Isabel Braadbaart is completing her probationary year as a newly qualified primary teacher in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She has a B.A. in Social Sciences from University College Utrecht, an M.Ed. in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, and a Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (Primary) from the University of Edinburgh.
My own exploration of critical literacy occurs at the intersection of my personal values, my academic interests and research, and my professional goals as a teacher. These are inextricable from each other, and rightly so. Research is nothing without an application, professionalism ceases to exist without evidence and systemic thought, and neither is meaningful without the personal element. This post provides an overview and analysis of my M.Ed. dissertation and the practitioner enquiry I conducted as a student teacher, both relating to critical literacy. Readers are invited to reflect on the parallels between my journey and theirs, and to consider the roles of researchers, policymakers, and the teachers in introducing, positioning and enacting critical literacy.
Critical literacy is acknowledged as a nebulous yet vital aspect of the literacy skillset (Stone, 2017). There is a plethora of approaches and definitions, ranging from the acknowledgement of the real work texts do (Vasquez, 2010: 110) to exploring how texts do this work (Freire & Macedo, 1987) to positioning texts of social constructs (Sandretto & Klenner, 2011) to how students can learn to decode, encode, analyze and create texts (Freebody & Luke, 1990). The working definition of my dissertation positioned critical literacy as the use of literacy skills to analyze, critique and transform social norms, and highlighted its position within critical pedagogy. Critical literacy is also frequently defined by the topics with which it deals: primarily, those related to social justice issues (Vasquez, 2010). This plurality is difficult: it created challenges in focusing my work as a teacher and explaining my work to others. While there is value in multiple definitions, May (2015: 5) notes that there are potentially too many possible interpretations for educators to develop a concrete conceptualization of critical literacy. As a novice teacher, I craved a definition which positioned critical literacy as a tool and a lens, while also acknowledging how I think about and incorporate critical literacy into my own practice. I currently define critical literacy as how we use literacy as a tool for understanding and improving the world.
“We talk about it in a different way”: A narrative inquiry into two Scottish teachers’ negotiations of critical literacy
Narrative enquiry provided the framework for the research, and I focused on valuing participants’ voices and their ability to direct the conversation and narrative. The workshops were recorded and coded by myself, with corroboration and relevant discussion with participants. While the interpretive nature of narrative inquiry implies that an analysis is in no way conclusive or exhaustive, the strongest narratives which developed were the intertwining elements of structures, personal beliefs and values, and power. Structural narratives, involving the effects of an environment on teachers and vice-versa (Giddens, 1984; Bourdieu, 1972), primarily focused on the positive and negative aspects of working with the CfE, though issues such as professional development, preparation time, and class size were mentioned. We also discussed the role of personal beliefs and values in how a teacher approaches critical literacy. Indeed, a core dilemma in investigating teacher use of critical literacy is that it requires not just the adaptation of practices, but also a willingness to participate in critical reflection. The participants dubbed this a ‘mindset’. Lastly, the issue of power was a strong undercurrent, demonstrated in the almost constant negotiation required between the structural and the personal when considering any teaching approach, and not just critical literacy.
This dissertation provided tentative ideas about the challenges in inviting teachers to participate in critical literacy, outlining the importance of considering how teachers adopt new approaches and incorporate them into their own beliefs and teaching practices, and the potential of structural elements to influence this process. Not only are these ideas which could be followed up on with further research, these were aspects which I knew would play a role in my own initial teacher education the following year and expected to come across when I began my practitioner enquiry.
Critical literacy as inclusive pedagogy: Meaningful literacy for all students
In the final five-week placement of teacher training, we conducted a practitioner enquiry. This was an opportunity to extend both my practical and theoretical knowledge of critical literacy, while engaging in a professional practice expected of Scottish teachers. A practitioner enquiry is “an investigation with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended” (Menter et al., 2011) focusing on teachers and their practice. It is qualitative, emic, and personal research.
My enquiry focused on exploring how critical literacy functions as an inclusive pedagogy. The two approaches go well together. Literacy skills are essential for student attainment, and “finding ways to engage students in reading may be one of the most effective ways to leverage social change” (OECD, 2002: 3). In addition to this, work in inclusive education points to the fact that the mere presence of students in school is not enough: students must also have “opportunities to participate in meaningful learning” (Florian & Spratt, 2013: 121). The nature of critical literacy highlights the real-world importance of literacy in both its approaches and topics, helping to create meaningful literacy opportunities. I therefore aimed to explore how I could make literacy meaningful for all students using critical literacy.
I focused on two overlapping tenets of inclusive pedagogy and critical literacy: valuing student voice and valuing multiple opinions. These linked to key questions of inclusion which I needed to reflect on: Whose voices are included and whose are excluded in my classroom? (Allan, 2003); What messages am I sending about what types of learning and learners are valued in my classroom? (Florian & Spratt, 2013: 121). Throughout the placement, I reflected daily on my own teaching as well as the students’ learning, and these provided the basis for the analysis of how using critical literacy affected my students and me.
Working with students in the last year of primary school (P7 in Scotland), critical literacy skills were primarily explored through an interdisciplinary approach looking at reading and writing news articles and examining their role in reporting on natural disasters. There was a focus first on understanding how a news article works as a text, and then using the text to support opinions. News articles also naturally functioned as an excellent link to the real-life relevance of texts. Exploring natural disasters and country preparedness provided opportunities for the development of visual literacy skills, as well as continuing to develop the ability to use a text to support a position. These skills were then applied again to newspapers, when examining the roles of pictures, headlines and formatting, and who makes the decisions about these elements. We also explored facts and opinions in news sources, linking this to trustworthiness and relating it, again to a real life concern: whether fidget spinners should be allowed in schools. All of these skills culminated in an assignment to write an article about a natural disaster using an information pack to select witnesses, expert quotes, and appropriate evidence to support their writing.
Personally, it seemed clear that the focus on critical literacy skills and attitudes engaged the class, and particularly enabled less able students to contribute and develop literacy skills. Using real texts show that you care about making what you teach relevant to the learners, and examining how texts ‘work’ empowers students through improving their ability to decode texts. A focus on visual literacy highlights the inevitability of multiple perspectives, and creates an environment which values a plurality of ideas and interpretations and removes or diminishes the barrier of traditional text for less confident readers. By valuing multiple perspectives, we value students’ voices and ideas, placing the focus and onus of learning on the students themselves – a key tenant of dialogic teaching (Sandretto & Klenner, 2011: 63). In the final written assignment, some of the less able students were using sophisticated reading strategies to plan their text as well as showing a good understanding of how to produce a news article. It is noteworthy that critical literacy was not the only approach I used which would foster inclusive education: I also routinely use formative assessment strategies, dialogic approaches, and mixed ability grouping as appropriate. However, using critical literacy as a framework for inclusive literacy teaching and learning helped me navigate how I might value different ways of being a learner, highlighting existing practices as well as new ones I could incorporate.
Reflections and next steps
I learned much from this enquiry, and left my placement eager to consider how I might purposefully structure critical literacy skills in my classroom. It also raised my awareness of what kind of hurdles and challenges teachers might face when trying to incorporate critical literacy into their practice and their mindset: hurdles that would have been difficult for me to imagine when conducting my initial research for my dissertation. The broad categories of structure, personal beliefs and values, and power still apply, but I can now clearly imagine the specifics of these challenges, e.g. the need to take time to establish critical literacy habits and teach the appropriate metalanguage; the potential struggles with finding space for critical literacy within a full curriculum as well as school planning and set literacy schemes; the convoluted web of practice wherein many critical literacy elements require other aspects of good, inclusive practice.
The importance of critical literacy is still clear to me, and this enquiry helped me return to my previous work and define critical literacy more clearly for my own practice. The challenges it presents are ones that are surmountable, and personally I see many opportunities to take it forward, even when working with much younger students as I am currently. Beyond my personal journey, there is also much which can be done both in research and policy. For instance, there is still more information needed about how we can successfully encourage and help teachers to not just implement critical literacy but imbed it in their practice. Based on my own experiences, I would argue that a focus on skills rather than topics would help clarify what critical literacy looks like, but this needs to be investigated further. Awareness of critical literacy and its value both socially and as an inclusive pedagogy needs to be increased. Part of this responsibility lies, in this case, with the Scottish government and how the CfE incorporates critical literacy, but the responsibility also lies with researchers who should make their work accessible to those who would benefit from it. Finally, we need teachers who believe in the potential and power of critical literacy across the curriculum and stages to advocate its use beyond their own classrooms.
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