<span class='p-name'>What is “Critical Literacy” in Education?</span>

What is “Critical Literacy” in Education?

Critical literacy is one of the key perspectives that informs my teaching, research, and thinking. It informs all of the work that I do, and fundamentally impacts everything from the ways in which I view the world, to the very tweets that I send out on a daily basis. It plays a role in guiding my research…I even built an entire digital literacy & education program based on the tenets of critical literacy.

One of the things that I’ve noticed lately is that people often talk about critical evaluation of information, and loosely identify this as “critical literacy.” I think/know that the two are linked, but they are in no way the same thing. In this post, I’ll provide a relatively brief overview of the literature on critical literacy to help you understand the basics in this perspective. I’ll also include some thinking about how I embed it in teaching & learning…but will try to (for the most part) keep my perspectives out of this.

A note about text

Before I begin, I should note that I have a broad view of “text” in my work. I have an expanded view of “text,” including visual, digital and other multimodal formats (Rose & Meyer, 2002; New London Group, 2000; Alvermann, 2002). This means that text involves printed books, magazines, and comic books, as well as video, websites, advertising, street signs, maps, music, etc.

This larger perspective of text requires a continual examination of the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that impacted students and instructors as they interact with text (Warschauer, 2000; Grimes & Warschauer, 2008). This broader view of text also requires instructors to allow students to use online information that had not been vetted and might be unreliable (Leu et al, 2007; Leu et al. 2008). Thus, there is a degree of risk and trust that is a part of the literacy process as learners and educators engage with text, especially digital texts.

Defining Critical Literacy

Rooted in the socio-cultural perspectives of reading, critical literacy has used learning to “build access to literate practices and discourse resources” (Luke, 2000, p. 449) for use as social capital in the community (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Lankshear & Knobel, 1998). Critical literacy has been defined as “learning to read and write as part of the process of becoming conscious of one’s experience as historically constructed within specific power relations” (Anderson & Irvine, 1982). Critical literacy moved the reader’s focus away from the “self” in critical reading to the interpretation of texts in different environmental and cultural contexts (Luke, 2000). This allows educators and students with an opportunity to read, evaluate, and reflect on texts, and embark upon the creative process of actively constructing or reconstructing these texts.

Embedded in literacy practices, critical literacy provides opportunities for readers to determine their ability to discern the purpose of texts and also their ability to identify ideologies presented in the texts. As they read, individuals can accept, reject or reconstruct the ideologies presented in the text (Cervetti, Pardales, Damico, 2001) to support their own life experiences (Luke, 2000). This knowledge construction, or reconstruction, of content empowers students to embrace their own conceptual perspectives and enables them to more critically evaluate other aspects of their lives.  Some may interpret this examination and critique of texts and the process of reading as a form of “activism,” (Morrell, 2002) or “cyberactivism” (McCaughey & Ayers, 2003) in the online space.

Critical literacy & “truth”

Social critical theorists concerned with social injustice and inequities first coined the term “critical literacy” to describe the impact of the unequal power relationships amongst societal groups. Because of this inequality, certain “truths” were restricted to an elite class over other groups within society as a whole. Employing a critical literacy framework, “truth” is defined as the ideas or perspectives that were determined and propagated by the group that held power (Giroux & McLaren, 1989; Cervetti, Pardales, & Damico, 2001).

Through the use of schooling, government, and advertising, these ideologies were supported and promoted through the texts produced by the privileged group (Shor, 1999; Alvermann, 2002; Street, 2003). The continued promotion of these “truths” by the group in power led to the “status quo” and the assumption that these agendas were in fact truth (Shor, 1999; McDaniel, 2004).

Dialectic critique

Critical literacy is rooted in critical theory and an examination process known as “dialectic critique” (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993). This process, developed in the philosophies of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and adopted by Karl Heinrich Marx, assisted the individual’s understanding of “what is,” by examining the opposite or converse idea (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993).  

Essentially, students were exposed to the opposite perspective of the subject under consideration to allow them to further understand it (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993). By looking at the opposite, students tried to understand the values of the advocated “truth.” Put simply, if you do not agree with the version of “truth” presented in a text or ideology, you can reflect on (or create) the opposite or converse idea.

This form of literacy practice requires students to reflect upon how research challenges or reinforces the economic and political forces that shaped history (Lankshear & McLaren, 1993; Luke, 1994).  This process of “dialectic critique” is guided by critical theory and is manifested in critical literacy today.


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Read more

Alvermann, D. E. & Hagood, M. C. (2000). Fandom and critical media literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43, 436-446.

Alvermann, D. E. (2004). Media, information communication technologies, and youth literacies: A cultural studies perspective. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(1), 78-83.

Anderson, G., & Irvine, P. (1993). Informing critical literacy with ethnography. In C. Lankshear and P. McLaren (Eds.) Critical literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Beck, A. (2005). A place for critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 48(5), 392-400. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.48.5.3

Browne, M. N., Freeman, K. E., & Williamson, C. L. (2000). The importance of critical thinking for student use of the Internet. College Student Journal, 34(3), 391–398.

Cervetti, G., Pardales, M., & Damico, J. (2001, April). A tale of differences: Comparing the traditions, perspectives and educational goals of critical reading and critical literacy. Reading Online, 4(9). Available: http:// readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF/articles/cervetti/index.html

Cook-Sather, A. (2002). Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education. Educational Researcher, 31(4). 3-14.

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York: Lang.

Fabos, B. (2008). The Price of Information: Critical Literacy, Education and Today’s Internet. In D.J. Leu, J. Coiro, M. Knobel & C. Lankshear (Eds.). Handbook of Research on New Literacies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Giroux, H. (1987). Literacy and the pedagogy of empowerment. In P. Freire & D. Macedo (Eds.), Literacy: Reading the word and the world (pp. 1-29). Westport, CT: Heinemann.

Giroux, H., & McLaren, P. (1989). Critical pedagogy, the state, and cultural struggle. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Kellner, D. & Share, J. (2005). Toward critical media literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 26(3), 369-386. doi: 10.1080/01596300500200169

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (1998). Critical literacies and new technologies. Paper presented at the American Education Research Association convention in San Diego, CA.

Lewison, M., Flint, A. S., & Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on critical literacy: The journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts, 79(5), 382-392.

Luke, A. (1994). The Social Construction of Literacy in the Classroom. Melbourne: Macmillan Australia.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999, August). Further notes on the four resources model. Reading Online. Retrieved January 26, 2003, from http://www.readingonline.org/past/past_index.asp?HREF=/research/lukefreebody.html

Luke, A. (2000). Critical literacy in Australia: A matter of context and standpoint. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(5), 448-461.

Myers, J., & Beach, R. (2001). Hypermedia authoring as critical literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 44(6), 538-546.

Myers, J. & Beach, R. (2004). Constructing critical literacy practices through technology tools and inquiry. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education [Online serial], 4(3).

Pickerill, J. (2003). Cyberprotest: Environmental activism online. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Robinson, E. & Robinson, S. (2003). What does it mean-discourse, text, culture: An introduction. Sydney, Australia: McGraw-Hill.

Shor, I. (1999). What is Critical Literacy? Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism, & Practice, 4(1). Retrieved December 1, 2011, from http://www.lesley.edu/journals/jppp/4/shor.html


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