The Role of Critical Literacy in Citizenship
Democracy is never a final achievement.
It is a call to effort …
—John F. Kennedy (1963)
Liberty is always unfinished business.
—American Civil Liberties Union, 1957
Many historians support Kennedy’s perspective that a strong
democracy is preserved and improved through the active participation
of its citizenship. Interestingly, a similar sentiment might be
interpreted differently when expressed by the American Civil Liberties
Union, an organization that has frequently situated itself as
an advocate of controversial positions on immigration laws, free
speech cases, and affirmative action legislation. Knowledgeable
readers might react to the choice of the word “liberty”
in a variety of ways depending on who is using it. Support of,
or opposition to, the work of the Civil Liberties Union; an understanding
of the issues this organization supports; and a knowledge of history
all serve to influence the interpretation of the words they use.
It seems reasonable to suggest that the interpretation of “liberty”
would change if the quote were attributed to John Quincy Aadams.
Understanding the various influences on our thinking, questioning
the assumptions made by authors when they write, and examining
the various perspectives that guide our understanding are at the
heart of critical literacy. As we will explore further, critical
literacy is vital in the twenty-first century. As citizens in
a democracy, we are responsible for thinking deeply about the
texts we read and for interrogating our assumptions and the perspectives
promoted by authors. In short, citizenship requires participation,
and that participation is based on an understanding that we can
question without fear.
Critical literacy is the practice
of challenging texts through an analysis of the roles that power,
culture, class, and gender play in the message. Texts are approached
with an understanding that multiple perspectives exist and can
be influenced by the author’s and by the reader’s
experiences. McLaughlin and DeVoogd (2004) have reminded us that
“critical literacy helps us to move beyond . . . passive
acceptance and take an active role in the reader-author relationship
by questioning such issues as who wrote the text, what the author
wanted us to believe, and what information the author chose to
include or exclude from the text” (p. 6). Educators in Australia
and new Zealand have pioneered this construct since the early
1990s, and there it has grown to be an integral part of literacy
education from kindergarten through the twelfth grade. The Tasmania
(Australia) Department of Education describes critical literacy
extensively in its content standards and frameworks, reminding
teachers of three questions readers should consider:
• In whose interest?
• For what purpose?
• Who benefits? (Tasmania Department of Education, 2006,
Students become critically literate through exposure to and discussion
of readings that address social, political, and cultural issues.
Critically literate students examine the beliefs and values that
underpin texts, question the purpose and the message, take a stance
on issues, and formulate action steps when needed. Luke and Freebody
(1999) describe four “families of practice” necessary
for every reader to assume:
• Code breaker—understanding the text at the surface
level (alphabetic, structural);
• Meaning maker—comprehending the text at the level
intended by the author;
• Text user—analyzing the factors that influenced
the author and the text, including an historical grounding of
the context within which it was written;
• Text critic—understanding that the text is not neutral,
and that existing biases inform calls to action.
It is this fourth practice that we will explore further. We hope
to ensure that students develop an understanding of the bias that
exists in all texts. To put it another way, an African proverb
states, “Until lions have historians, hunters will be the
heroes.” Using critical literacy, readers actively seek
to understand what the historians say, consider what the voiceless
lions might express, evaluate both messages to achieve a more
nuanced understanding, and then use the information to take action.
What Is the Relationship between Critical Literacy and Citizenship?
Critical literacy skills are vital for citizens of an increasingly
“global village” (McLuhan, 1962). The instant availability
of information and misinformation from all corners of the world
requires that readers sort through the barrage of messages, analyzing
them for truth, authenticity, and integrity. Critically literate
citizens are less vulnerable to propaganda because they understand
the role of values and beliefs, and consider the sources from
which these messages emanate.
The notion of civic literacy is central to a revitalized civics
education movement. The Center for Information on Civic Learning
and Engagement (CIRCLE) has called for an overhaul of civics education
in the U.S., noting that the majority of current curricula emphasize
“great American heroes and virtues,” but lack critical
analysis of injustice in the American system (2004). Importantly,
young people ages 15–25 who had been exposed to this approach
to civics education were “more trusting,” an arguably
dangerous belief in a complex world, while the small minority
(9%) who had experienced a curriculum emphasizing critical examination
of social injustices such as racism were the most likely to be
registered voters. At a time when civic engagement is more important
than ever, it would seem that critical analysis of, and within,
a democratic system yields a more engaged citizenry. The point
should not be lost that the freedom to engage in this discourse
is possible because of a democratic system.
Critical literacy often involves the use of essential questions
developed for students to use in constructing understanding. For
example, the three questions cited by the Tasmanian Department
of Education (referenced above) can serve as excellent general
essential questions. In addition to these broad questions, we
advocate the use of specific questions that promote civic engagement.
Students can use two such questions to examine the beliefs,values,
and experiences of Americans:
• How do multiple perspectives enhance and inhibit the practice
• What is our responsibility as citizens to preserve the
freedoms of others?
To answer these questions, students must engage with a wide variety
of texts and they must be encouraged to focus on big ideas. The
remainder of this article organizes text selections around four
big ideas that students can explore as they read and learn to
become critically aware.
Books that examine personal
freedom challenge students to define the rights and responsibilities
of individuals within the context of a local community. These
questions can be addressed through a critical examination of the
lives of fictional characters by inviting students to examine
the decisions characters make as citizens in very different communities.
One such character is Sofia, an adolescent girl in The
Tequila Worm (Canales, 2005) who wins a scholarship to
a prestigious boarding school in another city. Her experiences
with her classmates are colored by differences in social class,
language, and culture. However, she also feels the pressure from
her family and barrio neighbors not to forget the traditions of
the Latino community. Her story mirrors the experiences of so
many young people in the U.S. who must redefine personal freedom
and identity as they move between worlds.
Robert Cormier’s The
(1986) challenges readers to determine how their personal
freedoms hold implications for a school community’s well-being.
This novel recounts the experiences of a boy attending a Catholic
school who refuses to sell chocolate bars for a fundraiser. With
the tacit support of a teacher, he is subjected to bullying in
and out of the classroom. This novel raises vital issues about
the duty of a society to protect nonconformists, and examines
the consequences to an individual who does not receive that support.
This novel ends on a dark note, and the use of a school as a microcosm
for a larger society is unsettling for some teachers. However,
with good reason, this book continues to be one of the most talked-about
young adult novels.
“Every war has turning points, and every person, too”
(Rosoff, 2004, p. 68). So observes Daisy, the teenage protagonist
in Meg Rosoff’s How
I Live Now. Set in England sometime in the near future,
Daisy watches as the country is invaded and the norms of society
are stripped away. She finds herself in a world without adult
supervision, and without the guidance of others must make decisions
about what is best for herself and the people she cares about.
Her struggle to define what she expects of herself can provide
students with insights into the responsibilities of personal freedom
when it exists at the expense of others.
A democratic nation that views
liberty as “unfinished business,” as suggested in
the quote from the ACLU at the beginning of this article, will
necessarily uncover its own violations of the freedom of its citizenry.
Students need to understand that discussion of these topics ensures
that these mistakes will not be made again. For example, the Salem
witch trials of 1692 continue to resonate in our history. The
Witchcraft of Salem Village (Jackson, 1956) provides
an historical accounting of the mass hysteria that plagued a small
Massachusetts settlement and ultimately put to death twenty of
its citizens. This book serves as a great companion piece to the
classic short story “The Lottery,” written by the
same author. It is a disturbing story that describes a small town’s
annual practice of putting to death one of its citizens to serve
as a scapegoat for all the wrongs of the community. Students can
discuss how the themes of Jackson’s short story influenced
her nonfiction. This case has resonance in modern history as well,
especially in the McCarthy-era trials of the 1950s.
Slavery looms as one of the United States’ greatest national
tragedies. Even so, it can be a challenge for teachers to lift
the institution out of the history books and make it relevant
to today’s issues. Teachers can begin with primary source
documents such as Frederick Douglass’s My
Bondage and Freedom (2003) and Narrative
of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1963) to help students
understand the context of the time and the experiences of one
who lived it. These texts are accessible and compelling, and can
lead to an in-depth analysis of the period of Reconstruction after
the war—especially in understanding the period’s successes
and its broken promises to African–Americans. Cause:
Reconstruction America 1863-1877 (Bolden, 2005) provides
students with an understanding of how the stage was set for the
civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and the trampling
of Native American rights during westward expansion. Jefferson’s
Children: The Story of One American Family (Lanier &
Feldman, 2002) brings the story of enslaved people into the twenty-first
century, as it recounts the work of the descendants of Thomas
Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved young woman owned by
the future president. This book is written by members of both
sides of the family and serves as a valuable resource into the
multiple perspectives of Americans today as they continue to grapple
with the legacy of slavery.
Few classroom experiences engage
adolescents and young adults like the opportunity to debate controversial
topics. These experiences are critical to the development of an
involved citizenry. As citizens of a democracy, they will soon
vote and participate in organizations and community efforts on
issues large and small, and these classroom debates can help to
shape the way the students address the issues at hand. For example,
the debate around gun control remains on the front pages year
after year, as citizens wrestle with issues of public safety and
the right to bear arms. A book such as American
Youth (Lamarche, 2007) can help students think about
this topical issue critically—examining multiple perspectives.
Lamarche introduces us to Ted, a ninth-grader involved in a gun
accident. The author doesn’t take sides, but shows us an
American landscape of talk radio, religious influences, gang violence,
and changes in rural communities brought on by rapid development.
Like gun control, censorship is a hot-button issue. To what extent
should a society exercise control over what is spoken or what
is read? These liberties are perhaps never more compellingly challenged
than in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit
451 (1987). This dystopian view of a society in which
censorship runs rampant and critical thought is discouraged in
favor of a television world of spoon-fed information has implications
for the society we live in today. Teachers might invite students
to compare Bradbury’s world with the equally dark We
(Zamyatin, 2006). First published in 1921, this book inspired
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s
1984. Zamyatin’s novel describes a thirtieth century
society in which all individual freedoms have been eliminated.
Books such as We and Fahrenheit 451 should prompt discussion on
how far a government’s freedom should go, and what is the
responsibility of its citizenry to preserve freedoms for others.
Students need information to balance what they are reading in
these novels, so that they more fully understand the cautionary
messages of these authors. Can censorship such as this really
occur? How precarious are the rights of individuals? To this end,
Establish Justice (McKissack & Zarembka, 2004) is
a must-have in any classroom. The authors have created a student-friendly
text that describes the rights and responsibilities of American
citizens as described in the Constitution, then chronicles the
court battles that have addressed these struggles. Short but informative
chapters on the rights of non-citizens, African Americans, women,
people with disabilities, and gays and lesbians are described
in detail. The chapter on the rights of students is of particular
interest to adolescents.
No understanding of the responsibility
of citizenship would be complete without an examination of how
our beliefs and values as a nation have shaped the definitions
of personal and societal freedoms at key points in our history.
When these changing definitions conflict with existing practices,
Americans answer the call to action. This may occur at the personal
level, as it does in Ron Suskind’s A
Hope in the Unseen (1999), a biography of a young African
American man’s struggles while growing up in Washington,
DC, and attending Brown University. The author describes Cedric’s
lonely high school experience as an ostracized student among classmates
who did not share his academic goals. Cedric’s vision for
himself leads him to take personal action to acquire the education
There are many examples of rising to a call for action in our
nation’s history. Decision
(Collier, 2007) brings the controversies surrounding our country’s
birth to life, detailing the ways the founding fathers struggled
to balance states’ rights with federal power, expand on
individual freedoms, and reach a compromise on the issue of slavery.
Rather than simply recording an account of the events, the author
uses major figures, such as Washington, Madison, and Hamilton,
as well as lesser-known but influential men such as James Wilson
and Elbridge Gerry, as lenses to examine the arguments.
World War II represents another turning point in U.S. history,
as groups and individuals had to determine how they would answer
a call to action. Michael French has adapted James Bradley and
Ron Powers’ powerful epic Flags
of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima (Bradley & Powers,
2001) in a companion book for younger readers called Flags
of Our Fathers: A Young People’s Edition (2005). The
authors follow the lives of six young men through grim triumph,
the white-hot glare of media attention, and their conflicted feelings
about their roles that day. On the home front, women struggled
to redefine their role during the war. Rosie
the Riveter (Coleman, 1995) tells the story of American
women who ventured into the workplace in unprecedented numbers
during the war. Coleman continues the story with the transition
to peacetime, as many women wanted to continue to work, but met
with great resistance from many of their fellow citizens. The
1943 cartoon on page 98 of the print version of RHI is a study
in this contrast. A strong “Rosie” carries an air
of confidence, as well as a hammer and lunch pail, in this positive
image of the contributions of these workers, yet a small character
at the bottom corner reminds her, “You gotta come right
back as soon as the war is over!”
Perhaps the best example of civic engagement is when one citizen
advocates on behalf of another without regard to personal benefit.
for Dead (Nelson, 2002) describes the efforts of Hunter
Scott, an eleven-year-old from Pensacola, Florida, who learned
about the World War II disaster suffered by the men of the USS
Indianapolis while watching the movie Jaws with his father in
1996. Hunter researched the court-martial of its captain, who
was found guilty of “hazarding” his ship, leading
to the deaths of 880 men in shark-infested waters off the coast
of Palau. Although the survivors felt their captain was wrongly
convicted, they were not able to clear his name. Hunter’s
interviews with survivors for a history fair project led to a
personal campaign to set the record straight. His advocacy on
behalf of the now-deceased captain included politicians, high-ranking
Navy officials, and the media. His testimony before the Senate
Armed Services Committee, as well as the submission of new evidence
uncovered by Hunter, led to his full exoneration in 2000. Left
for Dead serves as an excellent example of the power of an
individual to right a wrong.
Critical literacy and citizenship come together at a point in
time when our country continues to define its beliefs about freedom
at home and in the world. We are reminded that, “good-heartedness
and power are insufficient for creating a just world. Some modest
development of the intellectual virtues seems essential for future
human survival and well-being. Whether the energy, the resources,
and the insights necessary for this development can be significantly
mustered remains open. This is certain: we will never succeed
in cultivating traits whose roots we do not understand and whose
development we do not foster” (Paul, 1993, ¶ 58).
A critical literacy approach that invites readers to question,
debate, consider other perspectives, and take action is consistent
with civics education. Kennedy’s reminder that democracy
is “an untiring effort” should serve as a reminder
of the power of reading critically for teachers in classrooms
across the nation.
NANCY FREY, Ph.D., is an
Associate Professor of Literacy in the School of Teacher Education
at San Diego State University. Her research interests include
reading and literacy, nontraditional texts, assessment, intervention,
and curriculum design. She teaches a variety of courses on literacy
and on supporting students with diverse learning needs.
DOUGLAS FISHER, Ph.D., is a Professor in the
Department of Teacher Education at San Diego State University
and is the Co-Director of the Center for the Advancement of Reading.
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