Critical Literacy Theory

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Critical Literacy Theory

Critical Literacy Theory

Critical literacy theory is an extension of its more encompassing relative, critical theory, and in its synonymity, it "emphasize[s] both power and empowerment" (Perry, 2012, p. 60) among individuals in settings of inequity or social injustice. Drawing extensively from Freireian ideology, the notion of critical literacy theory more explicitly addresses Freire's notion of reading and writing both the word and the world (Freire, 1970, as cited by Luke, 2012; Freire, 2001, as cited by Perry, 2012). Indeed, while critical theory accentuates power struggles, critical literacy theory acknowledges that power struggles are often "struggles over the control of information and interpretation. Wherever textual access, critique, and interpretation are closed down . . . human agency, self-determination, and freedom are put at risk" (Luke, 2012, p. 5). Thus, critical literacy theory both acknowledges politics and contrictions among various competiting entities (Bishop, 2014), while simultaneously addressing the precise articulation of oppression--texts--and the power of critical literacy skill for liberation (Endres, 2001). Apart from Freireian ideals within its foundations, critical literacy theory is also thoroughly grounded in sociocultural theory and and sociopolitical contexts (Lee, 2011; Perry, 2012). Perry (2012) defines sociocultural theories in relation to literacy as "what people actually do with texts--the meaningful, purposeful ways in which people actually use literacy in real-world contexts" (p. 62). Thus, critical literacy accentuates the need for literacy as a predecessor to action. Truly, from a critical literacy perspective, one does not merely read or produce a written text as the summative action. Rather, within this theoretical lens, one reads and writes for the greater purpose of discovering the deeper contexts of power and society, directing oneself to action within or against the measures of presented bias.

In action as critical literacy, critical literacy theory differentiates itself from mere functional literacy, extending basic abilities of reading, writing, and critical thinking to deeper levels intellectualism, identification, and consideration of embedded bias (Luke, 2012; Lee, 2011; McDaniel, 2004). Lee (2011) expresses such a contrast, juxtaposing critical thinking and critical literacy: "Critical thinking . . . focuses on whether the article is logically organized and the argument is well supported. Critical literacy takes a step further to question or problematize, for example, gender biases embedded in the article and investigate them from multiple perspectives. By uncovering such biases that are situated in a sociopolitical context, we become critically informed and can even take actions against them." (p. 97)Lee (2011), in this example and in further discussion, makes clear that a defining quality of critical literacy theory is that it is not solely for the highly intelligent, but truly for the marginalized as a means to provide an equitable distribution of literate skill and, therefore, power. Endres (2001) confirms this quality, as well, denoting that literate individuals should develop basic literacy and critical thinking skills to support inquiry that leads to a greater "understanding of social context" (p. 405). Additionally, Bishop (2014), expresses that a defining quality of critical literacy is the specific action toward social justice that is taken as a result of a crtical literacy experience. Indeed, this echoes the sociocultural and sociopolitical underpinnings of the theory itself, and it provides a mode for cultural change beyond that of mere classroom pedagogy. Bishop (2014) provides the example of youth organizing projects as an action component of critical literacy, with research regarding a social issue culminating in service learning and reflection (pp. 60-61). Luke (2012) affirms this idea of social action derived from critical literacy, as well, denoting that "in schools and universities, these approaches also focus literacy on community study, and the analysis of social movements, service learning, and political activism" (p. 7). Thus, critical literacy theory necessitates purposeful, thoughtful interpretation of text for loftier purposes; indeed, these are purposes beyond those of standardized testing or personal academic improvement--they are the purposes for being a literate, engaged citizen within one's immediate community and scope of influence.

Certainly, when one views the tasks and purposes of reading and writing through a critical literacy perspective, one is extending his or her understanding of literacy to the defining qualities of a theoretical lens that requires grave consideration and broad scopes of the possibiltiies for social justice and change. Indeed, this broad spectrum approach to texts must not solely be reserved for the products of action as a result of adhering to a critical literacy perspective; it must be applied to the texts themselves, as well. This notion of expanded definitions of text and media that may be perceived through a critical literacy perspective is perhaps the greatest current, contemporary implication for critical literacy theory in the twenty-first century. Alvermann and Moore (2013) assert the shift in definitions of traditional literacies: "Through a series of events leading up to the first decade of the twenty-first century, the notion of literacy with a big 'L' and single 'y', which referred generally to the kind of reading and writing that has gone on in schools . . . gave way to the plural form, literacies" (p. 321). Alvermann and Hagood (2000) provide example of such new literacies within the lines of this definition, including "radio, TV, video, movies, CDs, the Internet, gang graffiti" (p. 194), and the like that are associated with popular culture. Thus, with expanded definitions of texts, contemporary curricula must adjust to consider the idea of multiliteracies (Perry, 2012) as classroom texts that can be considered within a critical literacy theoretical perspective. No longer are traditional print media the only forms subject to critical literate scrutiny, but indeed, so are the media forms to which twenty-first century students are so easily adept at manipulating. With such widespread definitions of various texts that are subject to critical literacy perspectives, educators and researchers alike must acknowledge the position that critical literacy holds for the interpretation of widespread media and for the potential critical literacy theory has to support the development of critical, literate consumers (Park, 2012). Park (2012), in conducting research with adolescents in a book club setting, asserts the importance of critical consumerism from a critical literacy perspective: "adolescents need to become critical consumers and producers of texts and make informed life choices as they encounter and navigate an increasingly complex and ever-changing world" (p. 630). Likewise, researchers must position themselves to consider potential research questions that addres how readers traverse world and social views through texts. Consider these potential research questions that could be posed, either in formal research contexts or by an educator engaged in action research:-How do young adolescent students interpret different media clips of contemporary gun violence when viewing clips from conservative media, followed by clips of the same events from liberal media?-How does study of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl impact American history students' consideration of primary source documents related to the Trail of Tears?-How do students' opinions on illegal immigration change before and after study of Francisco Jimenez's The Circuit?Certainly, it is important for critical literacy theory to position itself as a vivid lens for twenty-first century students, engaged in the global world they may read and write (Freire, 1970, as cited by Luke, 2012; Freire, 2001, as cited by Perry, 2012) as critical consumers (Park, 2012) and emerging young citizens.

Contemporary Implications

What is critical literacy theory?


Rebecca A. HendrixThe University of West Georgia

Please click the paper clip for attached references & a sample research article.


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