Critical literacy - Origins and definitions

Critical literacy has been a topic of interest in literacy education for nearly 50 years and distillation of it to one “method” is actively resisted by educators (Luke, 2000, 2012; Pandya & Avila, 2014). It has “defied a unified curricula approach” (Behrman, 2006, p. 490). This is because moulding and deploying “the tools, attitudes and philosophies of critical literacy ... depends upon students’ and teachers’ everyday relations or power, their lived problems and struggles ... and on educators’ professional ingenuity in navigating the enabling and disenabling local contexts of policy” (Luke, 2012, p. 9).

Critical literacy’s origins lie in critical social theory (The Frankfurt School) and its concern with class, gender and ethnicity, and how these sociocultural variables interface with scientific progress and capitalism. At its roots lie Marxist notions of economic oppression but later, a broader interest developed in the ideologies that shape social life and the transformative possibilities they provide. Freire’s landmark book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), based on his work with poor populations in Brazil provided a link between critical theory and literacy education. The book offered a view of education that required critique of existing forms of knowledge and their reproduction so that education could be socially transformative, especially for those experiencing poverty. Freire, with Macedo in 1987, presented a pedagogic model of problem posing and dialogue to explore critical, political questions about the world in which people live. Known as critical pedagogy, the approach has been taken up worldwide and has revolutionised the way education is enacted in many classrooms and communities more broadly. Educators’ interest in the power that language, specifically, plays in critiquing political injustice has burgeoned into what we now know as critical literacy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, critical education theorists such as Apple (1979), Giroux (1992), Giroux and Simon (1988), McLaren (1988), and Shor (1980) shed light on the hidden curriculum of schooling practices that maintain unequal power relations and serve the interests of the privileged. Following this trend, various researchers (Auerbach, 1995; Canagarajah, 1999; Fairclough, 1992, 1995; Luke, 1995; Pennycook, 1999, 2001; Wallace, 1992, 1995) began to argue that language education is also a socio-political practice when dominant cultural and linguistic forms and practices are imposed on learners. The second language education research agenda according to Kumaravadivelu (1999) began to include the collection and analysis of data on the implementation of critical literacy in the late 1990s. This is despite the fact that critical approaches have been available as a teaching focus for language educators since the 1970s (Freire, 1972; Freire & Macedo, 1987) and have been promoted institutionally as necessary for well-rounded language and literacy education since the early 1990s (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Janks, 1991; Janks & Ivanic, 1992). In 1999, in an influential issue of TESOL Quarterly, Pennycook advocated that critical approaches to teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) should be seen “not as a static body of knowledge and practices but rather as always

What and why critical literacy is important 7 being in flux, always questioning, restively problematising the given, being aware of the limits of their own knowing, and bringing into being new schemas of politicisation” (Pennycook, 1999, p. 329).

Broadly speaking, critical literacy is the study of language in use that:

... focuses on teaching and learning how texts work, understanding and re-mediating what texts attempt to do in the world and to people, and moving students toward active position-taking with texts to critique and reconstruct the social fields in which they live and work.

(Luke, 2000, p. 460).

The above quote demonstrates the complex territory that critical literacy encapsulates: deconstructing, re-mediating and reconstructing meaning-making and hints that it is always a “historical, materialist work in progress” (Luke, 2014, p. 29). Luke, Comber, and O’Brien’s (1994) definition of the term “critical” has been instrumental in developing many Australian teachers’ understandings of what critical literacy is:

By “critical” we mean ways that give students tools for weighing and critiquing, analysing and appraising the textual techniques and ideologies, values and positions. The key challenge ... is how to engage students with the study of “how texts work” semiotically and linguistically, while at the same time taking up explicitly how texts and their associated social institutions work politically to construct and position writers and readers in relations of power and knowledge (or lack thereof), (p. 35).

The interest for critical literacy is in how texts work, what texts do to us, and how we can manage the ways in which they seek to work. Questioning and attendant discussion or dialogue are central to critical literacy practice. Questions that guide learners in being critically literate include:

  • • Who do you think is behind the construction of this text?
  • • Whose view of the world is put forth in the text?
  • • How are meanings assigned to certain figures or events in the text?
  • • Where does the text come from (historical/cultural)?
  • • What social function does it serve?
  • • How far do you accept the text’s/author’s position?
  • • What other positions might there be?
  • • Who has a voice in the text?
  • • How else might these characters’ stories be told?
  • • Are there silent voices that are not immediately apparent?
  • • How might the text be rewritten to give voice to the silenced?
  • (Soares & Watson, 2006, p. 56)

Learners are cast in the role of active questioner rather than acquiescent receiver of the materials presented to them in classrooms. In this way both learners and teachers are re-positioned in relation to each other, and to forms of knowledge. As Mills (2016) asserts, critical literacy approaches “reposition teachers and students to deconstruct dominant selective traditions in schools and society, particularly in the complex textual and multimedia environments of navigating and remixing digitally mediated texts.” (p. 42).

Within high school English teaching in the United States, Morrell’s (2008) definition remains influential:

A critical English education is explicit about the role of language and literacy in conveying meaning and in promoting or disrupting existing power relations. It also seeks to develop in young women and men skills to deconstruct dominant texts carefully (i.e., canonical literature, media texts) while also instructing them in skills that allow them to create their own critical texts that can be used in the struggle for social justice. Further, critical English education encourages practitioners to draw upon the everyday language and literacy practices of adolescents to make connections with academic literacies and to work toward empowered identity development and social transformation, (p. 313)

Similarly, Morgan (1997), writing for Australian English teachers over two decades ago, asserts that critical literacy teachers “focus on the cultural and ideological assumptions that underwrite texts, they investigate the politics of representation, and they interrogate the inequitable, cultural positioning of speakers and readers within discourse” (pp. 1-2).

Janks (2000, 2010, 2012, 2013), working in the vastly diverse South African context, offers a comprehensive view of what critical literacy teaching involves, expanding understandings of how the critical dimension can be brought into our orientations to teaching language and literacy. She argues that there are four main realisations of critical literacy - Domination, Access, Diversity, and Design - and that each of these approaches is based on different conceptions of the relationship between language and power. I have described her approach elsewhere:

Janks maintains that four orientations to the teaching of critical literacy are possible - Domination, Access, Diversity and Design - that they are interdependent and need to be held in ‘productive tension to achieve what is a shared goal of all critical literacy work: equity and social justice’ (Janks, 2010, p. 27). Domination assumes a critical discourse analysis approach in which the language and images in dominant texts are deconstructed to discover concepts such as fore-groundings, silences and whose interests are served. Access involves making explicit the features of the genres that carry social power, for example, analytical essays and reports, hitherto assumed to be already in some learners’ heads. Diversity involves drawing on a range of modalities as resources and to include students’ own diverse languages

What and why critical literacy is important 9 and literacies. Finally, Design asks teachers to harness the productive power of diverse learners to create their own meanings through re-construction of texts. Students use a range of media and technologies to do so without relying on traditional print media. Offering students control over text production, the opportunity to ‘talk back’ to texts and to produce texts that matter to them, is considered important for agency and identity transformation. This model shows the interdependence each dimension has with the other, and critiques unitary orientations that exclude the other dimensions. Any one dimension, without the others, creates an imbalance that denies students the opportunity to experience the full range of critical literacy education.

(Alford & Jetnikoff, 2016, pp. 114-115)

Table 1.1 explains the interdependent elements of Janks’ model and elucidates why it is optimal to weave all four together when teaching critical literacy, in response to local contextual factors. I explicate this model further in Chapter 2,

Table 1.1 The synthesis model of critical literacy (Janks, 2010, p. 26)

Domination without access

Domination without diversity’

Domination without design

Access without domination

Access without diversity'

Access without design

Diversity' without domination

Diversity' without access

Diversity' without design

Design without domination

Design without access

Design without diversity

This maintains the exclusionary' force of dominant discourses.

Domination without difference and diversity loses the ruptures that produce contestation and change.

The deconstruction of dominance, without reconstruction or design, removes human agency.

Access without a theory' of domination leads to the naturalisation of powerful discourses without an understanding of how these powerful forms came to be powerful.

This fails to recognise that difference fundamentally affects pathways to access and involves issues of history, identity' and value.

This maintains and reifies dominant forms without considering how they' can be transformed.

This leads to a celebration of diversity' without any' recognition that difference is structured in dominance and that not all discourses/genres/ languages/literacies are equally powerful.

Diversity' without access to powerful forms of language ghettoises students.

Diversity' provides the means, the ideas, the alternative perspectives for reconstruction and transformation. Without design, the potential that diversity offers is not realised.

Design without an understanding of how dominant discourses/practices perpetuate themselves, runs the risk of an unconscious reproduction of these forms.

This runs the risk of whatever is designed remaining on the margins.

This privileges dominant forms and fails to use the design resources provided by' difference and in Chapter 4 I draw on Janks’ model as an explanatory framework to analyse four teachers’ practice.

As indicated above, critical literacy itself is a work in progress as emergent digital technologies and platforms for interacting present new challenges to what constitutes a text, what critique involves, and with what it is concerned. As Wohlwcnd and Lewis (2011) have pointed out, “Proliferating technologies and colliding global systems make it paradoxically easier and harder to track the echoes, emanations and effects of widely dispersed, fleeting digital texts” (p. 189). We have come to accept that wide dispersion of texts means, for instance, that multiple reader interpretations exist (influenced by culture) and that these may or may not be known to others near or far. The fleeting nature of texts, though, is much more challenging for educators to work with. Consider Apps such as Snapchat which provides the opportunity to create texts that literally disappear; or Wikipedia which can be altered instantly through deletions and insertions; and even company policies -the fine print we get tripped up by legally- can be written, rewritten and published publicly within a matter of minutes. These textual transformations pose considerable challenges for how teachers include a focus on critical literacy with all learners, including English language learners. Thus, critical literacy and its relationship with texts is itself a moving feast and will remain so.

In addition, current views on critical literacy and its relationship with what constitutes “critique” are being stimulated by challenging questions about the centrality of teachers and the curriculum (Alford & Kettle, 2017) in relation to the centrality of learners. Janks (2014) posits that critique involves “the ability to recognise that the interests of texts do not always coincide with the interests of all and that they are open to reconstruction; the ability to understand that discourses produce us, speak through us, and can nevertheless be challenged and changed; the ability to imagine the possible and actual effects of texts and to evaluate these in relation to an ethics of social justice an care” (p. 42). Recent work by Pandya (2019) in California offers valuable insights into the everyday critique practices found in children’s video-making and the possibilities for redistributive social justice this offers teachers, children and communities. In Pandya’s research, the children were not fully guided in “how to critique” by teachers or the curriculum. Rather, their digital composing practices were eth-nographically observed for the kinds of critique they would generate when left largely to their own devices. The children made videos about a “Day in the Life” of a person they knew, and videos about saving their school which was under threat of closure. The study revealed the children taking stances on local issues of social justice through multimodal expression drawing on their own design sensibilities. This kind of research forces us to think more about what critique “looks like” for different people, and what purposes it serves.

At its core, critical literacy is interested in disrupting the commonplace, interrogating multiple viewpoints, focusing on socio-political issues, taking informed action and promoting social justice (Lewison, Flint, & van Sluys, 2002). A more expansive discussion of six significant instructional models of critical literacy is presented in Chapter 3 as a backdrop to the exploration of teachers’ practice.

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