What is critical literacy and why is it important for adolescent learners of English as an Additional Language (EAL) now?

In a peaceful world without the threat of global warming or conflict or war, where everyone has access to education, health care, food and a dignified life, there would still be a need for critical literacy.

(Janks, 2012, p. 150)

This chapter builds on the Preface where the rationale for the book was outlined and where I introduced the book’s focus. To set the scene for the analysis and argument presented in this book, this first chapter asserts the importance of providing critical literacy education for adolescent English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners amid continued “mutterings about it being passe” (Janks, 2014, p. 32). Those who consider it passe fail to recognise that critical approaches to education always gain traction for a reason; as a way to give voice to a range of positions, not just those of the dominant, and to challenge inequity. As Janks (2014) strongly maintains, a critical stance to text cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, because “an understanding of the power of texts to shape identities and construct knowledge is perhaps even more pressing in an interconnected globalised world with ever more complex forms of text production and dissemination” (p. 37). A critical stance is also important from a curriculum perspective for EAL learners as competing agendas, serving neo-liberal, market-driven outcomes, have resulted in the systematic “elbowing out” of the critical (see Leung, 2016). This is occurring in contexts marked by rapid global mobility where learners represent diverse backgrounds, cultures, and language groups. Classrooms globally are now characterised by “superdiversity” or the complex nature of multicultural communities due to diffuse migration patterns since the 1990s (Vertovec, 2007; Blommaert &: Rampton, 2012). English language learners, as members of these multicultural communities are often subjected to modified teaching programs that foreground basic, functional approaches to literacy (Lau, 2012; Locke & Cleary, 2011), and monolingual ideologies (French, 2016; Garcia, Flores & Woodley, 2012; Lam, 2006;) that deny them opportunities to engage critically with texts (Morell, 2008). As Luke (2013) has argued, migrant, working class kids are only getting the basic skills and not the intellectual rigour offered to others.

However, “migrant kids” need to know how to read the word and the world critically (Freire & Macedo, 1987) in order to navigate new and complex cultural encounters that involve understanding English as their second or even third or fourth language. In fact, Scorza, Mirra, and Morrell (2013) assert that critical literacy should be normalised as a feature of academic excellence for all young people in schools, in order to subvert ‘the banking model’ of education (Freire, 1970) that still persists today. Normalising critical literacy in the pursuit of academic quality is especially important for adolescent learners of English who are making life-directing decisions while living in unfamiliar socio-cultural environments and operating in a dominant language (e.g., English) which they are still mastering. The reasons why critical literacy is crucial for EAL learners are discussed further in this chapter. In focussing on EAL learners this book contributes to the emerging body of critical literacy research “that account(s) for rapid cultural globalisation, diasporic communities, cultural communities and hybridised critical literacy practices as tied to the movement and flow of communities experiencing migration and transmigration” (Mills, 2016, p. 63).

The learners that this book focuses on are referred to as English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners. A relatively new term in the UK and Australia, EAL “refers to the fact that pupils may use one or more languages other than English in their everyday lives. The term provides scope for languages other than English to be recognised and incorporated into students’ educational experience. The use of the term EAL means that learning English should be viewed as adding to students’ capacities as bilingual or multilingual learners, rather than displacing the language/s that students may have acquired earlier” (Bracken, Driver, &: Kadi-Hanifi, 2017, p. 14). The terms used in global literature and policy are varied and can be confusing. The term English as a Second Language (ESL) is often used, however many students who are learning English in schools already speak two or more languages. The word “additional” better captures their experiences and needs, represents an additive not subtractive view of bilingualism (Baker, 2011). In the US, the term English Language Learners (ELLs) is more common but this has also come into question of late for its potential to stigmatise learners as deficient in English, the point of reference, rather than as speakers of their own languages. Regardless of how we label them for our convenience, English as an additional language learners are new to learning social and academic English in schools and are often but not always new-comers to “Western” neo-liberal, socio-political contexts.

EAL learners are often cast in deficit terms as a convenient way to explain poor performance (see Alford, 2014). Those who adhere to a deficit view allege, that “deficits manifest ...in limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learn, and immoral behavior” (Valencia, 2010, p. 27). Deficit thinking is common among many teachers of culturally and linguistically diverse students (Luke et al., 2013), even among well-meaning teachers

What and why critical literacy is important 3 (Lam, 2006) and even those who have long challenged deficit discourses about EAL students (Dooley, 2012). Deficit thinking is part of a pervasive discourse that is hard to shift. It serves certain members of the community and not others. A deficit discourse is grounded in cultural mismatch theory which “locates its explanation of the underperformance or underachievement of non-dominant students in the nonalignment of the cultural practices of the home and school” (Gutierrez, Zitali Morales, & Martinez, 2009, p. 218). Ascribing failure to individual students’ traits, their cultural backgrounds and home languages, has led to labelling students as “low achievers” (Gutierrez et al., 2009) and “problems” (Cummins, 2003; Guttierez & Orellana, 2006a, 2006b; Sharp, 2012). This labelling assumes that participation in education programs is available for all, but that the learners’ own characteristics preclude prevent them from taking advantage of these (Valencia, 1997).

Difference is often a comparative term that uses dominant communities as the norm; the reference point for judging others. This approach to difference “highlights what students from non-dominant communities are not” (Gutierrez et al., 2009, p. 222). Student struggle at school is assigned to the fact that they are different from the dominant norm. Student characteristics are seen, in this view, as monolithic and not shifting, deficient, and dichotomous to education organised by dominant communities (Gutierrez et al., 2009).

When difference is viewed more delicately, an alternative view is possible. For Dooley (2008), difference includes interests, values, dispositions, sensibilities, perspectives, capabilities and preferences for making knowledge, and styles of thinking, communicating and relating with others (p. 105). As such, the particular mix of life world differences in any one person will be unique, regardless of whether they share the above mentioned general demographic categories with others (Dooley, 2008). An EAL student may be more different from another EAL learner than from a student who shares fully the language and culture of the dominant community. Also, differences such as interests, values, dispositions etcetera cannot be seen to be outside of or dichotomous to schooling. As Dooley (2008) also notes, they arise from everyday social interaction within a given field, including classroom interaction.

A deficit view of learners provides an ideological platform to not create robust, intellectually challenging curriculum and classroom practice for EAL learners; it becomes an escape hatch. Critical literacy, for example, is relegated to the “too hard basket” or treated as irrelevant. While this unfortunately holds true for many contexts, particularly low SES communities of colour in the US (Valcnica, 2010) and among some areas of high diversity and high poverty in Australia, promising practice can be observed. There are growing reports of intellectually challenging practice with adolescent EAL learners that refuse the deficit model and instead scaffold learners to reach intellectual output comparable to those who are not seen through a deficit lens (Alford, 2014; Alford & Jctnikoff, 2016; Lau, 2013; Lau, 2015; Lau, Juby-Smith, & Desbicns, 2017; Hammond, 2008; Morrell, 2008).

Against this backdrop of deficit and its challengers, the questions this book probes are: How do English language education policies and curricula in different global contexts prioritise critical literacy, if at all, for EAL learners? What is happening in English language learning classrooms that do engage with critical approaches to literacy? What can all this teach us about how critical literacy is both made available and obscured for EAL learners at this point in time?

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