Critical Literacy: Moving Students to Think
Critical literacy is a movement which advocates reading texts in an active, reflective manner in order to better understand portrayals of power, inequality, and injustice in society. Here, any text is defined as a “vehicle through which individuals communicate with one another using the codes and conventions of society.” The movement, which originated in Brazil, present guidelines that can be employed by any teacher in humanities and social sciences as an approach to develop the critical thinking of the students.
Critical literacy can be traced to its proponent, Paolo Freire, a Brazilian lawyer and educator who developed a process called conscientizacao (critical consciousness) from his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968). This conversational approach, first used while teaching the illiterate peasants in Sao Paolo slums, began by using pictures to remind students about problems in their lives, examining the causes and effects, and providing plans for action; the students then shared insights and debated about them. These so-called Freirean dialogues soon became popular to educators who agree that traditional teacher-centred instruction does not teach students to think for themselves. They believe that education should empower students to become questioning and analytical.
Social theorists developed and promoted the term because they were also concerned with the representations of power struggles between social classes used by traditional forms of schooling. They also critique the methods of evaluation used in these traditional schools which they say typically placed the teacher in front of the classroom possessing and transmitting knowledge to students who passively sit and receive the information.
In the classroom, critical literacy can be applied to songs, stories, novels, conversations, pictures, movies, social groups, and practices by examining and challenging the attitudes, values, and beliefs that lie beneath the surface vis a vis the students’ experiences; thus, empowering them to reflect, share, and participate in the discussion regardless of race, culture, social status, gender or sexual orientation.
What is recommended is to scrutinize non-canonical works and those found in popular culture like essays, opinion columns, government documents, political speeches, and advertisements and analyze them through a lens that challenges societal norms. Students will evaluate the privileged and oppressed, identify the social constructions, and question the factors that may have influenced the author in writing a text.
The guide questions proposed by Brainbridge & Malicky (2004) may be used in teaching texts in a critical literacy class: Why did the author write this text? Who benefits from this text? What voices are being heard? Whose voices are left out? Is there another point of view? How is gender, race, class, sexual orientation, age, etc. portrayed in this text? What if this story were told from the perspective of a different character? How is the reader positioned in the text?
These questions can be raised and answered by the students in a conversational, non-hierarchical manner since the critical literacy classroom advocates a pedagogy where teachers can be learners and students can be teachers.
As a novel approach, critical literacy creates an avenue where students are exposed to and made aware of societal inequalities through texts. This awareness will hopefully engage them in conversations and move them to properly discern and understand texts found in popular culture.