by Melanie Stonebanks

You don’t have to have all the answers. You only need to know the questions to ask.

"It's a Book" by Lane Smith - You Tube trailer

As has been discussed in the previous two postings on this topic, critical literacy is a way to use texts to help children better understand themselves, others, and the world around them.  Using children’s literature, teachers can help their class through difficult situations, enable individual students to transcend their own challenges, and teach students to consider all viewpoints, respect differences, and become more self-aware.

There are many activities that are already going on in our classrooms that build critical literacy.  Reading novels written from the point of view of a child from another culture or set in another country; sharing stories about families and their religious traditions or considering the lives of young people like them who lived through war, persecution or poverty; as well, when we ask our students to write from the point of view of someone else; all of these classroom experiences are ways of developing critical literacy. As Melissa Thibault (2004) reminds us, these activities all serve the same purpose: they help the student to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to learn to understand other people’s circumstances and perspectives and to empathize with them.

In order to properly prepare our students to be literate in this ever changing technological and multimodal world, we teachers need to reflect upon and challenge our own beliefs and understanding of literacy.  Harwood (2008) advocates that “educators need to challenge children and provide balanced literacy opportunities that value the social-cultural construction of knowledge while reflecting the diversity of children’s lives.” She strongly supports the notion that classroom “opportunities to collaborate, discuss, critique, deconstruct, and reconstruct a multitude of meaningful and radical texts (Kohl, 1995) are equally important in literacy development as learning to identify phonemes of sound.”

For the sake of brevity, the definition of “radical texts” has been borrowed from Leland, Harste, Ociepka, Lewison, and Vasquez’s (1999) suggestions for choosing critical texts. Radical texts chosen for elementary aged children should meet the following criteria:

  • Texts don’t make difference invisible, but rather explore what differences make a difference;
  • Texts enrich children’s understanding of history and life by giving voice to those who have been traditionally silenced or marginalized;
  • Texts show how people can begin to take action on important social issues;
  • Texts should explore dominant systems of meaning that operate in our society to position people and groups of people;
  • Texts should not provide “happily ever after” endings for complex social problems.

Children can be encouraged to think critically and answer critical questions that will enable them to examine their own insights as well as those presented in texts, which is at the heart of critical literacy programming. Teachers need to encourage children to challenge the status quo of what is represented within texts, asking questions such as:

  • Whose voice is heard and whose voice is left out?”
  • Who is the intended reader? (For example asking, is the text intended for specific groups of people and if so how is that group portrayed?)
  • What was the world like when the text was created?
  • What does the author want you to feel or think?
  • What does the author expect you to know or value?
  • What does the text say about boys (about girls)?
  •  Is it important that the main character is beautiful (powerful/wealthy)? (Harwood, 2008)


Luke, O’Brien, and Comber (2001) suggest the following key questions:

  • What is the topic? How is it being presented? What themes and discourses are being expressed?
  • Who is writing to whom? Whose positions are being expressed? Whose voices and positions are not being expressed?
  • What is the text trying to do to you?
  • What other ways are there of writing about the topic?
  • What wasn’t said about the topic? Why?

This list is not exhaustive, and the critical questions that arise will often depend on the children and the issue involve. There is no single ‘recipe’ of how to incorporate critical literacy within an elementary school curriculum so teachers need to work against the “commodification” (Luke & Freebody, 1999) of critical literacy, as they begin to recognize the important benefits of fostering children’s critical viewing of texts. Harwood (2008) does well to remind us that children’s interests and questions should also be incorporated into the literacy curriculum and form an important addition to the critical questions that arise. By honouring children’s own natural curiosity and using their inquisitiveness as a starting point, greater depth and engagement with texts is possible.

A list of picture books to support critical literacy can be found here

A question that my husband and I always put to our pre-service education students when discussing the concept of curriculum design is the “So what?” or “Why?” question.  We push these soon to be teachers to consider deeply the impact that their choices of what they will bring into their future classrooms will have on the children under their care.  This is probably one of the most challenging exercises in lesson planning.  Analyzing the overt and covert effect of one’s chosen methodology and material on a widely diverse group of learners is incredibly time consuming and at times frustrating if all aspects are considered thoroughly.

Now, not one to ask of others something I would not do myself, I end this posting with the questions “Why teach critical literacy?  What difference will it really make in the lives of elementary students and teachers?”  In all honesty, I believe the difference of enacting a program of critical literacy into one’s English Language Arts curriculum as compared to my own literacy learning as a student, student teacher and teacher is profound.  As opposed to a basal textbook, scripted or worksheet driven reading program, a true emancipatory literacy curriculum which, in the words of Lankshear and Lawler (1987) is a literacy curriculum that enables students to become properly literate, a literacy of hope and possibility, of affirmation and acceptance; a literacy that challenges us to look beyond our limited cultural assumptions and worldviews; a literacy that not only legitimates students’ voices but allows them to see that they are part of the continuing human dialogue, and that their lives can make a difference is what needs to be put in place.  Without a doubt, it will take a great many more hours to develop and there will be numerous mishaps along the way but the empowerment and sense of self that will be fostered in that community of learners is well worth it.

The following sites are good places to continue reading, thinking and teaching about critical literacy in your classroom.  Enjoy!


References for further reading can be found here:

Harwood, D.  Deconstructing and Reconstructing Cinderella: Theoretical Defense of Critical Literacy for Young Children. Language and Literacy, volume 10, issue 2, Fall 2008. Retrieved from

Kohl, H. (1995). Should we burn Babar? Essays on children’s literature and the power of stories. New York: The New Press.

Lankshear, C. & Lawler, M. (1987). Literacy, schooling, and revolution. New York: Falmer.

Lelande, C., Harste, J., Ociepka, A., Lewison, M., & Vazquez, V. (1999). Exploring critical literacy: You can hear a pin drop. Language Arts, 77(1), 70-77.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2), 3-8.

Luke, A., O’Brien, J., & Comber, B. (2001). Making community texts objects of study.

In H. Fehring & P. Green (Eds.), Critical literacy: A collection of articles from the

Australian Educators’ Association. Newark, NJ: International Reading Association.

Thibault, M. Children’s literature promotes understanding. LEARN North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved from