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
The purpose 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
Critical 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.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
The concept of critical literacy is different for critical researches or
instructors because they use various theoretical frameworks and emphasize
various instructional philosophies (Luke & Woods, 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 (e.g., 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). 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.
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
designed 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.
first question was:
Do you believe that the pen is mightier than the sword? (You cannot sign
a cheque with a sword).
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.
second question was:
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
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.
would you identify the race of each woman (i.e. black or white)? Give reasons
for your answer as well.
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 their answers.
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
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. Ten people simply answered yes. 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.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.
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. 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.
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.
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?”.
second question was to relate the following picture with our education system.
haven’t got very diverse opinions on this question. 40 out 45 responded in
against of our education system. They were all of the same opinion that
everyone in the society has their own abilities and they could not perform well
in every situation of life and the way of educating students vanishes
their innovative approaches. We have
established an extremely unfair education system in our society in which
students of different approach are judged on the same
scale. One opinion I liked the most is “we don’t know who to teach what content
and we put every student on the same line of education and it is like testing
an engineering student on a medical sciences exams”. This opinion ideally looks
so simple but in realty describes the whole picture with the relation it has
with our education system that is our society promotes equality but not
justice. According to one person “students receive same knowledge from same
teacher but everyone absorbs that knowledge according to their own abilities
which shows their uniqueness”.
got some different opinions like one said that “this picture is showing
different species and all humans are same specie therefore this picture is
totally unrelated to our education system” we received some funny opinion like
someone said that “our education system treats students as an animal”.
last we came to this conclusion that is our education system is treating
everyone equally but the justice is not provided to everyone as everyone has
his own uniqueness and he shows it by the single way or another. This
conclusion is similar to one of Einstein’s quote that is “Everybody is genius.
But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole
life believing that it is stupid”.
Analysis regarding question number one from the
The third question was to read some
lines from recitatiff and deduce the color of each women.
Mostly responces were in favour of
Person 1 being white and person 2 being black. But many also said that they
will not answer any racist question or it
cannot be judged. A point to be noted is that not even one person told
the same colour for both women.
answers only consisted of their colour although we asked them to write reason
too. Mostly people answered the question using American nature because the
words fur jacket and biggest bible triggered their minds to America. The
average reason of person 1 being white is that she was wearing white fur
jacket. There is a general mind in our society that in America, rich are white
and hence they do more fashion while blacks are not treated equally well and
many of them are poor.
Some responses were in favour of
person 1 being black and person 2 being white. According to one response the
clothing described by person 1 generates an image of the African people in his
mind and the description of person 2 makes him think about the woman’s face as
white as Christianity and religious education is most common amongst whites, plus
the missionaries are also white.
Some responses were in favour of
person 1 and person 2 being black. According to one response person 2 is black
because of uncommon big size and person 1 is also black due to her long hands.
According to other opinion both persons were black as person 1 was wearing torn
clothes which shows her poorness and the second woman is large fat and bulky
like the black women.
As the text does not describes
clearly about the women that who was black and who was white and therefore the
best response we received was that “I was unable to identify the color of both
the women because the text is only showing the size of women and their wearing
and judging both the women on these grounds would be a mistake” .
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 reachability”.
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”.
general, we saw that the critical literacy of our University was quite good.
Many people understood the tones, underlying meanings, and hidden messages
being conveyed in the questions, with many people giving very thought-provoking
answers to the questions. People also responded to the pictures well, with
multiple perspectives coming through. Many people successfully interpreted the
sarcastic statement at the end of question one. Question two also had some
interesting responses, with some people replying with humour and wit, while
many people got the underlying idea of discriminatory methods of teaching,
though the people who disagreed were not shy to speak their mind. Question
three was arguably the most revealing. On one hand, it revealed some of the
stereotypes our society has about race, and how it affects a person’s
lifestyle, with many people’s responses hinting at the fact that white people
are still seen as privileged, while blacks may be associated with poverty and
substandard living conditions. On the other hand, some people did refuse to
answer the question, calling it racist or saying that it was impossible to
deduce. This does show that many people did understand how the question tricked
you into revealing the ideas you held in your mind about the different races.
On question 4, many people once again demonstrated the ability to understand
the message being conveyed.
short, people demonstrated a good ability to think critically, with many people
thinking outside the box. We can conclude that even though some people are
unable to grasp the concept of conveying messages indirectly, many people do
have a good ability to analyse, inspect, and infer from contextual clues,
giving insightful opinions about the questions we posed.