Key Aspects of Critical Literacy: An Excerpt - National Council of Teachers of English
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Key Aspects of Critical Literacy: An Excerpt

This is an excerpt from “Critical Literacy as a Way of Being and Doing,” a Research and Policy column written by Vivian Maria Vasquez, Hilary Janks, and Barbara Comber, from the May 2019 Language Arts. This article focuses on critical literacy as a way of being and doing around the globe. Orientations to critical literacy, models for instruction, key aspects, and new directions are shared.

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In spite of the fact that critical literacy does not have a set definition or a normative history, the following key tenets have been described in the literature. It should be noted that such key tenets would likely take on a different shape depending on one’s orientation to critical literacy, the level at which one is working, and one’s social context.

  • Critical literacy should be viewed as a lens, frame, or perspective for teaching throughout the day, across the curriculum, and perhaps beyond, rather than as a topic to be covered or unit to be studied. What this means is that critical literacy involves having an ingrained critical perspective or way of being that provides us with an ongoing critical orientation to texts and practices. Inviting students to write down the messages that they see in public transport, to take photographs of graffiti or billboards, to cut out advertisements from magazines, or to collect sweet wrappers to bring to class helps them to read the everyday texts they encounter critically. Do it often enough and they will learn to “read” their worlds with a critical eye.


  • Diverse students’ cultural knowledge (drawn from inside the classroom and the children’s everyday worlds [homes and communities]), their funds of knowledge (Gonzalez, Moll, & Amanti, 2006), and multimodal and multilingual practices (Lau, 2012) should be used to build curriculum across the content areas and across space and place. Inviting children to bring culturally meaningful artifacts to school enables meaningful discussions about and understanding of things that matter to different communities.


  • Students learn best when what they are learning has importance in their lives; as such, using the topics, issues, and questions that they raise should be central to creating an inclusive critical curriculum. Listening to students’ concerns or their responses to picturebooks enables teachers to know how they are reading and problematizing their worlds. It is our job to show them how to assume agency and act to make a difference, however small.


  • Texts are socially constructed from particular perspectives; they are never neutral. All texts are created from a particular perspective with the intention of conveying particular messages. Texts work to have us think about and believe certain things in specific ways, and as such they work to position readers in certain ways. We therefore need to question the perspectives conveyed by the writer. Even maps are social constructions based on selections of what to include and exclude, and whether to put north at the top and Europe at the center.


  • The ways we read text are never neutral. Each time we read, write, or create, we draw from our past experiences and understanding about how the world works. We therefore should also analyze our own readings of text and unpack the position(s) from which we engage in literacy work. If you agree with a text, it is easy to read it sympathetically and hard to read it critically. However, if you find a text offensive, it is hard to engage with it. But we have to do both; we have to engage with texts on their own terms—both to learn from them and to critique them—and we have to recognize that our identities shape how we consume and produce texts. For example, engaging with colonial texts helps us to understand colonialism and prepares us to produce texts that argue for decoloniality.


  • From a critical literacy perspective, the world is seen as a socially constructed text that can be read. The earlier students are introduced to this idea, the sooner they are able to understand what it means to be researchers of language, image, gesture, spaces, and objects, exploring such issues as what counts as language, whose language counts, and who decides, as well as exploring ways texts can be revised, rewritten, or reconstructed to shift or reframe the message(s) conveyed. Classroom work (Vasquez, 2014b; Vasquez & Felderman, 2012) has included the social construction of maps, language policies, construction of the child, classroom spaces, and how the furniture in them is arranged.


  • Critical literacy involves making sense of the sociopolitical systems through which we live our lives and questioning these systems. This means critical literacy work needs to focus on social issues, including inequities of race, class, gender, or disability and the ways in which we use language and other semiotic resources to shape our understanding of these issues. The discourses we use to take up such issues work to shape how people are able to—or not able to—live their lives in more or less powerful ways. For instance, in O’Brien’s (2001) study, children worked with a catalogue promoting Mother’s Day and discovered that the mothers in the photographs were all youthful (age), White (race), well-dressed and wearing makeup (class), good looking (gender), and able bodied. In addition, the goods advertised were normatively gendered (washing machines, perfume, jewelry) and often pricey (class).


  • Critical literacy practices can be transformative. They can contribute to changing inequitable ways of being and problematic social practices. This means students who engage in critical literacy from a young age are prepared 1) to make informed decisions regarding issues such as power and control, 2) to engage in the practice of democratic citizenship, and 3) to develop an ability to think and act ethically. As such, they would be better able to contribute to making the world a more equitable and socially just place.


  • Text design and production, which are essential to critical literacy work, can provide opportunities for transformation. Text design and production refer to the creation or construction of multimodal texts and the decisions that are part of that process, including the notion that it is not sufficient to simply create texts for the sake of “practicing a skill.” If students are to create texts, they should be able to let those texts do the work intended; for instance, if students are creating petitions, they should address an existing issue rather than an imagined one, and if they are writing surveys, they should conduct them and analyze the data.


  • Finally, “critical literacy is about imagining thoughtful ways of thinking about reconstructing and redesigning texts, images, and practices to convey different and more socially just and equitable messages and ways of being that have real-life effects and real-world impact” (Vasquez, 2017b, para. 19). For example, critically reading a bottle of water as a text could include examining the practice of drinking bottled water and changing that practice in support of creating a more sustainable world.


Vivian Maria Vasquez, NCTE member since 2000, is a professor of education at American University whose research interests include critical literacy, early literacy and information communication technologies, and teacher education. She can be contacted at Hilary Janks is professor emerita in the school of education at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Her teaching and research are committed to a search for equity and social justice in contexts of poverty. She can be contacted at Barbara Comber is a research professor in the school of education at the University of South Australia. She can be contacted at