Critical literacy , has become a popular approach to teaching English to students in some English speaking-countries , including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. At the heart of this approach to teaching is the belief that while literacy enables students to make meaning from texts, critical literacy will empower them to understand how texts are trying to influence and change them as members of society.
For post-structuralist practitioners of critical literacy, the definition of this literacy practice can be quite malleable, but usually involves a search for discourses and reasons why certain discourses are included or left out of a text.
Two major theoretical perspectives within the field of critical literacy are the Neo-Marxist/Freirean and the Australian. These approaches overlap in many ways and they do not necessarily represent competing views, but they do approach the subject matter differently.
Critical literacy practices grew out of the social justice pedagogy of Brazilian educator and theorist Paulo Freire, as first described in Education as the Practice of Freedom published in 1967 and his most famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. Freirean critical literacy is conceived as a means of empowering unempowered populations against oppression and coercion, frequently seen as enacted by corporate and/or government entities. Freirean critical literacy starts with the desire to balance social inequities and address societal problems caused by abuse of power. It proceeds from this philosophical basis to examine, analyze, and deconstruct texts.
This perspective is reflected in the works of Peter McLaren, Henry Giroux, and Jean Anyon, among many others. The Freirean perspective on critical literacy is strongly represented in critical pedagogy.
Other philosophical approaches to critical literacy, while sharing many of the ideas of Neo-Marxist/Freirean critical literacy, may be viewed as a less overtly politicized expansion on these ideas. Critical literacy helps teachers as well as students to explore the relationship between theoratical framework and its practical implications.
From this philosophical perspective, critical literacy is the belief that interpreting literature is more than simply decoding the words of a text. It is necessary to understand that language is a social construct and that it is never neutral. It is used to inform, entertain, persuade and manipulate. The philosophy behind critical literacy is that it is necessary to learn how language works in order to be a more skilled user of language in terms of both comprehending and composing.
The use and relevence of critical literacy has been disputed. Many believe it to be innapropriate, and feel that texts are constantly deconstructed and over analysed to destruction.
Portions of the following sections are from a document distributed to secondary school students in Australia detailing the basic tenets of critical literacy.
This is not easy to define. It is not merely its setting in time and place. "Context refers to the multitude of factors which shape the meaning of a text within the social framework of its reading. This framework may include particular ideas about the text's history, but is also powerfully shaped by competing beliefs and practices in the present. (Moon,1992). This means that the context is constantly shifting and that the nature of the reader, and the time that it is read, are significant.
This suggests that the 'meaning' or reading of a text is determined by a huge range of social, cultural, time, composer, reader factors.
An example of context may be considered in terms of the movie Dead Poet's Society. This is set in the USA in the early 1960s, a time when teenagers had little individual freedom and the will of the parents was very strong. But not all American teenagers were in this category and not all parents exerted power. In turn this was all influenced by class, politics, religion etc. Furthermore this was the view as presented by the film's director and this needs to be examined. And again, the particular understanding of the viewer might 'vary' the context.
This refers to all the language associated with a particular life experience or identity construct (e.g. race, social class, gender, sexuality, age, etc.). Hence we can have the discourse of school or the family or childhood that are closely related to the related sociocultural identities. Discourses overlap and constantly change. We can belong to a wide and ever changing number of discourses and they all can affect the way we made meaning of texts. The language features can include the words (lexicons I of the discourse ego for school - timetable, parade, etc,. the way words are expressed, the exclusive jargon, the operating power structures in the language etc.).
Each person has a unique personal and discursive background. This is shaped by the discourses that we have been involved in and have operated on us. Thus it could include our upbringing (family, social class, traditions, religion etc), our friends, our school, education, experiences we have had, our gender, hobbies and interests and so on.
As a result of our discursive background our view of the world and how we read texts is shaped by a multiplicity of previous experiences and readings. Whenever we look at something we sift through all of the bits of information in our heads to make meanings. We combine texts to create a complete picture in our head. This combination of texts is referred to as intertextuality. If for example we are watching a movie which includes a villain one of the ways we assume that he or she is a villain is the bits of information we bring to this current text from previous texts -.ie. clothes, facial expression, gestures etc. In this way our readings can become richer. It can also explain why we sometimes have difficulty making meaning of some texts; we may have limited intertextual experiences to draw on.
Refers to the way the author chooses to show/paint the world. This view might be political, economic or social or a combination of these. Sometimes this is known as ideology.
A text's view of the world is also influenced by the author's discursive background. ego if an author likes a place, they write about it in a positive way; if they hate it they say negative things. They try to sway our opinion.
Often the view of the world in a text does not agree with your own view - it contradicts it, but, as readers, we still read the text and understand the author's message or viewpoint.
The view of the world often emerges from a reading of the text as a whole. Sometimes it emerges through one (or more) characters and sometimes the views of characters differ and therefore create conflict. A view of the world can sometimes be called a Version of Reality.
These occur frequently in texts. They are created when the author, intentionally or unintentionally, chooses to include some pieces of information and omit others. An ad to sell cosmetics, for example, might state the moderate cost, that is used by Elle MacPherson, that is 'moisturises your skin' and so forth. It might not include the fact that 2000 cute, white, fluffy bunnies died when the product was tested.
A difference is generally seen between gaps and silences.
When constructing a text an author usually frames up the content of the text or a character in a certain way. The character or subject has been positioned. We may read the text in the way intended (which would be a preferred reading) or we may read differently/alternatively leg. a woman may read a text on a rape differently to a man) or we might reject the readings leg. an ad might attempt to construct us a certain type of person who desires a certain product but we might resist that positioning). Positioning of course need not be static and it could change as the text develops.
A character in a text may be granted (or denied) empowerment. This can be called agency. For example a member of a marginalised group may be very well aware of his or her deprivation but is unable to do anything about it - lack of agency.
Texts are considered social/cultural constructions. This means that they are assembled from a wide range of varied and possibly contradictory elements. Deconstruction is a critical practice which focuses on contradictions and" slippages" of meanings in order to remind us that meanings we make when we read are neither obvious or neutral. Deconstruction does not point out contradictions in order to 'destroy' texts but to improve our reading of them (Moon, 19921)
Luke, C. (1995). Media and cultural studies. In P. Freebody, S. Muspratt, & A. Luke (Eds.). Constructing critical literacies. Crosskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 1.
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