Saturday, January 18, 2014

Crit Lit: Some Basic Points

So what is critical literacy?  Why should we, as adults, examine children's literature critically?  Stated simply, critical literacy involves questioning what you read (or watch or see) and then taking action to address any inequities or injustices you’ve discovered (Freire, 1993).  In other words, it's a process in which readers identify biases in texts and then develop plans to confront these biases in real life.  Questions that we might ask include (Lewison, Flint, & Van Sluys, 2002):

  • Whose voices are presented and omitted in this text?
  • Do I agree with this text?
  • How can I take action to challenge any injustices depicted?

Here's an example.  Imagine that you're thumbing through a children's book claiming to present information about an American Indian cultural group.  Before you start reading, you notice that the author is European American.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, but as you navigate the book, you feel that some of the information presented is inaccurate.  In fact, quite a few stereotypes lurk in the pages.  You wonder: Whose perspective is left out of the text?  Would the information be more accurate and less stereotypical if the book had been written by a member of the cultural group instead of an outsider? 

Having recognized that Native voices are left out of the book, you then think of ways that you can address the stereotypes that you've discovered.  Fortunately, there are many ways to take action.  You might write a letter to the book's publisher explaining why you take issue with the portrayal of Native characters and cultural practices.  If you’re a teacher and/or parent, you might read the book with your kids and discuss the problematic text, helping them to understand why it's inaccurate or offensive.  Or if you’re very familiar with the tribe’s cultural practices and history, you might write and attempt to publish your own book that offers a more balanced, authentic view of the culture in question.

It’s all about making society more equitable, just, and tolerant.  Unfortunately, children can pick up skewed information about other cultures if they read books containing stereotypes or flat-out racism.  So it’s crucial for us to examine books closely and then teach kids to do the same.

For more info about this topic, I recommend reading Mary Cowhey’s Black Ants and Buddhists (2006) and Vivian Vasquez’s Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children (2004) – two great books about engaging in critical literacy with young children.  The more we adults learn about this topic, the more we can help our kids.


Cowhey, M. (2006). Black ants and Buddhists: Thinking critically and teaching differently in the primary grades. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Lewison, M., Flint, A.S., & Van Sluys, K. (2002). Taking on critical literacy: The journey of newcomers and novices. Language Arts, 5(2), 382-392.

Vasquez, V. (2004). Negotiating critical literacies with young children. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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