Reexamining Literature Study in the Middle Grades: A Critical Response Framework

By Knickerbocker, Joan L.; Rycik, James A. | American Secondary Education, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Reexamining Literature Study in the Middle Grades: A Critical Response Framework

Knickerbocker, Joan L., Rycik, James A., American Secondary Education


Recent reexaminations of adolescent literacy have expanded previous cognitive psychological models of reading to include views of the social and cultural aspects of literacy. The term critical literacy refers to approaches that focus on the social forces that influence the creation and interpretation of texts. When applied to the study of literary texts such as young adult novels, a critical literacy approach can help young adolescents to examine their own values and their role in society. This article provides a brief overview of critical literacy and then presents a frame-work that allows middle level teachers to incorporate elements of critical literacy into reader response activities.

Like other aspects of secondary education, adolescent literacy has undergone a process of reexamination and renewal in recent years. As the public concern with early literacy has expanded to include the achievement of adolescents, literacy educators have launched a number of initiatives aimed at promoting best practices for adolescent literacy (Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999; International Reading Association and National Middle School Association, 2001). At the same time, a growing number of theorists have been arguing that adolescent literacy should be "reconceptualized" (Alverman, Hinchman, Moore, Phelps, & Waff, 1998)) in response to changes in society.

The growing popularity of electronic texts, continued development of youth culture, and an increasingly diverse population have all contributed to the notion that adolescents today are living in "new times" that call for new approaches to understanding and teaching literacy. Elkins and Luke (1999) asserted that,

Literacy education has significant social and cultural outcomes, as well as cognitive and behavioral ones. And adolescent literacy education is the very forum where we shape identities and citizens, cultures and communities. This is not something we can do by default or as an afterthought. It is not something we can do simply by adding a program or specialist here or there. We need to rethink our strategies and approaches in line with a better, stronger understanding of youth cultures and adolescents' everyday lives (p. 215).

Many of the new conceptions that have emerged from this process of reexamining and reconceptualizing literacy have involved a shift in thinking away from individual interpretation and cognitive processes and toward literacy as a set of social and cultural practices (Smagorinsky, 2001), This cultural perspective is often described by the term critical literacy.

Although definitions of critical literacy vary (Green, 2001), a critical literacy approach always encourages students to examine beliefs about society and language. The critical perspective focuses on the ways in which texts are constructed in social, political and historical contexts. Critical literacy also addresses the situation of classroom communities in which students are of differing backgrounds, abilities and experiences as well as opportunities to inquire into literacy practices directly (Rogers & Soter, 1997). Students are encouraged to explicitly consider what choices were made in the construction of a text and how they, as individuals are influenced during their reading (Bean & Moni, 2003).


The Standards for the English Language Arts (International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English, 1996), state that students should "read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g. philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience" (p. 5). Literature can play an important role in helping young adolescents to understand themselves, their roles in society, and the people around them. Moreover, literature can play an important role in building both their skill and desire for reading (Knickerbocker & Rycik, 2002).

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