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Literacy

How to foster critical literacy skills in your learners

By Michelle Casey

18 Jan 2023

A child walking to school hand in hand with his mother.

Critical literacy teaches students how to read and write in such a way as to empower, equip and inspire. In this blog, we will delve into critical literacy and how to foster critical literacy skills in your learners.

All forms of communication are social and political acts that can be used to influence people and lead to social change (Comber and Simpson, 2001). Whether debating a controversial topic or asking to borrow a pencil, the words your learners use, read and hear have subtextual and contextual meanings: critical literacy is the key to unlocking these. Furthermore, readers become active participants in the reading process (Freire, 1970).

Critical literacy skills allow your learners to delve deeper into a written text, questioning the intent of the author or the political motivations behind a plotline. But what exactly are the skills that come with critical literacy, and how can they be cultivated?

Critical literacy is a central thinking skill which involves questioning and examining ideas and texts. It explores the relationship between language and power within a text. According to Freire (1985), one of the aims of critical literacy is to read the word while also reading the world. Critical literacy is a discipline which requires the reader to synthesise, analyse, interpret, evaluate and respond to what they have read or listened to, applying it to socioeconomic context or their own prior knowledge.

Critical literacy examines the issue of power and promotes reflection, change and action.

Although there is no universal model for critical literacy, Lewison, Flint, and Van Sluys (2002) identified four basic dimensions of critical literacy that are widely regarded for use in the classroom.

Becoming aware of the hidden messages and challenging what has always been taken for granted.

Considering the different perspectives for viewing a problem and becoming aware of those who have no voice in a given text or setting.

Questioning the legitimacy of unequal power relations and examining status and privilege.

Using literacy to promote change and develop social activists who have the confidence to speak out against injustice.

Critical literacy is a fluid discipline, and the ‘shape’ of critical literacy may differ according to the learner's age and stage of learning. Below are a few of the key tenets of critical literacy - some of these elaborate on the dimensions above.

Critical literacy should be seen as a lens or perspective for teaching throughout the day and across the curriculum. It is not a standalone topic to be studied. Critical literacy involves fostering and facilitating perspective that gives learners an ongoing critical viewpoint of texts and practices. This helps learners to look for the truth behind the text and begin to identify those which aren’t entirely truthful or transparent.

Texts are never neutral, but rather socially constructed from particular viewpoints. They have the intention of promoting individual messages or ideas. Texts work to guide the reader into seeing things in a specific way and readers need to question the perspective of the writer. As learners develop the skill of questioning and analysing the writer’s perspective, they become more empowered.

When we read or write, we draw from our past experiences and interactions with the world and how it works. For this reason, learners must analyse their own reading of a text; they should reflect on the position from which they are engaging with the text. If a learner agrees with a text, then it is hard to read it critically. However, if a learner disagrees, or finds a text to be offensive, they will find it hard to engage with. To be critically literate, it is important to engage with a text on the terms of the writer.

Critical literacy should focus on social issues such as inequity of race, class, gender or disability. It should examine and question how we use language and other semiotic resources to mould our understanding of such issues. This can facilitate learners to become confident and empowered in their ability to make decisions or judgements.

Learners who are taught to engage in critical literacy practices from an early age are more able and prepared to make decisions regarding issues such as power and control; engage in democratic citizenship and develop the ability to think and act ethically (Vasquez et al, 2019).

Critical literacy is nurtured and developed when students are learning about issues which are relevant to their lives. As teachers, it is our job to show students how to assume agency and make a difference, no matter how small. This helps learners develop skills which are transferrable and can be used academically and in real-life situations.

Critical thinking is an essential skill that equips students to become independent, informed and responsible. It is the process of thinking about ideas or situations in order to fully understand them and their implications. Critical thinking helps students make important judgements and decisions.

Critical thinking fosters skills such as questioning, predicting, analysing, synthesising, identifying values and issues, examining opinions, detecting bias and distinguishing between alternatives in a given situation. It equips learners so that they are able to engage in more complex issues and questions, which may have no definitive, clear-cut solutions or answers.

Critical literacy refers to a particular aspect of critical thinking. It involves looking beyond the literal meaning of a text in order to identify what is present and what is missing. This helps to evaluate the text’s overall meaning and the intent of the author. Critical literacy explores issues related to fairness, equity and social justice.

There are many benefits of critical literacy:

  • Critically literate learners are aware that meaning is not found in a text in isolation.
  • Critical literacy enables learners to see things from different viewpoints (culturally, racially, etc).
  • It empowers learners to see things contextually (considering the time and place of events).
  • It fosters awareness in learners about important issues such as homelessness and racism in their community and the wider world.
  • Critically literate learners can actively analyse media content and identify possible bias.
  • In the modern age, where we are inundated with digital information, being critically literate can help prevent learners from ‘blindly’ accepting information as it is presented to them.

There can be challenges when implementing critical literacy in the classroom environment.

Critical literacy should take place throughout the school day and across the curriculum. As teachers, we need to ensure we are giving students this opportunity to engage in critical literacy. According to a study by Godhe and Andersson (2018), many opportunities to engage in critical literacy occur outside the classroom in peer interactions, so these rarely develop into further critical reflections. The study went on to conclude that a deliberate emphasis on critical literacy work in the design of tasks, especially those that include digital technologies, creates opportunities for students to develop competencies that support them in becoming confident users and producers of contemporary texts.

Another challenge with implementing critical literacy is that some teachers may feel anxious or uncomfortable in tackling issues that can be highly emotive. Added to this, parents’ views need to be considered: they may be opposed to certain issues being addressed and examined with their child. Controversial and emotive content should be explored in an age-appropriate way, and teachers should ensure learners have the prior knowledge to engage with complex topics, whether this is cultural capital or Tier 2 vocabulary.

A further challenge may be the practicalities of truly being able to do critical literacy justice. Some teachers feel (quite rightly!) that they are already juggling and navigating a crammed curriculum. They feel they are constrained by time limitations and other expectations which can make fitting critical literacy in a challenge.

Another roadblock of critical literacy is that if it became standardised (as opposed to having a somewhat vague and fluid definition), then it may become just a tick-box exercise, which is missing the point of what critical literacy is about (Aukerman, 2012).

Critical literacy can also be seen as too political, going against the constructs of childhood. Some sources believe it makes learners cynical at an early age. However, this "cynicism" may be crucial for unlocking critical thinking skills later in their academic journey.

As educators, we need to help and support learners to foster these critical literacy skills.

We can help learners to understand the power of language. They should be given the opportunity to examine the power relationships inherent in language use (Janks, 1993). It is important to make learners aware that language is not neutral - it always has an intent. As they become more aware of this, the more critically literate and better informed they can become.

Learners also need to be mindful of their own values and how that makes them receive or produce language.

An effective way to foster critical literacy and understand the power of language is to encourage learners to photograph, cut out, write down or bring into lessons examples of the language they see in their everyday lives. They could photograph billboards or graffiti, write down the messages they see on public transport, or bring in food packaging. This will help them ‘read’ their world with a critically literate eye.

Within critical literacy, learners should become adept at distinguishing between “truth” and “belief”. According to the director of the National Literacy Trust, ‘We must equip children with the critical literacy skills they need to spot fake news.’ It is essential that we teach learners how to navigate the news they are bombarded with, using an analytical mindset, which can be cultivated through critical literacy.

In a learning environment, students should be given the opportunity to practise their critical literacy skills by examining news found on TV, radio and online (social media, websites and apps). They should be supported and encouraged to discuss stories from the news, especially those they feel are affecting them.

As teachers, we can have an open dialogue with learners about how and why news is made. This helps students to decode these texts with confidence and authority; they can be in control of how what they read affects them.

We need to use the critical literacy lens to look at current events to evoke deeper thinking in our learners. They often ask questions outside the classroom; now we want to bring these questions into the classroom and discuss them, even if there is no definitive answer.

There is currently a wealth of issues to discuss in the classroom that are relevant to learners' lives. For instance, students could look at the recent behaviour of climate change activists. This invites discussion around the activists’ positive reasons for their disruptive, and sometimes reckless, behaviour.

Australian 5-8-year-olds compared the representations of 'mothers' in spam Mother’s Day catalogues with the lives of their real mothers to question the depiction of mothers (O’Brien, 1994).

In this way, O’Brien invited young learners to interrogate, examine, and compare texts and their own knowledge, and to question the authority of the text. The questions she asked included:

  • Who are the important people (powerful, good etc.) in the family created in this text?
  • How do they behave?
  • What kinds of words does the writer/illustrator think you should know about family members?
  • Who are the unimportant people in this family?
  • How can you tell that they are less/more important for the writer/illustrator?
  • How does this compare with your experience? (O’Brien & Comber, 2000)

Through her research, O’Brien found that many of her learners took up a socially critical position and applied this approach to other texts and tasks.

The implications are that through questioning learners and encouraging them to question, they can understand that texts are constructed by authors and illustrators who make calculated decisions about who and what to include, who and what not to include, and the scripts and actions assigned to different characters. This knowledge becomes crucial when examining literary texts in GCSEs and A-levels.

American first graders analysed the differences between multiple versions of the same story to explore different perspectives and the limits imposed by stereotypical ‘baddies’ and ‘goodies’ (Souto-Manning, 2009).

Souto-Manning juxtaposed different versions of The Three Little Pigs so learners could look at these versions side by side. This encouraged learners to ‘unpack’ the limitations that are put on characters when they are seen as ‘solely’ good or solely ‘bad’.

The implications are that any piece of text could be unpacked to look at underlying assumptions or expectations. It helps learners to challenge what has always been taken for granted.

The topics covered by Bedrock are linked with current issues rooted in the society where our young learners are growing up and having experiences. These topics also aim to get learners thinking and discussing these topics.

This builds up learners’ self-confidence in being able to both have and voice an opinion on such issues, developing learners' independence in being able to examine an issue and make a judgement or decision.

A combination of Bedrock’s points system, drip-feed and human-narrated feedback supports learners to take ownership of their learning, both when improving their vocabulary and grammar skills and when thinking critically about the bespoke texts and topics in Bedrock’s blocks.

Whether presenting new grammar and vocabulary through text messages, news articles, website pages or fictional stories, Bedrock immerses learners in the styles of texts they encounter in life.

Drive literacy progress through culturally enriching texts and activities built for mastery.