radical and postmodernist perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Luke, C. (1995). Media and cultural studies. In P. Freebody, S. Muspratt, & A. Luke (Eds.). Constructing critical literacies. Crosskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 1.
- IRA Critical Literacy Resources - The International Reading Association index page for critical literacy resources.
- Critical Literacy NZ describes critical literacy in New Zealand, which, in line with Australia, is beginning to adopt this practice
- Critical Literacy Guide for teachers in the Australian state of Tasmania.
- Read-Write-Think Lesson Plan