viernes, 10 de noviembre de 2017

It’s not what you read, it’s how you read it: Approaching critical literacy as a novice teacher

Isabel Braadbaart is completing her probationary year as a newly qualified primary teacher in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. She has a B.A. in Social Sciences from University College Utrecht, an M.Ed. in Children’s Literature and Literacies from the University of Glasgow, and a Professional Graduate Diploma in Education (Primary) from the University of Edinburgh.

                  My own exploration of critical literacy occurs at the intersection of my personal values, my academic interests and research, and my professional goals as a teacher. These are inextricable from each other, and rightly so. Research is nothing without an application, professionalism ceases to exist without evidence and systemic thought, and neither is meaningful without the personal element. This post provides an overview and analysis of my M.Ed. dissertation and the practitioner enquiry I conducted as a student teacher, both relating to critical literacy. Readers are invited to reflect on the parallels between my journey and theirs, and to consider the roles of researchers, policymakers, and the teachers in introducing, positioning and enacting critical literacy. 

Critical literacy is acknowledged as a nebulous yet vital aspect of the literacy skillset (Stone, 2017). There is a plethora of approaches and definitions, ranging from the acknowledgement of the real work texts do (Vasquez, 2010: 110) to exploring how texts do this work (Freire & Macedo, 1987) to positioning texts of social constructs (Sandretto & Klenner, 2011) to how students can learn to decode, encode, analyze and create texts (Freebody & Luke, 1990). The working definition of my dissertation positioned critical literacy as the use of literacy skills to analyze, critique and transform social norms, and highlighted its position within critical pedagogy. Critical literacy is also frequently defined by the topics with which it deals: primarily, those related to social justice issues (Vasquez, 2010). This plurality is difficult: it created challenges in focusing my work as a teacher and explaining my work to others. While there is value in multiple definitions, May (2015: 5) notes that there are potentially too many possible interpretations for educators to develop a concrete conceptualization of critical literacy. As a novice teacher, I craved a definition which positioned critical literacy as a tool and a lens, while also acknowledging how I think about and incorporate critical literacy into my own practice. I currently define critical literacy as how we use literacy as a tool for understanding and improving the world.

“We talk about it in a different way”:
 A narrative inquiry into two Scottish teachers’ negotiations of critical literacy

                  For my dissertation, I worked with two Scottish teachers over the course of three one hour workshops to explore how they negotiated critical literacy and positioned it within both their own practices and the national curriculum in Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). While critical literacy has been widely promoted by researchers within the field, as well as some governments (Luke, 2000) and has a positive long-term impact on students (Harrell-Levy et al., 2016), my findings highlighted a gap between policy and research and also between the awareness and use of critical literacy by teachers.

Narrative enquiry provided the framework for the research, and I focused on valuing participants’ voices and their ability to direct the conversation and narrative. The workshops were recorded and coded by myself, with corroboration and relevant discussion with participants. While the interpretive nature of narrative inquiry implies that an analysis is in no way conclusive or exhaustive, the strongest narratives which developed were the intertwining elements of structures, personal beliefs and values, and power. Structural narratives, involving the effects of an environment on teachers and vice-versa (Giddens, 1984; Bourdieu, 1972), primarily focused on the positive and negative aspects of working with the CfE, though issues such as professional development, preparation time, and class size were mentioned. We also discussed the role of personal beliefs and values in how a teacher approaches critical literacy. Indeed, a core dilemma in investigating teacher use of critical literacy is that it requires not just the adaptation of practices, but also a willingness to participate in critical reflection. The participants dubbed this a ‘mindset’. Lastly, the issue of power was a strong undercurrent, demonstrated in the almost constant negotiation required between the structural and the personal when considering any teaching approach, and not just critical literacy.

This dissertation provided tentative ideas about the challenges in inviting teachers to participate in critical literacy, outlining the importance of considering how teachers adopt new approaches and incorporate them into their own beliefs and teaching practices, and the potential of structural elements to influence this process. Not only are these ideas which could be followed up on with further research, these were aspects which I knew would play a role in my own initial teacher education the following year and expected to come across when I began my practitioner enquiry.

Critical literacy as inclusive pedagogy: Meaningful literacy for all students

                  In the final five-week placement of teacher training, we conducted a practitioner enquiry. This was an opportunity to extend both my practical and theoretical knowledge of critical literacy, while engaging in a professional practice expected of Scottish teachers. A practitioner enquiry is “an investigation with a rationale and approach that can be explained or defended” (Menter et al., 2011) focusing on teachers and their practice. It is qualitative, emic, and personal research.

My enquiry focused on exploring how critical literacy functions as an inclusive pedagogy. The two approaches go well together. Literacy skills are essential for student attainment, and “finding ways to engage students in reading may be one of the most effective ways to leverage social change” (OECD, 2002: 3). In addition to this, work in inclusive education points to the fact that the mere presence of students in school is not enough: students must also have “opportunities to participate in meaningful learning” (Florian & Spratt, 2013: 121). The nature of critical literacy highlights the real-world importance of literacy in both its approaches and topics, helping to create meaningful literacy opportunities. I therefore aimed to explore how I could make literacy meaningful for all students using critical literacy.

                  I focused on two overlapping tenets of inclusive pedagogy and critical literacy: valuing student voice and valuing multiple opinions. These linked to key questions of inclusion which I needed to reflect on: Whose voices are included and whose are excluded in my classroom? (Allan, 2003); What messages am I sending about what types of learning and learners are valued in my classroom? (Florian & Spratt, 2013: 121). Throughout the placement, I reflected daily on my own teaching as well as the students’ learning, and these provided the basis for the analysis of how using critical literacy affected my students and me.

                  Working with students in the last year of primary school (P7 in Scotland), critical literacy skills were primarily explored through an interdisciplinary approach looking at reading and writing news articles and examining their role in reporting on natural disasters. There was a focus first on understanding how a news article works as a text, and then using the text to support opinions. News articles also naturally functioned as an excellent link to the real-life relevance of texts. Exploring natural disasters and country preparedness provided opportunities for the development of visual literacy skills, as well as continuing to develop the ability to use a text to support a position. These skills were then applied again to newspapers, when examining the roles of pictures, headlines and formatting, and who makes the decisions about these elements. We also explored facts and opinions in news sources, linking this to trustworthiness and relating it, again to a real life concern: whether fidget spinners should be allowed in schools. All of these skills culminated in an assignment to write an article about a natural disaster using an information pack to select witnesses, expert quotes, and appropriate evidence to support their writing.

                  Personally, it seemed clear that the focus on critical literacy skills and attitudes engaged the class, and particularly enabled less able students to contribute and develop literacy skills. Using real texts show that you care about making what you teach relevant to the learners, and examining how texts ‘work’ empowers students through improving their ability to decode texts. A focus on visual literacy highlights the inevitability of multiple perspectives, and creates an environment which values a plurality of ideas and interpretations and removes or diminishes the barrier of traditional text for less confident readers. By valuing multiple perspectives, we value students’ voices and ideas, placing the focus and onus of learning on the students themselves – a key tenant of dialogic teaching (Sandretto & Klenner, 2011: 63). In the final written assignment, some of the less able students were using sophisticated reading strategies to plan their text as well as showing a good understanding of how to produce a news article. It is noteworthy that critical literacy was not the only approach I used which would foster inclusive education: I also routinely use formative assessment strategies, dialogic approaches, and mixed ability grouping as appropriate. However, using critical literacy as a framework for inclusive literacy teaching and learning helped me navigate how I might value different ways of being a learner, highlighting existing practices as well as new ones I could incorporate.

Reflections and next steps

                  I learned much from this enquiry, and left my placement eager to consider how I might purposefully structure critical literacy skills in my classroom. It also raised my awareness of what kind of hurdles and challenges teachers might face when trying to incorporate critical literacy into their practice and their mindset: hurdles that would have been difficult for me to imagine when conducting my initial research for my dissertation. The broad categories of structure, personal beliefs and values, and power still apply, but I can now clearly imagine the specifics of these challenges, e.g. the need to take time to establish critical literacy habits and teach the appropriate metalanguage; the potential struggles with finding space for critical literacy within a full curriculum as well as school planning and set literacy schemes; the convoluted web of practice wherein many critical literacy elements require other aspects of good, inclusive practice.
                  The importance of critical literacy is still clear to me, and this enquiry helped me return to my previous work and define critical literacy more clearly for my own practice. The challenges it presents are ones that are surmountable, and personally I see many opportunities to take it forward, even when working with much younger students as I am currently. Beyond my personal journey, there is also much which can be done both in research and policy. For instance, there is still more information needed about how we can successfully encourage and help teachers to not just implement critical literacy but imbed it in their practice. Based on my own experiences, I would argue that a focus on skills rather than topics would help clarify what critical literacy looks like, but this needs to be investigated further. Awareness of critical literacy and its value both socially and as an inclusive pedagogy needs to be increased. Part of this responsibility lies, in this case, with the Scottish government and how the CfE incorporates critical literacy, but the responsibility also lies with researchers who should make their work accessible to those who would benefit from it. Finally, we need teachers who believe in the potential and power of critical literacy across the curriculum and stages to advocate its use beyond their own classrooms.

Reference List

Allan, J. (2003). Productive pedagogies and the challenge of inclusion. British Journal of Special
Education, 30:4, 175-179.
Bourdieu, P. (1972). Outline of a Theory of Practice. (Vol. 16). Translated from French by R.
Nice. (1977). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 78–95.
Florian, L. & Spratt, J. (2013). Enacting inclusion: a framework for interrogating
inclusive practice. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28:2, 119-135.
Freebody, P. & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context.
Prospect: Australian Journal of TESOL, 5:7, 7-16.
Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. South Hadley, MA:
Bergin & Garvey.
Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Oxford: Polity Press, in association with
Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Harrell-Levy, M.K., Kerpelman, J.L. & Henry, D. (2016). ‘Minds Were Forced Wide Open’:
Black adolescents’ identity exploration in a transformative social justice class. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 1-15.

Luke, A. (2000). Critical Literacy in Australia: A Matter of Context and Standpoint. Journal of
Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43:5, 448-461.
May, L. (2015). Preservice Teacher Bricolage: Incorporating Critical Literacy, Negotiating
Competing Visions. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices, 9:2, 3-16.
Menter, I., Elliott, D., Hulme, M., Lewin, J. & Lowden, K. (2011). A Guide to Practitioner
Research in Education. SAGE publishing.
OECD. (2002). Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries: Results
from PISA 2000. New York: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Sandretto, S. & Klenner, S. (2011). Planting Seeds: Embedding critical literacy into your
classroom programme. NZCER Press.
Vasquez, V. (2010). Getting Beyond "I Like the Book": Creating Space for Critical Literacy in K-
6 Classrooms, 2nd ed. International Reading Association, Inc.

jueves, 13 de julio de 2017

Comparing US and UK Picture Books: An Analysis of Cultural Contexts Between Award-winning Titles

Elizabeth Dulemba is an award-winning children's book author, illustrator, teacher, and speaker with over two dozen titles to her credit, from board books to a young adult novel. She just competed an MFA with Distinction in Illustration from the University of Edinburgh College of Art and will begin a PhD in Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow School of Education, fall of 2017. In the summers, she is Visiting Associate Professor in the MFA in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating program at Hollins University (Virginia, US). Currently, she is illustrating a picture book by Caldecott-winning author, Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, for Cornell Lab Publishing Group (2018). Learn more at:

            My dissertation objective was to observe similarities and differences between award-winning children’s book titles from the US and UK to see if trends or cultural differences could be identified. As an American creator studying in the UK, I wanted to understand what works in both countries and what doesn’t. By comparing a decade’s worth of titles from the US Randolph Caldecott Medal run by the Association for Library Service to Children and the UK Kate Greenaway Medal run by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, I learned a great deal about design variations within the two cultures.

            I also located some aesthetic homogenization through analysing these select titles, finding interesting signifiers in two titles especially that deserved further exploration. They were Sophie Blackall’s Finding Winnie (Mattick and Blackall, 2015) and Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat (Klassen, 2012). We’ll begin with differences between the US cover of Finding Winnie (left), and the UK cover (right).

Figure 1 & 2 - Covers collected from (US) and (UK) respectively
            Here we can observe the negative vs. positive space distribution. It is less prominent on the US cover, where the image takes up more space and Winnie faces and engages the viewer. In contrast, the UK version has more negative space, with the imagery neatly framed upon a sombre background, implying distance. As Perry Nodelman says in Words About Pictures, “…looking at events through strictly defined boundaries implies detachment and objectivity, for the world we see through a frame is separate from our own world...” (Nodelman, 1988, p50)—engagement vs. distance.

            This idea is reflected in the different font treatments and how they place emphasis on different words within the titles. Both the words Finding and Winnie have equal weight on the US cover, while on the UK cover, Finding has been allotted less gravitas. Therefore, the US cover implies that the action of “Finding Winnie” is the dominant theme, whereas the UK cover implies that the character of “Winnie” is the focal point—action vs. character.

            The Finding Winnie covers are prime examples of a key difference between the two data sets—colour. I combined the ten covers from each set of titles into one image in Photoshop™ as shown here.

Figures 3 & 4 - Caldecott and Greenaway-winning titles.
            I then employed to analyse the images, presenting their colour usage through percentage breakdowns. Here we see the top ten most prominently employed colours in each conglomerated dataset, the Caldecott palette on the left and the Greenaway palette on the right—warm vs. cool.

Figure 5 - Palettes created at
            As reinforced in the covers of Finding Winnie, we see two yellows on the US side, and no yellows at all on the UK side. In Roland Barthes’ “Rhetoric of the image,” he explains that compared images “… require a generally cultural knowledge, and refer back to signifieds each of which is global (for example, Italianicity), imbued with euphoric values” (Barthes, 1977, p154). These two covers exemplify Americanicity and UKicity between the cultural contexts.

            But why is this? As publishing companies merge and align their publishing goals, it can be assumed that marketplace differences should be growing less pronounced, leading to an aesthetic homogenization of cultural content. On the positive side of this idea, Gillian Lathey says, “The ‘language’ of pictures is generally regarded as international, capable of transcending linguistic and cultural boundaries” (Lathey, 2006, p113). However, Martin Salisbury expresses concern that “The rich diversity of artwork from across the globe is increasingly threatened by the growing necessity for publishers to sell co-editions of their books to other countries, most importantly the USA” (Salisbury, 2007, p6).

            Indeed, crossover books between the US and the UK have become mainstream. Many top publishing houses in the US, like Penguin Random House, HarperCollins Children’s Books, and Macmillan have offices and headquarters in the UK, or closely related divisions like Walker (UK) is to Candlewick (US). The US and UK share a healthy crossover of content and titles with publicity oftentimes aimed at both countries as they share the same marketing goals. In fact, UK books often rely on licensed US sales to make a profit beyond their geographically limited marketplace.

            Therefore, it is surprising that only one book in my dataset proved this homogenization by remaining identical in both markets, Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat (Klassen, 2012), despite being created by a Canadian author/illustrator, picked up by a US publisher (Candlewick), and sold to their UK counterpart, Walker Books. As such, we can learn much by analysing this cover:

Figure 6 - This is Not My Hat (Klassen, 2012)
            Despite the book’s popularity, some critics disapprove of the story’s message, a suggestion that capital punishment is justifiable for theft (“This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen"). It’s a book that evokes strong reactions. Perhaps the controversy is one reason why the book did so well in both markets: it drew attention.

            If we look at This is Not My Hat in comparison to the other award-winning titles, further reasons become clear. The cover design utilises broad areas of negative space with an anthropomorphized character who is both distant and looking at the viewer, while in motion. The colour palette has both a sombre background and bright fish—warm and cool.

            This implies that the separate Americanicity and UKicity of books is diminishing rather than broadening. Salisbury says, “A tour of the annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair, for instance, reveals that, at present, UK publishers are deeply conservative in their use of illustration as compared to, i.e., their French, Italian, Norwegian, German and Scandinavian counterparts. When asked about this, most UK publishers will claim that, much as they love the ‘sophisticated stuff’, they can’t sell it. It is never easy to know who is leading whom here,…” (Salisbury, 2007, p6).

            Does that mean that publishers are intentionally seeking books that will translate into both US and UK markets without adaptations—that books are indeed becoming aesthetically homogenized?

            When asked what some of the key differences between the UK and US markets for children’s books today are, Tessa Strickland responded, “I don’t really see myself as developing books for the UK and the US; what I notice is that the books attract people with a certain kind of sensibility, and those people can be anywhere in the world… there are far more similarities than differences and with very few exceptions, the same books tend to do well in both markets” (Withrow and Withrow, 2009, p179).

            As our markets become more global in scope, perhaps their separateness is the strangest thing about them, as books like This is Not My Hat (Klassen, 2012) suggests we may see more crossover award-winners in the future. Indeed, the most recent UK Carnegie and Greenaway winning titles, Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Sepetys, 2017) and There is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith (Smith, 2017) were created by Americans.

            A recent personal visit to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair (2016) revealed a vast range in picture books from around the world, including the US and UK. Certainly, some aesthetic homogenization was evident; however, overall, distinctly different products were displayed. Perhaps it’s the diversity of our markets that makes them so rich and interesting. “As Cotton notes, the picture book is one of the most accessible means of conveying cultural values; thus it has the potential to be an effective agent in the dissemination of a sense of respect for the attitudes of others” (Harding et al., 2008, p9).

            In conclusion, we can infer that our cultural backgrounds influence differences between the two sets of books, but perhaps more commonality is achieved through the dedication of producing appealing works in general. Harding sums up the idea well, “…a good deal of mutual understanding of our different cultures can be disseminated by the interchange of picture books… In spite of all we have in common, there is an amazing richness available to us whenever we look beyond our national boundaries” (Harding et al., 2008, pp9-10).


Barthes, R., & Heath, S. (1977). "Rhetoric of the image". Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.
Children’s Books Guide. (2012). This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen.
Harding, J., Pinsent, P., International Board on Books for Young People, National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (Eds.). (2008). What do you see?: international perspectives on children’s book illustration. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars.
Klassen, J. (2014). This is not my hat. London: Walker Books and subsidiaries.
Klassen, J. (2012). This is not my hat. Massachusettes: Candlewick Books.
Lathey, G. (2006). The translation of children's literature: A reader. Clevedon [England]: Multilingual Matters.
Mattick, L., Blackall, S. (2015). Finding Winnie: the true story of the world’s most famous bear. New York: Little Brown Books for Young Readers.
Mattick, L., Blackall, S., (2015). Finding Winnie: the true story of the world's most famous bear. London: Orchard Books.
Nodelman, P. (1988). Words about pictures the narrative art of children’s picture books. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Salisbury, M. (2007). Play pen: new children’s book illustration. London: Laurence King.
Sepetys, R. (2017). Salt to the Sea. New York: Philomel.
Smith, L. (2017). There is a tribe of kids. New York: Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan.
Withrow, S., Withrow, L.B. (2009). Illustrating children’s picture books: tutorials, case studies, know how, inspiration. Crans-Près-Céligny, Hove: RotoVision.