Critical literacy – a person’s ability to receive, interpret, analyse, articulate and send messages via any number of text types in order to interact successfully with the world around them.
‘Critical literacy’ is a popular term particularly around the discussion of the purpose of education in the 21st century. But what exactly is critical literacy, how can you become critically literate and what does being critically literate actually look like?
In terms of reading, critical literacy means to think about an author’s intentions, decisions, motives, contexts, influences and literary choices.
Critical literacy is a person’s ability to deconstruct a text; in other words, the skills to pull a text apart and to consider it from various angles or via different lenses. Authors try to influence and persuade us; but they also try to mislead us – journalists for example may omit certain facts while emphasising others. Critical literacy is a person’s ability to combat these techniques. In terms of reading, critical literacy means to think about an author’s intentions, decisions, motives, contexts, influences and literary choices. Some people like to think of critical literacy in terms of understanding an author’s perspective and messages on gender, culture, ethnicity and other politically based views.
Being able to read is no longer enough – we need to analyse, interpret, understand and make links. Being critically literate is about asking and understanding ‘why’ an author did something. For example:
The foundations of critical literacy are the beliefs that authors have options, make choices and seek to influence our interpretation of their text in some way. Authors do this either consciously or unconsciously (or a combination of both) using techniques such as imagery. Imagery is the way an object, person or place is described in order to encourage the reader to imagine it in a certain way.
Hint: while critical literacy skills are often framed in the context of reading, they are relevant to all text types. A ‘text’ is anything created by a person with the intention of sending a message to another person. Texts can be as old as cave drawings or as complex as strategic plans.
It’s important to understand that authors are not always willing to show their hand; their messages can be subtle, key facts or details may be missing, and language can be used strategically for persuasive purposes. This leads to an important aspect of critical literacy: selection of detail – what the author is (and is not) telling us. Authors can select certain information to include and they can ignore the rest of it; after all, there may not be room for everything. The author’s selection of details tells us a lot about their values, beliefs and intentions.
Critical literacy is a person’s ability to deconstruct a text; in other words, the skills to pull a text apart and to consider it from various angles or via different lenses.
For example, suppose a newspaper report tells the reader that a teacher was fired for causing injuries to a student and we learn that the student was mildly disabled. The teacher claimed self-defence but unfortunately there were no witnesses. The headline of the article reads ‘Violence against the disabled rampant in schools’. A critically literate person would think about why this headline was chosen: was it clickbait? Does the author have an agenda? What alternative headlines could they have chosen? Why not one that shows the teacher’s point of view, such as ‘Teachers under attack!’.
Teachers should use real-world resources – what are known as ‘authentic texts’ – when employing a critical literacy strategy.
Finally, a critically literate person would think about details that were missing in the article: was the student on any medications for behavioural reasons (or was supposed to be on them)? Does the student have a history of violence – have other teachers been ‘attacked’? These are the types of critical questions that teachers could ask students in order to develop their critical literacy skills. Teachers should use real-world resources – what are known as ‘authentic texts’ – when employing a critical literacy strategy.
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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