I’d like to share here my understandings of critical literacy. Anyone Googling the term will realise that there is a wealth of material out there.
The first thing to note is that critical literacy is a way of responding to texts. As pedagogy it has its origins in a socio-cultural view of language (see Gee, 1996), critical theory (poststructuralist and feminist criticism, for example) and has links with critical language awareness (Morgan, 1997; Janks & Ivanic, 1992, Janks, 2010). As an approach, it has found a place in both mainstream English/literacy classrooms and increasingly in EAL/EFL settings (Wallace, 1995).
Of central importance here is the concept of discourse. Drawing on Foucault, Fairclough defined a discourse as “a practice not just of representing the world, but of signifying the world, constituting and constructing the world in meaning” (1992, p. 64). In simple terms, a discourse is a story we tell about something that constructs it in a particular way. For example, machismo (or being “staunch”) is a particular story (or narrative) being told about what it means to be a man. So, we can say that the discourse of machismo constructs a particular version of manhood – it represents manhood in a particular way. Some of the terms I am using here are fairly typical of critical literacy talk: discourse, construct, story, version and represent.
As Foucault and others have shown, discourses (these powerful cultural stories) have effects. Discourses can oppress, marginalise and kill people. They can also transform and liberate. If you adopt a pragmatic ethics, your inclination will be to evaluate a discourse for its effects or consequences. The image below is a 19th-century New Zealand cartoon.
You’ll that it constructs indigenous people as savage, sub-human and uncivilised. This discourse of indigeneity was prevalent (or hegemonic) in many “New World” countries in colonising times and was used to justify many injustices against indigenous peoples, including widespread genocide.
All of us subscribe to various discourses, which we use to make sense of our lives. Sometimes these acts of subscription are unconscious; other times they are deliberate. When we actively set out to identify these discourses in ourselves, we can be described as being critically self-reflexive. When we do this, we are are attempting to identify the assumptions that lie behind our choices and actions. Sometimes you will find critical literacy theorists talking about the self as multiple. My own view on this is that we do have multiple identities. Each of the discourses we subscribe to are what I (and others) would term subjectivities. However, I also believe that there is a self that engages in self-reflectivity, navigates its way in this discursive sea we are all immersed in, and engages in care for the self and for its relationships with others.
Critical literacy puts a value on encouraging language-users to see themselves as engaged in textual acts which are part of a wider set of discursive practices that actively produce and sustain patterns of dominance and subordination in the wider society and offer members of society prescribed ways of being particular sorts of people. While individual readers make sense of texts, the meanings they make are a function of the discourses they subscribe to and the discourses they view texts as inviting them to subscribe to. As readers we can either take up this invitation or resist it. The latter is sometimes called resistant reading. It critical literacy pedagogy the cultural context has become pre-eminent. No text is innocent. All texts, using a range of linguistic devices, seek to position readers to view the world in a particular way. No reader is innocent either. Each brings to the act of reading a set of discursive lens, each of which will interact with the discursive designs of a text in a particular way, ranging from submission to resistance.
A deconstructive reading of a text is one that reveals its underpinning discourse(s). Such deconstructive acts might be viewed as a first step in resisting the reading position or positions a text offers. Typically, a critical literacy reading of a text invites students to interrogate it via a set of questions, of which the following is just one example (Morgan, 2004):
- “What kind of text is this?
- “What social functions does this text serve?
- “How does this text construct a version of reality and knowledge? And what is left out of this story?
- “How does the text represent the reader (or viewer or listener) and set up a position for reading? And what other positions might there be for reading?
- “How does this text set up its authority and encourage your belief? And how might its authority be deconstructed and challenged, where its ethical stance is at odds with yours?” (p. 107).
A potentially powerful complement to deconstructive reading is deconstructive writing. Such a strategy involves the production of a text that disrupts (Yeoman, 2007) or contaminates (Chou, 2007) one or more discourses in the text to be resisted by producing versions framed by alternative, sometimes marginalised discourses (of race, gender and class, for example). In broad terms, for the teacher whose work is highlighted in this paper, critical literacy was an element (but only an element) in her teaching repertoire. [Locke & Cleary, 2011]
If you would like to view an example of how critical literacy might work in the context of the Senior English classroom, click on the link to Stacey King’s unit on “Critical literacy in an all girls’ English classroom: Deconstructing depictions of normative femininity in Western society“.
Chou, W.H. (2007). Contaminations of childhood fairy tale: Pre-service teachers explore gender and race constructions. The Journal of Social Theory in Art Education, 27, 55-73.
Fairclough, L. (1992). Discourse and social change. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
Gee, J. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses (2nd ed.). London, England: Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Janks, H. (2010). Literacy and power. New York/London: Routledge.
Janks, H., & Ivanič, R. (1992). CLA and emancipatory discourse. In N. Fairclough (Ed.), Critical language awareness (pp. 305-331). London, England: Longman.
Morgan, W. (1997). Critical literacy in the classroom: The art of the possible. London: Routledge.
Morgan, W. (2004). Critical literacy. In W. Sawyer & E. Gold (Eds.), Reviewing English in the 21st Century (pp. 103-114). Melbourne, VIC: Phoenix Education.
Wallace, C. (1995). “Reading with a suspicious eye”: Critical reading in the foreign language classroom. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (Eds.), Principle & practice in applied linguistics: Studies in honour of H.G. Widdowson (pp. 335-347). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Yeoman (1999). “How does it get into my imagination?”: Elementary school children’s intertextual knowledge and gendered storylines. Gender and Education, 11(4), 427-440.