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date: 20 September 2017

Critical Literacy

Summary and Keywords

Changing student demographics, globalization, and flows of people resulting in classrooms where students have variable linguistic repertoire, in combination with new technologies, has resulted in new definitions of what it means to be literate and how to teach literacy. Today, more than ever, we need frameworks for literacy teaching and learning that can withstand such shifting conditions across time, space, place, and circumstance, and thrive in challenging conditions. Critical literacy is a theoretical and practical framework that can readily take on such challenges creating spaces for literacy work that can contribute to creating a more critically informed and just world. It begins with the roots of critical literacy and the Frankfurt School from the 1920s along with the work of Paulo Freire in the late 1940s (McLaren, 1999; Morrell, 2008) and ends with new directions in the field of critical literacy including finding new ways to engage with multimodalities and new technologies, engaging with spatiality- and place-based pedagogies, and working across the curriculum in the content areas in multilingual settings. Theoretical orientations and critical literacy practices are used around the globe along with models that have been adopted in various state jurisdictions such as Ontario, in Canada, and Queensland, in Australia.

Keywords: literacy, critical literacy, critical pedagogy, curriculum, social justice, multiliteracies, text analysis, discourse analysis, everyday politics, language ideologies

Changing student demographics, globalization, and flows of people resulting in classrooms where students have variable linguistic repertoire, in combination with new technologies, has resulted in new definitions of what it means to be literate and how to teach literacy. Today, more than ever, we need frameworks for literacy teaching and learning that can withstand such shifting conditions across time, space, place, and circumstance, and thrive in challenging conditions. Critical literacy is a theoretical and practical framework that can readily take on such challenges creating spaces for literacy work that can contribute to creating a more critically informed and just world.

Historical Orientation

Luke (2014) describes critical literacy as “the object of a half-century of theoretical debate and practical innovation in the field of education” (p. 21). Discussion about the roots of critical literacy often begin with principles associated with the Frankfurt School from the 1920s and their focus on Critical Theory. The Frankfurt School was created by intellectuals who carved out a space for developing theories of Marxism within the academy and independently of political parties. While focusing on political and economic philosophy, they emphasized the importance of class struggle in society. More prominently associated with the roots of critical literacy is Paulo Freire, beginning with his work in the late 1940s (McLaren, 1999; Morrell, 2008), which focused on critical consciousness and critical pedagogy. Freire’s work was centered on key concepts, which included the notion that literacy education should highlight the critical consciousness of learners. In his work in the 1970s Freire wrote that if we consider learning to read and write as acts of knowing, then readers and writers must assume the role of creative subjects who reflect critically on the process of reading and writing itself along with reflecting on the significance of language (1972). Together with Macedo in the 1980s, Freire popularized the concept that reading is not just about decoding words. In their work, Freire and Macedo (1987) noted that reading the word is simultaneously about reading the world. This means that our reading of any text is mediated through our day-to-day experience and the places, spaces, and languages that we encounter, use, and occupy. This critical reading can lead to disrupting and “unpacking myths and distortions and building new ways of knowing and acting upon the world” (Luke, 2014, p. 22). As such this conceptualization of critical literacy disrupts the notion of false consciousness described earlier by Hegel and Marx (Luke, 2014).

The Frankfurt School scholars and Freire focused their work on adult education. For instance in the 1960s Freire organized a campaign for hundreds of sugar cane workers in Brazil to participate in a literacy program that centered on critical pedagogy. His work became known as liberatory, whereby he worked to empower oppressed workers. Critiques of Freire have focused primarily on claims that the liberatory pedagogy he espoused was unidirectional because educators liberated students. The binary represented here was also seen as problematic. Nevertheless his grounding work pushed to the fore the importance and effects of critical pedagogy as a way of making visible and examining relations of power to change inequitable ways of being. Work done by the Frankfurt School and Freire were overtly political and inspired the political nature and democratic potential of education as central to critical approaches to pedagogy (Comber, 2016) as seen in work done by researchers and educators such as Campano, Ghiso and Sánchez (2013), Janks (2010), and Vasquez (2004).

Luke (2014) noted antecedents to these approaches including early-twentieth-century exemplars of African-American community education in the United States that were established in many cities (Shannon, 1998), Brecht’s experiments with political drama in Europe (Weber & Heinen, 2010), and work by Hoggart (1957) and Williams (1977) on post-war cultural British studies amongst others.

Theoretical Orientations

Various theoretical paradigms and traditions of scholarship have influenced definitions of critical literacy and its circulation, as well as its practice. These include feminist poststructuralist theories (Davies, 1993; Gilbert, 1992) post colonialist traditions (Meacham, 2003), critical race theory (Ladson-Billings, 1999, 2003), critical linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1995; Janks, 2010), cultural studies (Pahl & Rowsell, 2011), critical media literacy (Share, 2009, 2010), queer theory (Vicars, 2013), place conscious pedagogy (Comber, 2016), and critical sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology (Makoni & Pennycook, 2007; Blommaert, 2013; McKinney, 2016). Theoretical toolkits, or combinations of such theories have resulted in different orientations to critical literacy. As such it is viewed as a concept, a framework, or perspective for teaching and learning, a way of being in the classroom, and a stance or attitude toward literacy work in schools. These different theoretical orientations help shape different views. Regardless, “the project remains understanding the relationship between texts, meaning-making and power to undertake transformative social action that contributes to the achievement of a more equitable social order” (Janks & Vasquez, 2011, p. 1). As such, regardless of the view one takes, a common understanding is that critical literacy focuses on unequal power relations—and issues of social justice and equity—in support of diverse learners. Diversity of learners includes taking the languages they bring with them to school seriously and understanding the ways in which multilingual children are treated unjustly when their linguistic repertoires are excluded from classrooms.

There are also those who argue that critical literacies are not just orientations to teaching literacy but a way of being, living, learning, and teaching (Vasquez, 2005, 2014a, 2015; Zacher Pandya & Avila, 2014). Vasquez (2001, 2010, 2014b) describes critical literacy as a perspective and way of being that should be constructed organically, using the inquiry questions of learners, beginning on the first day of school with the youngest learners. From this perspective it follows that such a perspective or way of being cuts across the curriculum. Similarly Zacher Pandya and Avila (2014) and Vasquez, Tate, and Harste (2013) note the need for critical literacy to be defined by individuals, within their own contexts, once they have learned about, and experienced, its central ideas. Comber discusses this in terms of teachers’ dispositions, which include their discursive resources and repertoires of practice (Comber, 2006). As such critical literacy can be described as “an evolving repertoire of practices of analysis and interrogation which move between the micro features of texts and the macro conditions of institutions, focusing on how relations of power work through these practices” (Comber, 2013, p. 589). Janks (2010), Kamler (2001), and Luke (2013) have noted more recently the importance of not only analyzing text but also designing and producing it as well. In this regard, equally important is to understand the position(s) from which we analyze text and also the position(s) from which we design and produce texts.

Critical Literacy in Practice around the Globe

Critical literacy has taken root differently in different places around the world but most notably in South Africa (Granville, 1993; Janks, 1993a, 2010; Janks et al., 2013), Australia and New Zealand (Comber, 2001, 2016; Luke, 2000; Morgan, 1997; O’Brien, 2001), and the United States and Canada (Larson & Marsh, 2015; Lewison, Leland, & Harste, 2014; Pahl & Rowsell, 2011; Vasquez, 2001, 2010, 2014b).

For instance, in South Africa, Hilary Janks (1993a, 1993b, 2010, 2014) used critical literacy as a tool in the struggle against apartheid. Her work focused primarily on young adults and adolescents “to increase students’ awareness of the way language was used to oppress the black majority, to win elections, to deny education, to construct others, to position readers, to hide the truth, and to legitimate oppression” (2010, p. 12). To this end, she produced Critical Language Awareness (CLA) materials for use with older children in South African schools (Janks et al., 2013). In Australia, critical materials were created, in the form of workbooks, to deconstruct literary texts (Mellor, Patterson, & O’Neill, 1987, 1991). Also in Australia, work deriving from postcolonial theory, was produced by Freemantle Press (Martino, 1997; Kenworthy & Kenworthy, 1997). Some of these materials informed work done in middle school and high school settings by educators and researchers such as Morgan (1992, 1994), Gilbert (1989), and Davies (1993).

Critical literacy work with younger children began to take place in the 1990s in Australia, where Barbara Comber’s work has been very influential. In particular, her work with Jenny O’Brien on creating spaces for critical literacy in an elementary school classroom, using newspaper and magazine ads, has been highly cited in the literature (O’Brien, 2001). In the United States and Canada, Vivian Vasquez’s work with children between ages three to five opened the field for exploration in settings involving very young children by using their inquiries about the world around them to question issues of social justice and equity, using the everyday as text (i.e., food packaging, media ads, popular culture), as well as children’s literature. Although there are growing accounts of critical literacy work in early years classrooms (Sanchez, 2011; Vander Zanden, 2016; Vander Zanden & Wohlwend, 2011), more examples of practice are needed as demonstrations of possibility in school settings with young children.

Earlier critical literacy work in early childhood and elementary settings focused on critically reading and deconstructing texts as a way to help students question versions of reality in the world around them. For example, in Australia, O’Brien (2001) explored ways in which Mother’s Day ads worked to position readers of such texts in particular ways. She described this work as “helping her children probe representations of women, and setting them purposeful reading, writing, and talking tasks” (p. 52). At around the same time, researchers such as Ivanič (1998) and Kamler (2001) began highlighting critical writing in their work with older children. Janks (2010) refers to this as an important move that enabled us to think where we might go after critically reading a text. She notes, “because texts are constructed word by word, image by image, they can be deconstructed—unpicked, unmade, the positions produced for the reader laid bare” (Janks, 2010, p. 18). A space is thus created for us to think about “how texts may be rewritten and how multimodal texts can be redesigned” (Janks, 2010, p. 19). Such perspectives further informed the work of educators and researchers of critical literacy. Comber and Nixon (2014), for instance, attended “to the importance of children’s agency through text production and related social action” (p. 81). Examples of this include work done by Vasquez (2001, 2004, 2010, 2014b) in building critical curriculum using her preschool students’ inquiry questions about inequities within their school as a way to disrupt and dismantle such inequity and create new more equitable practices and places in which to engage in such practices. Reading the world as a text that could be deconstructed and reconstructed created a space for Vasquez and her students to disrupt and rewrite problematic school practices. As noted by Janks (2010), “if repositioning text is tied to an ethic of social justice then redesign can contribute to the kind of identity and social transformation that Freire’s work advocates” (p. 18).

The notion of design and redesign was introduced to the field through the New London Group (1996) in their paper on multiliteracies. Kress and his colleagues (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006; Mavers, 2011) extend this work stating the importance of design as “the shaping of available resources into a framework which can act as a blueprint for the production of the object, entity, or event” (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006, p. 50). Janks (2003) refers to this as “a pedagogy of reconstruction,” while McKinney (2016) calls this transformative pedagogy. This pedagogy is integral to one of the most notable models to inform critical literacy practice, Janks’ Interdependent Model (Janks, 2010).

Critical literacy is also being used in state jurisdictions such as Ontario in Canada and Queensland in Australia, where governments have endorsed its use in school curricula. Its use is also growing in emerging and post colonial contexts (Norton, 2007; Lo et al., 2012). For instance, in her work in Karachi, Pakistan, Norton (2007) notes that students made frequent reference to the relationship between literacy, the distribution of resources, and international inequities. In Hong Kong, Lo et al. (2012) reported on “working with students to understand the social and political framing and consequences of texts” (p. 121). With regards to such work Luke (2004) has argued for the need to do justice to the lived experiences of physical and material deprivation in diverse communities throughout the globe. As such critical literacy should be adopted and adapted and should continue to emerge across a spectrum of political economies, nation states, and systems from autocratic/theocratic states to postcolonial states not only as an epistemic stance but also as a political and culturally transgressive position that works to create spaces for transformative social actions that can contribute to the achievement of a more equitable social order.

Influential Models

Different orientations to critical literacy have resulted in different models that impact critical pedagogy. Three influential models, in particular will be addressed here: Freebody and Luke’s Four Resources Model, Janks’ Interdependent Model, and Green’s 3D Model of Literacy.

Allan Luke and Peter Freebody have played a central role in making critical literacy accessible across continents. In particular their Four Resources Model (Luke & Freebody, 1999) has been widely adapted for use in classrooms from preschool to tertiary education settings. Their model focuses on different literacy practices that readers and writers should learn. These practices are learning to be code-breakers—recognizing, understanding, and using the fundamental features of written text such as the alphabet; learning to be text participants—using their own prior knowledge to interpret and make meaning from and bring meaning to text; understanding how to use different text forms; and becoming critical consumers of those forms—learning to critically analyze text and understand that texts are never neutral. Colin Lankshear and Michelle Knobel (2004) challenge Luke and Freebody’s model claiming it does not support literacy practices in a digitized world or for those who are “digitally at home”; those comfortable with and competent in using new technologies. In turn they offer examples of the kind of roles related to literacy practices in a digitized world assumed by authors of digital texts. These roles are as text designer, one who designs and produces multimedia or digital texts; text mediator or broker, one who summarizes or presents aspects of texts for others such as a blogger; text bricoleur, one who constructs or creates text using a range or collection of available things; and text jammer, one who re-presents text it in some way, such as by adding new words or phrases to an image as a way to subvert the original meaning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2004).

Larson and Marsh (2015), however, state that Lankshear and Knobel’s (2004) model focuses primarily on text production rather than text analysis. In comparison, Hilary Janks (2010, 2014) in her model for critical literacy includes both text analysis and text design as integral elements. Janks’ model centers on a set of interdependent elements—namely access, domination/power, diversity, and design/re-design. She argues “different realizations of critical literacy operate with different conceptualizations of the relationship between language and power by foregrounding one or other of these elements” (Janks, 2010, p. 23). She notes that these complementary and competing positions speak to the complexities of engaging with critical literacies and that they are crucially interdependent.

More recently, Comber reflected, “originally these approaches did not foreground the spatial dimensions of critical literacy”(2016, p. 11). Comber argues that insights from theories of space and place and literacy studies can create opportunities for designing and enacting culturally inclusive curriculum to support the needs of diverse learners. As such, in her work, one of the models she draws from is Green’s 3D Model of Literacy. This model is a multidimensional framework which argues that there are always three dimensions of literacy simultaneously at play: the operational, learning how the language works and ways that texts can be structured; the cultural, which involves the uses of literacy and in particular the ways that cultural learning is involved with content learning; and the critical, the ways in which we act and see in the world, along with how literacy can be used to shape lives in ways that better serve the interests of some over others. As such, Green’s model is a useful frame for unpacking links between literacy, place, and culture.

Debate, Controversy, and Critical Literacy

In spite of advances in the field with regards to critical literacy, there is still confusion about the difference between “critical” from the Enlightenment period, which focused on critical thinking and reasoning, and “critical” from Marx as an analysis of power. The debate and controversy around this continues. Definitions for critical literacy are often at the center of such debates, which are likely in response to attempts by some educators and researchers to pin down a specific definition for critical literacy. Theorists and educators including Comber (2016), Vasquez (2010, 2014b), and Luke (2014) maintain that as a framework for engaging in literacy work, it should look, feel, and sound different. As previously discussed, the models used as part of one’s critical literacy toolkit help contribute to the kinds of work one might accomplish from such a perspective. Critical literacy should also be used as a resource for accomplishing different sorts of life work depending on the context in which it is used as a perspective for teaching, learning, and participating with agency in different spaces and places. Vasquez (2010, 2014b) has referred to this framing as a way of being, where she has argued that critical literacy should not be an add-on but a frame through which to participate in the world in and outside of school. Such a frame does not necessarily involve taking a negative stance; rather, it means looking at an issue or topic in different ways, analyzing it, and being able to suggest possibilities for change and improvement. In this regard critical literacies can be pleasurable and transformational as well as pedagogical and transgressive.

Consequently, there is no such thing as a critical literacy text. Rather there are texts through which we may better be able to create spaces for critical literacies. The world as text, however, can be read from a critical literacy perspective, especially given that what constitutes a text has changed. For instance, a classroom can be read as a text, and water bottles can also be read as text (Janks, 2014). What this means is that issues and topics of interest that capture learners’ interests, based on their experiences, or artifacts with which they engage in the material world, as they participate in communities around them, can and should be used as text to build a curriculum that has significance in their lives.

Key Aspects of Critical Literacy

In spite of the fact that critical literacy does not have a set definition or a normative history, the following key aspects have been described in the literature. It should be noted that such key aspects or tenets would likely take different shape depending on one’s orientation to critical literacy.

  • Critical literacy should not be a topic to be covered or a unit to be studied. Instead it should be looked on as a lens, frame, or perspective for teaching throughout the day, across the curriculum, and perhaps beyond. What this means is that critical literacy involves having a critical perspective or way of being.

  • While working across the curriculum, in the content areas, diverse students’ cultural knowledge (drawn from inside the classroom and the children’s everyday worlds, homes, and communities), their funds of knowledge (Gonzales, Moll, & Amanti, 2006), and multimodal and multilingual practices (Lau, 2012) should be used to build curriculum. Because students learn best when what they are learning has importance in their lives, using the topics, issues, and questions that they raise should therefore be an important part of creating the classroom curriculum.

  • From a critical literacy perspective the world is seen as a socially constructed text that can be read. The earlier students are introduced to this idea, the sooner they are able to understand what it means to be researchers of language, image, spaces, and objects, exploring such issues as what counts as language, whose language counts, and who decides as well as explore ways texts can be revised, rewritten, or reconstructed to shift or reframe the message(s) conveyed. As such, texts are never neutral. What this means is that all texts are created from a particular perspective with the intention of conveying particular messages. As such these texts work to position readers in certain ways. We therefore need to question the perspective of others.

  • Texts are socially constructed and created or designed from particular perspectives. As such, they work to have us think about and believe certain things in specific ways. Just as texts are never neutral, the ways we read text are also never neutral. Each time we read, write, or create, we draw from our past experiences and understanding about how the world works. We therefore should also analyze our own readings of text and unpack the position(s) from which we engage in literacy work.

  • Critical literacy involves making sense of the sociopolitical systems through which we live our lives and questioning these systems. This means our work in critical literacy needs to focus on social issues, such as race, class, gender, or disability and the ways in which we use language to shape our understanding of these issues. The discourses we use to take up such issues work to shape how people are able to—or not able to—live their lives in more or less powerful ways as well as determine such ways of being as who is given more or less powerful roles in society.

  • Critical literacy practices can be transformative and contribute to change inequitable ways of being and problematic social practices. As such, students who engage in critical literacy from a young age are likely going to be better able to contribute to a more equitably and socially just world by being better able to make informed decisions regarding such issues as power and control, practice democratic citizenship, and develop an ability to think and act ethically.

  • Text design and production are essential to critical literacy work. These practices can provide opportunities for transformation. Text design and production refer to the creation or construction of multimodal texts and the decisions that are part of that process. This includes the notion that it is not sufficient to simply create texts for the sake of “practicing a skill.” If students are to create texts they ought to be able to let those texts do the work intended. For instance, if students are writing surveys or creating petitions, they should be done with real-life intent for the purpose of dealing with a real issue. If students write petitions, they should be able to send them to whomever they were intended.

  • Finally, critical literacy is about imagining thoughtful ways of thinking about reconstructing and redesigning texts, images, and practices to convey different and more socially just and equitable messages and ways of being that have real-life effects and real-world impact. For instance critically reading a bottle of water as a text to be read could result in examining the practice of drinking bottled water and changing that practice in support of creating a more sustainable world.

New Directions

New directions in the field of critical literacy include finding new ways to engage with multimodalities and new technologies (Comber, 2016; Janks & Vasquez, 2010; Nixon, 2003; Nixon & Comber, 2005; Larson & Marsh, 2015), engaging with spatiality, time, and space (Dixon, 2004), place-based pedagogies (Comber, 2016; Comber & Nixon, 2014), working across the curriculum in the content areas (Comber & Nixon, 2014; Janks, 2014; Vasquez, 2017), and working with multilingual learners (Lau, 2012, 2016). These new directions for critical literacy, amongst others that may develop, reiterate and remind us of what educators who have been working in the field of critical literacy for some time have maintained (Comber, 2016; Janks, 2014; Luke, 2014; Vasquez, 2014b)—that there is no correct or universal model of critical literacy. Instead “how educators deploy the tools, attitudes, and philosophies is utterly contingent … upon students’ and teachers’ everyday relations of power, their lived problems and struggles” (Luke, 2014, p. 29) and the ways in which teachers are able to navigate the (P)politics of the places and spaces in which their work unfolds. Janks insists that critical literacy is essential to the ongoing project of education across the curriculum (Janks, 2014). She notes,

in a perfect world in which social differences did not determine who gets access to resources and opportunity, we would still need critical literacy to help us read the texts that construct the politics of everyday life. In the actual world—where a 17-year-old boy sells one of his kidneys for an iPad; … where millions of people lack access to drinking water or sanitation—the list is endless—it is even more important that education enables young people to read both the word and the world critically.

(Janks, 2010, p. 349)

as one way to engage learners in powerful and pleasurable literacies that could contribute to creating a more critically informed and just world.

Further Reading

Comber, B. (2013). Critical literacy in the early years: Emergence and sustenance in an age of accountability. In J. Larson & J. Marsh (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy (pp. 587–601). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Comber, B. (2016). Literacy, place, and pedagogies of possibility. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Dixon, K. (2010). Literacy, power, and the schooled body: Learning in time and space. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Janks, H. (2010). Literacy and power. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Share, J. (2009). Young children and critical media literacy. In D. Kellner & R. Hammer (Eds.), Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches (pp. 126–151). New York: Peter Lang Publishers.Find this resource:

Kamler, B. (2001). Relocating the personal: A critical writing pedagogy. New York: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

Lewison, M., Leland, C., & Harste, J. C. (2014). Creating critical classrooms: Reading and writing with an edge (2d ed.). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Luke, Allan (2013). Regrounding critical literacy: Representation, facts and reality. In M. Hawkins (Ed.), Framing languages and literacies: Socially situated views and perspectives (pp. 136–148). Routledge: New York.Find this resource:

Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2011). Artifactual critical literacy: A new perspective for literacy education. Berkeley Review of Education, 2(2), 129–151.Find this resource:

Vasquez, V. (2014). Negotiating critical literacies with young children: 10th anniversary edition. New York: Routledge-LEA.Find this resource:

Zacher Pandya, J., & Ávila, J. (Eds.). (2014). Moving critical literacies forward: A new look at praxis across contexts. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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Comber, B. (2001). Negotiating critical literacies. School Talk, 6(3), 1–3.Find this resource:

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Comber, B. (2013). Critical literacy in the early years: Emergence and sustenance in an age of accountability. In J. Larson & J. Marsh (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy (pp. 587–601). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Comber, B. (2016). Literacy, place, and pedagogies of possibility. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Comber, B., & Nixon, H. (2014). Critical literacy across the curriculum: learning to read, question, and rewrite designs. In J. Zacher Pandya & J. Avila (Eds.), Moving critical literacies forward: A new look at praxis across contexts (pp. 83–97). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

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