Critical literacy can be explained as a method of analysing texts that highlights their constructed nature. Winch, Johnston, March, Ljungdahl, and Holliday (2007, 421) broadly describe critical literacy as a type of ‘forensic science’ applied to a text. Critical literacy is a complex concept which has been defined by theorists and educators in many different ways, however, in my understanding, critical literacy enables ‘readers’ (in the most broad sense of the word, including viewers, listeners etc.) to realise the influences behind texts, the way that the text is positioning them, and the points of view the text is representing and silencing.
It is important to note that no text, be it written, visual, spoken, multimedia or other, is neutral (Tasmanian Department of Education, 2011). Texts are greatly influenced by the experiences, beliefs, biases and values of their creators (Mulhern and Gunding, 2011). Further, readers bring their own perspectives and prior knowledge to texts, which also influence how texts are understood (Mulhern and Gunding). Critical literacy involves an active approach to texts in order to question and challenge embedded attitudes, values and beliefs in both the text itself, and the reader. Thus, critical literacy is relevant not only the reading of texts but also the creation of texts; it involves understanding how different features of texts can be used to position and influence others. As Rowan (2001, 45) notes, both ‘analysis’ and ‘production’ of texts require similar kinds of skills. Essentially, critical literacy is intended to make the reader aware of the influences behind texts and examine how these texts structure and create the world around them (Condren, Waldrip and Knight, 2003).
There are many different ways of practising critical literacy. Across the literature I have read so far, several commentators have suggested breaking down a text by asking questions about it (for examples see Rowan, 2001, 47; Winch et al, 2007, 423; 427; 428; Mulhern and Gunding, 2011, 13-14; Tasmanian Department of Education, 2011, 3-4). Rowan (47) suggests a number of questions that can be asked of a text in order to understand how and why it has been constructed in a particular way:
Who/What is included?
Who/What is excluded?
What are various individuals associated with? Who gets to do what?
What is represented as natural and normal?
Who/What is valued? How is this communicated?
How does the text reproduce or challenge mythical norms?
Being critically literate is extremely important in the context of the 21st century, with its plethora of text types and continually expanding forms of communication. Mulhern and Gunding (2011, 6) argue that individuals need to use critical literacy skills in order to ‘sort through and critique the messages that they encounter in any given situation to avoid be manipulated, and to become savvy consumers’. Condren, Waldrip and Knight (2003, 14) go further, arguing critical literacy is a way of creating a ‘more equitable and less discriminatory’ society, by empowering people to change the ways in which they live and the roles they adopt in life. In any case, it is clear that critical literacy is an important skill for students to develop. This is reflected by the Tasmania Education Department (2011), which also states the importance of critical literacy, noting that it is one theory underpinning current English syllabuses.
Condren, T., Waldrip, B., & Knight, B.A. (2003). Being critical of critical literacy teaching. English Leadership Quarterly, 26 (1), 13-18.
Mulhern, M. & Gunding, B. (2011). What’s critical about critical literacy? English Quarterlly Canada, 42 (1), 6-23.
Rowan, L. (2001) Write me in: Inclusive texts in the primary classroom. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.
Tasmanian Department of Education. (2011). Critical Literacy. Retrieved From https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CEIQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2F22.214.171.124%2Fmre%2F621%2Fmod13%2FCriticalLiteracy-TasmanianDeptEducation28-12-11.docx&ei=K0UQUpLOKquFiAfHtIHoDw&usg=AFQjCNFve9reu1ucdOHNiBJLT8G_FK_uPw&sig2=1YDd4iQ1aVcsIjHjULEyjA
Winch, G., Johnston, R., March, P., Ljungdahl, L., & Holliday, M. (2007). Literacy: Reading, writing and children’s literature (3rd ed.). South Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press.