Literacy

Critical literacy: An essential skill for reading the literacy debates

Dr Rebecca Jesson
August 4, 2022
Literacy

Critical literacy: An essential skill for reading the literacy debates

Dr Rebecca Jesson
Dr Rebecca Jesson
August 4, 2022

As a researcher in literacy, I follow the media coverage of literacy issues with interest. Every day more and more professional development providers, advocates, and lobbyists join the fray, I’ve begun to notice how important it is to use some critical literacy skills to assess the quality of the information, before buying the argument or the products that are being sold in the background.

Here are some that seem to be in play currently:

Ad Hominem arguments.

These are criticism directed at a people rather than at the point they are trying to make. Ad Hominem arguments are used to discredit, belittle and embarrass the person, rather than engage in the debate with them. Social media commentary that claims that a person ‘doesn’t understand’ is ad hominem. Let’s entertain the alternative: They do understand, they just don’t agree. At best it’s faulty reasoning. At worst, it’s public belittling of people who don’t agree.

Straw person arguments.  

This happens when an opponent states someone else’s position for them.  They provide weak representation of a position, in order to discredit it. I would put in this category all the times that I have heard it claimed that New Zealand teachers teach children ‘contextual guessing’. No, we don’t. That’s a straw-person. A caricature. Depending on the intent, at best it’s faulty. At worst, it’s belittling teachers. Possibly, it’s good marketing.

The false dilemma.

Literacy debates are rife with these. People offer an ‘either /or’ position. You either do this or that, those are your options. But what if there are more options? It’s likely there are lots of them.  Here are some common false dilemmas that I see presented about literacy:

Phonics vs meaningful approaches (whole language).

Why is this presented as a binary choice? Skills are important, so is a love of literature, a joy of expressing oneself, a reader identity. They don’t have to cancel each other out.

In fact, what if students’ literacy benefitted from both? What if, building skills allowed children access to the joy of reading and writing. What if reading and writing in joyful ways allowed children to build skills? Maybe it’s an interaction, in both directions.

Nature vs nurture.

This is often presented as a binary as well. Is a child’s literacy issue neurological in

origin, or is it environmental? But, what if this too is an interaction? What if children inherit different gifts, and therefore they find different things hard.  What if they have different experiences that they can connect to? What we embraced the things that children do well, and helped them work at things they find harder. What if we adjusted our support based on the changes we see in the child?

Natural vs unnatural.

This is a similar source of huge debate. Can children ‘pick up’ some parts or do they have to be explicitly taught. Again, the binary could be artificial. Surely, it’s a bit of both. If we take vocabulary for example, most of the words we know we ‘picked up’ by participating in talking, listening, and reading. But some we learned, slowly and possibly effortfully. Maybe learning can be both implicit and explicit. What if, there is an interaction? What if things we are taught explicitly help us to notice even more when we engage in reading and writing. What if we notice things we find hard when we engage in reading and writing, and we work on them, explicitly.

Science vs humanities.

This is another version of the skills debate. Should we focus on the correlations of who are good readers and writers and what aspects of reading and writing are predictive of success, or should we focus on the role of literature in a society, and engage children in meaningful stories about their identities? Again, why the binary? Can’t we do both?

Psychologists vs teachers.

I have a foot in both camps, so naturally my answer here is, again, both. I have engaged in quantitative studies that uses data to find patterns and regularities across large groups. I am also a teacher, so I work very closely with small numbers of small people whose literacy learning is unique. What I can say here, is that scientists (as a group) tend to be very good at naming the skills that need to be taught.

Teachers (as a group) tend to be very good at finding interesting and creative ways to bring those skills together into classroom programmes that are meaningful and hopefully inspirational for children. I think I support boundary crossing. I think teachers can use the findings of science to discover things that are necessary to teach. I think scientists should be finding regularities and patterns, and telling teachers about them.

So, back to the point of this post.

We are all increasingly consumers of information presented to us by people who have some interest in swaying our opinions. These interests can lead to advocacy and lobbying, plagued (it seems to me) by faulty reasoning.

Engaging in reasoned argumentation, based on supportable, and verifiable evidence,  means seeking out the logic, identifying the vested interests, noticing the fallacies, and wondering what the author’s purpose might be.

As teachers, parents and citizens, applying critical literacy skills to everything we read in the media means we can make wiser choices as ‘consumers’ of contestable information.

Dr Rebecca Jesson
Dr Rebecca Jesson is an Associate Professor in literacy education at The University of Auckland - Faculty of Education and Social Work. She is also a Reading Recovery Trainer and is the Academic & Research Director for National Reading Recovery Centre, Aotearoa.
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Critical literacy: An essential skill for reading the literacy debates

As a researcher in literacy, I follow the media coverage of literacy issues with interest. Every day more and more professional development providers, advocates, and lobbyists join the fray, I’ve begun to notice how important it is to use some critical literacy skills to assess the quality of the information, before buying the argument or the products that are being sold in the background.

Here are some that seem to be in play currently:

Ad Hominem arguments.

These are criticism directed at a people rather than at the point they are trying to make. Ad Hominem arguments are used to discredit, belittle and embarrass the person, rather than engage in the debate with them. Social media commentary that claims that a person ‘doesn’t understand’ is ad hominem. Let’s entertain the alternative: They do understand, they just don’t agree. At best it’s faulty reasoning. At worst, it’s public belittling of people who don’t agree.

Straw person arguments.  

This happens when an opponent states someone else’s position for them.  They provide weak representation of a position, in order to discredit it. I would put in this category all the times that I have heard it claimed that New Zealand teachers teach children ‘contextual guessing’. No, we don’t. That’s a straw-person. A caricature. Depending on the intent, at best it’s faulty. At worst, it’s belittling teachers. Possibly, it’s good marketing.

The false dilemma.

Literacy debates are rife with these. People offer an ‘either /or’ position. You either do this or that, those are your options. But what if there are more options? It’s likely there are lots of them.  Here are some common false dilemmas that I see presented about literacy:

Phonics vs meaningful approaches (whole language).

Why is this presented as a binary choice? Skills are important, so is a love of literature, a joy of expressing oneself, a reader identity. They don’t have to cancel each other out.

In fact, what if students’ literacy benefitted from both? What if, building skills allowed children access to the joy of reading and writing. What if reading and writing in joyful ways allowed children to build skills? Maybe it’s an interaction, in both directions.

Nature vs nurture.

This is often presented as a binary as well. Is a child’s literacy issue neurological in

origin, or is it environmental? But, what if this too is an interaction? What if children inherit different gifts, and therefore they find different things hard.  What if they have different experiences that they can connect to? What we embraced the things that children do well, and helped them work at things they find harder. What if we adjusted our support based on the changes we see in the child?

Natural vs unnatural.

This is a similar source of huge debate. Can children ‘pick up’ some parts or do they have to be explicitly taught. Again, the binary could be artificial. Surely, it’s a bit of both. If we take vocabulary for example, most of the words we know we ‘picked up’ by participating in talking, listening, and reading. But some we learned, slowly and possibly effortfully. Maybe learning can be both implicit and explicit. What if, there is an interaction? What if things we are taught explicitly help us to notice even more when we engage in reading and writing. What if we notice things we find hard when we engage in reading and writing, and we work on them, explicitly.

Science vs humanities.

This is another version of the skills debate. Should we focus on the correlations of who are good readers and writers and what aspects of reading and writing are predictive of success, or should we focus on the role of literature in a society, and engage children in meaningful stories about their identities? Again, why the binary? Can’t we do both?

Psychologists vs teachers.

I have a foot in both camps, so naturally my answer here is, again, both. I have engaged in quantitative studies that uses data to find patterns and regularities across large groups. I am also a teacher, so I work very closely with small numbers of small people whose literacy learning is unique. What I can say here, is that scientists (as a group) tend to be very good at naming the skills that need to be taught.

Teachers (as a group) tend to be very good at finding interesting and creative ways to bring those skills together into classroom programmes that are meaningful and hopefully inspirational for children. I think I support boundary crossing. I think teachers can use the findings of science to discover things that are necessary to teach. I think scientists should be finding regularities and patterns, and telling teachers about them.

So, back to the point of this post.

We are all increasingly consumers of information presented to us by people who have some interest in swaying our opinions. These interests can lead to advocacy and lobbying, plagued (it seems to me) by faulty reasoning.

Engaging in reasoned argumentation, based on supportable, and verifiable evidence,  means seeking out the logic, identifying the vested interests, noticing the fallacies, and wondering what the author’s purpose might be.

As teachers, parents and citizens, applying critical literacy skills to everything we read in the media means we can make wiser choices as ‘consumers’ of contestable information.