Myths about Critical Literacy

August 2, 2008

Over the past few years, there has been much written about Critical Literacy – most of it, unfortunately, misleading and even mischievous. Here is the first of a number of myths that I’ll write about in this blog.

Myth One: Critical literacy is sludge, using mumbo jumbo jargon.

No doubt over-enthusiasm for the power of critical approaches to texts has resulted in some ill-advised practices, including the over-loading of students with technical language. And, in some cases, this has resulted in some torturous language in some student produced writing. Most English teachers (including those who practise Critical Literacy) would agree that these isolated instances of poor language use quoted in the media do not deserve top marks.

However, syllabuses can hardly be blamed for that. Take the much maligned Queensland Senior English syllabus for example. According to the objectives on page 7, readers will find only four terms that students need to know: constructedness; discourse; representation; and position. This is a very small set to be learnt over a two year course. Any other terms introduced by teachers are an imposition being placed on students by teachers and in most cases, the concept captured by these terms can be handled adequately by everyday synonyms, e.g.: ‘what’s been left out?’ for gaps and silences; ‘what does this remind you of?’ for intertexuality. Neither critical literacy or syllabuses can be held to account for any apparent ‘sludge’ or ‘mumbo jumbo’ in use in schools. Thoughtful, on-going professional development is the real answer here – and a bit of common sense on the part of some teachers.

Finally, unlike every other area of knowledge, if the conservatives have their way, subject English could be denied a technical language for sharing knowledge about its discipline in a rigorous manner that will promote deep understanding. Where are the similar calls for Maths to remove references to ‘quadratic equations’, legal studies to abandon ‘misrepresentation’ or Physics to remove references to ‘vector operations’ to name just a few, isolated examples.

The point, of course, is that critical literacy is neither sludge nor mumbo jumbo as claimed on a monotonously regular basis. Like every area of human knowledge, it has its own set of concepts expressed in specialist ways. However, only a very small set of technical terms is required by syllabuses or by a classroom teacher implementing critical approaches in a thoughtful manner that takes account the age and maturity of students.

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