I begin this chapter with a discussion of definitions of critical literacy and briefly explore its diverse influences. I then look at some illustrations of critical literacy in classroom practice across different educational sites in Australia, the UK and South Africa. In the second part of the chapter I address tensions raised by critical literacy pedagogy, both at the theoretical level and in classroom practice. Using examples of work from South Africa, I explore the ways in which critical literacy pedagogy is linked to the particular socio-historical context in which it takes place and why it may be resisted by particular groups of students.
What is critical literacy?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, critical literacy is not one thing. It has diverse intellectual roots, a complex relationship with pedagogy and can take many different forms in practice. A number of researchers' have been involved in theorising critical literacy in Australia. Luke and Walton (1994), for example, make a useful distinction between more conventional or conservative approaches to critical literacy defined 'in terms of personal response to literature, and in terms of the comprehension of disciplinary, non-fiction texts, and a 'critical social literacy' which 'entails the analysis and evaluation of textual ideologies and cultural messages, and an understanding of the linguistic and discursive techniques with which texts represent social reality, relations, and identity'. Lankshear (1997) has taken up this notion of critical social literacy and argues that it should aim to develop 'powerfully literate' readers and writers who can approach texts and social life critically as well as master the range of genres and techniques in writing, needed for effective participation in society and in a participatory democracy. It is with the latter definition of a critical social literacy, i.e. literacy that is concerned with the workings of ideologies in texts and in the social world, and with the relationship between language and power, that I am concerned here. Understanding the socially constructed nature of texts, knowledge and of one's own reading response is crucial to the project of critical literacy as defined here.
Intellectual roots of critical literacy
Critical literacy has different origins. Firstly, there is the overwhelming influence of the Brazilian literacy theorist and educator Paulo Freire. Freire's ideas, (first expressed in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1972) have had an enormous influence on North American critical pedagogy and critical literacy through the work of people like Giroux (1989), Aronowitz and Giroux (1986) and Lankshear and McLaren (1993). Freire's statement that we need to learn to 'read the world' through 'reading the word' is now famous (Freire and Macedo, 1987). Secondly there is the influence of British Critical Discourse Analysis following Fairclough and others, which was translated into Critical Language Awareness in the late 1980s. Critical Language Awareness (CLA) aims to raise consciousness of the language/power and language/society relationship, showing how sociolinguistic practices are 'socially created' and 'socially changeable' (Clark et al, 1990:250) and to develop 'practices of critical and oppositional reading, listening and viewing,' (Clark et al 1991:46-47). Thirdly, there is the influence of poststructuralism with its emphasis on multiple possible readings of texts, the discursive construction of the social and the consequent mutually constitutive relationship between language and subjectivity (Weedon, 1987).
Early writing on critical literacy emphasised rather grand aims, describing it as an emancipatory and empowering approach to literacy education. Freire was writing about the adult literacy process in a developing world...