Critical literacy across international English language education policies: Commitments, constraints, and contradictions.

In the following, I discuss the discursive texturing of “critical literacy” in the above policies to show the commitments, constraints and contradictions that exist. Rather than discuss the policies on a geo-political basis (i.e., country by country, in turn), the discussion is presented according to the ways in which the policies conceptually articulate, reinforce, de-emphasise, and thereby shape what critical literacy is at the authorised level. The analysis shows that while one document within a country offers a weak view of critical literacy another may offer something more robust. The ensemble of policies across the one geopolitical space, then, contains inherent contradictions that ultimately practitioners need to resolve. The policies are discussed using a scalar framework under three headings: critical literacy absent, critical literacy implied, and critical literacy present. Readers are encouraged to go to their own jurisdiction’s policies and curriculum documents and explore them for the ways they construct, or perhaps constrict, critical literacy.

1 Critical literacy absent

Of the contexts studied, two fall into this category: The United States and England.

i United States

The authors of the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts (2010) (or CCSS) are at pains to state that it is not a “curriculum” and that teachers and administrators can enact it as they see fit:

The Common Core is not a curriculum. It is a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents, and others will decide how the standards are to be met. Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instruction to the individual needs of the students in their classrooms

However, the Common Core is definitely a policy of explicit standards that govern the range of things that teachers are expected to cover. Noun groups such as “clear set” and “shared goals” and “expectations” suggest there is little else to consider. The assumption is that the knowledge and skills set out in the CCSS are the only ones that will help students “succeed” (in career or college). Note the words “and others” slipped into line 3 at the end of the list of who will decide how the standards are to be met at the local level. Who are these “others”? The network of governmental, not-for-profit and for-profit organisations that funded and created the CCSS and who are now ensuring its implementation

(Moore, ct al, 2014). It is well known that publishing companies have heavily influenced the CCSS curriculum models and assessment tasks. What is offered in schools by way of commercial resources produced specifically to support this curriculum is difficult to revoke, once adopted. From the above excerpt, the only thing the teachers as professionals seem to be doing is writing up the lesson plans and tailoring instructional materials and pedagogy, tasks which do not necessarily involve decisions about what the focus of these lessons are or what literacy models might be brought to bear on teaching. It suggests an overt “implementation” discourse, rather than an “enactment” discourse based on broad professional knowledge and experience, decision-making about broader objectives, and awareness of learners in context.

It is clear from the CCSS document that the Standards encapsulate how the US education system views literacy. It states in the introduction, “The Standards ... lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century”. Unpacking the entirety of what ''Literacy’ means within English in the CCSS and the attendant theoretical models behind this is not the purview of this book and, indeed, this has been addressed by others (see Lewis, Pyscher, &: Stutelberg, 2014). However, it is possible to focus on aspects of the document to determine its commitment, or otherwise, to critical literacy and to compare this to the ways critical literacy is constructed in other countries’ curricula. Critical Literacy is never referred to specifically in the CCSS ELA material. It mentions “critical reading” only once in the introduction:

(Students who reach the standards) habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally, (p. 3, my emphasis)

As pointed out above in the section on the curriculum in England, critical reading is not the same as critical literacy. Similarly, “critical thinking” is often referred to in policy documents but as Brass (2015) points out, this version of “critical” is often associated with higher-order thinking skills, “not a focus on power, domination, and ideology critique” (p. 6). What is of interest here is how teachers might navigate these curriculum priorities around criticality. Macknish (2011) provides a useful tool for exploring a range of critical reading processes and suggests it is something of a continuum of practice - Table 2.3. This is helpful for teachers grappling with the difference between the ways curricula posit critical thinking, for example, critiquing logic and evidence of bias or source criticism, and the way critical literacy troubles texts, and considers power, and naturalised assumptions that do not serve all people equally.

Macknish’s scale provokes interesting questions about the transitional space between the two ends of this continuum. What happens in the space between evaluating texts analytically (critical thinking or CT) and considering texts from a power perspective (critical literacy or CL). How do teachers move “across the line” between CT and CL? When does a teacher know they have “crossed the line”? This becomes a blurred boundary/transition zone and teachers need to

Table 2.3 Range of critical reading processes (Macknish, 2011)

Evaluating texts analytically (critical thinking) Considering texts from a power perspective

Critiquing the logic

Questioning the



Focussing on wider



of texts; assessing

source, author’s




language and

authors’ hidden

credibility of claims

purpose, and

detecting propagandas

constructions of


power relations;

agenda; taking

and evidence;


devices; employing

texts; considering


challenging the

action for social

identifying fallacies;



multiple perspectives;

underlying values

positioning of




showing language

identifying missing

and ideology;

readers and

pursuing social

between fact and opinion

identifying bias


and/or marginalised voices

showing critical language awareness






Constructing critical literacy

know how to tell the difference. Can CT, that is evident in many curriculum documents, be mobilised to lead to CL? For example, teachers can show that in order to uncover an author’s hidden agenda (far right of the table under CL) scepticism is required (2nd left column under CT), and that showing critical language awareness requires showing language awareness. In other words, the processes listed on the left can build towards the processes on the right. Given the current climate of CT proliferating and dominating the “critical” airways, questions such as these can avoid the binary opposition between CT and CL to help teachers relocate from more evaluative understandings of “criticality” toward critical literacy and its more transformative agenda.

In the following, I explore individual standards of the CCSS to identify the ways it constructs and represents critical engagement with texts in schools for students in Grades 10-12. The following extract from the CCSS outlines the Anchor Standards for Reading:

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