Why is critical literacy important for EAL learners?

Apart from the reasons given already in this chapter for why critical literacy is important for adolescents in general, it is particularly significant for EAL learners. The term “EAL learners” encapsulates a decidedly heterogeneous group that make up a significant proportion of school populations, enough to warrant explicit policy statements on how to cater for them, at least in some contexts. Yet, they are routinely conceived of as “different from” the mainstream. This notion of difference is an important one for establishing why critical literacy is fundamental for EAL learners. Difference is, according to Janks (2012), always structured in relation to power. As a result, those deemed “different” to those in power - be it on the basis of gender identification, class, or ethnicity - typically have unequal access to resources. This is the case for newly arrived EAL learners, and even those who have spent years in their adopted countries, who are navigating texts in unfamiliar linguistic, socio-cultural, economic and political landscapes. They have an urgent need for access to education resources that enable them to read the textual terrain - the cultural, political and economic context framing texts - in such a way that offers them the possibility of meaningful social and political participation and engagement. Luke and Dooley (2011) provide a succinct statement about critical literacy that outlines the import of a text/ context focus for EAL learners in particular:

Critical literacy approaches view texts - print and multimodal, paper-based and digital - and their codes and discourses as human technologies for representing and reshaping possible worlds. Texts are not taken as part of a canonical curriculum tradition or received wisdom that is beyond criticism. Rather they are conceived of as malleable human designs and artefacts used in social fields. In this regard, critical approaches begin by culturally and historically situating languages and discourses, texts, their authors and readers - bracketing and disrupting their “natural”, given or taken-for-granted authoritative status in institutional and everyday contexts. Texts, then, operate in identifiable social, cultural and political contexts. The aim is to develop learners capable of critiquing and making texts in their cultural and community interests. This involves an understanding of how texts and discourses can be constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed to represent, contest and, indeed, transform material, social and semiotic relations.

(p. 856, my emphasis)

Critical literacy has other benefits for often marginalised additional language learners as well (Clark, 1995; Janks, 1999; Wallace, 1992, 1995, 2013). For example, drawing on these learners’ perspectives and interpretations can reposition these students away from the edges of institutional learning (Moje, Young,

Readence, & Moore, 2000). Additionally, critical literacy may help students develop empathy through a focus on human rights and social justice. Henkin (2005) notes that critical literacy is “central to creating democratic, fair, and hate-free schools that confront all forms of bullying and harassment” (p. ix). When mobilized in classrooms comprised of both EAL and non-EAL learners, it can shift entrenched conceptions of the “other”, and unite learners in common causes.

Perhaps most significantly, critical approaches to second language teaching are a curriculum strategy to address educational disadvantage: “Critical approaches to TESOL attempt to shift the balance of conventional TESOL, focusing on the enfranchisement of the life worlds and voices of students’ communities and cultures and a direct engagement with codes and texts of power” (Luke & Dooley, 2011, p. 861). Endorsing and providing critical approaches to literacy education for EAL learners can help them to develop and mobilise mature responses, rather than ill-informed, reactionary, radicalised or populist political and micro-political choices. This book is interested, then, in the situated “reading of the world” by teachers and the assumptions that lead them to enact critical literacy in particular ways with culturally and linguistically diverse learners of English. It is also interested in whether and how the teachers, within the bounds of their contexts, were enabled to create English language and literacy education that had the potential to alter their learners’ analysis of and action in the world.

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