Tracing critical literacy in curriculum across global contexts

In their Chapter 4 in the 2015 Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies, Rogers and O’Daniels (2015) call for “studies that trace the emergence and development of critical literacy over time and across contexts” (p. 74). This chapter contributes to Rogers and O’Daniel’s invitation by delineating how critical literacy for English language learners has been conceptualised in English language education curricula across five global contexts that share some similarities and indeed, influence one another through policy borrowing mechanisms.

My analysis takes the position that texts governing critical literacy education, such as curricula, can be tracked for the ways in which it affirms and distributes “socially legitimate knowledge” (Apple, 1979, p. 6). I argue that the language used to specify or conceal critical literacy is infused with power associations, perpetuating the offering of certain knowledges and experiences, and not others, to culturally and linguistically diverse groups (Skcrrett, 2015). In subsequent chapters, attention is turned to how teachers play a key role in shaping language and literacy policy through their reinterpretations and recontextualisations in classroom practice on a local scale (Alford & Jetnikoff, 2016; Alford & Kettle, 2017; Mariou, Bonacina-Pugh, Martin & Martin-Jones, 2016). In doing so, I draw on McCarty’s (2011) notion that policy processes are “modes of human interaction, negotiation and production mediated by relations of power” (p. 8).

In what follows in this chapter, I explore how the policies manifest as “genres of governance”, or texts that govern the ways things are done in institutions (Fairclough, 2003); in this case, education institutions. I present a comparative investigation of how critical literacy is represented in English language education policy for high school adolescent English as an Additional Language learners (roughly 14-18 years) in the various contexts. Ultimately, the analysis explores the fact that “policy and ideology have crucial connections that must be explored if we hope to understand policymaking processes, constraints on policy alternatives, and the socially constructed meanings of specific policies and practices” (Tollefson, 2013, p. 3). To do this, I have found van Dijk’s (2006) view of ideology as fundamental belief systems socially shared by members of a collectivity of social actors useful. In this view, ideologies become axiomatic and organise other beliefs. They are relatively stable, gradually developing and disintegrating. When shared widely, they become common sense or beliefs that are part of accepted logic.

The focus on policies relevant to adolescent learners, in particular is significant. In the first major federally funded Australian study on literacy and numeracy programs for adolescent “target groups” (e.g., linguistic and cultural minorities, lower socioeconomic communities), Luke, et al. (2003) “identified .. .inadequate

Constructing critical literacy 23 curricular attention to adolescent literacy, especially among linguistic and cultural minorities, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and students from lower socioeconomic communities” (Luke & Woods, 2009. p. 201). Luke & Woods (2009) note that “with an intense ideological, cultural, and political economic focus of resources, policy, and surveillance on early childhood across the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (Luke & Luke, 2001), adolescent literacy has been in the background of national policy” (p. 200, my emphasis). Despite mandated focus on literacy as a cross-curriculum priority in Australia, specific attention to adolescent literacy in policy continues to lag, and much of it is left up to the field of high school English. Even within this field, high school “literacy instruction often happens to adolescents rather than with them” (Frankel, Fields, Kimball-Veeder & Murphy, 2018, p. 446, original emphasis). This chapter explains how this “happening to” might occur through the dilution of criticality in policy and official curriculum, at a time in a young person’s life when developing healthy criticality is essential to successfully navigate an increasingly complex and largely digital textual landscape. Drawing on Alvermann (2008), I use the term adolescent not as an arbitrary age categorization of those who are “not-quite-adult”, but as members of communities who have “agency within a larger collective of social practices” (p. 9).

Policies around the teaching of English in any context are complex, multifarious, and shifting and therefore it is challenging for one book chapter to do justice to analysis of this. Limitations aside, this wide-angle offering is intended to contribute to ongoing research into broader discourses underpinning English language policy development for EAL learners. A note on how English language education policy is scoped in this chapter and book: “English” in this book refers to the subject “English” or “English Language Arts” in schools as an endorsed key curriculum area, and currently includes the study of the English language as well as literacy and literature. Hence, I examine national and state “English Curriculum” documents and associated literacy frameworks, guidelines, and syllabuses. The rise of mainstreaming policies in many countries means that EAL learners are part of “regular” curriculum experiences rather than being withdrawn for intensive English lessons following a different or modified curriculum which used to be the case in for example, Australia and England. Mainstreaming has distinct advantages such as exposure to authentic curriculum, realistic texts, and native-speaker language (Gibbons, 2002). It can, however, run the risk of not providing adequate specialist language instruction if mainstream teachers are ill-equipped with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to do so, as has been well documented in literature (Harper & de Jong, 2004; Miller & McCallum, 2014; Miller & Windle, 2010; O’Neill & Gish, 2008).

This chapter (and book) is not about English Language Teaching (ELT) as a field, which is about the teaching of English outside English-speaking contexts. (For a useful discussion of critical literacy approaches within ELT, see Bacon’s (2017) literature review of research in this field). I am interested in the kinds of literacy education offered to adolescents who find themselves, for whatever reasons, in the immigrant position, hence the focus on English in national school curricula. “Migrant youth” as a group of learners is highly diverse and their language and literacy learning experiences and needs are complex. They can be migrants with rich backgrounds in schooling and high levels of literacy in their first language who may acquire English within the average five to seven year time frame (Cummins, 1981). They can also be refugee-background learners from oral language traditions and with interrupted or limited schooling experiences who take much longer to acquire English, especially in its academic form (Creagh, Kettle, Alford, Comber & Shield, 2019). They require explicit instruction in all aspects of reading, especially reading critically as this is sometimes a new approach to reading for them. Any examination of critical literacy in policy needs to keep the multifarious nature of this group of learners in mind.

The nature of curriculum

The concept of “curriculum” itself is a slippery entity. Graves (2008) proposed the following distinction:

A CURRICULUM is the processes and products of planning, teaching and evaluating a course of study or related courses. A PROGRAM is all of the courses or courses of study offered in a particular institution or department. A COURSE is a tcaching/lcarning experience that occurs over a specific period of time with a specific focus.....A SYLLABUS is a plan for what is

to be learned in a particular course or course of study (p. 147).

However, the distinction between these component parts of planning become somewhat blurred, at least in Australian school education, as teachers work with broad national “curriculum” in junior secondary schooling and more prescriptive state “syllabuses” in senior secondary schooling. The terms also lose meaning as planning becomes more centralised and the gap between state and school is narrowed, and as content taught between schools becomes more homogenous. Moreover, Green (2018) advocates that

Curriculum is more than simply the course of study, or what should be taught in school, and it is also more than simply coincident with the modernist project of schooling. At the same time, it should not, and cannot, be dissociated from what goes on in schools, particularly state-sponsored, ‘public’ schools (p. 3).

Green’s point about not separating the curriculum as “text” from localised praxis when defining curriculum is important and echoes Boomer’s (1992) proposition that one can never know curriculum except retrospectively though how it translates with learners. Curriculum is more than a plan of content, activities, & outcomes because “the enterprise is directed towards promoting valued knowledge, abilities, and attitudes in the learner where “valued” encompasses the world view of both the teacher and the learner... [and] can therefore be described and fully

Constructing critical literacy 25 comprehended only in retrospect” (Boomer, 1992, p. 33). Curriculum, while it may be undergirded by the values that the older generation choose to tell the younger (Pinar, 2012), is a complex and contested site of knowledge distribution. This chapter contributes to what Green (2018) calls the process of “exploring and interrogating the curriculum concept” (p. 4). In taking a semiotic view of the unstable nature of curriculum and its representative power, I invoke da Silva (1999) who writes,

[t]o conceive of curriculum as representation .. .means to expose it as the artifact that it is. To see curriculum as representation means to expose and question codes, conventions, stylistics and artifices through which it is produced: it implies to make visible the marks of its architectural construction (p. 30).

Perspectives on curriculum as policy

Drawing on Ball (1990), policy can be viewed as “the captured essence of values” (Stevens & Bean, 2007, p. 95). It is inherently political in nature involving “compromises, trade-offs and settlement” (Taylor, Rizvi, Lingard & Henry, 1997). The business-like metaphor employed by Taylor and colleagues here points to a key feature of policy - that it is a process and a product of political and economic ‘transactions’ that circulate within social institutions such as education. This is now the case more than ever given the neo-liberal, economic rationalist principles driving much education reform today. Policies about English language education are important as they communicate the kinds of literate subjects sanctioned by state schooling (Luke, 2002). Curriculum, in this analysis, is taken to mean the intended or official curriculum that constitutes state policy. Curriculum as the institutional programming used by teachers to plan programmes of instruction, to create activities and to evaluate achievement (Mickan, 2013), or in other words, localized, re-contextualisations of the intended curriculum, is explored in Chapter 4. The following are some key points that underpin how curriculum policy is understood in this book:

  • • Contextual factors that give rise to policy are important to take account of. The conditions of production of policy arc important to consider. For example, is a policy the product of long term, wide-spread consultation among end-user experts, such as teachers, or that of a narrowly connected thinktank commissioned by the government?
  • • Policy is a bricolage of ideas, discourse and texts (Ball, 1993), and is taken up in specific ways in different sites with “vernacular minutiae” (Thompson, Hall & Jones 2010, p. 639) or the detailed local instantiations of policy.
  • • Policies are often created as responses to perceived problems in a given field (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010). In the case of this analysis, the perceived problem is declining literacy standards, which has in itself been debated (See Syndcr, 2008). If literacy is perceived to be in decline, the tendency is to return to more traditional understandings of literacy in an attempt to sure up the basics.
  • • Policy is never final. They are by nature always undergoing change in response to broader ideological tussle.
  • • Curriculum is policy. Looney (2001) notes, “to consider curriculum from a policy perspective is to accept that curriculum is policy and policy in its most public form. It is to accept the ideological roots of curriculum - that it is culturally selected and represented, that it arises as a product of choice” (p. 153). The question is: whose choice is it a product of? Public consultation is always limited in the conditions surrounding curriculum production and it will never capture the perspectives of all.
  • • Curriculum policies can delimit end-users’ alternatives, for example, through set texts to study, but they do not dictate the outcomes. “Policies don’t normally tell you what to do, they create circumstances in which the range of options available in deciding what to do are narrowed or changed, or particular goals or options are set” (Ball, 1994, p. 19).
  • • Policy should be seen as “fluid discursive processes that unfold in different ways, on different scales” (Mariou, Bonacina-Pugh, Martin, & Martin-Jones, 2016, p. 95).
  • • Studying “ensembles of policies” (Ball, 1994, 1998, 2015) allows consideration of the macro, discursive level of policy work, not just the enactment of policy as one text in one situation.

This chapter proceeds as follows. An overview of each state or country is provided to establish the broad nature of the five contexts. Literature is also discussed to establish the scholarly interest around critical literacy in each context. To frame the analysis theoretically and methodologically, I then provide an explanation of the method used in the policy analysis- Fairclough’s (2003) CDA. Fairclough’s framework provides a way of investigating ideology as it is played out in language within actual practices in social institutions, such as the production of policy (and also teacher talk as I examine in Chapter 4). CDA is a useful tool to explore the ways that the educational language policies of any country reflect not only social judgements about languages and associated instructional practices, but about other elements as well, such as which groups in society are afforded which educational priorities (McGroarty, 2002; Rogers, 2011; Tollefson, 2013). Australia, the UK and the USA have all seen critical literacy wax and wane in official English language education policies for adolescents over the past few decades. In the remainder of this chapter, principles of CDA are drawn on to identify the ways in which critical literacy is textured through language choices (Fairclough, 2003, 2004) in curriculum documents, syllabuses and policy documents. The contexts are grouped according to how visible critical literacy appears in the examined documents. Simultaneously, the chapter sheds light on the broader standardisation agendas of each of the countries in focus and the role this “neoliberal juggernaut” (Doherty, 2015) is playing in a range of contexts where critical literacy is both “old” and “new”. Analysis of how critical literacy is a contested space in global policy is presented. The concepts and constructs introduced in this chapter lay out the policy landscape as groundwork for the following chapters which explore how policy work is done in schools (Ball, Maguire, Braun & Hoskins, 2011).

 
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