Teachers’ understandings and practice of critical literacy in high school classrooms with English learners

One of the challenges in producing a review of literature that reports on research into critical literacy with high school English language learners is that the learners can be found in different types of classrooms within schooling. They are not neatly separated out from the mainstream in many settings, nor should they necessarily be so. In Australian high schools, English language learners can be found in special classes where numbers and proficiency in English warrant the provision of separate instruction but they can also be found in mainstream English classrooms where English as a first language students are predominant, especially in junior high school and the first year of senior high school. Grade 10. In the US, once English learners are deemed proficient enough they are absorbed into the mainstream, yet they always remain bi- or multilingual by nature, and many will still be “English language learners” as they engage with high level academic language in senior school. In the UK, the policy is to mainstream all EAL learners. The reporting of research done in high school classrooms that include some English language learners, then, is not always labelled with “ESL/EAL” or “ELL” key words. These learners may be a subset in the researched population. Thus, important findings can go unnoticed by people attempting to find research on these populations in databases. In addition, literacy research into culturally and linguistically diverse populations in general can gloss over the import of the cultural, the linguistic and the diverse aspects of learner identities and how they impact on learning, rendering learners in a kind of limbo. For instance, some research doesn’t account for learners’ changing English language proficiency levels as they move along a second language acquisition trajectory, or the intercultural adeptness they bring if they have lived in various countries since leaving their country of origin as is the case for many refugee-background learners. These nuanced dimensions have a significant influence on their engagement with critical literacy learning. Notwithstanding these shortfalls, the literature provides a range of instructive studies from around the globe, some of which are presented here by virtue of their relevance to the focus of this book.

When it comes to teachers’ understandings of and their everyday practice of critical literacy with English language learners, a number of studies shed light on a complex array of issues. One issue is: who is responsible for critical literacy in the classroom, the individual teacher or the system? One study by Monareng (2008), investigated the teaching of critical literacy in 10 high school English language learning contexts in the Goldfields area in the Free State province of South Africa. His goal was to elicit information from Year 11 learners and their teachers about the nature and practice of Critical Language Awareness (CLA) in their English classrooms. As was the case in Queensland, Australia from 2002 to 2008 with its focus on critical literacy, Critical Language Awareness (CLA)1 was an endorsed component of the syllabus in the South African National Curriculum Statement on Languages Learning Area. The syllabus was, according to Monareng (2008), “the epitome of a language programme that is grounded in a Critical Language Awareness perspective” (p. 63). Despite the focus on the critical dimension in the guiding documents for language education, and the fact that the classroom course books were framed using CLA, his findings in the classroom did not match the anticipated goals of these curriculum statements. Teachers used traditional methods of teaching - transmission style - and neglected the course books that drew on CLA. They did not consider

Teaching critical literacy 73 that developing learners’ critical responses to language was a central part of their learners’ education and their teaching practice was “devoid of any inclination towards the CLA perspective” (Monareng, 2008, p. 63).

A number of other studies have also presented teachers as the source of the lack of a critical literacy focus in classrooms. Savage (2008), for example, argued that Australian mainstream English teachers were, at the time, largely out of touch with the personal out-of-school literacy of adolescent language learners and were therefore unable to encourage critical evaluation of texts that count in their everyday lives. Monareng (2008) attributes this same situation in South Africa to the lack of knowledge about, and lack of personal commitment to, critical language awareness (CLA) among the teachers. He argued, “the teachers are not critical in their approach, which is why they would not consider the CLA perspective as one of the main components of ESL learning and teaching” (Monareng, 2008, p. 64). The reasons Monareng cites for this include: the teaching community did not make a point of keeping abreast of current trends in language teaching; the context he investigated had not been sufficiently “prepared” for the implementation of CLA; teacher education was insufficient (promised but not delivered) and when support was provided it was unhelpful; and finally, the teachers’ own difficulties in mastering syntax and spelling in English language made it difficult to motivate them to adopt a more critical approach. Monareng outlines these four reasons, but does not go on to suggest that these were systemic, structural barriers to the adoption of critical approaches which was the intention in this province according to the South African National Curriculum Statement. Monarcng’s study resonates with the Queensland context where critical literacy was also mandated in the curriculum in 2002; however, syllabus design and materials cannot be taken up in classroom practice without effective professional development of individual teachers (Comber, 2001). Neither can a collective orientation toward a teaching approach - in this case, critical literacy - be automatically taken up by a body of teachers. It usually emerges in pockets of practice and is then shared via mechanisms such as professional associations.

More recently, Lloyd’s (2016) study of classrooms in Cape Town, South Africa showed little progress since Monarcng’s (2008) study regarding the presence of critical literacy in under-resourced classrooms in South Africa. Lloyd’s classroom discourse and task analysis revealed that the orientations to reading in English offered to students in the high school were seriously lacking in criticality, despite this being a requirement in the curriculum and assessment policy. Lloyd does not lay the blame at teachers’ feet but argues that racialized histories and dominant ideologies concerning class, gender and race continue to limit access to critical engagement with literacy in South Africa.

Over a decade ago, research into teachers’ understandings of critical literacy in the United States was conducted by Glazier (2007), who, in a single case study, followed a newly qualified English teacher into a culturally diverse, low socio-economic eighth grade classroom in Washington, DC. In Glazier’s study, critical literacy was understood as involving four dimensions based on Lewison, Flint, and Van Sluys (2002): (1) disrupting the commonplace,

(2) interrogating multiple viewpoints, (3) focusing on socio-political issues, and (4) taking action and promoting social justice. Such a broad framework for critical literacy, which is still used today and which I discuss later in this chapter, has an effect on the ways teachers conceive critical literacy and what they decide to do to enact it. Glazier documented the teacher’s developing understandings of and perspectives on critical literacy; the teachers’ use of critical literacy in practice; the changes in her approach to critical literacy as she became more experienced; and the barriers she identified to using critical literacy in her high school classroom. Glazier identified that despite having clear understandings about the nature of critical literacy (in her US context), her participant’s own critical literacy pedagogy was initially being “boxed” and used as an add-on, rather than grounding the whole of her teaching. Glazier argues that the experience of this teacher can inform pre-service teacher education about the challenges involved in enacting critical literacy in such classrooms, namely inexperience, isolation, class size and the ever- extending gamut of teacher responsibility (i.e., accountability in implementing set curriculum). Six years prior to Glazier’s study, I also acknowledged that it is the range of challenges at the chalk-face and not necessarily the theoretical commitment, which hampers teachers’ enactment of critical literacy in high schools (Alford, 2001a, 2001b). I suggested these barriers include: the perennial Чаек of time’; viewing non-dominant cultures of learning as a-critical and therefore a hindrance; the need to be mentored into adopting the particular theoretically-heavy critical literacy approach that teachers in Queensland used at the time; and the resilience of reproductive forms of teaching language (in materials and curricula) requiring acquiescence rather than critical engagement.

While useful, studies of individual teachers’ attempts to incorporate critical literacy often do not address broader institutional reasons for why the barriers to practice exist or how these structures and processes might be constraining or enabling various possibilities around the teaching of critical literacy. By this omission, the literature seems to suggest that the problem lies with individual teachers, who are not experienced enough, and with out-of-touch teacher education. But it is a much more encompassing problem than this. There are power relations that constrain or enable certain aspects of social life and critical literacy pedagogy with English language learners is subject to such ideological maneuverings, as outlined in Chapter 2 in this book in relation to global mechanisms of policy making and borrowings (Lingard, 2010). For instance, Glazier (2007) found that the application dimension of critical literacy, that is, recasting how the world is represented from one’s own perspective via action, was frequently not addressed, making it a more abstract intellectual exercise rather than a moment for moving towards transformative praxis. Similarly, Morgan (1997) had argued that the critical agenda in Queensland classrooms had side-stepped the more controversial action dimension, in favour of treating critical literacy as a method of deconstructing texts in an objectifying, cerebral way. These outcomes arc part of the broader discursive territory that is shaped by, and in turn, continues to shape the social practices of teaching critical literacy. This is still largely the case

Teaching critical literacy 75 today, within an ever-tightening neo-liberal education agenda, despite pockets of success to the contrary.

In attempts to invigorate English for Academic Purposes (EAP) courses in the United States, Benesch (2009), B. Morgan (2009a, 2009b), and Morgan and Ramanathan (2005) provide another important dimension to critical literacy for English learners. They suggest critical literacy can complement, not replace, the conventional focus on the skill sets needed for academic study. Through “denaturalising and demystifying disciplinary content, [students] become aware of the partiality - hence contestability - of the dominant knowledge claims in their chosen fields of study” (p. 156). Based on their research, the tool kit they offer is comprised of: (a) the use of narratives/autobiographies to link personal experience to broader exercise of power in institutions; (b) the juxtaposition of texts in order to question and challenge received knowledge; (c) raising awareness of the historical and political trends (e.g., colonialism) that have led to the spread of English and its dominance in the world; and (d) use of technology and multimodal strategies to help reposition knowledge and learners. This view, that critical literacy can revitalise rather than usurp traditional approaches to language teaching, can be seen as an attempt to salvage critical literacy from pedagogical obscurity, especially in an era of high accountability and standardisation in education (Clarence & Brennan, 2010; Comber & Nixon, 2009) where retreat to traditional approaches that serve accountability and standardisation seems to be commonplace.

Taking account of the conditions surrounding teachers’ attempts to incorporate critical literacy with culturally and linguistically diverse youth learning English provides useful insights into what is achievable. Lopez’s (2011) study is an example of how culturally responsive pedagogy “can be operationalised in multicultural settings through challenging curricula, disrupting existing curricula, foregrounding student success, centring student voices and experiences, creating nurturing and cooperative learning environments, and raising students’ critical consciousness through critical literacy” (p. 91). Importantly, her study addresses the wider issue of teacher agency within narrowing mandated curriculum, a theme of this book. (See also English Teaching Practice & Critique journal 2019 special issue on teacher agency within English/literacy teaching).

The centrality of language in critical literacy

central theme in the practice literature is the need to investigate grammar and specific language choices at the word, clause and sentence level in relation to the whole text and context. This allows teachers and students to make the connections between the way authors word texts and the ways they simultaneously word up the world (Freire & Macedo, 1987) and has particular relevance for English language learners. Drawing on Blackledge (2000), Coffey, Davila, and Kolano (2013) note that for English learners to become critically literate they must learn to recognize the potential of language to be a tool with which to analyse the division of power and resources in society and to potentially transform discriminatory structures. Basic language education won’t achieve this aim. Practical frameworks for critical literacy using grammar as a starting point are provided by a range of authors including Janks (1991, 2010, 2013), Wallace (1992, 1995, 2003), Morgan (1997), and Morgan and Ramanathan (2005). Janks’ early work (1991), for example, takes a close linguistic focus and suggests investigating modality (degrees of certainty encoded in modal auxiliaries), passive voice (where subject is removed rendering the action agentless), articles (use of the, a, and an), and the sequencing of information in a text. These, she argues, are textual clues to the ideological workings of texts and wield significant power in constructing meaning. (See also Janks, 1997, 2010).

Likewise, Wallace (1992, 1995, 2008) focuses on grammar and how teachers can utilise Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) to aid the critical enterprise. Drawing on research on her own classroom teaching with adult English as a Foreign Language learners, she explicates the process of developing a grammar metalanguage (SFL which views language as a system of choice), and following this logically through to a critical enquiry into the choices writers and speakers make in order to construct meaning in certain ways. Knowledge about language (KAL), or knowledge about how language is used as a resource to shape and organise meanings (Derewianka, 1990, 2012), is an important aspect of both EAI. teaching and critical literacy work. Gaining knowledge about language, according to Christie (1996, 2004), is a significant aspect of learning to “operate in independently critical ways in using ... literacy” (p. 189). Wallace (1999) presents a seamless account of how to do critical literacy by first providing her students with knowledge about the linguistic resources (grammar and genre knowledge) they need to analyse texts critically. This is achievable in an adult learner context. However, Hammond and Macken-Horarik (1999) and Kalbach and Forester (2006) stress that the high school classroom, with learners who have different resources at their disposal by virtue of their age and a less-even playing field, and a crowded, mandated curriculum, is often a different matter.

Derewianka (2012) points to another possible reason for why English teachers might have difficulty with a KAL approach. She notes that, surprisingly, “explicit knowledge about language has often been absent from (mainstream) English curricula” historically in Australia (p. 127), although this is changing in more recent times with “language” now a core strand in the national English curriculum and a vigorous interest in building teachers’ grammar knowledge (Arnold, 2019; Mackcn-Horarik, 2012; Myhill, Jones & Watson, 2013). The teaching of English language learners globally, on the other hand, has had a long tradition of teaching KAL. In fact. Miller and Windle (2010) call for the enrichment of existing pedagogical literacy models, including critical literacy, with second language perspectives in order to better support these students. Hammond (2008, 2012) and Gibbons (2008) in Australia, and Harper and de Jong (2009) in the United States express a similar view.

Considerable issues surrounding the implementation of critical literacy in high school classes in Australia were first pointed out by Hammond and Macken-Horarik in 1999. They raised a number of significant points which continue

Teaching critical literacy 77 to vex teachers of English language learners. These questions include: to what extent does critical literacy require control of mainstream literacy practices (e.g., genres and grammar metalanguage)? What resources are actually necessary to engage critically with texts? How do schools recognise the time and effort needed to implement such an approach explicitly? In a case study of a junior high school science classroom, Hammond and Macken-Horarik (1999) identified a workable approach to critical literacy with EAL learners. The teacher “’shunted” overtly between making scientific knowledge explicit (i.e., the cultural resources necessary to comprehend the topic of human reproduction); developing linguistic resources that enabled the students to talk and write about the topic; and a critical orientation to the scientific topic in question and its moral and ethical implications. In this way, the teacher straddled the three domains of teaching EAL considered necessary for mainstream success - discipline knowledge as it is valued by the field; language features that act as a vehicle for the field; and critical inquiry into the field and its language use. However, junior high school curriculum and pedagogy has greater porosity than senior schooling (Jewitt, 2008) rendering the documentation of workable approaches to critical literacy in senior high school within complex conditions important.

One such study, by Locke and Cleary (2011), was conducted through a two-year project in New Zealand high schools on teaching literature in final year (Year 13) mainstream multicultural classrooms. Four key findings emerged: (1) that close critical reading of texts was multidimensional and involved teachers drawing on a range of approaches to literary and textual study including personal growth models; (2) that the cultural background of the students influenced the approaches they adopted. The teachers used both reader response and critical approaches to “open up an avenue to the cultural orientation of the reader as a determinant of meaning” (p. 136); (3) that critical literacy concepts and its complicated metalanguage are best taught by exposing students to a range of texts dealing with a similar topic; and (4) that, despite initial hesitancy to challenge the authority of texts, students were empowered by critical literacy to contest and resist invited readings.

Other literature reports on studies that focused on multimodal design of texts that allowed students to explore first-hand the constructedness of texts while also making a social statement. Stevens and Bean (2007), for example, report on a critical literacy study with high school seniors in Nebraska, USA. The teacher, frustrated by constraining curriculum requirements based on genre approaches to literature, decided to trial a critical inquiry into a local issue with her students. They explored how and why family-based farming, as the local economic base, had shifted significantly over the past few generations. To investigate changes in the agriculture industry and their local effects, students interviewed farmers, community leaders and others “using a critical lens to capture, describe and interpret the findings” (p. 87). The end product was a documentary created through a process of deconstructing the material effects oflocal social and economic events. The students, in assembling the documentary, had to decide which elements of the data and their interpretation and which design features would be included in their own representation of the issue in the documentary. In this way, they were asking critical literacy questions about representation during the reconstruction and authoring of their own text. Critical literacy questions that are often asked of commercially produced texts, for example, whose interests are being served?; who is foregrounded or marginalised?, were turned back on the students’ own texts, to help them deploy the resources of textual constructedness exposed by critical literacy. This project can be considered to lie at the transformative end of the critical literacy continuum as the documentary was then screened at a local venue to a full house from local and neighbouring districts. It went beyond the walls of the classroom or the school or district assessment panel, to the larger community who provided the class with positive feedback.

Stein (2008) documents similar practice in South Africa where a teacher asked his high school students to make a cine romane film (i.e., stills images with sound, music and dialogue) to represent a day in the life of their school. In the task, students needed to make decisions about what to include and exclude; whose voices to represent; what intended reading they wanted; and what images and wordings to choose for particular effects. The students in both Stein’s and Stevens and Bean’s (2007) studies used their own “voice”. They also used creative processes to explore the power of texts, and they experienced the decision-making involved in exercising that power through design choices. (See Janks, Dixon, Ferreira, et al. 2014 for further ideas about working with design in high school classrooms).

Multimodal representation was also of interest to Asaji (2009) who sought to further explore the disconnected relationship between the multimodal nature of texts outside the classroom and the kinds of texts used in literacy teaching with English learners in schools (Jewitt, 2005; 2008). In Asaji’s study, the adolescent learners learned how to use multimodal resources to interpret a cellular phone advertisement and to construct an interpretation of it. Specifically, the study was interested in: how the use of signs mediated message representation; how the choice of a specific sign for representation was shaped the identity of the sign maker; how the integration of verbal texts and visual images changed the shape of knowledge and learning practices in the classroom; what kinds of literacy practices and learning strategies students learning English as a second language (ESL) acquired through multimodal texts. As a result of the study, Asaji argues “that multimodal/multiliteracies pedagogy could foster critical literacy practices by offering ESL students opportunities to create new identities and challenge discursive practices that marginalize them” (p. 594). In some countries, it is now fairly well established that understanding and composing multimodal texts should be a regular component of English language and literacy instruction in schools (See for example. The Australian Curriculum Literacy Learning Continuum-, https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/3596/general-capabilities-literacy-learning-continuum.pdf). However, teachers’ knowledge of multimodality and multiliteracies and the resourcing required in schools to make such teaching possible, is still yet to catch up, and incorporating a critical lens on multimodality is far from commonplace.

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