Shor on Critical Literacy

We are what we say and do. The way we speak and are spoken to help shape us into the people we become. Through words and other actions, we build ourselves in a world that is building us. That world addresses us to produce the different identities we carry forward into life: men are addressed differently than are women, people of color differently than whites, elite students differently than those from working families. Yet, though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.

Critical literacy thus challenges the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development. This kind of literacy—words rethinking worlds, self dissenting in society—connects the political and the personal, the public and the private, the global and the local, the economic and the pedagogical, for rethinking our lives and for promoting justice in place of inequity. …

From this perspective, literacy is understood as social action through language use that develops us as agents inside a larger culture, while critical literacy is understood as “learning to read and write as part of the process of becoming conscious of one’s experience as historically constructed within specific power relations” … . Consequently, my opening question, “What is critical literacy?,” leads me to ask, “How have we been shaped by the words we use and encounter? If language use is one social constructing us … how can we use teach oppositional discourses so as to remake ourselves and our culture?”

Essentially, then, critical literacy is language use that questions the social construction of the self. When we are critically literate, we examine our ongoing development, to reveal the subjective positions from which we make sense of the world and act in it. …

[C]ritical literacy belongs to Deweyan constructivist education which has also been associated with activity theory. As David Russell (1995) defined it masterful essay:

Activity theory analyzes human behavior and consciousness in terms of activity systems: goal-directed, historically situated, cooperative human interactions, such as a child’s attempt to reach an out-of-reach toy, a job interview, a “date,” a social club, a classroom, a discipline, a profession, an institution, a political movement, and so on. The activity system is the basic unit of analysis for both cultures’ and individuals’ psychological and social processes … Activity systems are historically developed, mediated by tools, dialectically structured, analyzed as the relationship of participants and tools, and changed through zones of proximal development.

Activity theory in general, and the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) specifically, derive from cognitivist Lev Vygotsky (1962,1978) who proposed that such zones exist when a less developed individual or student interacts with a more-advanced person or teacher, allowing the student to achieve things not possible when acting on her or his own. The relationship with the more-developed person pulls the less-developed forward, a dynamic similar to the way Dewey understood curriculum that began from student experience and was structured forward into organized reflective knowledge of the kind teachers have. In posing experience as the starting point of a reflective process, Dewey asked: “What is the place and meaning of subject-matter and of organization within experience? How does subject-matter function? Is there anything inherent in experience which tends towards progressive organization of its contents?” … .

A critical writing class is a zone where teachers invite students to move into deepening interrogations of knowledge in its global contexts. The main differences between critical literacy as I propose it here and Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development are first that ideal literacy is an activity that reconstructs and develops ALL parties involved, pulling teachers forward as well as students (whereas Vygotsky focused on student development), second that dissident politics is foregrounded in a critical literacy program, inviting democratic relations in class and democratic action outside class (whereas Vygotsky did not foreground power relations as the social context for learning). … [O]ne key departure is that all participants in a critical process become redeveloped as democratic agents and social critics. …

[H]uman discourse in general, education in particular, and literacy classses specifically are forces for the making of self in society. On the one hand, we make ourselves in the world according to the way we have learned to think about society and our place it. On the other hand, human thought, language, and action are never fully under singular control, monolithically determined by a status quo. The opposite to monolithic discourse that sets the agenda from the top down is dialogic discourse that evolves an agenda from the bottom up. Human agency is rarely erased in even the most controlled settings where people find ways to cope with, push against, and sabotage authority. … The more space open or won for critical action, the more we can speak and act critically to change ourselves and the world. …

Critical literacy classes focused on identity differences have … been construed as “contact zones” by Mary Louise Pratt … : “… social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power …” Pratt proposed some rhetorical arts for a critical pedagogy that profiles differences while resisting dominant culture, including two useful alternatives to mimicking elite discourse in writing classes. These two alternatives for producing texts offer students and teachers options to assimilating uncritically into academic discourse:

Autoethnography: a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them …

Transculturation: the processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture … While subordinate peoples do not usually control what emanates from the dominant culture, they do determine to varying extents what gets absorbed into their own and what it gets used for. …

These literate practices ask students to take critical postures towards their own language uses as well as towards the discourses dominating school and society, such as mainstream news media. Further, from Pratt’s contact zone theory, we can extract and summarize more pedagogical advice for questioning power relations and encouraging critical literacy:

  1. Structure the class around “safe houses” (group caucuses within the larger class where marginalized “others” can develop their positions).
  2. Offer exercises in oral and written storytelling and in identifying with the ideas, interests, histories, and attitudes of “others.”
  3. Give special attention to the rhetorical techniques of parody, comparison, and critique so as to strengthen students’ abilities to speak back to their immersion in the literate products of the dominant culture.
  4. Explore suppressed aspects of history (what Foucault referred to as “disqualified” or “unqualified” narratives relating popular resistance).
  5. Define ground rules for communication across differences and in the midst of existing hierarchies of authority.
  6. Do systematic studies of cultural mediation, or how cultural material is produced, distributed, received, and used.

… Pratt enumerated other “critical arts” of the contact zone that could encourage a rhetoric of resistance: doing imaginary dialogues (to develop student ability to create subjectivities in history), writing in multiple dialects and idioms (to avoid privileging one dominant form), and addressing diverse audiences with discourses of resistance (to invite students to imagine themselves speaking to both empowered and disempowered groups).


Shor, Ira. 2009. “What is Critical Literacy?” in The Critical Pedagogy Reader, edited by A. Darder, M. P. Baltodano, and R. D. Torres. New York: Routledge, pp.282. 290, 294, 297.


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