Vol. 6. No. 2 R-10 September 2002
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Negotiating Critical Literacies in the Classroom

Barbara Comber, Anne Simpson (Eds.) (2001)
Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
ISBN 0-8058-3794-9
US $29.95 (paper)

This collection of essays, edited by Barbara Comber and Anne Simpson (University of South Australia), offers insight into the efforts of literacy educators in a variety of international contexts to bring critical literacy into their classrooms. The editors seek to address the growing interest in critical literacy pedagogy as well as what they see as a dearth of theorized accounts of classroom practice. Comber and Simpson stress that the authors of this collection all write as teachers, and what links these teachers is their desire to make a difference in the lives of their students through the social justice agenda implicit in critical literacy pedagogy.

Literacy is, as Comber notes, a much-contested term and the addition of "critical" to the term adds yet another level of complexity. For those who may be unclear on what critical literacy pedagogy is (or is not), this collection offers an excellent starting point for exploring its curricula and goals. There is no one easy definition, and indeed reading this collection makes it clear that the term mutates to fit the specific educational context in which a teacher is working. There are, in fact, no "generic universal critical literacy or empowering literacies or pedagogies" (p. ix). Nor are there easy answers or sure-fire "teaching recipes" to be found in this volume. What the reader will find are teachers investigating the unexpected dilemmas and tensions of critical pedagogy, the complexities of their contexts, and the sophisticated literacy practices of their students, who range in age from 4-year-olds to graduate students.

Why might critical literacy be of particular interest to TESOL professionals? As we know, the teaching of English in either a second or foreign language context is embedded in much larger social and political issues. It would seem that a pedagogical approach which proposes to "[ask] complicated questions about language and power, about people and lifestyle, about morality and ethics, about who is advantaged by the way things are and who is disadvantaged" would have much to offer our field (p. 271). Yet, as Pennycook (1996) points out, the world of TESOL has been slow to acknowledge a "fast-moving, fascinating, contentious and happening area of research, i.e. literacy" (Pennycook, 1996, 163). The work of Elsa Auerbach and Nina Wallerstein with adult immigrants comes to mind as the most well-known examples of this type of pedagogy implemented in a TESL context, but for the most part the worlds of TESOL and literacy studies have not intersected.

With its 17 essays, Negotiating Critical Literacies provides a broad range of educational and linguistic settings, and student populations. All in all, eight different countries are represented, primarily Anglophone or multilingual (India and South Africa). The sections are grouped by level of schooling; the first, entitled Critical Literacies from the Start: Examining Relations of Power in Textual Practices, examines how students as young as 4 or 5 may appropriate popular culture, build knowledge of social structures and achieve the power to institute change in their classrooms or schools. The second section discusses "unresolved questions" in primary schooling, while the third focuses on questions of identity with studies at the secondary level of education. The final section addresses tertiary education as a "site for critical literacies" and concludes with a succinct and helpful summary of the key issues by Comber (p. 207). [-1-]

While the collection is comprehensive in its coverage, some chapters may have particular relevance to ESL/EFL teachers. Pippa Stein, author of "Classrooms as Sites of Textual, Cultural and Linguistic Reproduction," discusses a multilingual storytelling project she conducted in a Black township school outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her study offers a fascinating account of how students used storytelling in their native language to introduce taboo subjects into the classroom. These texts then became the subject of analysis, in which students considered their ideological nature, the role of storyteller and translator, and the shift in meaning over multiple tellings. Another example of student agency in the classroom is offered by Angel Mei Yi Lin, who observed junior form English classes in Singapore, documenting how students offered both resistance and creativity in response to a highly scripted English reading lesson. Lin concluded that "students' artful story construction practices can be a potential resource in the English lesson if the teacher can harness and build upon it" (p. 95). Other studies included here look at non-English speaking African students' experience in their first year at university (Jenny Clarence-Ficham), the empowerment of young students in rural India (Urvashi Sahni), and a critical examination of examination-based literacy in Singapore (Yin Mee Cheah). All of these studies share a common focus on language use and its links to the social structures and power hierarchies of a specific teaching context, and they offer compelling analyses of the intersection of these three elements.

Negotiating Critical Literacies in Classrooms serves two purposes. For those teachers already engaged in critical literacy pedagogy, it offers helpful discussions of teachers' attempts to address the dilemmas and challenges of implementing critical literacy pedagogy and curricula around the world. For those new to critical literacy, this collection will serve equally well as an introduction to its theory and practice. Critical literacy work is not simple, and it can be risky. In an ESL/EFL context, we should carefully consider the cultural implications of asking students to critically examine "taken for granted" texts, social structures or relations of power. For students who are accustomed to more traditional approaches to education, or for whom the questioning of canonical texts or dominant discourses is not deemed to be an appropriate classroom focus, the use of critical literacy curricula would need to be carefully undertaken. Yet the goals of critical pedagogy are so clearly relevant to the world of TESOL that to dismiss it as too risky for our classrooms seems short-sighted. As Anne Dyson, one of the researchers included in this volume, notes, "[In order] to move beyond the taken for granted, to become more conscious of ideological choices and of the social consequences of words, we all benefit from interaction with those positioned differently in the social world" (p. 16). This sentiment, I believe echoes much of our experience in the ESL/EFL classroom, and makes a strong case for bringing critical literacy pedagogy into the world of TESOL.


Pennycook, A. (1996). TESOL and Critical Literacies: Modern, Post or Neo? TESOL Quarterly 30 (1), 163-171.

Greta Vollmer

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