Critical Literacy in the EFL Classroom:
Multiple Perspectives Through Learning Tasks
Momin Ahmad Khan
Musa Jabbar Taib
Muhammad Zaid Mughal
University of Sciences and Technology
of this paper is to explore an activity which was meant to understand the
amount of critical literacy developed within students having received formal
education for at least 14 years in a country where English is not the first
language of the natives. The students were either handed out Questionnaires or
were emailed google forms each having 4 different questions each judging their
ability to perceive the true meaning behind the questions which were all
misleading to a certain extend. The students involved in this research were
from many different backgrounds and institutes but mainly they were students
from National University of Science and Technology (NUST) Islamabad. We had
almost 60 responses. Two main questions could be answered from the research, the
first being how did the students respond to these Questions and were they able
to deduce that they had to answer the contextual meaning of the Questions and
not there literal meaning, the second being how were the students able to
answer to these questions using their past experiences and knowledge. The
results of our research showed that students mostly answered these Questions
below merit (apart from a few exceptions). Showing that the teaching methodologies
and the amount of exposure these students had which could have developed their
critical literacy was bare minimum as most of the answers were more focused on
making sure the grammar and tenses were correct. Meaning that the research
pointed out that students in Pakistan are taught English in such a way to
converse correctly but not to analyze something correctly
literacy directs to the alternative language instruction that encourages
students to seek hidden textual messages, question the status quo, and affirm
action for a more impartial society. Critical literacy takes it roots from the
early 1980s but became really influential in the 1990’s when its concepts were
further developed and applied on institutional level. Since the
1980s this shift from merely decoding texts to understanding how systems of
meaning and power operate on people has been drawing increasing attention in
discussions and research studies, as in the special 1999 issue of TESOL
Quarterly on critical approaches to TESOL and the special issue of Theory Into
Practice devoted to critical literacy in 2012.This increase in popularity of
critical literacy can be attributed to the fact that it critical literacy
brings awareness or consciousness to those who are being mistreated and to
those who bring about this mistreatment by supporting unfair ideologies through
different means such as using power political or otherwise.
However even with all the benefits
that critical literacy offers, it has still been not given that much importance
in countries where English is not the native language. For example in Pakistan
many educational institutes pay more attention to improving the grammar of
students and teach them sentence structures and have widely marginalized
critical literacy English-as-a second-language (ESL) and English-as-a-foreign-language
(EFL) education (Alford, 2001).The reason for our current study helps us
determined the consequences of this decision by educational institutes and
government to give less importance to critical literacy in the newer generation
of Pakistan and how this can be if needed to be solved. To answer these
questions, we paid high emphasis on how students answered these questions and how
students were able to incorporate their prior knowledge and experience with
these questions to answer them to the best of their abilities.
of critical literacy is different for critical researches or instructors
because they use various theoretical frameworks and emphasize various instructional
philosophies (Luke & Woods, 2009). Starting with Freire (2000), critical
literacy has not been described as an integrated approach with regard to theory
or practice, but a lot of critical theorists consider that such alternative
instruction should be observed from a socio-political perspective (Harste,
2009). In other words, language learning is regarded as a social practice by
critical literacy. Not only are the students assisted to enhance their language
development but to make them aware that they are capable of questioning the
basic assumptions of society as social agents(Lewis,2001; Morrell, 2008;
Parker, 2013). Critical literacy preserves the texts, literacies and language
practices in no circumstances unbiased. For critical researchers/scholars
Harste, 2003), each text is ideologically built within the discursive systems
of a given society (Gee,2008), so students should be skilled with
critical knowledge enabling them to identify ideological messages and social
forces encoded within the texts. In addition, if we observe new digital
technologies and the accompanying youth popular culture, the notion of literacy
should be expanded to multiple literacies including art, music, movement,
visual text literacies, and so on (New London Group, 1996).
Furthermore, language practices portray a form of situated education in
response to the “social constructions of one’s peers, culture, family, classrooms,
neighbors, communities and world” (Lesley, 2004, p. 323). Considering the fact
that language learning is a complicated or a detailed phenomenon that has the
ability to groom student’s social identity, critical literacy is significant
not only to the L1 context but also to the L2 context. Critical literacy should
be delved in various English learning classrooms, including those in Taiwan. Critical
literacy acquires a poststructuralist and postmodern view of reality and
literacy in context to textual interpretation. (Meacham & Buendia,1999): 1)
knowledge and reality are not firm or objective, but are sites of mediation
through continually reflexive actions; and 2) textual interpretation involves
many interpretative prospects. Therefore, approaching a text has become a
procedure of understanding multiple meaning systems, focusing on the greater
discourses of power which inform instructional postulates. As Johnston (1999)
points out, “in the postmodern world, plurality and difference are actively
encouraged and celebrated” encouraging students to under seek discourses of
power in interpreting various texts.
So, to sum it
all up critical literacy encourages students to become participating
meaning-makers by generating a learning environment in which textual critique
is emphasized and numerous perspectives are motivated, explored and recognized.
activities were conducted in our university, the ‘National University of
Science and Technology’ or NUST. Of course, as with nearly everyone in
Pakistan, all the participants had English as a second language. We
predominantly interviewed engineering students, and all of them must pass an ‘English language’
portion in the university entrance exam, which contains tests for vocabulary,
grammar, and comprehension. The student’s English proficiency was medium to
a questionnaire which would not only test the participants’ critical literacy
in terms of their understanding of the English language, but also test their
general critical skills and logical thinking.
Do you believe that the pen is mightier than the sword? (You cannot sign
a cheque with a sword).
This is a
very well-known quote, but the real test for the participants was the second
part of the question, that is, the part in the brackets. Our focus was on if
the participants picked up on the sarcasm in the second part of the question.
Their responses would determine how well they understood the underlying
meanings, or the contextual clues of a given text.
How is the following picture relatable to our education system?
This exercise would test their
ability to understand the hidden meanings, or the message being conveyed
through a picture. We were to see if they picked up on the theme of ‘different
people being judged on the same activity’.
The third question was:
Read the following passages and answer the question at the end:
Person 1: She had those green slacks on and that fur jacket with the
pocket linings so ripped that she had to pull to get her hands out of them.
Person 2: She was big. Bigger than any man, and on her chest, was the
biggest cross I had ever seen. I swear it was six inches long each way and in
the crook of her arms was the biggest bible ever made.
How would you identify the race of each woman
(i.e. black or white)? Give reasons for your answer as well.
This is an excerpt from ‘Recitatif’ by Toni
Morrison, published in 1983 in ‘Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women’.
The aim of this passage was for them to distinguish between the two people
being described. As both the characters have certain distinguishing characters
which could swing the readers either way, the way the participants would answer
the question would give us valuable insight on their thought process behind
The fourth question was:
What does this photo symbolize?
Again, this picture would test the
participants’ ability to gather the meaning being conveyed through the picture,
and critically analyze it.
collection was done through two methods. Firstly, we distributed the
questionnaire on paper to students in the different departments of the
university, and asked them to fill it out. These questionnaires would then be
collected, and their results recorded and analysed.
we made an online questionnaire on ‘Google Forms’. This would provide us with a
quick and efficient way to reach many people, and our results would be
automatically compiled, as this would be an automated process.
thing to note is that on all questionnaires, regardless of whether it was the
‘on-paper’ questionnaire or the online questionnaire, we did ask all the
participants to mention their department, and course of study. This may not
have directly related to the questionnaire, but we did this just in case any
interesting patterns or links were found between the course the students were
enrolled in, and the way they answered their questions.
Findings and analysis
Do you believe that the pen is
mightier than the sword? (You cannot sign a cheque with a sword).
We got very diverse
answers on this question. There were about 45 responses total. Ten people
simply answered yes although those who were given the questionnaire by hand
were asked to write the reason as well. Among those who gave reasons for their
answers, majority of them gave an answer in favour of the pen. People perceived
the word “sword” in many ways. Some took it in a literal sense, some considered
it equivalent to “the use of force”. Some people equated it with war.
Similarly, some people took the word “pen” in the literal sense, while others
considered it the power of education. The reasons which were given in the pen’s
favour were also diverse. Some people said that the pen is used for writing and
in that way people’s hearts can be won over. According to them, winning over
someone’s heart is better than forcing someone to do something using the sword.
Love is a stronger persuasive force than the sword. As hinted in the question,
the sword can seldom be used for positive purposes. However, as pointed out by
two of the responders, the stroke of the pen can be used to declare a war
against a nation and it can be used to give a death penalty to a criminal.
These were the answers we considered average as they were according to our
expectations and followed a general trend. Now we will discuss some of the
answers which stood out.
The best answer in favour
of the pen was: “yes sure controlling someone with
your might would just result in more hatered towards one .while with a pen you
can have peaceful and legit documentation in regards of any matter with both
parties being satised. ruling with a sword will just be benical for ones
ownself .while pen does not harm anyone until you poke someone with it
especially in the eye.” The reason that this
answer stood out was that this person presented both aspects, regarding the
sword and the pen. Also, he judged the humour present in the question and added
his own humour in the last line of his answer. Speaking of humour one person
also said that you can’t scratch your back with your sword and thus pen is
mightier than the sword(Let’s just hope he was not serious about it).
Some people presented a
balanced view. They argued that the pen is mightier that the sword only when
the sword has made way for the pen. We can infer from it that they are
referring to the fact that a nation can prosper in terms of education if its
borders are safe. i.e. safety comes first, only then education is possible.
Presently, we can see that this is true. In parts of the world where war is waging,
the pen is of no use.
There were about 7 people
who answered in absolute favour of the sword. Three of them argued that
although we cannot sign a cheque with a sword, we can wave it around and make
somebody sign the cheque with a pen. One of them answered in a sarcastic tone
that “where were the caretakers of the pen during the world wars”. The same
person quoted a Hadith “Sword is Momin’s weapon”. It is ironic that these
people forgot that they were expressing their views in favour of the sword by using
the power of writing i.e. pen.
does this picture symbolize?
This is a
picture with a vast number of meanings, which differ from mind to mind. From
it, people can infer both positive and negative meanings. And hence we got both type of answers as
well. Many compared it with real-life circumstances while many thought of it in
literal sense. Some also described their philosophical thoughts about this
picture. Mostly people answered in
positive sense but almost 20 % saw negativity in it. This was general trend in
responces. A surprising fact was that only two persons (out of 50+) described
both positive and negative sides of this picture.
people wrote the word self-confidence while some wrote over-confidence. In a
way, both are correct as the meaning it gives is not independent of the way and
direction of thinking. But their answers including many others were too brief.
if we talk about philosophical sense, many people compared goals, ambitions and
wishes with this pic. People wrote that we consider our self of too much worth,
while we are nothing special and we should criticize and correct our mistakes
and flaws. While some answers said that we consider our self too low, while
there is a lion hiding in us and we should promote it to grow. Everyone have at
least some potential in them, but they may not be necessarily aware of it.
Knowing one’s own self is a part of the journey of life. We should also never underestimate
ourselves. People also compared the picture with problems. Our problems may not
be as big as we think. Some people also wrote quotes like “Do not judge a book
by its cover”. One of the best philosophical answer is as “Wishes are not
fulfilled always. One wants to become that which he could not. But in struggle
of becoming that thing, he becomes what is in between of excellence and
All in All, we do not get as
creditable answers for this question as for others. This may be due to the
reason that it was last. Among the hilarious answers was a simple word “Meme”.