Integrating Critical Literacy in the Middle School Classroom
Integrating Critical Literacy in the Middle School Classroom
Casey Medlock Paul 0 1 2 3
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1 Medlock Paul, Casey (2016) "Integrating Critical Literacy in the Middle School Classroom," Middle Grades Review: Vol. 2: Iss. 2, Article 5. Available at:
2 North Carolina State University , USA
3 Casey Medlock Paul, North Carolina State University , USA
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Integrating Critical Literacy in the Middle School Classroom
This article focuses on the integration of critical literacy in the middle school classroom. The author first
explains critical literacy and the importance of incorporating it in the middle school curriculum. Then, a
framework is presented in order to aid practitioners in implementing critical literacy instruction.
Examples from relevant literature are presented as well, along with suggestions for how educators can
begin teaching critical literacy and integrating it into their lessons.
The practice of incorporating critical literacy in
the classroom has been touted as highly
important and urgent.
Norris, Lucas, and
) noted that since most classroom
teachers are not of the same demographics as
their students, students from diverse
backgrounds need learning opportunities that
include their own identities and cultures, as well
as allow them to explore the similarities and
differences among those present in the
classroom (Norris et al.). Additionally, such
instruction can be vital in a middle school
classroom, where “to engage adolescents,
literacy instruction must capture their minds
and speak to the questions they have about the
world as they contemplate their place within it”
(Ippolito, Steele, & Samson, 2008, p. 2)
Critical literacy instruction creates a space for
this honest contemplation and questioning of
the world and society, and invites students to
“read, write, listen, view, and speak in order to
recognize and confront inequities in their lives”
(Wood, Soares, & Watson, 2006, p. 57)
approaching texts and media as “a means for
construing, shaping, and reshaping worlds in
particular normative directions with identifiable
ideological interests and consequences for
individuals and communities”
Fisher, Bruett, & Fink, 2009, p. 9)
literacy instruction allows students to examine
texts from their own point of view as well as
others to delve into the underlying messages
within a text, expose them, and use them to
transform learning. This allows students to have
a voice “in those life influences that arrive inside
and outside the classroom” (Wood et al., p. 55)
by examining current societal issues. Through
“an explicit aim of developing useful, powerful
mastery of texts to transform lived social
relations and material conditions,” critical
literacy instruction can teach students to master
language use in order to use it to recognize,
confront, and combat inequities that they see in
their schools and lives (Luke et al., p. 9).
The concept of critical literacy transforms
students’ ability to make meaning of texts to an
empowering capacity to “read the world”
and “rewrite, redesign, and reshape it in
(Luke et al., 2009, p. 9)
Instructing middle school students in critical
literacy, while laudable, may seem quite
daunting, especially when teachers face an
already full curriculum.
Given the benefits of including critical literacy in
the middle school classroom, I wanted to explore
the literature on implementing critical literacy
lessons in the middle school classroom in order
to gain a better perspective on how this can be
done. Below I discuss the resulting findings of
my work. I first discuss the varying definitions of
critical literacy, as well as provide my own
working definition of the term. Then I present a
review of literature. In doing so, I provide
examples and discuss how current practitioners
can implement similar critical literacy lessons in
What is Critical Literacy?
that “critical literacy is now well established as a
major ideological construct influencing literacy
education” (p. 490), the term still lacks a clear
definition (Lewinson, Flint, & Van Sluys, 2002).
The concept of critical literacy is theoretically
diverse and combines ideas from various critical
theories, such as critical linguistics, feminist
theory, critical race theory, as well as reader
response theory and cultural and media studies
(Luke et al., 2009)
. Although many researchers
have expounded on the definition of critical
(Lewinson et. Al.; Luke, 2012;
McLaughlin & DeVoogd, 2004)
explanations differ. Luke’s (2012) definition
purports critical literacy to be “the use of
technologies of print and other media of
communication to analyze, critique, and
transform the norms, rules systems, and
practices governing the social fields of everyday
life” (p. 5, as cited in Luke, 2004). McLaughlin
and DeVoogd present four principles of critical
literacy—focusing on issues of power and
promoting reflection; examining problems and
their complexity; examining multiple
perspectives; and utilizing techniques that are
dynamic and adapt to the contexts in which they
are used. Still others, such as Wolfe (2010),
argue that critical literacy is “the development of
critical or ‘resistant’ reading skills” (p. 370) and,
as part of critical pedagogy, must involve social
While the inclusion of social action is still
, the overall goal of critical
literacy seems to be the same: “to raise students’
critical and social consciousness”
2007, p. 56)
and to equip “students to engage in
a dialogue with texts and society instead of
silently consuming other people’s words”
(Christensen, 2006, p. 393)
. This goal is perhaps
more important than a mere definition, and it is
what I will focus on in my consideration of
critical literacy. Knowing the goal, however,
leads us to another question: How?
How Do We Teach Critical Literacy in Middle School?
By Developing a Critical Lens
To begin, teachers can adopt a critical lens and
apply it to the lessons they are already teaching.
To do this, teachers should ask themselves
critical questions regarding the texts used in
their lessons, as well as the lessons in their
entirety. For example, whose perspective is
represented in the lessons taught and the texts
used? What worldview is represented in these
lessons and texts? How could these lessons
incorporate other perspectives and worldviews?
Adopting a critical lens will allow teachers to see
where new texts can be incorporated to
represent new perspectives, or where critical
questions can be asked. Furthermore, teachers
can use technology to allow students to take
what they are learning outside the classroom,
potentially leading to the social action
component of critical literacy that was discussed
(Avila & Moore, 2012)
By Changing Our Perceptions of Middle
Middle grades teachers should begin to view
their students in a more contingent, recursive
(Lesko, 2001; Vagle, 2011)
. As Lesko
indicated, the mainstream view of adolescence
allows adults and the government to “control,
study, measure, anticipate, and redirect the
individual” (Vagle, p. 363). Teachers should
consider adopting what Vagle calls a contingent,
A kind of humility marked at once by an
active pursuit of student (teacher) agency in
the unpredictable and unknown
and a critical examination of some of
the ways in which the teacher
educatorstudent teacher relationship becomes
in this pursuit.
points out that the way teachers
view middle school students affects how they
speak, listen, and even teach them. By refusing
to view adolescence as a clearly defined
developmental stage, teachers can embrace the
complexity of this stage and begin to redress
how they might dialogue with their students. In
doing so, teachers can tear down assumptions of
what middle grades students can and cannot do,
and open the door to critical discourse with their
By Altering Our Lessons
Once teachers have developed a critical lens and
considered their views on what middle school
students can and cannot do, they must begin
examining their existing lessons as well as
planning new ones to incorporate critical
literacy. When considering how to tweak existing
lesson plans or creating new ones to incorporate
critical literacy, teachers might consider the
suggestions and examples presented below.
Ask critical questions. In order to teach
critical literacy, teachers must ask critical
questions about all texts—including the
textbook. While several researchers have
provided lists of questions that can be used
during a critical literacy lesson
McLaughlin & DeVoogd, 2004)
, Wood et al.
(2006) gave suggestions for questions to be used
specifically with middle-school students to
promote critical literacy. By asking questions
such as, “Who do you think is behind the
construction of this text?” and “Whose view of
the world is put forth in the text?” (Wood et al.,
p. 56), teachers can give students opportunities
to consider their own opinions about the
perspectives and interpretations of a text. Such
questioning also promotes higher order thinking
(Wood et al.).
Explore alternative perspectives.
Exploring and working to understanding various
viewpoints is an important tenet of critical
(Lewison et al., 2002; McLaughlin &
. Students must develop and
reflect on their own viewpoint as well as learn
“to communicate with and learn from those who
hold different perspectives”
Kahne, 2004, p. 243)
One example of how to incorporate these
alternative perspectives into a lesson is
Maples and Groenke (2009)
desired to combat middle-school students’
prejudices against immigrants. To do so, they
explored the topic of “Who is an American?”
using a discussion scenario activity
Johannessen, Kahn, & Flanagan, 2006)
book Seedfolks. In this lesson, groups of
students were given short descriptions of people
(some were based on ordinary people, while
others were famous, such as Timothy McVeigh
and Elian Gonzalez, although the students did
not receive the people’s actual names) and had
to rate them on a chart that ranged from “least
American” to “most American.” The students
then had to explain why they rated certain
people as they did, which prompted discussion
when the students’ opinions differed. Following
this activity, the class read Seedfolks, a book of
short stories of people who live in Cleveland,
Ohio, and who each come from different ethnic
groups. Students were asked to consider
different reasons a person might want to come to
the US as well as the different types of
immigration, which resulted in students
thinking more critically about their preconceived
notions and stereotypes regarding immigrants.
This lesson prompted students to first consider
their own ideas regarding what it means to be
American. Through the conversations brought
up from the discussion scenario activity
(McCann et al., 2006)
, students encountered
perspectives that differed from their own.
Students had to converse with each other and
consider differing opinions. After reading
Seedfolks, students had to consider their original
thoughts of what being an American means in
the new context of immigration and the people’s
stories that are presented in the book.
Incorporate supplementary, multiple,
and/or multimodal texts. Including multiple
texts can be very important in allowing students
to explore differing perspectives of multiple
authors as well as see the non-neutrality of texts
through comparison. As
“Often teachers find that to develop a critical
perspective, traditional classroom texts need to
be supplemented by other works of fiction,
nonfiction, film, or popular culture” (p. 492).
Furthermore, “Reading multiple texts
encourages students to understand authorship
as situated activity” (p. 493). Supplementing
canonical, traditional texts, or even the textbook,
can help students gain a critical perspective of
those traditional texts as well as better
understand the subjectivity of authors
(McLaughlin & DeVoogd, 2004)
. Furthermore, it
can better engage students with traditional texts
that they might not identify with otherwise
(Chun, 2009; Lesley, 2008; Wood & Jocius,
A study conducted by
students comparing outside information to the
information in their textbooks. This lesson used
World War II propaganda to teach students to
be critical about what they read and see. In this
study, the teacher began the lesson by showing a
1942 propaganda movie, “Menace of the Rising
Sun,” the goal of which was to anger Americans
at the Japanese. Students then discussed the
way information was depicted in the movie, why
it was depicted in this manner, examine the facts
that were included and omitted, and to see the
ways in which the film intended to manipulate
its audience. Following this, the teacher
conducted other lessons in which the students
looked at other texts and media to see issues of
power and hidden biases. Students then
conducted an inquiry project in which they
chose topics that occurred between WWII and
the Gulf War. Students had to find sources of
information outside their textbook and compare
it to what was in their textbooks. Students were
not only more engaged with the information
they were able to discover outside their
textbooks, but they also learned that their
textbooks often left out personal accounts and
seemed to be altered to present a more
‘kidfriendly’ view of the historical occurrences.
Through this activity, students learned
firsthand that texts are not neutral and can present
information in a biased manner. Furthermore,
students were able to see that even their
textbook depicts events in a way that may not be
wholly accurate. By including supplemental texts
on the same topic and highlighting the
differences, a teacher can begin to show students
the subjectivity of authors and teach them to
examine texts from a critical perspective.
Create critical projects. Though teachers
can alter lessons to teach critical literacy, they
can also use projects to promote and assess
critical literacy. Some of the articles discussed
above also incorporated some sort of assignment
that included elements of critical literacy
instruction; these will be discussed below to
Wood et al. (2006)
could be used as “critical projects” within a
context. For example, they noted that teachers
can use poetry as a way to allow students to
express their ideas and opinions on various
topics. Teachers can even hold a Poetry Slam so
that students can demonstrate their work. Wood
et al. also suggested students can write letters to
an editor of a newspaper or magazine on a topic
that they have been studying; this would be a
way for students to take the social action to
referred. The authors also
mentioned using student-choice research
projects and varied forms of creative writing or
performing to explore issues; these two will be
Delaney’s (2007) study used a student inquiry
project in a middle-school context in order to
promote critical literacy. This project not only
incorporated multiple texts and taught students
to read with a critical perspective, but it also
resulted in a student-choice research project.
Students were able to choose topics which
interested them or which related to them; as
Delaney noted, “Most students selected a topic
based on their heritage or a connection to an
event” (p. 32). After conducting their inquiry
projects, students presented their findings with
the class through timed, memorized skits that
they created. Skits included: a reenactment of
the Hiroshima bombing by using a toy airplane,
a golf ball, and a village made of Lego blocks and
an enactment of an old Mao Tse-Tung’s
memories of the Sino-Japanese war. As Delaney
indicated, “Skits seemed to have the most
empowering effect on these middle school
students. It gave them voice to express their
interpretations of the media, texts, and Internet
information they accessed” (p. 33).
Through this project, students were able to retell
a historical event in their own way through their
own understanding. The class could have also
examined the different representations each
student presented to see how their own
representations were still non-neutral and
depicted a specific person’s point of view.
Furthermore, holding a public performance of
using the methods described in
Theatre of the Oppressed might transform class
projects such as this into social action.
Above I have presented suggestions and
examples detailing ways in which a teacher can
begin to incorporate critical literacy in the
middle school classroom. Nevertheless, I must
acknowledge that the planning and
implementation of such lessons can be difficult,
as most teachers already struggle to fit their
curriculum into a single year, as well as strive to
meet prescribed state and national standards.
Despite these difficulties, I feel it is imperative
that teachers strive to bring critical literacy
lessons into the already existing curriculum.
Critical literacy better engages students with
(Chun, 2009; Lesley, 2008; Wood &
and teachers can use critical
literacy lessons to meet required standards such
as Common Core
(Avila & Moore, 2012; National
Governors Association Center for Best Practices
& Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010)
Though the process of implementing critical
literacy can be difficult, it is important to
remember that it takes time. As
When examining the teacher’s role, it is
important to note that we cannot just
“become critical.” It is a process that
involves learning, understanding, and
changing over time. This includes
developing theoretical, research, and
pedagogical repertoires; changing with time
and circumstance; engaging in self-critical
practices; and remaining open to
(p. 55 citing Comber, 2001)
Although critical literacy is now an established
construct that influences literacy education
(Behrman, 2006, citing Cadeiro-Kaplan, 2002)
a clear set of instructional strategies that would
allow for a clear curricular approach is still
lacking (Behrman, 2006). I must acknowledge
that suggestions along with the studies
presented above merely serve as a few examples
of how this can be done. Through these
examples, however, I hope to inspire educators
of middle school students to begin the process of
McLaughlin and DeVoogd (2004)
and develop an ongoing critical literacy
pedagogy in their classrooms.
National Governors Association Center for Best
Practices & Council of Chief State School
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