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Critical literacy

Teaching strategies

Critical literacy: What it means for teachers and teacher aides

Why bother? Why now? What is it? How to teach it?

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.

Smiling student shown in a very active classroom.

‘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:

  • Why did the author use that image?
  • Why did the author choose that title?
  • Why did the author use that word, sentence, punctuation or style?
  • Why did the author include that character in the story and describe them in that way?
  • Why does a character have a certain personality, background or ethnicity?
  • Why did the author choose that ending?
  • Why did the author write that content in the first place – what was their motivation?
  • Why did the author choose that central theme, sub-themes and worldview?
  • Why did the author describe the scene in that way?
  • Why did the author include a certain fact or statistic while omitting others?
  • Why were some things left out and some things included? What are those things?

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.

About the author

Image of the managing director of FTTA.

ADAM GREEN

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling 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 FTTA, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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