Critical Literacy

The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.

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Critical Literacy

The notion of promoting critical literacy and the adoption of various forms of critical classroom pedagogy has proven a controversial issue for critics of contemporary English teaching, and for educators working in the field of English curriculum. Borne out of the emancipatory counter-culture of the post-1960s (Medway, 1990) and related concerns about the socio-cultural dimensions of schooling, the practice of critical literacy involves the analysis of discourses within a text and the adoption of a questioning attitude toward these. In this review of background literature relating to critical literacy I explore the inter-related relationship of ‘critical’ literacy to other constructions of literacy, identify the position of critical literacy in the current NSW curriculum, and address the main criticisms of this discourse that have been put forward.

In an analysis of meanings of literacy in North America, Britain and Australasia, Lankshear (1998) describes major constructions of literacy that appear in contemporary educational reform proposals. The first two categories of literacy construction identified – what Lankshear terms the ‘lingering basics’ and the ‘new basics’ – reflect ideas and debates that have been discussed here in previous sections on literacy and multiliteracies. While lingering basics (or ‘basic literacy’) is “framed in terms of mastering the building blocks of code breaking”, new basics approaches recognise the insufficiencies of decontextualised functional competencies in a post-industrial, information/services economy. More sophisticated, “abstract, symbolic-logical capacities” are seen as more necessary than in the past, and this includes the capacity to use higher order skills to think critically for the purposes of “analysis, solving problems and drawing conclusions” (Lankshear, 1998, pp.357-359). Here the concepts of critical thinking and communication are intertwined.

In another category of literacy construction termed ‘elite literacies’, Lankshear (1998) explores further the conceptualisation of critical literacy within educational reform. Elite literacies are described as comprising “high level mastery of subject or discipline literacies” and the resulting “command of the language and literature of subject disciplines enables critique, innovation, variation, diversification and refinement when applied to work” (p.360). One feature of critical literacy viewed as a component of elite literacy, however, is that:

…the critical dimension of knowledge work is valued mainly, if not solely, in terms of value-adding economic potential. This, however, is critical analysis and critical judgement directed toward innovation and improvement within the parameters of a field of enterprise, rather than criticism in larger terms that might hold the field and its applications and effects, or an enterprise and its goals, up to scrutiny. (Lankshear, 1998, p.361)

In making this observation, Lankshear identifies a major point of difference that arises in debates about critical literacy. While the notion of critical thinking in itself is seen as a positive skill to develop, other meanings and intentions that are attached to critical literacy theory can be viewed as either liberating and empowering, or alternatively, as inherently ‘left-wing’ threats of resistance against established institutions and dominant cultures.

The act of challenging the meaning of a text through critical reading takes the form of textual deconstruction, where readers identify the presumed centre of a text – the values and ideologies displayed by the author – and then ‘decentre’ these to draw attention to figures, events or materials that have been marginalised or ignored. Pope (2002) explains that:

There is, strictly, no ‘end’ or ultimate ‘point’ to the process of de- and recentring: there are always multiple absences which will help us realise a presence. Nor is there just one gap or silence which can be detected within the noisy fabric of a text. The value of such an activity, however, is that it encourages us to grasp texts creatively as well as critically. We weigh what they are or seem to say in relation to what they are not or might have said differently. (p.169)

Such acts of reading encourage the development of what Graham Parr has called a ‘culture of critique’, where a diversity of approaches and interpretations “open up interactions rather than…close down or simplify meanings” (Parr, 2001, p.159).

You will recall the explanation in section 2.3.1 that contemporary models of literacy involve the necessary inter-relation of critical dimensions of literacy with resources that engage operational and cultural practices (as theorised by Green, 1988/2002; Freebody and Luke, 1990/1999). Therefore, in addition to promoting a ‘culture of critique’, another advantage of critical literacy practices that has been theorised is their potential to draw in other aspects of learning about language. As Janks further argues, close critical reading involves the use of discourse analysis, which is not possible without explicit engagement with grammar in context (Janks, 2005). While operational and critical literacy can theoretically be combined in literacy learning however, teachers taking up a critical literacy approach “evidently feel marginalised by the reductivist strictures of mass standardised literacy testing” (Howie, 2002, p.46). This experience in Australia is also reported abroad, for example in the U.K. where “exam-based assessment, the teachers argue, has led to a narrowing of the curriculum and the adoption of pedagogical practices…which are inimical to the teachers’ conception of ‘good practice’ in English teaching” (Bousted, 2000, p.14).

Reviewing the ways in which critical literacy is actually represented in the official English curriculum documents from six Australian State Education Departments, Winch (2007) establishes that all states consider ‘literacy’ as including the ability to respond critically to texts, although some avoid direct use of the term. NSW is one state that was found to engage directly with critical literacy, naming it clearly and justifying its value at all stages of schooling. The NSW K-6 English syllabus for example mandates that students are involved in “questioning, challenging and evaluating texts” in order to “perceive how texts position readers to take particular view of people and events” (Board of Studies NSW, 1998, p.5). The NSW 7-10 English syllabus similarly details that critical literacy involves “an understanding of the ways in which values and attitudes are communicated through language, including how subject matter, point of view and language embody assumptions about gender, ethnicity and class” (Board of Studies NSW, 2002, p.79). The inclusion of such descriptions show that “while there is debate about critical literacy in the public domain, the relatively private domain of curriculum statements has accepted that students need critical literacy skills to develop their ability to read well” (Winch, 2007, p.53). Such descriptions also show that, in the stated curriculum at least, critical literacy in Australia is conceptualised as more than what Lankshear would term an ‘elite literacy’ practice, but as an empowered way of reading where cultural constructs, gaps and silences are questioned and challenged.

More recently, concerns about the classroom experience of critical literacy have been articulated by Wendy Morgan and Ray Misson, theorists who have historically been influential advocates of critical literacy in Australia. These theorists share a concern that, while the aims of critical literacy pedagogy remain sound, the lived reality of critical literacy in the classroom has led to a neglect of the ‘aesthetic’ – of both aesthetic texts and aesthetic reading practices – and a neglect of the development of readers who are disposed to receive and take pleasure in aesthetic works. While critical reading involves the reader adopting a questioning attitude, Morgan and Misson argue that this has seen to be unfairly applied to texts, in particular to poems, that are intended to be received aesthetically, explaining that when “a text has features that are characteristic of the aesthetic [these] become significant only if a reader comes along who recognises the signals and so undertakes a particular reading of the text” (2006, p.39).

In response to such claims that critical literacy has diminished or compromised engagement with aspects of the aesthetic, including reading for pleasure, Howie recounts experiences from his own classroom, explaining the pleasure that students took in exploring intertextuality and exercising Bakhtin’s notions of the dialogic nature of language (2008, p.70). Howie also refers to Pope’s definition (cited earlier in this section), which frames critical literacy as a means to ‘grasp texts creatively as well as critically’, by opening up possibilities for reading, and argues that Morgan and Mission’s denigration of critical literacy is inadequate as it denies the realities of curriculum realisation. In doing so their criticism of aesthetic neglect places the supposed ‘failings’ of critical literacy on teachers’ ‘clumsiness’, ‘misunderstanding’, political dogmatism and lack of comfort with traditional literary works (Howie, 2008, p.74). Howie argues that this view of a failing critical literacy project, neglectful of the aesthetic, is a manifestation of “a familiar and conservative trope: the spectral notion of a ‘golden age’” (p.74) which engages a misplaced sense of mourning and does little to take into account the voices and realised experiences of teachers and students.

In focus group discussions with literacy teachers Graham Parr encountered another tension, also related to classroom practice within democratic critical pedagogy, where teachers struggled to negotiate a curriculum approach that was open to different ideas and perspectives, but within which the teacher’s position in the classroom remained one of authority and strong influence. However, while Parr acknowledges “the risk of talking democratically and acting autocratically”, he also makes a strong argument for the need to nevertheless “resist the seduction of certainty as a refuge for intellectual engagement” and to “refuse the call to accept reductive versions of literacy” (Parr, 2001, p.159). It is this ‘seduction of certainty’ which, fundamentally, critical literacy development enables students and teachers alike to resist, and in doing so it is linked closely with the post-modern agenda of breaking down boundaries, exploring intertextuality and problematising subjectivities (Green, 1995). In the next section I discuss more closely the impact of postmodern theory on the English curriculum, in particular in relation to the use of literary theory, which has emerged as a widespread tool for critical reading in the senior curriculum especially.

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References:

Board of Studies NSW. (1998). English K-6 syllabus. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

Board of Studies NSW. (2002). English 7-10 syllabus. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.

Bousted, M. (2000). Rhetoric and practice in English teaching. English in Education, 34(1), 12-23.

Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(3), 7-16.

Green, B. (1988). Subject-specific literacy and school learning: A focus on writing. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 156-179.

Howie, M. (2002). ‘Selling a Drink with Less Sugar’: Considering English curriculum and pedagogy as the shaping of a certain sort of person in teaching year 8. English in Australia (134), 45-56.

Howie, M. (2008). Critical literacy, the future of English and the work of mourning. English in Australia, 43(3), 69-78.

Janks, H. (2005). Language and the design of texts. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 4(3), 97-110.

Lankshear, C. (1998). Meanings of literacy in contemporary educational reform proposals. Educational Theory, 48(3), 351-372.

Medway, P. (1990). Into the sixties: English and English society at a time of change. In I. Goodson & P. Medway (Eds.), Bringing English to order: The history and politics of a school subject (pp. 1-46). London, New York and Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

Morgan, W., & Misson, R. (2006). Critical literacy and the aesthetic: Transforming the English classroom. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Parr, G. (2001). A culture of critique? Professional and intellectual tensions in English teaching. English in Australia (129-130), 150-161.

Pope, R. (2002). The English Studies Book (2nd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.

Winch, J. (2007). Critical literacy and the politics of English teaching in the 21st century. English in Australia, 42(1), 49-55.

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  1. English curriculum: Contested territory | Kelli McGraw
  2. Literary theory and the postmodern turn | Kelli McGraw

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