Critical literacy views readers as active participants in the reading process and invites them to move beyond passively accepting the text’s message to question, examine, or dispute the power relations that exist between readers and authors. It focuses on issues of power and promotes reflection, transformation, and action (Freire, 1970).THE PRINCIPLES OF CRITICAL LITERACY
The Principles of Critical Literacy (McLaughlin & DeVoogd, 2004) include a number of essential understandings and beliefs about the power relationship that exists between the reader and the author. The four principles follow:
1. Critical literacy focuses on issues of power and promotes reflection, transformation, and action. Whenever readers commit to understanding a text—whether narrative or expository—they submit to the right of the author to select the topic and determine the treatment of the ideas. For example, if we, as teachers, read a headline that says, “New Security Standards for Schools Cause Tax-Rate Increase,” we would recognize the power of the author of the article to name the problem and determine and express what he perceives to be the negative effects of increased security standards. In turn, we, as readers, may use our power to question that perspective and engage in reflection about whose voice might be missing, discounted, or silenced in the article. As a result, we might choose to represent the alternative view of the subordinated group—the schools—and change the title of the text to “Additional Security Measures Provide Greater Protection for Our Children.” The readers draw from their background knowledge to create this transformation, which might result in taking an action such as writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper or speaking to a group about the importance of school security. In addition, the readers may also gain a new appreciation of the effect of perspective in writing or even a new understanding of the possible positive costs of increased security. This is an example of how critical literacy focuses on issues of power and helps subjugated or oppressed groups, in this case the teachers, to help “politicize themselves and engage in action aimed at challenging existing structures of inequality and oppression” (Cummins & Sayers, 1995, p. 23). “The challenge is to adopt practices that will not only open up new possibilities but also will begin to deal with taking action” (O’Brien, 2001, p. 53). Good intentions or awareness of an unjust situation will not transform it. We must act on our knowledge.
This cycle of “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” is what Freire (1970, p. 36) calls praxis. By nature, this process is not passive but active, challenging and disrupting the ideal (Green, 2001) or commonplace (Lewison, Flint, & Van Sluys, 2002) for the purpose of relieving inequity and injustice.
2. Critical literacy focuses on the problem and its complexity.
Educational situations that are fairly intricate are often viewed from an essentialist—very simplistic—perspective. In critical literacy, rather than accepting an essentialist view, we would engage in problematizing—seeking to understand the problem and its complexity. In other words, we would raise questions and seek alternative explanations as a way of more fully acknowledging and understanding the complexity of the situation. For example, it would be essentialist to merely suggest that unmotivated students should receive an extrinsic reward for reading or be punished for not reading. Problematizing—or examining the complexity of this situation—would reveal that the lack of motivation is likely due to a variety of factors that may include poor-quality texts, students’ past reading experiences, classroom climate, self-efficacy, purpose, or limited opportunities to self-select, read, and discuss books in social settings.
3. Critical literacy strategies are dynamic and adapt to the contexts in which they are used.
There is no list of methods in critical literacy that work the same way in all contexts all the time. No technique that promotes critical literacy can be exported to another setting without adapting it to that context. As Freire (1998, p. xi) has observed, “It is impossible to export pedagogical practices without reinventing them.”
Comber (2001b, p. 271) has observed that when teachers and students are engaged in critical literacy, they “ask complicated questions about language and power, about people and lifestyle, about morality and ethics, and about who is advantaged by the way things are and who is disadvantaged”. In order to participate in such a classroom environment readers must play not only the roles of code breakers, meaning makers, and text users, but also the role of text critics (Luke & Freebody, 1999). In other words, readers need to understand that they have the power to envision alternate ways of viewing the author’s topic, and they exert that power when they read from a critical stance.
In any exploration of critical literacy, the teacher should constantly assess student responses to ensure that the experience is true to the philosophy and goals of critical literacy, although perhaps not consistent with the examples of others who practice critical literacy. For example, teachers may begin using an approach to critical literacy that is presented here or that they have seen working in another classroom, but upon reflecting on instructional goals and on what is happening in their classes, they may adapt the method to make it more applicable—more meaningful—in that particular context. The dynamic nature of critical literacy supports this type of adaptation. There is a sense of empowerment and confidence in the act of creation that cannot be achieved by copying. Even when a method has already been used, it is never quite the same in future applications. This is why those who are critically aware are fond of quoting Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet, who said, “Caminante, no hay camino, Se hace el camino al andar”—“Traveler, there is no road. The road is made as you walk” (1982, p. 142).
4. Critical literacy disrupts the commonplace by examining it from multiple perspectives.
Examining the point of view from which a text is written and brainstorming other perspectives that may or may not be represented, challenges students to expand their thinking and discover diverse beliefs, positions, and understandings (McLaughlin, 2001). It helps students to transition from accepting the text at face value to questioning both the author’s intent and the information as it is presented in the text. For example, social studies teachers might consider looking at Columbus’s explorations from multiple perspectives. In reflecting on whose voices are missing, the class may decide that the perspectives of the Tainos, the people who inhabited the island where Columbus first landed, or Columbus’s crew on the final voyage are not represented. Appreciation for and exploration of these alternative perspectives facilitates viewing situations from a critical stance (Lewison et al., 2002; McLaughlin, 2001).
Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students' Comprehension of Text, by Maureen McLaughlin and Glen DeVoogd. In this clear, easy-to-use resource, the authors present a sound instructional framework that is based on the latest theory and research and brought to life through a variety of theme-based classroom lessons for the primary, intermediate, and middle school grades!