Critical Pedagogy

Critical literacy is a teaching orientation that focuses on encouraging students to analyze critically a text’s purpose and the culture and power structure it represents. It also encourages students to choose is sues for their classroom study that have real meaning in their own lives. Paulo Friere, a Brazilian educator, is often viewed as the founder of this orientation (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970). He believed that education and knowledge could only have power when they help learners liberate themselves from oppressive conditions. Although some approaches to critical literacy only ask students to come away with a better understanding of society and their role in it, other approaches encourage students to go a step further and become activists in their own communities.

Strategy of Critical Pedagogy

English Skill Level: Advanced Beginning to Advanced
Grade Level: Secondary to Adult
Also Called: Critical Literacy, Participatory ESL, Problem-Posing Education

  • The teacher encourages students and listens as they discuss their everyday lives.
  • The teacher facilitates open discussion and encourages students to express concerns.
  • The teacher assesses students’ situation to help them determine topics that truly concern them.
  • The teacher chooses a picture, story, or song to present to students to help them take an objective
  • look at their experiences and concerns.
  • Students meet in small groups, called culture circles, to discuss and propose a project related to their concerns.
  • Students plan a project, which often includes social action, to improve their situation.

Applications and Examples of Critical Pedagogy

My Neighborhood

  • The teacher asks students, “What do you do everyday?” Students answer and may also ask other students. The teacher helps students with vocabulary and structure as students talk about their typical day. The teacher and other students can ask students more questions about their day, including questions about what they like to do and why or what they don’t like to do and why.
  • The teacher shows a picture of a city neighborhood. He or she asks students what they see. Again, the teacher helps students with vocabulary and structure as needed. The teacher then asks students, “What do you like about this neighborhood?” “What don’t you like about it?” “What does your neighborhood look like?” “What do you like about your neighborhood?” “What don’t you like about?”
  • Students, together or in groups, decide on a problem they want to solve in their neighborhoods. They may do this as a class project to be presented to their teacher and the other students, or they may decide to continue with their project outside of class.

Diversity in Our Town
Submitted by Becky Sutter, Luther College education student

  • The objective of this lesson is for learners to observe and discuss the amount of help that different public places provide for people who speak languages other than English. The learner identifies various ways that public places could be more helpful to people who speak languages other than English.
  • During the week before the lesson, the teacher encourages the students to pay attention to things that public institutions do or do not do to make it easier for people who speak a language other than English. Students should look for signs written in other languages, for pictures, and for diagrams. Students should also look to see whether public institutions like schools, doctor’s offices, and stores have bilingual employees. The teacher could also bring in pamphlets and other materials put out by various institutions for students to analyze.
  • The teacher begins the lesson by reading Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words/Spoken Memories by Aliki (Greenwillow Books, 1998). This is a book in two parts about a girl who immigrates to the United States. She shares her story of the difficulties she faced in her first days in a classroom where everyone speaks a different language from hers. The teacher asks the students the following questions:

What were some problems that Marianthe had when she didn’t understand the language that her teacher and friends were speaking?
What things were hard for her to understand?
What things could she understand?
How did she communicate?

  • The teacher asks the students if they ever felt like Marianthe and asks them to share stories of times when they or their family have had problems because of language barriers. For those students who may feel uncomfortable discussing their own difficulties, this part of the discussion should be optional.
  • The teacher will ask students to get into preassigned heterogeneous small groups. The teacher instructs the students to discuss observations that they made over the week about how public institutions do or do not provide help for non-English speakers. Students construct a chart of their observations as follows: Helpful, Wells Fargo Banks has signs, in Spanish, Hmong, and English Not Helpful, Johnson Health Care has no doctors or translators who speak Spanish
  • The teacher asks each group to think of solutions to their observations listed in the “Not Helpful” column.
  • In a follow-up lesson, students write a letter to one of the institutions that they identified as nonhelpful, giving suggestions on how it could better serve non-English speakers. Students are given the option of whether to mail the letter.

Analyzing a Text for Bias

  • Students are given a newspaper article about a current event or a topic that concerns them. The article is previewed by looking at the title, any subtitles, and the pictures. Students are asked what they know about this and what they think about this topic.
  • Students read the article more thoroughly. They are asked to write down what they think are facts and what they think are opinions. More advanced students can be asked to point out terms that show bias or emotional overdramatization. Students are asked their opinions about the topic. They are asked their opinion about the writing. Is it fair? Is it biased? What has been left out? What should have been included?
  • Students, individually, in groups, or as a class, write a letter to the editor responding to the article. Students may decide whether they want to send the letter to the newspaper.

Strengths of Critical Pedagogy

  • Instruction is grounded in the experiences of students and teachers, not a standardized curriculum controlled by textbook publishers, teachers, and administrators.
  • Meaningful conversation is the norm because the dialogue is based on the experiences of students and teachers.
  • Students are partners with teachers in learning.

Weaknesses and Modifications of Critical Pedagogy

  • Some students may be uncomfortable discussing issues that are too personal or too political. Teachers should try to keep the discussion at an objective, general level so that students do not feel compelled to discuss personal issues if they do not wish to do so. Students should never be put on the spot nor should they be required to go public with activities unless they desire to attend them.