March 19, 2015

Defining Critical Literacy: Why Students Should Understand the Power of Language

By Caitrin Blake, Contributing Writer | Literacy Resources Updated April 20, 2017 How to Define Critical Literacy

The horrific events that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Miami Gardens, Florida and many other locations over the last few years have re-directed the national conversation about race, power and justice in the United States. In order to function productively as a nation, students need the proper tools to participate in this dialogue.

Critical literacy defined

The ability to think critically about power imbalances between populations is commonly called critical literacy. Students with this skill are better equipped to recognize and respond to racism, sexism and other forms of social injustice.

According to the Ontario Ministry of Education English Curriculum, critical literacy focuses on equality, social justice and fair treatment. Students who have achieved this are able to look at texts to determine how the world is represented in such texts and whether or not that representation is acceptable.

Why critical literacy is important

Students who achieve critical literacy are able to do more than take texts at face value; they are able to evaluate them for how the authors — often those in positions of power — influence events and outcomes. Once students consider how inequality impacts society, they can better understand their place within the power structure, articulate criticism of unfair situations, and work toward change.

Required skills and knowledge for critical literacy

Critical literacy asks students to deconstruct power dynamics and disparities regarding race, socioeconomic status, gender, class or sexual orientation inherent in literature, media and other written or oral texts. Students who have achieved critical literacy are able to do the following.

Interpret messages through a critical lens

Students examine media texts and view them with critical theories in mind. Students might view messages on clothing to determine how this represents culture in a way that is positive or negative.

Challenge power structures that are represented in texts

When practicing critical literacy, students can do more than recognize power structures. They are also able to vocalize their issues and concerns related to those structures.

Recognize problematic power imbalances within a variety of social institutions

Students can understand the reasons why Native Americans and their allies object to the continued use of Indian sports mascots and team names such as “Braves” or “Redskins.”

Understand divisive social issues

Students recognize societal issues such as the fight to remove the Confederate flag from government and other buildings.

The role of language in politics

Recognize the role language plays in the construction of race, class and power structures. For example, students understand the different viewpoints represented by the terms “undocumented” and “illegal” immigrant.

 Read reflectively and critically

Students actively engage in their reading in order to make connections to other texts or to determine how texts challenge or enforce bias or stereotypes.

Promoting critical literacy in the classroom

Edward Behrman encourages promoting critical literacy through lessons that include:

  • Reading supplementary texts
  • Reading multiple texts
  • Reading from a resistant perspective
  • Producing counter-texts
  • Research
  • Promoting social action

Evaluating critical literacy

Critical literacy can be difficult to measure. Because it often asks students to articulate their opinion of an issue, teachers may find it difficult to recognize a student’s interpretation as wrong or right. Instead, teachers can measure how well a student backs up his or her claims with evidence.

For instance, if a student is claiming that a song illustrates racist sentiments, the teacher can evaluate the examples the student gives to back his or her argument. The teacher will need to review the lyrics the student identifies as racist as well as the student’s analysis of how the lyrics convey racist thoughts. However, since another component of critical literacy involves participating in social action, teachers can also evaluate a student’s completion of activities as well as their personal reflection on them.

Teaching students to interpret media and other messages through a critical lens encourages students to think critically in real-world settings. This enables students to understand the power of language — and how to use it to promote change.

Caitrin Blake has a B.A. in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.


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