Critical Literacy: A Literature Review

Cara M. Mulcahy, Central Connecticut State University

Critical literacy is a mindset; a way of viewing and interacting with the world. It is not merely a method or an approach to the teaching of literacy or the language arts. Much has been written on the topic of critical literacy of late and as is evident from many of these writings, it is important that we establish the understanding that critical literacy is a philosophy rather than “a set of methods or techniques” (McDaniels, 2004, p. 272). Critical literacy theories as set forth by Freire “advocate for a sweeping transformation in ways of thinking rather than specific teaching strategies or techniques” (McDaniels, 2004, pp. 473-474). As such, critical literacy examines texts in order to identify and challenge social constructs, ideologies, underlying assumptions, and the power structures which intentionally and unintentionally perpetuate social inequalities and injustices. Critical literacy aims to delve deeply into sociopolitical and sociocultural issues embedded in texts in order to identify the root causes of social inequalities and injustices.

Critical literacy, the philosophy

When discussing critical literacy one has to first consider its philosophical underpinnings. Without doubt, one of the most significant and influential books in the field of critical literacy is Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire, in this book, sets forth his understanding of power relations within society and the ways in which they manifest themselves in the classroom. Freire draws attention to the power differential in the classroom between the teacher and the student which leads to the banking method of education. The banking method of education is an education whereby students are fed information by a teacher who is viewed as an expert and a dispenser of knowledge. Therefore, a child’s own life experience goes unacknowledged. As a result, in the banking method it is the teacher who holds all the power. There is no power sharing between students and teacher. The banking method can, in turn, lead to resistance on the part of the students. Because the students may feel as though another person’s belief system or culture is being imposed on them they resist what the educator has to offer.

Critical literacy, on the other hand, acknowledges the student’s life experiences and includes it in the curriculum. When implementing critical literacy, one can not follow a predetermined curriculum as it is the students’ interests, motivations, and life experiences that create and drive the curriculum. Power is shared between students and teachers. This is what Irwin (1996) refers to as a “power-to/powerwith” relationship and what Shor (1992) refers to as the third idiom: a place where the teacher’s academic culture and the students’ everyday cultures meet to create a new culture specific to their classroom. Understanding Freire’s contribution to critical literacy is important because through his work we come to understand that critical literacy is not simply a method of teaching. It is a philosophy, a way of viewing and interacting with the world.

In the article, “Taking on critical literacy: The journey of newcomers and novices”, Lewison, Flint, and Van Sluys (2002) expand upon this understanding of critical literacy. Based on an extensive review of literature, the authors identify four dimensions of critical literacy: (1) disrupting the commonplace, (2) interrogating multiple viewpoints, (3) focusing on sociopolitical issues, and (4) taking action and promoting social justice.

In disrupting the commonplace, critical literacy provides ways to challenge common assumptions: those aspects of our everyday lives that we traditionally accept without question. Disrupting the common place encourages us to “use language and other sign systems to recognize implicit modes of perception and to consider new frames from which to understand experiences” (Lewison, Flint & Van Sluys, 2002, p. 383). In so doing we problematize all subjects of study and understand existing knowledge as a historical product, we interrogate texts by identifying how we are being positioned by the text, we include “popular culture and media as a regular part of the curriculum for purposes of pleasure and for analyzing how people are positioned and constructed by television, video games, comics, toys, etc,” (p. 383) we develop a language of critique, and we study language to “analyze how it shapes identity, constructs cultural discourses and supports or disrupts the status quo” (Lewison, et al., 2002, p.383).

When interrogating multiple viewpoints we reflect on how the story might be different if told from somebody else’s perspective. In so doing we become aware of whose voice is being included in the text and whose voice is being omitted from the text. We begin to understand that there may be conflicting opinions and points of views surrounding any one issue which is one of the reasons why dialogue is important to critical literacy. Without speaking and dialoguing with one another, we disallow ourselves the opportunity to hear and possibly understand the multiple viewpoints that surround any one topic.

Focusing on sociopolitical issues means acknowledging that education is political as are curricula and textbooks. Teaching, therefore, is not a neutral act “yet often it takes place with no attention given to how sociopolitical systems, power relationships, and language are intertwined and inseparable from our teaching” (Lewison, Flint & Van Sluys, 2002, p. 383). Critical literacy draws attention to the power relationships in society and in education. Critical literacy moves beyond the personal to understand “the sociopolitical systems to which we belong,” (p. 383) it challenges the “unquestioned legitimacy of unequal power relationships by studying the relationship between language and power,” (p. 383) it uses literacy to engage in the politics of daily life, and it redefines literacy as a “form of cultural citizenship and politics that increases opportunities for subordinate groups to participate in society and as an ongoing act of consciousness and resistance” (Lewison et al, 2002, p. 383).

The fourth dimension, taking action and promoting social justice, means engaging in reflection and action to empower oneself and others to become agents of change. As with the other dimensions identified by Lewison, Flint & Van Sluys, using and analyzing language as a part of our everyday lives is important. One needs to be able to use language so as to “exercise power to enhance everyday life and to question practices of privilege and injustice” (p. 384). It also means analyzing language to be able to identify how it is used to maintain domination and legitimize knowledge, power, and culture (Lewison, et al, 2002, p. 384).

In Critical literacy: A way of thinking, a way of life, McDaniel (2006), introduces pre-service teachers to critical literacy. McDaniel’s book is important to the literature on critical literacy because in it she identifies a need for teaching critical literacy at the university level. According to her study, many teacher-education students identify the purpose of education as that of preparing students for “getting along in the world” (p. 147). McDaniel notes, “[f]or the most part, the participants thought education was about functioning or surviving in the world, with a focus on individual development. School should be ‘fun,’ but the focus is on ‘getting along in the world’ and all that term implies – conformity, compliance, and fitting in” (p. 138). Critical literacy challenges the idea that the purpose of education is for “getting along in the world.” Critical literacy teaches for transformation and liberation by encouraging students to question and challenge social constructions, ideologies and “the systems within which we live everyday” (Foss, 2002, p. 394). Although uncomfortable at times, “the road towards equality is neither certain nor easy, but as teachers we must continue to travel it” (Christensen, 2000, p. 98).

Another important aspect of McDaniel’s book is that it demonstrates how literature, without critical examination, can perpetuate the status quo, the dominant culture and legitimate certain ideologies, traditions, assumptions, and power relations. McDaniel argues that there is not a “good or bad” time to introduce children to critical literacy. When people raise concerns about the age appropriateness of controversial topics, McDaniel responds, “ideas that adults deem disturbing or forbidden are often avoided, despite children’s possible desire to learn more about them. Ironically, such taboo topics pervade mainstream media. Rather than examining underlying ideologies and social structures from which these messages arise, we frequently strive to maintain children’s ‘innocence’ by filtering out what we consider to be overly realistic or disturbing texts” (McDaniel, 2006, p. 50).

Implementation of critical literacy

When examining literature focusing on the implementation of critical literacy, certain commonalities emerge: (1) in all cases the lessons build on the students’ lives and relate the learning to the students’ lives, (2) the lessons incorporate some or all of the four dimensions of critical literacy as identified by Lewison, Flint and Van Sluys, (3) the lessons introduce students to a variety of texts ranging from picture books to cartoons and from novels to websites, and (4) as students and teachers became more familiar with critical literacy the questions raised and the discussions that follow become more in-depth underscoring the fact that critical literacy is a process that needs time to develop.

Building from the students lives:

Because students ought to be personally invested in their learning, it is crudal that the curriculum not be predetermined (Christensen, 2000; Chafel, Flint, Hammel & Pommeral et al. 2007; Shor, 1992; Vasquez, 2004). When teaching for critical literacy, teachers and students come together to create the curriculum. A critical literacy curriculum “is one that cannot be prepackaged or preplanned. It is the kind of curriculum that deliberately ‘makes significant’ diverse children’s cultural and social questions about everyday life. It arises as teacher and children tune in to issues of social justice and equity that unfold through classroom discussion and begin to pose critical questions” (Vasquez, 2004, p. xv). This allows for students to become more invested in their learning and for a more equal sharing of power between students and teacher: In order to do this and still meet the demands of mandated curricula and standardized tests, Vasquez suggests becoming very familiar with what is required and then “negotiate spaces to engage in critical literacy practices” (p. 31).

In Young children. social issues. and critical literacy: Stories of teachers and researchers, Chafel, Flint, Hammel, and Pomeroy (2007) provide examples of how they successfully negotiate their curricula to focus on the theme of poverty. The theme of poverty became a focus because many conversations, initiated by students, dealt with issues of poverty and because “one in five children in the United States under the age of six lives in Poverty” (p. 73). Activities such as writing thank-you notes to a local bakery for donating food to their shelter, creating short films to convey information about advertising strategies, and growing a class vegetable garden to contribute food to a local “community kitchen” emerged from students’ interests and lives. Read alouds of Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen, Sister Annes’ Hands and Tomas and the Library Lady were also incorporated into lessons to enrich and extend class discussions relating to the theme of poverty.

Similarly in Teaching for critical literacy: An ongoing necessity to look deeper and beyond, Michael Michell (2006), developed the unit “Alternative press and need for alternatives” (p. 43) following a series of conversations with faculty and students which, “revealed how hungry students were for something other than the readily available sources, predominantly Fox, CNN International, BBC International, and a variety of Brazilian television news programs”. It is important to note that negotiating the curriculum with our students and creating spaces to integrate critical literacy into our lessons “does not mean giving up teaching the core ideals and skills of the class; it means using the energy of their connection to drive us through the content” (Christensen, 2000, p. 5). When negotiating the curriculum, “the point is not to teach a certain novel or a set of facts about literature, but to engage students in a dialogue, to teach them to find connections between their lives, literature, and society” (Christensen, 1999, p. 182).

Four dimensions of critical literacy:

As previously discussed, Lewison, Flint and Van Sluys (2002) have identified four dimensions important to critical literacy: (1) disrupting the commonplace, (2) interrogating multiple viewpoints, (3) focusing on sociopolitical issues, and (4) taking action and promoting social justice. In the literature on the implementation of critical literacy several, or all, of the dimensions are evident in the lessons. For example, in the book Critical literacy: Enhancing students’ comprehension of text by McLaughlin and Devoogd (2004) the teaching of critical literacy is organized around these four dimensions. The authors provide numerous examples of how texts can be introduced to elementary and middle school students in a way that engages the reader in problem posing, challenging social constructs, examining alternative perspectives, and looking for the bias in the texts. The four dimensions of critical literacy are also clearly evident throughout Linda Christensen’s book Reading. writing and rising up, and in the edited book Education is politics: Critical teaching across differences. K-12.

In her article, “Peeling the onion: Teaching critical literacy with students of privilege,” Foss (2002) engages the students in problematizing systems, challenging commonplace, realizing multiple viewpoints and raising awareness of privilege. To do this Foss organized the teaching of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee around the following:

  • examination of the institution of school and how it functions in our lives;
  • identification of individuals’ multiple subject positions and development of an understanding that experiences, such as reading, are socially constructed;
  • recognition and problematization of the privilege that permeates our lives. (p. 395)

By engaging students in a privilege walk and an intersection of identity activity and by reading and responding to a series of texts, Foss’s students were “identifying and problematizing the systems within which we five everyday” (Foss, 2002, p. 394). Michell in his article also allows students to problematize the systems in which they operate explaining, “[t]eaching for critical literacy must be an ongoing and proactive project, one that cultivates a global citizenry that reads the world, problematizes it, and takes action to make it a better place for the ‘decent survival of all'” (Michell, 2006, p. 42). He and his students do this by engaging in a unit that examines the need for alternative press, and by grappling with questions such as, “Does war challenge us to be tully human?” (p. 43).

A variety of texts

Because critical literacy is concerned with the analysis of all kinds of texts, a variety of materials and resources can be used when teaching for critical literacy. Text is not limited to a traditional understanding of reading, but instead includes all things that can be read. McDaniel (2004) explains,

Critical literacy transcends conventional notions of reading and writing to incorporate critical thinking, questioning, and transformation of self or one’s world. Additional~. definitions of critical literacy usually consider “text” to be anything that can be “read” which leads to infinite possibilities. Some would argue that a T-shirt, graffiti, a cereal box, or a rock all can be “read” as texts. Essentially, a person can “read,” interpret, question, and “rewrite” almost any aspect of his or her world. (p. 474)

lessons discussed in this review of the literature use picture books, novels, plays, videos, cartoons, and the internet when teaching for critical literacy. Harste, 2003, uses a UNICEF poster to convey the way in which critical literacy can be used to read a text. If we are to read the world as well as the word, then we need to include all sorts of texts in our classroom instruction. Christensen points out,” [w]e must teach students how to ‘read’ not only novels and science texts, but cartoons, politicians, schools, workplaces, welfare offices, and Jenny Craig ads. We need to get students to ‘read’ where and how public money is spent. We need to get students to ‘read’ the inequitable distribution of funds for schools” (Christensen, 2000, p. vii).

Critical Literacy as a process

As is evident in the article by Chatel, Flint, Hammel and Pomeroy (2007) the more we engage in the teaching of critical literacy the more comfortable we become with it. While observing Jane Hammel’s classroom, Amy Flint noticed a significant change in Jane’s teaching between the spring of 2000 and the fall of 2003. Following a reading of Tomas and the Library Lady, the conversation in the fan of 2003 was more dynamic and enriching than the conversation that followed a reading of the same text in the spring of 2000. Flint explains, “Jane was more cognizant of bringing the children’s lives and experiences into the discussion.” Furthermore, Jane “did not steer away from the more difficult issues related to migrant farming and poverty. In so doing, the children’s talk became more complex and substantive” (Chatel et al. 2007, p. 78). Flint also noticed that the discussions surrounding the book were broader and moved beyond the text.

This account suggests that the comfort level one has with the teaching of critical literacy evolves over time. As with many educational philosophies, theories, and strategies they need time to develop. When asked by others how to teach for critical literacy, Michell (2007) advises “begin with one unit a semester, or even a year and over time their teaching and curriculum would transform and maintain a constant state of renewal” (p. 45). Coming to understand critical literacy is a process and the teaching of critical literacy consists of “fluid ideas that require continual reflection so that they might become more meaningful for learners” (Foss, 2002, p. 401).

Who benefits from critical literacy?

Everyone benefits from critical literacy and critical literacy is appropriate for students of all ages. By opening up the curriculum to address social issues students in elementary school “can grapple with new understanding of the world and their place in it” (Chafel, Flint, Hammel & Pomeroy, 2007, p. 73). Students in middle and secondary school benefit from critical literacy as they are experiencing a transformation that ‘unleashes kids’ inner strengths as they struggle to identify the unique gifts they bring to the world” (Foss, 2002, p. 394}. Similarly, undergraduate students and graduate students in teacher education programs need to be exposed to critical literacy (McDaniel, 2006).

Critical literacy not only benefits students in inner city schools, it benefits all students regardless of location. Students from all socioeconomic groups, races, ethnicities and religions need critical literacy. To teach critical literacy to only a select group of students does a disservice to everyone as it denies students a complete education and it leaves students “miseducated to the extent that they receive only a partial and biased education” (Nieto, 1996, p. 312). Therefore it is important that, “{e]very teacher in every classroom of every child of every age everywhere in the world should ask what he or she can do to cultivate students who will make the world a more positive place for all its inhabitants” (Michell, 2006, p. 45).


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