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Critical literacies: Politicising the language classroom

Barbara Comber, Language and Literacy Research Centre, University

of South Australia, Underdale
Barbara Kamler, Deakin Centre for Education and Change, Deakin
University, Geelong
Paper submitted for Interpretations, January 1997

Critical literacy has been conference, curriculum, policy and journal currency for
some time now. Two working conferences on critical literacy were held at Griffith
University in July 1992 and 1993 and a book documenting that work is currently in
press (Muspratt, Luke, Freebody 1997). The Australian Journal of Language and
Literacy devoted a special issue to critical literacy in 1993 (vol. 16, no.4), as did
Idiom (vol. 29, no. 2), the Journal of Victorian Association of Teachers of
English,Open Letter (vol. 6, no.1), the Australian Journal for Adult Literacy Research
and Practice in 1995 and Changing Education (vol.3, no. 1), the Deakin Centre for
Education and Çhange Journal for Teachers and Adminstrators in 1996. Critical
literacy has been sanctioned in the National English Profiles and the Australian
Curriculum Studies Association has produced an Occasional Paper on Critical
Literacy (Lankshear 1994). Now this issue of Interpretations is similarly focussed on
'critical literacies'.

This widespread attention, of course, does not mean we are agreed about what critical
literacy is. The need for the plural form - 'critical literacies'- suggests, rather, that a
diversity of curriculum interventions are in theoretical, practical and political contest
with one another (Luke & Freebody 1996). While it is not our intention to sort
through contested meanings here, we believe it is possible to identify some shared
assumptions: that literacy is a social and cultural construction, that its functions and
uses are never neutral or innocent, that the meanings constructed in text are
ideological and involved in producing, reproducing and maintaining arrangements of
power which are unequal. 'Developing critical readers and writers of texts has,' as
Lankshear (1994:11) points out , 'necessarily to do in part with enabling them to
detect and handle the inherently ideological dimensions of literacy, and the role of
literacy in enactments or productions of power.'

In this article we are concerned to explore what such understandings might mean for
developing classroom practice. What possiblities and problems do critical literacies
offer to classroom teachers? If, as we argue, critical literacies are about politicising
the language classroom, in what ways? to what ends? with what risks for teachers?
Such questions are important because teachers themselves have largely been absent
from academic debates surrounding the construction of critical literacy. In assembling
a pedagogy for literacy, teachers use local knowledge of their particular sites and
draw on a range of theories. But if, as Lankshear (1994) argues, the term 'critical' has
been so overused, undertheorised and freely inserted in curriculum and policy
documents as to be in danger of losing its meaning, how do teachers differentiate
critical literacies as alternate sets of practices?

We have argued elsewhere (Kamler and Comber 1996) that critical literacy is not a
generic set of procedures - not simply an orthodoxy to be set in opposition to older
orthodoxies such as process writing - whole language - or genre approaches to

literacy; nor is it a set of new activities teachers can simply add and stir. What a
critical perspective does offer teachers is a way to think about what it is students are
learning to read and write, what they do with that reading and writing and what that
reading and writing does to them and their world. When such understandings inform
teaching, they affect how teachers think of the literacy work of the classroom, the
questions they ask and the tasks they set.

If critical literacy is to mean anything to educators in the nineties, a greater self-

consciousness about language will need to be developed; a metalanguage for talking
about how language constructs both a representation of experience and a positioning
of readers and writers in relations of power. As Gilbert points out, this awareness
creates a new range of pedagogical practices.

To explore the social context of language practices is inevitably to explore the

networks of power that are sustained and brought into existence by such practices. It
is to explore how language practices are used in powerful institutions like the state,
the school, the law, the family, the church, and how these practices contribute to the
maintenance of inequalities and injustices. For teachers, it means engaging with issues
that are often controversial, certainly contemporary and perhaps quite volatile (Gilbert

Of course, it is not a simple matter for teachers to make such changes and more
attention needs to be given to the risks teachers face in allowing students to examine
the complexities of dynamic postmodern and postcolonial societies - in finding ways
to talk about real world issues that go beyond politically correct moralising.
Politicising the literacy classroom is a project which comes with no prewritten scripts.
Talking about difference - race, colour, class, ethnicity - requires us to construct new
ways of speaking (Dyson et al. 1995; Gutierrez et al. 1995). Teachers who take on this
work are engaged in ongoing self-conscious critique about their practices and its

In the remainder of this article, we explore the complexities and contradictions

involved in creating spaces for critical literacy in the curriculum. Through transcripts
of lessons, we emphasise classroom interactions where we can see teachers and
students struggling to find ways of talking about topics which are often considered
taboo in educational institutions. Developing critical literacies requires more than sets
of critical questions or activities around text production and interpretation. These are
important starting points, but what often goes unexamined is how critical literacies are
negotiated and constructed in everyday classroom talk. Curriculum textbooks and
academic papers often smooth over the difficulties and tensions of enacted literacy

To give a sense of the complexities of literacy lessons we examine three instances

from two different classrooms. In the first classroom, the teachers' objective was to
model and jointly construct a travel brochure genre on Uluru. We use this instance to
consider the proposition that all language and literacy lessons are possible sites for
practising critical literacies, but for many reasons, some of which Gilbert alludes to
above, literacy lessons frequently proceed as though the subject matter was irrelevant,
neutral, unproblematic and separate from the literacies to be taught and learnt. We
demonstrate through our analysis that even when teachers avoid explicitly political

work in their literacy lessons - even when their use of information and particular
cultural forms is treated as unproblematic - their lessons still have political effects on

In the second classroom, we examine two different literacy lessons where the teacher
has decided to make race and gender explicit topics for discussion, reading and
writing. In the first instance, we focus on the skilled ways the teacher makes everyday
school literacy lessons potential sites for learning about the world. We show,
however, that even when teachers make decisions to be political, they sometimes face
unanticipated consequences which relate to students' relations of power and personal
histories. In the second instance, we explore the problematising of texts in developing
a critical literacy curriculum. We suggest that for teachers beginning to explore
questions of language use and power relations, this may be safer and more familiar
territory to start with.

Information as a neutral commodity

This transcript comes from a lesson with a composite class of five to eight year olds
of diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Two children identified as
Aboriginal, a number were from Italy and others were Anglo-Australians. Over half
the children's families received government assistance provided to parents with low

As part of a larger unit on landforms, the teacher focussed on a study of Uluru. Her
plan was to have the children design travel brochures about this famous Australian
landmark. The teacher had participated in earlier professional development on
Aboriginal Studies provided to all staff as part of the school commitment to social
justice. This program had a particular emphasis on Aboriginal art forms.

Whilst information production is never neutral, the following teaching interaction

proceeds as though it were. The task of designing a travel brochure about a landform
which has spiritual significance to indigenous people is treated as a neutral set of
literate practices to be learnt: reading for information, reproducing a common genre,
and using authentic visual texts. The teacher begins by reminding children that they
had previously talked about travel brochures.

Teacher OK. Now are we ready to listen? OK. Now this is our task for the next hour.
Remember we talked about a travel brochure, that we could say, 'Come to Uluru', and
so that people could say 'We don't know anything about Uluru. I know nothing about
it at all.'

Student [Interjecting] Ayers Rock.

Teacher Or Ayers Rock. They could say both. It's best to use a name that the
Aboriginal people wanted for it. So we'll say,' I don't know anything about Uluru. Uh
I come from America'... (student interrupts)... 'I come from America and I want to see
all these special things in Australia and I don't know anything about it so I come into
our class and I say, 'Tell me all about Uluru'. And you can say, 'Here you are. We've
made our brochure all about Uluru'...Usually when you go into a travel agent you just
get small brochures and I'm really sorry I haven't got an example to show you.

Student That doesn't matter...(inaudible)...

Teacher And I will go in and after school today or after school tomorrow I will go
into the Northern Territory travel agent or tourist office and get you some brochures

Student What are brochures? [Interjecting]

Teacher Brochures are posters that are, that you don't have on the wall you have in
your pocket that you look up and see about it. So if you want a piece of paper this size
we can have a title on the front and all about Uluru. And here's our typing. Now let's
read what you brainstormed this morning. You'll need to cut it out to fit it in properly,
but let's read it.

A particular formation of information literacy is being shaped here which calls on

both whole language and genre pedagogies. In selecting the travel brochure as the
genre for students to present information on Uluru, the teacher meets one criteria of
progressive literacy pedagogies in having 'authentic purposes' for classroom tasks.
Consistent with the move towards genre pedagogy, she specifies a particular kind of
text as the way for students to demonstrate their knowledge of the field.

Students are invited to visualise what the teacher can see - American tourists who
want and need information about Australia's special places. American tourists are
constructed as 'non-knowers' and Australians, particularly the producers of brochures,
as 'knowers'. Through her insistence on the Aboriginal name, 'Uluru', over the Anglo
name, 'Ayers Rock', she privileges indigenous culture over western and supports the
school policy of social justice and anti-racism. At the same time a consumer culture
and an economic rationale for producing and using information in particular ways is
introduced and promoted. Place becomes significant in terms of its money earning
potential to a tourist industry.

Next the teacher and the class read their jointly constructed draft of the text for the
brochure which they had begun in an earlier lesson.

Teacher 'Come to Uluru in the Northern Territory. Fly to Alice Springs. Catch a
tourist bus to Uluru'. [Students read along.]

Teacher What would be really important besides the writing on the front cover? What
do you think it would have to have on the front cover of our brochure?

Student A picture of Ayers Rock.

Student Yes.

Teacher Yes, exactly. So that's the front cover organised. Now on the inside you can
fit these bits of paper, these pieces of information into a smaller bit. And when you
cut them out, what you are going to need to do is you're going to need to do the
photographs. Now always travel brochures have got photographs. Now let's read our
first piece of information and see what the photographics children would like for me
to do. 'Uluru changes colour,' -Tim read it- 'depending on the time of the day'. OK.

What would you show for a photograph to give out that information? Because a
photograph gives out the information as well as the words. Phillip what would you do

Visual texts such as collage, drawings, silk screening and paintings are highly valued
in this classroom and here their use in informational material is acknowledged, if not
dwelt on. As the lesson proceeds, the teacher asks children to consider what kinds of
visual images might accompany their words. She takes a number of suggestions about
what could be shown in a 'photographic picture' (as the teacher describes it) - a term
which signals that no real photographs are to be used. Rather children are to draw
pictures based on photos in books.

While the teacher encourages students to refer to the work of Aboriginal artists in
doing their own pictures, she finds it difficult to say why. As she holds up
photographs from a book showing Aboriginal art, a tension emerges between her
naming and acknowledging the Aboriginal perspective and her discomfort with
knowing what to say and how to say it.

Teacher And if we look here it's very similar to the silk painting we saw. It's got all
those beautiful patterns that present certain principles for those people, so when you
think about it when you wanted that piece of information in your brochure which says
... Let's read it together.

Together 'In the rock there are caves with lots of Aboriginal paintings in them'.

Teacher You can refer that to this book to see if you can match some of those
paintings and try and do it like those paintings and try and use those colours which the
Aboriginal people use

Student Why? [Interjecting]

Teacher in their painting. Because we need to make them look like they really are.
Because remember we've got a travel brochure that's advertising Uluru kind of people.

The student's question: 'Why?' signals an absence in the pedagogical repertoire on

this occasion. What is lacking in this formation of literacy is any social analysis. The
teacher directs students to use the Aboriginal word for Uluru, but why is never
addressed. She directs students to use Aboriginal colours and styles in their
illustrations. Her reference to those people and Uluru kind of people essentialises
Aboriginal people and represents their art forms as authentic images which can be
exploited in the tourist brochure. In this context the literate practice - the production
of a tourist brochure - is treated as though it is a useful community service.
Information is taken as an available commodity and as beyond question. While the
teachers' talk indicates an attempt at respect for Aboriginal culture, ultimately
Aboriginal culture is simply treated as a marketing device.

At the time this lesson was conducted Aboriginal land rights were foregrounded in
Australian politics and in the media. On June 3, 1992 the High Court of Australia
ruled that the ownership of the Murray Islands be returned to the traditional owners,

the Meriam people (see Butt & Eagleson 1993). This landmark case paved the way
for Torres Straight Islander and Aboriginal communities nationwide to petition the
High Court for land rights. In this legal move the violence and tyranny which marked
the history of the Anglo colonisation of Australia was officially recognised. The
successful court action by the Meriam people demonstrated a major turning point in
Aboriginal people achieving a measure of social justice. Since that time Aboriginal
communities have regained control of many Aboriginal sites which are central to their
beliefs, including Uluru. Aboriginal people are confronting decisions about the
marketisation of the lands which they officially own, lands which have been and
continue to be key tourist sites. None of this was discussed in the lessons about Uluru.

Instead the children learn to practice a depoliticised construction of a genre - a genre

which in the real world is a highly politicised site of social action with differential
material effects. In selecting the real-world genre of the travel brochure, the teacher
has moved to study easily available community texts; however, the literate pedagogy
she deploys precludes any critical analysis of the travel brochure as a product of
exploitative western capitalist interests. The focus on the production of genre itself
perhaps deflects the teacher from an analysis of what the genre does (see also Kamler

Race and land rights are not easy to talk about, but their absence seems strange here,
especially given the school's explicit social justice agenda and its Aboriginal Studies
program. In this instance it is clear that curriculum decisions are always political and
ideological: always about selection and absence, inclusions and exclusions,
foregrounds and backgrounds. Why teach the discourses of tourism, rather than the
discourse of social justice and why not open both up to examination and contestation
in the classroom? In the remainder of this article we explore what occurred in a
different primary classroom where the teacher's explicit agenda was to open up the
public space of the classroom and school literacy practices to discussions about
power, racial difference, gender and representation.

The risks of talking about racism

The transcripts we examine in this section come from Josie McKinnon's composite
grade five/six/seven class in a school serving a socio-economically disadvantaged and
culturally diverse community. At the time of transcription, McKinnon had just begun
to explore questions concerning race, gender and identity with her highly
heterogeneous class. A number of children had recently immigrated from Thailand,
Vietnam, Eire, Poland; others had been born in Australia but spoke English as a
second language; others were Anglo-Australians. There was also a diversity of 'faith
traditions' which in this Catholic parish school children were encouraged to make
public. How a critical literacy curriculum might be negotiated in such a context is not

Unlike the Uluru lessons, McKinnon begins her series of lessons by foregrounding
issues of race. She tells students about the referendum on the voting rights of black
people in South Africa and goes on to talk about apartheid.

Teacher It's basically about whether the country, or the people in the country the
white people in the country would like to move towards change ...(inaudible)... I'm

not sure how bad it is now, but it used to be much worse where black people had to
walk on a different side of the street and they weren't allowed on buses and they
weren't allowed sit on certain seats or drink from the fountains or ...(inaudible)... They
virtually weren't allowed to do anything and over the years they've, other countries
said they don't like that and they tried to change it. But the people of South Africa
who've lived that way for a long long time are finding it very difficult to change. Now
the white people who've got the white South African Parliament are the people who
have the power and they're saying to the black people. No you cannot vote. You have
no power in this country. You do what we tell you to do. Which also means they live
where they're told to live and they find it very difficult to get work, they are paid less -
all that kind of stuff that happens with racism.

In helping students understand the reason for the referendum and the effects of
apartheid, McKinnon provides specific illustrations of the physical and economic
consequences of racist policies on people's everyday circumstances - experiences
which some students can directly relate to. She also describes her personal investment
in South African politics. She explains that she has friends in South Africa who fear
the possibility of violent reactions or even civil war in the wake of the referendum.
During this talk students are extremely engaged and call out comments and whisper to
one other.

Teacher What worries me and probably worries you is why does it ever have to get to
that point? Why can't people live together peacefully? And where can we go? A
bunch of people and a bunch of school kids and a bunch of teachers in one little place
at Banfield is just a speck on the world. Like we are just one tiny little speck. What
can we do to make a difference? Not to the situation over there. How can we start the
rippling effect from here? How can this little group of people cause a chain reaction?

At this point McKinnon introduces the theme of local action and invites students to
comment on forms of action they can take. While she describes the school community
as 'one tiny little speck', she holds out hope for transformative action. Students
suggest protest marches, letters and petitions. McKinnon accepts their suggestions but
begins her move to push students to think and act locally.

Teacher Yep all those sorts of powerful things like writing letters and signing
petitions are very powerful things. What about our attitudes? Could we have, what
about our attitudes that we have in this classroom now towards each other and
towards each other's differences. Now come on. Someone give me a response to that
question. What about us in this school and our attitude to each other and out of the

In making space and time for students to consider global events in relation to the
possibilities for local action, McKinnon enacts a number of principles of critical
pedagogy. When she invites students to talk about their attitudes towards each other,
however, the classroom erupts with simultaneous and overlapping conversations.
Having unleashed the topic it becomes difficult for the teacher to manage the ensuing
talk in the public forum of the classroom and a number of issues related to teasing
emerge which McKinnon had not anticipated. McKinnon intervenes by asking the
class to write about questions of racism (both in South Africa and Australia) in their
journals. Here the move to writing functions both as a way of regaining order and also

as an attempt to capitalise on the students' energy for this topic. After ten minutes
writing, McKinnon invites students to stand and share what they have written.
Benjamith, who was born in Thailand and is herself a person of colour, is the first to
offer to read.

Benjamith 'It doesn't matter if you are purple and green, orange or brown you live in
this world too. So people should have the same rights as other people. To stop racism.
It may be we all need to think about it and always try something new and pass down
what you believe to your generation and their generation and perhaps something will
happen. So why are people being so childish and selfish? And why not let blacks have
the same rights as whites? It is just like children in the playground saying, 'I'm not
going to play with you because you are a different colour'. Don't put people into
categories because it doesn't matter if you're black or white purple or green. People
still love each other'.

Benjamith links many of the key themes of the earlier discussion about
intergenerational racism, equal rights and the school context. Of particular interest is
the way she relates political racism to what children say to each other in the
playground. Her use of rhetorical questions suggests she has written her text to be
read aloud in the public forum. While Benjamith reads her text with some passion and
confidence, other students are reluctant to read their journal entries aloud. A week
later McKinnon returns to this issue of who speaks in the public forum of the
classroom. She problematises the kind of class community she is trying to construct -
as a place where students feel free to speak - and waits for students to respond.

Teacher Just before we do anything else it really concerns me that a lot of people are
reluctant to share. And often for people to respond to questions or share their work
like in a situation or to read out what they've done it's the same's great that
you take that risk and you have a go. I'm not trying to say you shouldn't do that but
what about you other people? Do you think it's fair that only the same people
contribute every time? Don't you think we, well I think we all have a responsibility to
contribute during class time. What can we do about it? Because it is a problem and we
need to do something about it.

Lisa I used to be really shy of saying things because people used to laugh at me, but
if people laugh you get really offended.

Teacher Oh I agree with you absolutely you've got to be able to feel safe but that's
what worries me. It makes me think that perhaps people aren't feeling safe in here
which is all of our responsibility not just mine, not just, it is all of our responsibility to
make everybody in here feel safe. I'm sure there are people that want to contribute but
don't feel, too uncomfortable. Now how can we help that?

Here McKinnon broaches the subject of student safety as a community reponsibility.

This is a key issue of contemporary citizenship and for educational communities
committed to social justice. It is not enough for teachers to invite students to speak as
though the space for them already exists. Speaking rights in classrooms depend not
only on pedagogical decisions. The relationships between students are crucial in how

the classroom forum is constructed and who can use it to what ends (see also Dyson
1993). After a brief exchange about students' fears of not being liked and being self
conscious, one student suggests teenage shyness is the problem, but another says she
feels fine because nobody laughs at her.

Teacher I think you're really good at it and on most occasions you're supportive and
helpful to each other so that's why I really can't understand it, but I think we can work
on this. Julia.

Julia I think, sure people are friends and they may have like, I'm sure that people
laugh at a joke but.

Teacher But there are two ways to laugh at people.

Julia Yes and like you've got a really close friendship with some people but you've
also got, I mean like everyone has enemies.

Teacher Have they?

Students Yes, yeah, yes.

Julia Yes everyone has enemies. I mean it's just if you hate those people and it's just,
it's not like when your friends laugh at you, you know your sort of like it, but when
you get enemies laugh at you it's really makes you mad.

Teacher Great Julia thanks. Now we're going to change topics.

Student Why?

Here Julia suggests an idea rarely talked about in school - the idea that students have
enemies within the classroom; that their reluctance to share relates not only to shyness
or embarrassment, but to relationships within the class community. McKinnon
appears flustered by Julia's revelation. It may be that she is entering what she
perceives to be unsafe and unchartered territory, for she cuts the talk midstream and
ignores the student's question as to why they are changing topics. This contrasts
sharply with McKinnon's confidence in dealing with more global political issues such
as apartheid. Issues of racism, local action, speaking out and student safety lead them
to a topic which is potentially explosive and not surprisingly she interrupts a
conversation whose direction could end in personal hurt. What remains unexamined
in this instance is the way race intersects with friendship groups within this classroom.

These lessons foreground some of the difficulties teachers may confront in talking
about political issues such as racism. When students talk and write about racism in
more global and distant terms, as in the case of South Africa, they produce what they
know are the 'right answers', in line with an anti-racism position. However, when they
are invited to look at the micro-politics of their own classroom and talk about how
they deal with 'differences' , a conversation develops which the teacher is unsure how
to manage.

Clearly, relationships between students impact on what can be said by whom in what
situations. Thus the student who takes the risk of sharing her writing in front of peers
is not simply displaying literate behaviours or confidence, but is making a strategic
decision about what can be read and said in the public forum of the classroom (see
also Dyson 1993). These decisions relate in complex ways to the power relations and
histories between students, which are affected by where students live, which churches
they go to, which sports teams they play for and so on. Family friendships, race,
religion, gender and class have unpredictable and changing effects in the playground
and classroom dynamics.

In making the classroom a site for social critique, McKinnon and her students engage
in a number of uncertain conversations. At times she is unsure how to proceed; at
times the need to protect students as individuals contradicts her broader commitment
to examining issues of language and power. We have examined these episodes at
length to illustrate the complexities of what might be at stake in constructing critical
literacies. Our intention is not to dissuade teachers from taking on the political and
cultural work of teaching literacy, but to acknowledge that it can produce precarious
scenarios where teachers' institutional locations and personal histories result in
ambivalence and ambiguity. Ways of responding pedagogically to the anxieties,
uncertainities and angers which may be generated by opening the classroom space to
talk about gender difference or racism is an urgent area for classroom research (see
Ellsworth 1992 and Cochran-Smith 1995 for a discussion of related issues in
university pedagogy). The work of critically reflective teachers, such as McKinnon,
who have a high tolerance for the uncertain, are central to such a project.

Allowing multiple readings and negotiating critical response

In this final section we discuss a further set of instances from McKinnon's classroom
where students interrogated the gender representations in a children's book,Counting
on Frank (1990) by Rod Clements. This work suggests that focussing on textual
practices offers an important (and possibly easier) place to start developing critical
literacies than students' relationships with one another. It also demonstrates that it is
possible to teach genre as political action rather than neutral text type, when we alter
traditional patterns of classroom talk and allow texts and children's authors to be

The activity of writing to authors has become a popular part of process writing
pedagogy, where it is seen to position students authoritatively as 'real' writers with the
power to write to 'real' authors (For a critique of this notion of authorship see Gilbert
1990). In McKinnnon's critical literacy pedagogy, this practice was transformed from
the usual adoring fan letter to a critical dialogue with the children's author Rod
Clements. The letter emerged from a unit of work McKinnon designed for her class to
read and evaluate the 1992 shortlisted books for the Children's Book Council of
Australia Annual Awards.

McKinnon problematised what was valued in the awards by having her students read
some of the nominated picture books that were commended in the 1991 list, including
Clements' book Counting on Frank. She also read them a newspaper article about the
1992 shortlisted books, which pointed out that none of Paul Jennings' books were

included on the list. In this way, students were invited from the start to critically
investigate who made decisions about book awards and how they went about it.

In one session debate arose about Counting On Frank, the story of a boy whose
knowledge about all kinds of mathematical trivia and calculations eventually wins
him a trip to Hawaii. The discussion had actual consequences for students as
McKinnon asked the class to consider whether this was a book they wanted to share
with their younger learning partners in the junior primary. She provided the judges'
review of the book and created a space for different student readings of the main

Some students responded to the virtual absence of the mother character in the text
and the put-downs she receives both obliquely and directly. Others noted that the
father and son represented different kinds of stereotypes, the lazy dad and the brainy
but square son. Some worried that it might be difficult for younger children to
distinguish between the view of families constructed by the narrator and their own
lived realities (For a more complete analysis of these discussions see Comber 1993,

The lengthy discussions and debates surrounding the book were scaffolded by
McKinnon's questions, which she developed using O'Brien's (1994a, 1994b) work on
problematising texts with junior primary children. Instead of asking children what
they think of a story or which characters are their favourites or what part they like
best, as typically happens in progressive pedagogies, O'Brien encourages children to
ask questions such as the following:

If you only knew about families from reading this book what would you know about
what mothers do ?

What would you know about what fathers do ?

Who is left out of the ending?

How could Rod Clements have written the ending to include the mother?

Draw a picture showing an ending which doesn't leave out any family members.

Such questions and tasks invite children to be critical consumers of text - to not
simply admire the writer's craft but also to ask questions about the versions of realities
represented. Such questions challenge common sense assumptions operating in most
schools: that language is for communication, or transparent, or a neutral vehicle for
conveying ideas (Kress 1988). They emphasise that writers and illustrators could have
depicted other kinds of mothers, teachers, fathers, foxes, boys, girls.

At the end of a lengthy series of discussions, the class decided to write to the author
to raise some of their unresolved concerns and questions. Discussions followed about
the most appropriate way to critique the published work of a writer and this led to talk
about grammar, wording, tactfulness, layout. What could be said, what could not be
said, and how to say it, became central questions for a group of volunteers who
worked on a draft. In order to ensure their letter was taken seriously it was printed on

school letterhead and the principal became the final editor. She showed them changes
that needed to be made to their text and explained why these were necessary. The
final draft sent to Clement's publisher read as follows:

Mr. Clement

Collins Angus and Robertson Publishers Pty Limited

4 Eden Park, 31 Waterloo Rd.

North Ryde, NSW 2113 Australia

Schools Name

Dear Mr. R. Clement,

We are the 5/6/7 class at Schools' name. We are writing this letter to describe to you
how we feel about your book 'COUNTING ON FRANK.' We are also writing to ask
some questions about the decisions you made whilst writing your book.

Firstly, the illustrations are very attractive, detailed, colourful and humorous.
Secondly, the story line is funny. Thirdly, you have an outstanding imagination.

However, after we looked further into the book we found some points that were of
concern to our class. In general, we found it quite sexist and we would like to ask you
some questions about the way you have written and illustrated this book.

1. From where did you get your ideas?

2. Who edited it?

3. Why did you represent the father as lazy?

4. Why did you choose to represent the mother as less important?

eg. Why is the mother not in the picture when going on the trip and why is she
represented as a slave?

We are interested in the decisions authors make. We would really appreciate

a response.

Yours sincerely,

Principal, on behalf of the year 5/6/7

One of the striking aspects of this letter is the way it positions students as discerning,
critical readers. There is a strong assertion of identity through the use of we and an
oppositional positioning of the writer through the use of you, whereby the we of this
text takes the power to:

o evaluate the writer

o ask him questions

o demand/expect a reply

The letter has a clear generic structure which can be chunked into at least four
recognisable elements, Introduction, Positive Features, Critique, and Conclusion, as

I Introduction and outline of what the letter will do

Here the pronoun we is thematised and repeated to create a strong sense of writer
presence and authority:

we are the 5/6/7 class

we are writing

we feel

II Enumeration of positive features of the book

Here positive features are highlighted in anumber of ways, including:

Use of numbering, firstly, secondly, thirdly

Positioning of writers as ones who have the authority to make evaluations.

Notable absence of the mental process we like which attaches the judgment to the
children; instead opinion is asserted as truth through the relational processes is and
are, which establish fact rather than opinion.

III Critique

Here the critique is introduced with the qualifier, however. There follows a general
critique: that the book is sexist, where the children position themselves to ask

questions about the writing and illustrations; and a specific critique: a series of
questions, where the insistent use of the interrogative determines the topics to be

IV Conclusion

Here the students present a rationale for their questions and position themselves as
assertive participants through the use of really and the repetition of we:

we are interested

we would really appreciate

This generic structure, very much an approximation to an adult exposition, sets up a

sense of certainty and authority, a polite but insistent tone. It creates a set of
positionings for children very different to those usually assigned to them by adults
and very different to the more usual sycophantic letter to the author genre so common
in primary classrooms. The contrast can be made by briefly examining a 'typical
gushing' letter written by a grade five student from a Melbourne suburban school to
the children's writer Paul Jennings.

Dear Paul Jennings,

I am writing to you because I'm a big fan and would like to know some more
information about you.

I live in Wangaratta, a town in Victoria. I go to the Wangaratta High School and I'm
in year 7. I have two brothers and two sisters. I am the eldest in my family. I have
wanted to be an author since I was seven (I am 12 going on 13).

Now you know a bit about me here are some questions I'd like to ask you.

How do you come up with all the wacky ideas you put in your books?

Are some of your experiences based on true life experiences?

How long have you been an author?

Do you have any kids?

What inspires you to write your books?

How many books have you had published?

Did you want to be an author when you were in high school?

What are your hobbies?

What's your favourite t.v. show?

Do you like your own writing?

My favourite book of yours in Uncanny. I really liked the story about the tattooed
man. It was funny. I also liked the Spaghetti Story. It was sick. I've enclosed a
stamped self addressed envelope in the letter so if you get time to reply to my letter it
would be greatly appreciated. Please write back soon.

Without engaging in detailed analysis, it is clear that a very different set of

positionings is being constructed here for and by the child writer:

o as fan

o as friend

o as confidante

o as less informed child to more expert experienced adult

o as fellow writer and colleague ('I'm a writer just like you')

In the Clements letter, by contrast, writing is construed as social action; there is no

pretence of friendship or authorship. The letter, however, must be understood in
relation to the critical practices McKinnon employed to scaffold its production. In
contrast to the construction of the Uluru travel brochure, where genre is treated as a
neutral text type, the letter is a site for politicised language motivated by students'need
to write because they have something they want to say. The extensive discussion
McKinnon allowed, the numerous close rereadings, the question about the suitability
of a book for younger children and finally taking action by writing to the author
taught this group of students that it was possible to read texts in multiple ways and
construct critical response. Their letter is a textual realisation of their new
understanding that books and authors can be questioned.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the students never received a reply to their letter. For they
have constructed a disruptive text, one that disrupts discourses of childhood innocence
and the author as hero. From a pedagogical perspective, their text also disrupts
oppositional constructions of writing pedagogy, evident for example in the process-
genre debates of the late 1980s ( see Kamler 1994). It demonstrates that critical
literacy is not simply a new set of procedures which must replace older, more
orthodox process and genre appoaches.

To the extent that we can see traces of pedagogy in the texts students write, we can
see process pedagogy at work in the revision and crafting of the letter and in the
numerous discussions about what constitutes the most appropriate way to critique an
author. We can see genre pedagogy at work in the generic structure of the letter and

the inclusion of linguistic features which signify exposition, enumeration and
reasoning in language. We can see critical literacy pedagogy at work in the disruptive
set of positionings and relations of power constructed in this text - in the emergent
understandings of textuality and text analysis. In sum, we can see how the
development of critical literacy might use aspects of both process and genre
pedagogies but go beyond these by incorporating recent poststructuralist
understandings of subjectivity, power and the ways in which texts are produced.


Problematising classroom and popular texts offers immediate potential to all teachers
as a first step in a critical literacy curriculum. These examples sketch how a critical
literacy perspective might change the questions teachers and students explore in the
literacy curriculum, the tasks that count as literacy and the readings that are possible.
Luke (quoted in Jongsma 1991: 519) offers some other 'first steps for making students
active writers of cultural discourse and texts.' He suggests teachers could begin by:

(1) encouraging children at the earliest stages to contest, debate, and argue with texts;
(2) comparing texts which foreground differing versions of the same events or
actions; (3) altering traditional classroom talk which puts texts and teachers beyond
criticism and (4) analysing print and media texts of popular culture.

Luke reports using such an approach with tertiary students, examining for example
horoscopes from different kinds of publications and dealing with the question 'For
what kind of reader was this text constructed?' Similarly, in our own practice at
Deakin University and the University of South Australia we are working to develop a
variety of discourse analytic and critical reading and writing practices with our
preservice and inservice teachers. Most recently Comber has been examining the
representation of views of schooling, literacy achievement and the work of teachers in
the media while Kamler has been exploring the intersection between critical discourse
analysis and writing, in order to ask critical questions about the ways personal
experience is represented and constructed in text.

While educators have devoted energy to promoting their preferred versions of critical
literacy and conferences have often become battle grounds for theorists, it is essential
teachers also enter the debate. We need to critically examine the different versions of
critical literacy that emerge and develop complex pictures of what pedagogies for
critical literacy look like in different educational contexts. What is needed are detailed
narratives of the negotiation of critical literacies in local sites and long-term analyses
of the effects of such practices. Further, we need to acknowledge that whole language,
systemic linguistics and postmodern discourse analysis all have something to offer in
constructing multiple critical literacies and that they each have biases, gaps and

At a time when all educators are subject to demands for accountability in the
production of students with particular sets of enhanced competencies, it is both more
difficult and more urgent that we continue to make space and time for critical literacy.
Without discussion of the way in which power is exercised through textual practices,
the literacy classroom will indeed be limited, and it is especially in historic periods

marked by managerialist discourses where teachers at all levels need to identify and
use the spaces of freedom (Foucault 1983) which do exist.

When teachers overtly take up the position of cultural workers in schools, new
questions for research emerge:

o from which positions can teachers speak?

o what can teachers say given their institutional position and location?

o in what ways do teachers' personal histories and identities constitute the possibilities
for a critical pedagogy?

o from which positions can students speak?

o what can students speak about given their institutional position and location, their
personal histories and identities?

o what collaborative action towards social justice is possible in schools?

In making a space for talk and writing about gender and race McKinnon began to
explore these questions in action. She began to construct possibilities for politicised
language and literate practices which were connected to their immediate school life
and their developing knowledge of global events and issues. When given the
opportunity for this kind of work, students demonstrated great energy and
commitment, which is not possible to convey through transcripts alone, but which
leaves us with a sense of optimism about the possibilities of working for social justice
with students in school contexts.


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