Moving towards Critical Literacies in Conversations about the Teaching of English

By Johnson, Greer | Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Moving towards Critical Literacies in Conversations about the Teaching of English


Johnson, Greer, Australian Journal of Language and Literacy


Critical literacy has received a great deal of interest from affiliates and those not so pleased with its pedagogical parameters. In Australia, some of the negative side of the debate has emanated from its (un)suitability to support the teaching of English as literature. Even so, Corson (1999) argues, in a review of Muspratt et al. (1997), an influential Australian text on critical literacy, that:

   In contrast to almost everywhere else in the English-speaking world, it
   seems that critical literacy has become a mainstream in Australia, and a
   rather sophisticated one at that. It promises much. At the same time its
   multifaceted nature and its insertion into very different curriculum
   discourses leave little room for uniformity of concept, much less
   uniformity of argument. So critical literacy is not just `another
   orthodoxy' for The Lucky Country. (p. 111)

While Corson (1999) speaks of critical literacy in Australia as a `mixed bag', it could be argued reasonably that Australian critical literacy has taken up the general direction of cultural studies, and therefore maintains a social justice perspective of language in use. As Luke (2000) argues, it `is hot about enhancing individual growth, personal voice, or skill development' (p. 449). Walton (1992) earlier described critical `social' literacy in terms of its benefits and difference from the more familiar and comfortable progressivist models of literacy, where the individual is the focus. He argues from the positive side of the debate that

   Critical social literacy has the potential to confront the social,
   political and ideological contexts of literacy/teaching, rather than ignore
   them. One of the strengths of this alternative is the importance placed on
   understanding literacy teaching and learning in context, thus avoiding
   ethnocentric naturalising and universalist discourses, features of
   progressivist pedagogies serving to affirm existing power relationships.
   (p. 44)

The historical context of pedagogical discontent

Even though there is a general understanding about the nature of Australian critical literacy, this paper argues that a `mainstream' take-up of appropriate practices is some way off for Australian teachers. A study carried out by Johnson (1996), investigating Queensland English teachers' discursive practices and subject positions found at that time that critical literacy was indeed not mainstream in the participating teachers' classrooms. However, another important finding was that some of the teachers, all of whom had access to the concepts and practices of critical literacy during initial teacher education, were taking on the vocabularies and various practices that are associated with critical literacy, in their reflective talk (Baker & Johnson 1998). This paper offers an insight into one teacher's move towards the adoption of critical literacy practices through the process of accounting for or reflecting on professional practice with a researcher/colleague. As the analysis of teacher-talk demonstrates, the movement from traditional to more contemporary pedagogic practices in the teaching of English is slow and the possibilities for detours and (mis)understandings are numerous.

In Queensland, the last fully endorsed syllabus in Senior English was published in 1987 (Board of Senior Secondary School Studies 1987). Its theoretical underpinnings had little to do with critical literacy, but supported traditional methods of literary analysis and a context-text perspective on the teaching of language as outlined in Derewianka (1990). However, during the more than 13 year period since the publication of that syllabus, teachers in Queensland have had some dealings with critical literacy through the implementation of the English Syllabus for Years 1-10 (Department of Education 1994). They have also had varying degrees of access to professional development associated with successive drafts of the current Extended Trial-Pilot Senior English Syllabus (Board of Senior Secondary School Studies, November 1999) and the trial English Extension (Literature) Syllabus (Board of Senior Secondary School Studies 2000).

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