Critical Literacy for Adult Literacy in Language
Learners. ERIC Digest.
by Van Duzer, Carol - Florez, MaryAnn Cunningham
What is heard (e.g., news reports, public speakers, conversation) and
what is read (e.g., newspapers, tabloids, Internet-based material) is not
necessarily accurate nor unbiased. Learners need to develop skills to identify
and work with this non-neutral facet of language (Hull, 2000). Critical
literacy takes learners beyond the development of basic literacy skills
such as decoding, predicting, and summarizing and asks them to become critical
consumers of the information they receive.
This digest examines what critical literacy means. It discusses why
critical literacy is important to include in instruction for adults learning
English as a second language (ESL) and gives some examples of how this
can be done.
CRITICAL LITERACY: THE CONCEPT
Critical literacy encompasses a range of critical and analytical attitudes
and skills used in the process of understanding and interpreting texts,
both spoken and written. Currently, in adult education, it is most often
discussed in relation to literacy and language learning. In these contexts,
it draws from a number of related theories concerned with the constant
interplay of reader and text in the meaning-making process (Auerbach, 1999;
Brown, 1999; Clark, 1995; Hood, Solomon, & Burns, 1996).
In its broadest sense, the term critical literacy refers to efforts
to go beyond surface meaning of a text by questioning the who, what, why,
and how of its creation and eventual interpretation (Lohrey, 1998). However,
depending on the ideas, approaches, and pedagogies embraced by those using
it, critical literacy can take different forms in actual practice. For
example, for those who recognize that language use is not neutral, critical
literacy is a means for examining the interaction of language and power
relationships. For those who believe that language and text are intended
to persuade, justify, entertain, and so on, critical literacy is a means
of identifying the writer's or speaker's purpose and for eventually using
the language oneself for such purposes. For theorists who derive their
concept of critical literacy from Freire-a Brazilian educator who believed
that education and knowledge have power only when they help learners liberate
themselves from oppressive social conditions (Peyton & Crandall, 1995)--it
is a way in which learners can decipher the issues that drive society,
empower themselves, and ultimately take social action. (Auerbach, 1999;
Brown, 1999; Hammond & Macken Horarik, 1999; Hull, 2000). Many practitioners
and theorists look at critical literacy practice as a combination of these
perspectives (Brown, 1999).
"Related terminology such as critical thinking, critical pedagogy, critical
practice, critical theory, genre theory, and critical language awareness
are sometimes used in conjunction with critical literacy, thus making understanding
of the term even more complex. For an in depth discussion of critical approaches
to teaching ESOL, see the Autumn 1999 issue of TESOL Quarterly, which is
dedicated to this topic."
REASONS FOR CRITICAL LITERACY INSTRUCTION
Good listeners and readers make use of their background knowledge to
evaluate what they are hearing or reading. Because texts often presuppose
cultural knowledge, social attitudes, or the views of a particular segment
of society, adult English language learners can benefit from instruction
that helps them look critically at texts. Learners can be encouraged to
question the social, political, and ideological elements in what they hear,
say, read, and write. In this way, they can more fully explore the issues
that affect their lives and consider the consequences of taking action
to address these issues (Auerbach, 1999; Brown, 1999; Hammond & Macken
Horarik, 1999; Hull, 2000). Lessons that incorporate critical literacy
perspectives can help learners examine the source of a text, including
its biases and purposes; question the veracity and applicability of the
information being provided in terms of their own lives; assess the broader
societal messages about values, attitudes, and power relationships that
are being conveyed through the text; and consider their own biases, reactions,
and realities in relation to the text. Thus, these lessons will contribute
to learners' more comprehensive understanding of texts and the larger society
(Brown, 1999; Hood, Solomon, & Burns, 1996; Lohrey, 1998).
Regardless of the form in which critical literacy is practiced in the
classroom, there is recognition of the need for English language learners
to take critical stances toward reading, writing, speaking, or listening.
Variations on critical literacy practices can be found in standards efforts
such as Equipped for the Future (Stein, 2000) and in the list of skills
and competencies identified by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving
Necessary Skills (SCANS) (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991).
CRITICAL LITERACY ACTIVITIES
Both advanced level and beginning adult ESL learners can participate
in activities that develop critical literacy skills.
With "higher level English language learners," a teacher might add a
few questions or a different perspective to activities already being used.
For example, after students have read a news article, the teacher might
ask, "Why do you think this text was written?" "What language in the text
gives you clues about its purpose?" "How would this article have been written
in your country?" "How could this article have been written to better target
your community in the United States?" In another activity, learners can
examine a local English language newspaper, comparing its article topics,
writing style, sections, photographs, and layout to those of a local native
language newspaper. The students can then discuss what these aspects reveal
about both cultures and how this can influence who reads the newspapers
and which advertisers support them. In activities like these, learners
are prompted not only to ask questions about the information presented,
but also to relate this information to their own perceptions, attitudes,
Although these types of activities are also appropriate for "learners
at lower English proficiency levels," teachers need to build in more contextual
and linguistic supports, discuss issues that are relevant to the learners,
and use concrete materials such as codes. Codes are pictures, text, or
speech representations of themes or issues that are used with follow-up
questions to trigger reflection, dialogue, and critical thinking among
a group of learners. Because they are simple, familiar, focused representations
of complex, often emotionally charged issues or situations, codes can be
structured for use with low level learners (Auerbach, 1992). For example,
in a unit on families, learners might listen to a short, simple dialogue
between a child's teacher and a father, in which the teacher tells the
father that the family should speak English at home to help improve the
child's English. The learners can then move through sets of questions that
progress from describing the situation and the issue (Who is the woman?
Who is the man? Where are they? What are they talking about? How does the
teacher feel? How does the father feel? Why are they talking?) to examining
the issue in terms of their own lives and in terms of the larger social
context (Do you have children? Do you talk to your children's teachers?
What do they say? How do you feel? In your country, did you talk to your
children's teachers? What did they say? What language do you speak at home?
Why? Why does the teacher here give this advice? Do you agree with her?
Is this advice good for everyone?)
CRITICAL LITERACY STRATEGIES
Teachers can make critical thinking and critical analysis a regular
part of all classroom work in the following ways:
* Start with information sources (articles, advertisements, speeches,
dialogues, pictures, videos) that are obviously biased or ideologically
loaded, such as an advertising campaign against smoking, and then progress
to more subtle examples, such as a play or sitcom that demonstrates negative
aspects of smoking.
* Raise awareness by pointing out critical literacy skills when they
are exhibited by the teacher or by learners.
* Choose readings or listening, speaking, or writing activities that
are relevant and interesting for learners.
* Prompt learners to examine how their own experiences and values relate
to and influence their approaches to topics.
* Understand that some learners may feel uncomfortable expressing opinions,
especially if this kind of learning approach is new to them.
* Be aware that multiple interpretations of information and different
points of view may or may not be represented in classroom texts, materials,
and discussions, so choose activities in which learners must consider a
variety of perspectives.
* Build in time for learners to become comfortable with texts or activities
before asking them to look at them critically.
* Have learners formulate questions as well as answer them.
* Balance instruction in basic literacy skills (decoding, vocabulary
building, predicting, summarizing) with practice in critical analysis skills.
* Provide support for challenging aspects of a task (pre practice new
vocabulary or grammar points, clarify the main idea of a text, choose a
familiar topic, etc.) so that learners can focus on critical or analytical
* Use authentic texts (newspaper articles, advertisements, letters,
news broadcasts) and less traditional literacy texts (graffiti, cartoons,
commercials, television sitcoms) whenever possible.
* Shift from an emphasis on finding a right answer to eliciting ranges
of interpretations that are supported by sound reasoning and thoughtful
Critical literacy is a way of interacting with information that goes
beyond the decoding of letters and words. It encourages learners to engage
with information sources and to question the social contexts, purposes,
and possible effects that they have on their lives. It also asks them to
look at their own opinions, biases, and perceptions of reality, and to
consider those of others. For adult ESL learners, critical literacy can
be a means of comprehensively exploring the new language and culture in
which they find themselves.
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