What are the features of a critical literacy approach?

Critical Literacy
What is critical literacy?
Why is critical literacy important?
What are the features of a critical literacy approach?
What kinds of critical questions can we ask of texts?
What does critical literacy look like in the classroom?
Where can I find more ideas to use with students?
How does critical literacy link with literacy?
How do critical literacies inform the Essential Learnings Frameworks?
How do critical literacies inform the new English Senior Secondary syllabuses?
Where can I find out more about critical literacy?
What is critical literacy?
Although there are several versions of critical literacy, each underpinned by
different theoretical perspectives, all of them involve an active, challenging
approach to reading and textual practices. Critical literacy involves the analysis
and critique of the relationships among texts, language, power, social groups and
social practices. It shows us ways of looking at written, visual, spoken, multimedia
and performance texts to question and challenge the attitudes, values and beliefs
that lie beneath the surface.
Critical literacy includes:
examining meaning within texts
considering the purpose for the text and the composer’s motives
understanding that texts are not neutral, that they represent particular
views, silence other points of view and influence people’s ideas
questioning and challenging the ways in which texts have been constructed
analysing the power of language in contemporary society
emphasising multiple readings of texts. (Because people interpret texts in
the light of their own beliefs and values, texts will have different meanings
to different people.)
having students take a stance on issues.
providing students with opportunities to consider and clarify their own
attitudes and values.
providing students with opportunities to take social action.
Why is critical literacy important?
Our lifestyles are changing rapidly in a hi-tech, globalised world. Changing societal
structures, increasing social and cultural diversity and the marketing of ideas and
products through multimedia mean that we need to think about literacy for
lifelong learning in new ways. Information is reaching us in ways that hadn't been
invented fifteen years ago. We are swamped by masses of information from
sources across the globe. We need to be able to make meaning from the array of
multimedia, complex visual imagery, music and sound, even virtual worlds that
confront us each day in addition to written and spoken words.
Changes in society are occurring so rapidly that we need to take time to think
about whether they will have positive or negative effects upon our ways of living.
Asking questions such as:
In whose interest?
For what purpose?
Who benefits?
make changes problematic and encourage us to reflect upon them. Allan Luke
(1993) says
Literacy ... is as much about ideologies, identities and values as it is about codes
and skills.
Critical literacy provides us with ways of thinking that uncover social inequalities
and injustices. It enables us to address disadvantage and to become agents of
social change.
Critical literacy according to Wendy Morgan (1996) attempts to develop three
kinds of understanding:
the way texts and their discourses work to represent reality and define what
is necessary for us
a sympathetic understanding of the people who are affected (shaped) by
those discourses
ways we can engage with those texts and their debates
What are the features of a critical literacy approach?
We deconstruct the structures and features of texts. We ask questions of
the text. We consider the structure and style of the text and ask: For what
purpose has the text been constructed in this way?
We no longer consider texts to be timeless, universal or unbiased. Texts are
social constructs that reflect some of the ideas and beliefs held by some
groups of people at the time of their creation. As we examine the underlying
values and consider the ways in which we, as readers and viewers, are
positioned to view the world, we are able to develop opposing
We explore alternative readings. We consider what has been included and
what has been left out. Which aspects of life does the author value? If we
were to view the text from different perspectives, would we value those
aspects, too? Does the text present unequal positions of power?
We focus on the beliefs and values of the composer. We consider the time
and culture in which the text was created. In what ways might the views
represented in the text be similar to or different from the views that we hold
today? Are there psychological, social, cultural and/or political reasons for
the differences?
We work for social equity and change. As we begin to analyse the powerful
ways in which visual, spoken, written, multimedia and performance texts
work and we discover the ways in which our feelings, attitudes and values
are manipulated by language, we begin to operate powerfully within our
world. We are able to become agents of social change working towards the
removal of inequalities and injustices.
What kinds of critical questions can we ask of texts?
These questions can be asked of most spoken, written, visual, multimedia and
performance texts. They encourage students to question beliefs that are often
taken for granted.
Critical Literacy Questions
Textual purpose(s)
What is this text about? How do we know?
Who would be most likely to read and/or view this text and why?
Why are we reading and/or viewing this text?
What does the composer of the text want us to know?
Textual structures and features
are the structures and features of the text?
sort of genre does the text belong to?
do the images suggest?
do the words suggest?
kind of language is used in the text?
Construction of characters
How are children, teenagers or young adults constructed in this text?
How are adults constructed in this text?
Why has the composer of the text represented the characters in a particular
Gaps and silences
Are there ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’ in the text?
Who is missing from the text?
What has been left out of the text?
What questions about itself does the text not raise?
Power and interest
In whose interest is the text?
Who benefits from the text?
Is the text fair?
What knowledge does the reader/viewer need to bring to this text in order
to understand it?
Which positions, voices and interests are at play in the text?
How is the reader or viewer positioned in relation to the composer of the
How does the text depict age, gender and/or cultural groups?
Whose views are excluded or privileged in the text?
Who is allowed to speak? Who is quoted?
Why is the text written the way it is?
Whose view: whose reality?
What view of the world is the text presenting?
What kinds of social realities does the text portray?
How does the text construct a version of reality?
What is real in the text?
How would the text be different if it were told in another time, place or
Interrogating the composer
What kind of person, and with what interests and values, composed the
What view of the world and values does the composer of the text assume
that the
reader/viewer holds? How do we know?
Multiple meanings
What different interpretations of the text are possible?
How do contextual factors influence how the text is interpreted?
How does the text mean?
How else could the text have been written?
How does the text rely on inter-textuality to create its meaning?
What does critical literacy look like in the classroom?
Critical literacy approaches have been developed in many Tasmanian schools.
These have captured students' interest and teachers have reported improved
learning outcomes. A critical literacy approach has been recognised as a
significant strategy in improving boys' performances in English.
Units based upon the deconstruction of every day, media or multimedia texts
have also provided successful introductions to critical literacy for both teachers
and students. The immediacy and diversity of the texts appeal to students across
a wide range of ages and classes.
This plan shows one way that teachers might approach a critical literacy unit:
Summary of learning activities:
Taking social action
A brief outline, adapted from Texts: the heart of the English curriculum Series 2,
(1998) might look like this:
Sports telecasts: Skills and Thrills
This work was developed for students in grades 4/5, but could be used, with
minor changes, for students up to grade 8.
Focus: To introduce students to critical
literacy using the analysis of sports telecasts
as the context for learning.
Learning intentions: The students will
investigate the attitudes, values and
Share learning intentions
assumptions in sports telecasts identify and
with the students.
discuss the features of sports telecasts discuss
the portrayal of people, stereotypes and
gender bias in sports telecasts.
1. Immersion
Have students watch sports telecasts of a
variety of men's and women's sports to
become familiar with the genres.
This might best be
completed as a homework
2. Prediction
It might be interesting to
use single sex groups for
this activity.
Have students brainstorm in pairs or small
The words they would use to describe the
games of netball and football, the attributes,
characteristics and skills required to play each
sport well.
Have students reach consensus about skills
that the games have in common.
View student worksheet
Make a class chart of the
common skills. A Venn
diagram might be a useful
organiser for this task.
3. Deconstruction
Have students watch 10 minutes of a netball
match followed by 10 minutes of an AFL
match. The students make notes of the
An AFL match has more
status and provides a
stronger contrast than
camera techniques while they watch, then
discuss the differences between the
representation of the sports on the videos.
What kind of game do the camera shots
suggest that it is?
Which aspects of each game are ignored or
focused on?
Which telecast is more exciting to watch?
Look at your predictions. Did the camera work
show those skills?
Share group reports and discuss the reasons
for reaching particular conclusions.
some of the other
matches that might be
4. Reconstruction
Students might work in
pairs to create
storyboards which show a
sequence of the action.
Ask students to respond to one of these
What if the broadcasters wanted to show
football as slow and boring. What kinds of
camera shots could be used to give this
What if they wanted to make netball seem to
be a violent game played by super heroes.
Which kinds of camera shots would be used?
5. Taking social action
If students feel strongly about the issues of
the portrayal of football and netball on
television, they could take actions such as:
writing to the television stations
contacting their local teams
turning off the television during sports
View student worksheet
Revisit the class chart of
common skills. Did the
telecasts focus on these
aspects of the games?
Compare issues such as:
the time of broadcasting
the length of the program
the intended audience
Where can I find more ideas to use with students?
Many excellent resources have been written in Australia in recent years to support
a critical literacy perspective in schools. Many encourage students to deconstruct
a wide range of written, visual and some spoken texts. Some suggest activities in
which students reconstruct texts to clarify their own attitudes, values and beliefs.
Only a few provide opportunities for students to take social action. Yet, it is in this
area that students begin to realise that they are able to influence the world in
which we live.
Stephens, J & Watson, K (eds) (1994) From Picture Book to Literary Theory.
St Clair Press
While aimed at secondary students and their teachers, this book has a much wider
appeal. It demonstrates literary theories using contemporary picture books. Pages
of activities for students are matched with pages of theory for teachers to explore
some of the newer literary theories, including critical literacy. Teachers of all
sectors will find the book interesting and informative.
Chalkface Press has produced a series of books which introduces students to
text analysis and aspects of critical literacy. Texts have been carefully chosen to
appeal to students from grades 7 to 12. Teachers of grades 5 and 6 will also find
them useful. Ideas within each book and the books themselves present a
sequential program, but there is sufficient flexibility for teachers to select isolated
pieces for use with students. The wide range of individual, pair and group
activities in response to specific questions includes the construction of charts and
Mellor, B. & Raleigh, M. Making Stories. (for students in grades 8 &
Mellor, B. Hemming, J. & Leggett, J. Changing Stories. (for students
in grades 8 & 9)
Mellor, B. & Patterson, A. (1996) Investigating Texts. (for students
in grades 7 & 8 )
Mellor, B. O'Neill, M. & Patterson, A. (1987) Reading Stories. (for
students in grades 10, 11 & 12)
Mellor, B. Patterson, A. & O'Neill, M. (1991) Reading Fictions. (for
students in grades 9, 10 & 11)
Moon, B. (1990) Studying Literature. (for students in grades 10, 11
and 12)
Mellor, B. (1989) Reading Hamlet. (for students in grades 10, 11
and 12)
Martino, W. & Mellor, B. (1995) Gendered Fictions. (for students in
grades 10, 11 & 12)
These books are highly recommended for teachers who are beginning to
incorporate a critical literacy approach into their teaching and for those who prefer
an ordered and systematic approach but haven't the time to develop a sequence
of work for themselves.
Robins, E and Robins, P (1999) Making Connections in English: Towards
Critical Literacy - Books 1, 2, 3 and 4. Oxford University Press
These four course books introduce, develop and expand the skills of critical
literacy. Each book provides ample instruction in different uses of language, and
challenges students to respond thoughtfully using a wide variety of genres and
Quin, R. & Cody, W. (1997) Senior English Now Book 1. Longman
This very informative text deconstructs narratives, television drama, letters,
magazines, forms and advertising. It emphasises the ability to collect, organise
and present information and the ability to communicate effectively. The authors
have recognised the need to make learning activities meaningful for students, to
build upon students' interests, to encourage student choice and control over their
learning. They have also endeavoured to provide students with models of the
types of tasks they are asked to undertake. Teachers of years 9 to 12 will find this
book a most valuable classroom resource.
Alloway, N. & Gilbert, P. (eds) (1997) Boys and Literacy. Curriculum Corporation
Australian teachers developed these units for students from kindergarten to year
12. They focus on the use of critical literacy approaches and popular texts as ways
of addressing some of the issues of boys and literacy. Texts include cartoons and
comics, video games, electronic media, picture books and fairy tales. A group of
Tasmanian teachers who trialled the units reported positively about students'
engagement and outcomes.
Adams, P. & Campagna-Wildash, H. (compilers) (1995) Texts: the heart of the
English curriculum Series 1. DECS
Millard, C. & Adams, P. (compilers) (1997) Texts: the heart of the English
curriculum Series 2. DETE
This collection of thirty five broadsheets was prepared by teachers from South
Australia. They provide suggestions for critical investigations of a very broad
range of texts including novels, picture books, television advertisements, sports
telecasts, travel brochures, catalogues, cereal boxes, magazines, biographies and
soap operas. Many of the texts and teaching approaches could be used with
students across a wide range of grades.
The series contains practical ideas to stimulate interest, develop critical responses
and broaden the range of texts presented to students from kindergarten to year
Robertson, A. (ed) (2001) Great Ideas For English in the Senior Years.
Kensington Gardens, SAETA.
This practical collection was written by practising senior secondary English
teachers in South Australia to support the introduction of new English syllabuses
in 2002. A critical literacy perspective underpins many of the units developed by
How does critical literacy link with literacy?
Definitions of literacy continue to broaden, particularly in response to new
technologies, globalisation and rapid societal change. The term ‘multiliterate’ has
been developed to describe the characteristics of a literate person in these new
times. Multiliteracies include not only traditional print literacies, but also the many
modes of representation that have been made available through multimedia and
technological change.
Two recent frameworks for teaching literacy are the:
Four Literacy Resources Model, developed by Allan Luke and Peter Freebody
Three Literacy Dimensions Model, developed by Bill Green (1988)
Both literacy frameworks suggest that there are several dimensions or aspects of
learning, including a critical/analytical dimension. The authors of both
frameworks emphasise that none of the dimensions of literacy has any priority
over the others. All dimensions need to be addressed simultaneously in an
integrated view of literate practice and literacy pedagogy.
Literacy Frameworks
Code Breaker
Text participant
Text User
Text analyst
Luke and Freebody’s Four
Resources Model
Bill Green’s Three Dimensions
of Literacy Model
Despite their congruence, it is important to note that the two frameworks do not
exactly map onto each other. But the central point remains: critical literacy
practices are central to both conceptualisations of what it means to be a literate
person in the 21st century.
Literacy practices include the skills of decoding and encoding, skills for
comprehending and creating texts and skills related to the use of language to
communicate in a variety of modes for a range of social purposes and to different
audiences. From the earliest years, effective literacy learning also includes critical
literacy practices. All of these practices are interdependent and teachers need to
ensure that all of them are explicitly taught.
The Department of Education’s Literacy Policy (1997) states that:
Literacy...includes the cultural knowledge which enables a speaker, writer or
reader to recognise and use language appropriate to different social situations.
(Students) learn about the power of language to convey explicit and implicit
meanings and layers of meaning, and they develop the capacity to discuss and
analyse texts and language.
Students need to challenge the ways in which texts are constructed to convey
particular ideas and to influence people's attitudes and values. They need to
develop the capacity to critically analyse and transform texts.
Luke and Freebody in Literate Futures (2000) define literacy as:
The flexible and sustainable mastery of a repertoire of practices with texts of
traditional and new communications technologies via spoken language, print and
Luke and Freebody argue that to become successful communicators students need
to see themselves as text analysts from early childhood. Critical literacy should
not be seen as a special curriculum in the later years or as a media studies unit.
Students need to be provided with opportunities to become socially critical in all
sectors of schooling.
How do critical literacies inform the Essential Learnings
Critical literacy perspectives clearly inform the five Essential Learnings Thinking,
Communicating, Personal Futures, Social Responsibility and World Futures.
In the Communicating Essential:
Symbolic representation is never neutral. It can be constructed in certain ways for
particular effects. In contemporary education it is vital to provide learners with the
skills to interpret critically the images and messages that are part of their lives.
Learners need to be able to use language to compose creatively and comprehend
critically. They need to recognise its impact on them and make judgements about
what is being said and shown to them.
The Being Literate Key Element Outcome requires students to understand, use
and critically evaluate the non-verbal, spoken, visual and print communication
practices of the world in which they live. The Being Literate Outcomes and
Standards sequence draws significantly upon Luke and Freebody’s Four Resources
Luke and Freebody believe that critical literacy - in all its forms - enables
teachers, students and communities to explore alternative ways of structuring
practice around texts for address new social, economic, technological and cultural
contexts. (Luke and Freebody, 1999)
Being Literate requires students to critically analyse and transform texts,
understanding and acting on the knowledge that texts are not neutral. It requires
students to analyse and construct texts to achieve particular effects, and develop
aesthetic sensitivity and the criteria to appreciate, enjoy and learn from
experience with texts.
How do critical literacies inform the new English Senior
Secondary syllabuses?
The new English Senior Secondary syllabuses reflect the fact that the world
continues to change - socially, technologically and economically. The study of a
wide range of spoken, written, visual, multimedia and performance texts remains
central to the syllabuses. Students will continue to learn about themselves, the
world and what it is to be human through the study of texts and language. The
syllabuses will enable students to understand the structures and features of texts,
the role of context in creating and interpreting texts and how texts can shape
values and ideologies.
The syllabuses are underpinned by a number of contemporary literary theories,
including critical literacy practices. They reflect the view that texts are constructs
created through careful selection and choice and may be interpreted differently by
different responders in different contexts. They are also based on the view that
meanings of texts are actively constructed by the interaction between the text,
contextual factors and the reader’s experience and prior knowledge.
For example, in the texts and contexts strand of the English Communications 5C
syllabus teachers focus on three key concepts:
The positioning of audience i.e. investigating how texts are constructed to
encourage dominant readings with particular sets of values and assumptions
Genre i.e. investigating the structures and features of a genre, including its
boundaries or constraints
Investigating representation and its effect on the creation of culture,
including how texts represent or exclude particular groups and individuals
and the implications of these choices for society
Where can I find out more about critical literacy?
Morgan, W. (1997) Critical Literacy: Readings and Resources. Norwood,
This is an excellent package of materials for the professional development of
teachers. It includes a video, workshop frameworks and readings from Pam
Gilbert, Colin Lankshear, Susan Werba, Wendy Morgan and Lindsay Williams.
The book includes units of work and readings about critical literacy which might be
suitable for students from years 9 to 12. The section called ‘The World's Your
Oyster: Holidays that don't cost the Earth’ encourages students to view the world
differently from the pictures presented in the glossy travel brochures and to
consider Australian tourism in Asia from a quite different perspective. This and
other readings provide teachers with practical insights into ways of learning about
critical literacy themselves and teaching it to others.
Pitt, J. (1995) Not Just After Lunch on Wednesdays: Critical Literacy: A
Personal View. DECS
This resource has been used extensively in schools to introduce the deconstruction
of gender. It contains video workshops and a professional development course for
teachers supported by practical classroom materials. Transcripts of classroom
lessons are also included.
Critical literacy activities for many of the picture books and novels used in
Australian schools ensure that this resource will be well used by teachers from
grades 3 to 8.
Muspratt, S. Luke, A. & Freebody, P. (eds) (1997) Constructing Critical
Literacies: Teaching and Learning Textual Practice. Allen & Unwin
A series of essays about the nature of literacy in the midst of current social,
economic, political and cultural changes, the book is constructed as a series of
'paired' essays with responses which critique the previous writer.
Worth, G. and Guy, R. (eds) (1998) Teachers Rethinking English: Critical
Theory and Reflective Practice. VATE
This publication from the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English is a
blend of theory and practice. In the book, English teachers show how recent
developments in literary theory, including crtical literacy have informed their
classroom practice. The book also includes Ray Misson’s popular text An
Introduction to Literary Theory. This is a particularly useful reference for year 11
and 12 teachers.
Knobel, M. & Healy, A. (eds). (1998) Critical Literacies in the Primary
Classroom. Newtown, PETA
Using song lyrics, popular culture texts, vignettes and case studies, eight
experienced teachers suggest effective and creative strategies for teaching
students how to be critically literate.
Morgan, W. (1998) ‘Critical Literacy’ in Re-Viewing English (eds) Sawyer, W.
Watson, K. & Gold, E. Sydney, St Clair Press
A short but valuable chapter on critical literacy from this excellent resource for all
English teachers.
Fehring, H. & Green, P. (eds) (2001) Critical Literacies: a collection of articles
from the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. IRA
This collection has been compiled by the International Reading Association and
offers a range of perspectives on critical literacy. The articles explain the principles
of critical literacy from a theoretical perspective, illustrate the differences between
the theories of literary development, detail the practical classroom implementation
of critical literacy principles, and highlight the changing role of the teacher in the
process of students coming to understand the multiple meanings of texts and the
power of language.
Robinson, E. and Robinson, S. (2003) What Does It Mean - Discourse, Text,
Culture: An Introduction. Sydney, McGraw-Hill
This text introduces key theoretical concepts such as text and context, discourse,
deconstruction, ideology and intertextuality by exploring a range of popular
culture and traditional texts, ranging from contemporary advertising, films, song
lyrics, poems and newspaper articles to canonical texts such as Macbeth and To
Kill A Mockingbird.
Online Articles:
Critical Reading and Critical Literacy
This article from the International Reading Association compares the differences
between the traditions, perspectives and goals of critical reading and critical
Critical Literacy and Reading
In this paper Barbara Comber examines some of the connections between critical
literacy and learning to read.
What is Critical Literacy?
An introduction to critical literacy by Ira Shor
Related flashcards
Create Flashcards