Who Gets to be “Critical?”


Image: Burning the “Book of Sports,” 1643

This year continues to demonstrate the importance of reading the world through a critical lens. But who gets to be “critical?” Who gets access to critical approaches to literacy versus who gets timed reading tests?

Educators who use literacy to challenge the status quo often ground their work in critical literacies. This approach goes beyond reading and writing as mechanical skills, using literacy to critique power and inequity–what Paulo Freire called “reading the word and the world.”

But what does this mean when we ask students to read the word and the world in another language?

I took up this question in a recent article for the Journal of Literacy Research. In the journal’s latest issue, Literacy Research and the Radical ImaginationI wrote alongside a phenomenal group of authors working to “radically reimagine the ways in which research can reposition people and ideas to create new and more inviting spaces for literacy.” (JLR, p. 319).

No small task.

Rarely is literacy an “inviting space” for students learning English as a second or additional language. Even though these multilingual learners bring a host of linguistic, cultural, and experiential resources to the table, they rarely get the chances they deserve in our school systems.

But Aren’t Critical Literacies “Too Hard?”

This was the main myth I aimed to debunk in my article. Some teachers worry that their students need to learn “the basics” before engaging in critical literacies. But this approach contradicts the research. I reviewed 68 studies across 18 different countries, the vast majority confirming the benefits of integrating language, literacy, and critical pedagogies from the get-go.  As critical scholar Brian Street asked, “When exactly will most students revise and criticize their school learning if not during the process of experiencing it?” (1995, p. 140).

Still, supporting students through this process is no small task. That’s why my article offers a framework for balancing language learning and critical engagement as mutually reinforcing endeavors.

Whose “Critical” is it Anyway?

In writing this piece, I also realized we need to think harder about what we mean when we put the word “critical” in front of “literacies.”

Today, if you ask teachers and schools about their work, it can seem like everybody says they’re doing critical literacy. Which can unfortunately mean that nobody is actually doing critical literacy.


Shout-out to Raúl Mora for this gem of an image

Since every article I reviewed took a different approach to what they called critical literacies, I found it useful to outline a spectrum of practices to add some nuance to the discussion:

Critical Thinking: A key first step, but mostly takes place in students’ own heads.

Critical Engagement: Now we’re having engaging discussions, but our work doesn’t necessarily leave the bounds of the classroom.

Critical Praxis: Here our practice intentionally leaves the classroom to have a material, transformative, impact.

Through this framework, the question becomes less “ARE you doing critical literacy” and becomes “HOW are you doing critical literacy” and “What’s the end goal?”

The “end goal” is key. One of the key scholars in my review, Rawia Hayik, argued that “Merely integrating materials with social justice issues into the curriculum does not make it critical. An in-depth interrogation of real-life issues is required for a more critical classroom.” (2011, p. 97)

For me, the end goal involves critical praxis, action, and advocacy–particularly when it comes to multilingual learners. Like I say in the articles’ conclusion:

“As Giroux (2005) argued, “to be literate is not to be free, it is to be present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history, and future” (p. 155). The notion of reclaiming one’s voice becomes explicitly literal in contexts where students are made to learn a language they do not yet speak to have full access to education and social mobility…. In contexts where the literacies that seem to count most are those expressed through English, these studies stand as a testament to the resiliency of multilingual learners, many of whom endure the pedagogical oddity of being expected to learn academic content in a language they are still in the process of learning.” (p. 23)

For anyone interested in hearing more, feel free to check out the article or contact me for more information.

Multilanguage, Multipurpose

Bacon, C. K. (2017). “Multi-Language, Multi-Purpose”: A literature review, synthesis, and framework for critical literacies in English language teaching. Journal of Literacy Research. 49(3), 424-453. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1086296X17718324

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