Critical media literacy and critical digital literacy research in high schools

Critical media literacy has had a long tradition in English and literacy education and for good reason. The forms it has taken have varied from more traditional methods of detecting bias and overstated claims, to investigating the ways texts construct interpersonal power differences between author and reader and how readers can speak back. According to Alvermann, Moon and Hagood (2002), critical media literacy: includes the use of print and non-print materials to construct knowledge of the world; employs the creation of communities of readers who are active and exercise agency; represents a range of cultural practices; and can be related to power and popular culture. The ability to be critically media literate is now a given in the literature. (See Alvermann, Moon & Hagood, 2002). What is needed, for Kellner and Share (2007), is to focus resources on exploring the best ways for implementing critical media literacy for democratic purposes.

Based on classroom research with a group of high school English language learners and English as a first language users, Poulus and Exley (2018) provide a description of seven grammar-based activities that analyse how persuasive techniques in media texts work subtly, in whose interests they work, and with what consequences. Following an introduction to two media texts and comprehension and vocabulary building, the teacher, Alex, led the students to identify the overall positions in the media text. The students then set about working out how these positions were constructed via language. They identified the texts’ organisational features through the use of theme and rheme (terms used in Systemic Functional Linguistics - a clause theme can be identified by all the grammatical elements up to but not including the verb. It is the departure point for the sentence. The clause rheme is identified by the verb and the remainder of the clause. In this way, students could identify the texts’ organising principles and any patterns that emerged via this technique of organising clauses. They then identified

Teaching critical literacy 89 grammatical mood via statements, commands or questions posed in the texts to see how these choices positioned the reader to view the information in the texts. Students then identified pronouns to see how they established certain kinds of interpersonal relations with the reader. Alex then led the students to explore descriptive language and how this constructs positive or negative views of people, for example the pro-Muslim proponents were described in the media texts as “immigrants,” who “illegally” blocked streets. Finally, students interrogated the texts for the ways they deployed verbs or processes - action, mental, relation, and verbal - in relation to the various text participants, for example, immigrants blocking the streets. The seven steps provided Alex’s students with a clear way of seeing how media texts construct social reality grammatically, and how they might be constructed differently through different language choices. Poulus and Exley’s work usefully brings together critical literacy with a media focus and critical literacy with a grammar/language focus. They report it also had benefits in terms of bringing the class, a disjointed group of culturally and linguistically diverse learners, together through a common aim.

Equally, the surge towards a more digital/online world means critical media literacy must keep abreast of a plurality of digital media text types, how they change rapidly. It needs to keep up with how the online space is increasingly influenced by artificial intelligence and how this is influencing society. In this digital age, young people need to be highly skilled in the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) but being technology-literate is not sufficient. The Internet can empower people with new ways of finding, creating and exchanging information. Yet, the same forces that empower us can also make us vulnerable. Adolescents need stronger understandings of how digital technologies work, how they play to our preferences, reinforce certain views of the world and limit others. Such understanding can lead to greater agency and autonomy in decision-making (Burwell, 2017). Teachers need tools that support young people to engage with online texts in a critical way which includes the ability to explore the assumptions, values and constructions of texts (including static and moving images) and how they position people. Many teachers would agree that “(d)igital literacy can provide an inviting gateway into critical literacy, as students are often more willing to engage in technology-based activities than those rooted in more traditional ones” (Avila & Moore, 2012, p. 32). Empirical research into this field is growing rapidly (Pandya, 2019) and a few indicative examples relevant to high schools are provided here.

Cercone’s (2017) recent work outlines the ways an English Language Arts teacher in the US set up an environment for ongoing digital video composing over many weeks that allowed students to develop understandings of symbolism, audience and multimodality. The research urges teachers to extend routine writing composition practices to include digital video composing as rigorous and academically challenging, requiring considerable critical analysis of the ways rhetorical techniques work. In my own study of how four teachers utilized a critical literacy approach with EAL learners (Alford & Jetnikoff, 2011, 2016; Alford, 2014), it was glaringly apparent to me, and to the teachers as participants, that digital video composing played a clear ‘second fiddle’ to print-based writing products posing a significant number of issues for EAL learners grappling with the written mode (see Allison, 2011). This will be explored further in Chapter 4 of this book. Similarly, Scharber, Isaacson, Pyschcr, and Lewis (2016) examined 12 high school students’ documentary filmmaking. Their analysis of students’ decision-making processes and their documentaries found that students were able to use their documentaries as tools for engaging in critical analysis of social justice issues associated with civic engagement. These studies provide important examples of how critical work is possible through digital media production.

Seeing English language learners as having “funds ofknowledge” (Moll,1992) is a helpful starting point for critical literacy work. Saunders, Ash, Salazar, et al. (2017) probe how teachers can engage with the critical media literacy skills that students already possess and bring with them to school and how teachers can develop the skills that still need refining. Their research is interested in the authentic application of critical media literacy skills, through for example responding on Twitter feeds and blogs, and the part literacy educators in schools can play in this.

In a similar vein, Alvermann (2017), argues that critical literacy inquiry into social media is imperative when, in a digital culture that tolerates “fakeness”, social media texts can obscure the very facts young people need to reflect critically on issues and life’s choices. Drawing on Fajardo (2015), Alvermann posits that

“teaching critical inquiry in order to minimize opportunities for post-factual accounts to skew resources that are already part of the information diaspora is particularly important when working with emergent bilingual learners. To overlook this group’s need for instruction in how to analyze social media texts for words, images, sounds, and gestures that could conceivably influence the way in which English learners are perceived is to invite a culture of acquiescence and potentially stunted identities” (p. 8).

Growing interest in the critical digital literacy space is captured by Pangrazio (2019) who calls for the cultivation of a critical digital disposition (p. 151) in young people, and by Hinrichsen and Coombs (2013) who offer a model called “The five resources of critical digital literacy: a framework for curriculum integration.” Drawing on Frcebody and Luke’s Four Resources Model (1990), they expand a range of repertoires relevant to engaging critically with digital resources: 1. Decoding: practical and operational engagement; 2. Meaning making: narrative complexity in the digital; 3. Using: producing and consuming digital texts; 4. Analysing: becoming a discerning practitioner; 5. Persona: identity issues and the digital.

Although not conducted in high schools, I include here the following study by Huang (2017) because it addresses the little-explored area of how English learners interpret meaning critically from moving images such as videos and films. This is important work from which high school teachers can learn as we move toward including more digital, multimodal resources in classroom pedagogy and

Teaching critical literacy 91 assessment in schools and in tertiary study contexts to which many high school English learners eventually progress. Amongst first year university students in Taiwan, Huang explored how English language learners made meaning from a moving image text that incorporated multiple semiotic resources. Following instructional input about multimodal features of video texts and critical perspectives on how authors of texts use multimodal techniques, the focus was on what practices the students’ mobilised to comprehend and interpret video media texts from CNN, CBS and NBC. Drawing on Serafini’s (2010) critical multimodal literacy framework, Huang identified the students were able to see how the modes intersected to create meaning through “intersemiotic complementarity” (Huang, 2017, p. 200). The students identified that the multimodal elements do not only combine meaning, they, crucially, transform meaning over the course of the video. It was the synergy of the elements, in terms of how they were constructed, that was doing the semiotic and the ideological work of the moving image text. The findings are significant as teachers often turn to texts such as documentaries and video advertisements as objects of critical analysis in schools. Such texts are becoming more and more complex and slippery in the way they present information and ideas multimodally to young adults. Huang’s study is an instructive example of how to bring together structural analysis of a multimodal text with ideological analysis to see how the two operate together.

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