The Critical Literacy Process: Guidelines for Examining Books

By Boutte, Gloria Swindler | Childhood Education, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Critical Literacy Process: Guidelines for Examining Books


Boutte, Gloria Swindler, Childhood Education


The power of literature to affect the lives of young children is awesome and far-reaching. Reading or story time is a highly regarded practice in many classrooms, homes, and libraries. The vast majority of early childhood and elementary settings provide daily opportunities for children to read or independently look at books. As most works of children's literature are written by adults, they serve as a form of education and socialization that conveys society's deepest hopes, fears, expectations, and demands (Apol, 1998). Therefore, children's literature presents children with society's overt and covert values and often explains and justifies what is generally considered appropriate patterns of behaviors and beliefs.

This article encourages children, teachers, and parents to critically read these books--even young children can be taught to become critical readers. They can learn to identify and clarify ideological perspectives in books--not necessarily to evaluate, discredit, or applaud a writer's ideology, but simply to see it for what it is (Apol, 1998).

This article deconstructs the misconception that the messages in children's books are simple, neutral, and inherently good. Books are open to multiple perspectives (Apple, 1992), depending on the reader's experience. One person may love a book that others find offensive.

The Power of Books and the Importance of Critical Literacy

The recognition that no work, even the simplest book for children, is without some ideological freight is one of the most useful insights of modern literary criticism (Apol, 1998; Hunt, 1992; Klein, 1985; Kohl, 1995). In children's literature, where there is a very obvious power relationship between the author and the reader, the author's ideology is particularly important. When selecting what goes into a work and what is excluded, authors of children's books are inevitably influenced by their personal perspectives and assumptions (Harris, 1999). The author's ideologies (whether conscious or unconscious, overt or covert) are reflected in the plot and characters, the nature of conflicts and their resolutions, and the casting and depicting of heroes and villains. The manner in which the author chooses to evoke readers' emotional responses, elicit their judgments, illustrate key themes, and direct selected morals is also a result of the author's ideology (Hunt, 1992).

When thinking about literacy as a critical process, a key question to consider is how literature can be used to help children see beyond their own perspectives. Critical literacy promotes numerous readings on a topic from different perspectives. In addition, children can ask questions, take risks, and act, rather than passively accepting what the teacher or the readings state (Marxen, 2002).

Without a doubt, people read books according to their own class, race, gender, and religious experiences (Apple, 1992). Through schooling, however, children learn to suppress these influences and respond to books in a limited and scripted manner. Furthermore, many readers have learned to rely passively on authoritative interpretations of literature.

Apple (1992) described three common responses to books: dominant, negotiated, and oppositional:

In the dominant reading of a text, one accepts the messages at face value. In a negotiated response, the reader may dispute a particular claim, but accept the overall tendencies or interpretations of a text. Finally, an oppositional response rejects these dominant tendencies and interpretations. The reader "repositions" herself or himself in relation to the text and takes on the position of the oppressed. These are, of course, no more than ideal types and many responses will be a contradictory combination of all three. (p. 10)

Engaging oneself in a conversation with the book's ideas, and being open to critically question and extend ideologies, makes reading a much more exciting and vibrant process. …

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