Positioning English learners as capable of doing critical literacy

It has long been widely argued that critical literacy has benefits for English learners marginalised within education systems (Alford, 2001a, 2001b; Alford & Jctnikoff, 2011,2016; Clark, 1995; Janks, 1999, 2010; Luke & Dooley, 2011; Wallace, 1992, 1995). Drawing out and on their particular perspectives and interpretations can reposition them away from the edges of institutional learning (Moje, Young, Rcadcnce, & Moore, 2000), and actively avoid a deficit positioning of these learners, as discussed in Chapter 1. In reviewing international literature that reports on the ways in which literacy educators respond to the literacy practices of diverse learners, McLean, Boling, and Rowsell (2009) concluded that teachers “need to ... value literacy learners’ funds of knowledge and the ways in which they can inform literacy teaching (p. 169, emphasis added). “Funds of knowledge” refers to the abundant knowledge diverse learners’ families possess, and which can be accessed through social networks of exchange (Moll, 1992; Moll & Gonzalez, 2004). Indeed, the Australian curriculum maintains that English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners’ knowledge and experience should be viewed as resources that can inform other learners and the teaching of aspects of the curriculum:

It is important to recognise that EAL students (and all students) bring a range of cultural and linguistic resources with them into Australian classrooms. These resources can be:

• used to build EAL students’ English language learning and their curriculum content knowledge shared in the classroom for the benefit of all students; when the curriculum directs teachers to consider cultural and linguistic knowledge and attitudes, teachers should look first to the students in their classrooms to make use of the cultural and linguistic resources already present (ACARA, 2013).

This view represents a positive shift in the ways in which learner difference is viewed and has significant implications for practice and research into literacy teaching and learning in Australia.

A growing body of empirical research into how teachers reverse the focus from the “EAL learner as problem” to the “curriculum and pedagogy as problem” is emerging (see Alford & Woods, 2016). It demonstrates pedagogy that scaffolds students for intellectual engagement, taking into account their life world differences, rather than “mak[ing] [them] go away” (Gutierrez et al., 2009, p. 216). Comber and Kamler (2004) proposed much earlier that such pedagogy can disrupt deficit discourses, into which generations of teachers have been inducted, but that this requires intellectual engagement by the teachers and recognition of teacher agency over extended periods of time. Dooley (2012), for example, argues that teachers need specific knowledge and dispositions to enable refugee-background students, who are often inadequately catered for in schooling, to engage intellectually in classrooms. Her study of teachers in an intensive English language high school and three mainstream high schools in Australia, found that teachers drew on two key pedagogic techniques to work equitably with their refugee-background students when undertaking intellectually demanding topics: “smart links” between the familiar and the unfamiliar; and “smart paths” to what is valued in the school system. She contends that teachers require a disposition to create and enact these techniques. This disposition she labels as “positioning competence” - “a form of cultural capital that enables teachers to promote all students’ participation in the intellectual work of the classroom” (p. 11).

Miller (2009) also demonstrated pedagogy that shows this form of teacher competence. Miller states that a “low comprehension and limited vocabulary cycle” is characteristic of refugee background learners with interrupted education. These learners “lack topic-specific vocabularies of academic subjects, understandings of register and genre, cultural background knowledge and learning strategies to process content” (p. 573) Teachers are often unsure of how to break the above cycle as they don’t possess requisite language knowledge related to their content areas. These learners’ needs, therefore, are frequently not dealt with equitably and the learner remains “the problem”. In a project with 23 Year 8 refugee EAL Science students in Australia, Miller and other EAL teachers at the school developed activities and textbook support materials to scaffold complex scientific vocabulary learning for low literacy- background learners. The materials became part of the way the Science teacher taught Science, not as an add-on. The refugee learners’ needs, therefore, were positioned centrally to the lessons, not marginally. Research such as this is significant as it attends to a problem outlined by McBrien (2005), who found in a comprehensive analysis of the literature that “the literature on refugee children and adolescents does not specify ways to boost refugee students’ achievement in required school subjects” (p. 365). We now know a lot more about how to boost EAL learners’ achievement, in particular refugee-background learners’ achievement (Hammond & Miller, 2015), but we still don’t know enough about how to do this within critical literacy classrooms in high schools.

Other literature that seeks to position EAL learners positively in relation to intellectual work is offered by Hammond (2008) and Gibbons (2008) in Australia. They document instances of high intellectual challenge accompanied by high support in classrooms to demonstrate how EAL learners can be “scaffolded up” to meet curriculum requirements, including critical literacy, rather than “dumbing down” the curriculum. Both researchers identified that teachers are willing to engage high challenge pedagogical initiatives when support to do so is accessible. Support includes recognition of the significant role language and the teaching of language plays in higher order thinking/intellectual work in schools. Furthermore, Hammond (2012) investigated to what extent and how EAL students, and the domains of knowledge required of mainstream teachers who work with such students, are positioned in the new Australian Curriculum: English. She concludes that within the constraints of a national curriculum there is considerable hope for EAL learners. The domains of knowledge required to teach them are covered substantially by the curriculum meaning EAL learners, who are not in the minority in many schools in Australia, arc not altogether marginalised. Equitable access is only possible if there is a program characterised by high challenge and high support in the first place. Nevertheless, Hammond (2012) notes that two key challenges remain: (a) teachers need to provide the necessary support for students to ensure they have equitable access to high challenge programs across the various discipline areas they study; and (b) the domains of knowledge are only located primarily in the Australian Curriculum: English document. Other content areas do not attend to language and literacy development despite widespread acknowledgement of the role of language and literacy in all curriculum subjects.

Of particular interest is Lan’s (2013) year-long action research study of critical literacy with recently-arrived immigrant English language learners (ELLs) in middle school in Ontario, Canada. Lau documents practice that positions ELLs as competent and that facilitates their gradual deployment of critical literacy skills. Similar to Lau (2013), Sandretto and Klenner (2011) contend that listening intently to students and engaging in dialogue is an essential tool for critical literacy pedagogy. This is because critical literacy aims to recognise difference and draw on students’ multiply located and dynamic identities (Janks, 2010). Sandretto and Klenner provide a pedagogic model that includes a focus on genuine engagement with student thinking, affirming their membership in the critical literacy classroom community. Their model also provides an “audit tool for critical literacy pedagogy” (p. 232) which consists of seven focus areas and reflective prompts for teachers to ask themselves about each of the seven foci. The foci are: text selection, metalanguage, questioning text (which includes asking questions about the readers’ background knowledge), using dialogue and productive forms of interaction, relating critical literacy to different curriculum areas, assessment and feedback, and finally student voice. Bloome (2001) also notes that quality interaction is a significant factor in ameliorating undemocratic boundaries on the construction of literacy in secondary school classrooms.

In the study this book is based on, I found that teachers drew on five key discourses to represent their learners’ capacities for critical literacy work (sec Alford, 2014 for details).

While the four teachers were, as expected, circumscribed by a deficit discourse commonly held by even well-meaning teachers (Lam, 2006), they also indicated that they viewed their EAL learners in senior high school as interested in and capable of undertaking critical literacy with the appropriate scaffolding strategics. Referring to the fact that some teachers recommend EAL learners only need simplified, functional language instruction, Margot, an experienced teacher said of her learners: “Well, hang on, they’re actually much better than that!”

The literature surveyed so far has reported on research that seeks to position EAL learners as capable and resourced people who are capable of critical literacy work but who require a curriculum and pedagogy designed for them. The next section reviews relevant literature that reports on how English learners experience, engage with and achieve in critical literacy.

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