Teaching critical literacy with high school English as an additional language learners – A review of international literature

A sizeable body of theoretical work on critical approaches for culturally and linguistically diverse learners learning English exists (see Luke & Dooley, 2011), however, less attention has been paid by researchers to the study of critical literacy teaching in the middle to upper years of high school (Alford & Jetnikoff, 2016; Godley &: Minnici, 2008). This is significant as secondary school students are both interested in and capable of critical inquiry at this age, and teachers are, in fact, engaging these learners in critical literacy tasks in everyday classrooms. We know anecdotally that this is happening through conversations with teachers, and from their school-based planning. The dearth of research studies in this field is curious but is influenced, no doubt, by a number of things:

  • • the crowded curriculum at this stage of schooling;
  • • the tendency schools have to offer less critical, more direct instruction for English language learners with a focus on grammar and vocabulary (Coffey, Davila & Kolano, 2013);
  • • the dominance of testing regimes where assessing critical responses is considered challenging;
  • • restricted access to schools for researchers in some contexts such as the US.

The lack of research in upper high school is likely to change, at least in some contexts, because critical approaches to learning language and literacy are regaining traction in light of a range of contemporary phenomena such as:

  • • “fake news” that needs to be unpicked and weighed up against other sources;
  • • advertising algorithms built into social media feeds for commercial gain that need to be interrogated;
  • • the rise of non-expert and populist texts pushing certain views that teachers see value in unpacking critically;
  • • new interest in deploying critical literacy for the purposes of influencing a more socially just moral order within democratic citizenship (Janks, 2017);
  • • interest in linking critical literacy with topics such as multilingualism (Bacon, 2017), translanguaging (Alford, 2019; Lau, Juby-Smith & Desbicns, 2017;

Lau, 2019), diverse sexualities and gender identities (van Leent & Mills, 2018), place-based learning and teaching (Comber, 2015), and post-colonial applications (Koh, 2019) to name a few.

Indeed, teachers seem very interested in Morrell’s (2005) call for English teachers to “become activists in a shift towards critical English education that implies a change in curricular content of secondary English classrooms, as well as a change in focus in literacy pedagogy, textual consumption and textual production” (p. 319).

While there arc a number of highly informative studies that report on critical literacy interventions by researchers and/or researcher-teacher teams (e.g., Lau, 2013), there are fewer research studies that focus on regular classroom teachers and their interpretations and every day, situated practice of critical literacy. There are also many more studies of doing critical literacy or forms of critical pedagogy with English learners in after school settings or summer programs during school break. These kinds of studies are important as they demonstrate the ways in which teachers are participating in the critical literacy project in ways that make sense to them, and that research is still being done in the field despite constraints on access to schools. This is fundamental if critical literacy, an “utterly contingent” project (Luke, 2014, p. 29), is to morph productively within shifting paradigms and emerging, powerful discourses in order to remain relevant. In what follows, I offer a curated, non-exhaustive selection of studies that speak of critical literacy enactment with EAL learners within everyday classrooms in some way. My aim is to capture, in part, critical literacy’s research trajectory as it responds to paradigm shifts and contextual factors, as these relate to the teaching of EAL learners. This chapter reviews relevant literature in seven sections. First, I review empirical studies of teachers’ understandings and practice of critical literacy with EAL learners in high schools in a range of global contexts over the past decade or so. Literature on how EAL learners are positioned in classrooms as capable of the intellectual engagement required for critical literacy is then reviewed. I then present literature that examines students’ experiences of critical literacy practices both inside and outside the classroom. Specific attention is then paid to studies of critical media/critical digital literacy, a site of growing interest with EAL learners. Research on affect and emotion in critical literacy is then surveyed. Further research ideas are also considered. To conclude the chapter, I compare effective practice of critical literacy, as proposed by six models, including recent conceptual developments. I draw threads from the models together to show the contribution critical literacy can make to English language learners’ education.

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