Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Critical Literacy Curriculum For Secondary Schools in India

The education system in India emphasizes academic content. The quarterly, half-yearly and annual examinations are the most popular forms of assessment. Little attention is given to the teaching of essential literacies like critical, media, technological and multicultural literacies. That responsibility seems to be left to parents who enroll their kids for enrichment courses available outside the school and very few enthusiastic schools and colleges that run special programs (sometimes during holidays).
This paper offers suggestions on incorporating new literacies into the curriculum for secondary school students (Standards 5-10) with emphasis on critical literacy. The final examinations of 10th standard are most crucial for students as the results determine their admission into colleges and polytechnics. I therefore propose the incorporation the critical literacy course into the curricula of 8th & 9th standards rather than the 10th standard. The students are then free to focus on academic content in Std. 10. These students are in the age group of 13-15 years.

Defining Critical Literacy
Critical literacy challenges the status quo in an effort discover alternative paths for self and social development (Shor, 1999). Shor further cites Aronowitz's and Giroux's (1985) notion that "critical literacy would make clear the connection between knowledge and power." The following definition by Shor is comprehensive:
Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clich├ęs, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object, process, organization, experience, text, subject matter, policy, mass media, or discourse. (Empowering Education, 129)
Need for teaching critical literacy
  • For realization of democratic ideals
    Literacy for equity is not a new idea. Horace Mann (1796-1859) made tremendous contribution to the public school system in USA. He realized the need for equal education for all children- boys and girls, rich and poor alike. He felt that good education would help the society address ills such as crime, violence and achieve social harmony. Shor (1999) cites John Dewey who in Democracy and Education (1916) states: “The notion that the ‘essentials’ of elementary education are the three R’s, mechanically treated, is based upon the ignorance of the essentials needed for realization of democratic ideals”.
  • Identifying different discourses and ideologies presented
    No text is neutral as it is written with a purpose. In the process of reading, the reader interacts with the content in a number of ways. The act of reading involves different levels of decoding, responding and comprehending at affective and cognitive levels, critiquing and analyzing. The previous knowledge of the reader (cultural, linguistic, general and specific content knowledge) plays a key role in how the reader interacts with the new content. Both inter-textuality and intra-textuality are important aspects in the way the reader “fills in gaps”. The reader fills these gaps through imagination, inference, visualization, prediction and conceptualization (Walsh, 2006). The meaning making and interpreting process is very individual.

  • Newer multi-modal texts
    In a multimodal environment, written text is a part of the message and not necessarily the dominant part. Broadcast (Television, Movies and Radio) and other media such as internet, video games and mobile phones are powerful ways of communicating emotional and socio-cultural aspects. In meaning making from multi-modal texts, the information from the different modes has to be integrated (Walsh, 2006). On websites, hyper-texting allows you to do selective reading and alter the sequence in which you read.

Deliverables of the critical literacy course

I anticipate that in the two years of exposure, students will have imbibed adequate knowledge of new literacies (especially critical, media and multimodal) to independently pursue further interest in them and apply them at school and in their personal lives. This expectation would definitely need to be assessed.

The focus of assessment is not so much to determine whether a student will pass or fail at a particular level but to identify his/ her strengths and weaknesses in critical evaluation of texts and act on them.

Preparation for Teaching Critical Literacy

In terms of time management, I do not suggest many additional hours at school. The critical literacy topics could replace some sessions for main language (for textual critical literacy), art (for visual and media literacy) and computing (for multimodal literacy). Assessments must not be based on "correct" answers but on ability to critically evaluate the content provided and on how the opinions were expressed- keeping in mind the differences and the approaches adopted to resolve them.

While the illustrations here assume the medium of instruction to be English, it may need to be translated into other languages that are used as media for instruction.

It is unlikely that teachers are already trained to teach critical literacy. Either new staff that are trained in critical thinking/ philosophy or logic have to be hired or existing teachers must be trained to teach the subject.

Building a sensitive, secure environment
The classrooms are unlikely to be homogenous in terms of student religion, gender or physique, leading to creation of power structures. Teachers must ensure a secure environment where students can ask questions and challenge assumptions fearlessly but with a sense of responsibility. Shor (1999) warns that the implementation of critical literacy in the classroom is not easy. The teacher has to be able to manage his/ her power appropriately. Saying too much or too little, too soon or too late, can damage the group process. Setting some ground rules for expressing viewpoints and differences of opinion is important.

Tan (2006), citing Case & Daniels (2002), warns that critical thinking should not be equated with criticism where the student becomes judgmental, harsh, mean-spirited and cynical, doubting or discounting everything he/ she reads and hears.

Critical literacy curriculum

In 2006, the Ministry of Education, Singapore introduced a GCE A Level elective subject “Knowledge and Inquiry (KI).” Having read about this and from discussions with some teachers, I feel that we need a precursor to the critical literacy course. We need to teach critical thinking skills involving reasoning, constructing and evaluating arguments so that students are provided with some framework when they evaluate any kind of text. Further, for most Indians, English is not spoken at home and for many it is not the medium of instruction at school. However, higher studies are conducted in the English and students also need to be trained to be more sensitive to the meanings of words and the ways in which they are used.

The critical literacy curriculum is to be spread over a period of two years (assuming 9 months of school each year) and divided into two parts:

Critical thinking – Constructing and evaluating arguments (Std 8, Months 1-6)
Core critical literacy course (Std. 8, Months 7-9 & all of Std. 9)

The group and individual assignments must set aside adequate time for reflection.

I. Critical thinking

Having seen some of these topics being taught at enrichment centers for primary school students in Singapore, I do not anticipate them to be complicated for students who are 13-15 years of age. Some of these topics can also be taught through games.
Suggested texts: Analytical Skills: Constructing and Evaluating Arguments by Guan, Nowacki, Williams & Leong, 2005; Logic Made Easy by Bennett, 2004 & “The Dictionary of Confusable words” by Lawrence Udang (ISBN: 0-345-35987-9).

(Std. 8, Months 1-3)
Structuring a logical argument into premises and conclusion.

Principles of induction, deduction and falsification
Laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction.

Identifying valid and sound arguments, valid argument forms
Usage of quantifiers (all, every, some, none many, few…) in propositions
Usage of terms “either/ or/ and/ not”
Usage of sentences such as “If…, then…”
Contraries and contradictories

Applications in mathematics:
Euclid’s proof that there is an infinite number of prime numbers.
Euclid’s proof for congruence of alternate interior angles formed by a line falling on parallel lines.

(Std. 8, Month 4)

  • Mistakes in reasoning

  • Formal and informal fallacies

  • Irrelevance

  • Weak induction

  • Presumption

  • Ambiguity

(Std. 8, Months 5-6)
Other key concepts

  • Distinction between belief and knowledge

  • Paradox- Textual and Visual

  • Occam’s razor

  • Correlation and causal relationship

  • Necessary and sufficient condition

Understanding the criteria of a good definition- in an argument it may be necessary to define the terms that are used as sometimes the same word can have different meanings or can be used in a different sense. By using a definition that is precise, not circular and not unfairly emotive, we can avoid ambiguity.

Writing assignment: What is a definition of a Planet? Why has Pluto been declassified as a planet?

II. Core Critical Literacy

This component would last for 3 months of Std. 8 and continue into Std. 9. Critical literacy in some ways encompasses other forms of literacy such as multicultural, visual and media literacy and the proposed curriculum will reflect that.

Negotiating content with students
The teacher should not provide a ready framework for critical evaluation of any text. The teacher must play the role of a facilitator, guiding the students towards collaboratively identifying the criteria. By doing this, students will be trained to independently determine criteria rather than treating these criteria as a template- which defeats the purpose of teaching critical literacy.

The criteria/ questions may be along these lines:
What would be the author’s motive in writing this text?
Is there any key issue/ opinion that the author is making?
Does he/ she use any attention grabbing techniques- phrases, headlines etc.
Does the content here profit or assign more power to anybody?
Is there an undue emphasis on some aspect that is not essential?
Who are the publishers/ owners of the particular newspaper or magazine?
What is my view on that topic? How has that changed (if at all) after reading the text?
Would my peers agree or disagree with me? Why do they disagree?
What kind of language is used? Are they any words used that are likely to cause confusion?
Is the story supported by an images/ video (if web-based) to strengthen the message?
Do I feel that the author displays any kind of bias for or against any group of people?
What possibilities can I think of that the author has not covered? Why would he/ she have not covered those?

The specific content to be discussed should be relevant to the students, thought provoking, a mix of local, national and international and not too sensitive to cause any kind of discomfort.

Group exercises assume a class of 40 students.

(Std. 8, Months 7-8)
Textual- Basic critical literacy
Topic 1: Short stories and poems from the English text book.
Topic 2: Extracts from more current stories that all students may have not necessarily read (For example: Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter series).

Assignment: Students to identify criteria and critically evaluate the selected text. Group discussions and presentations are suggested so that students get familiar with the process of critical evaluation of the text.

(Std. 8, Month 9)
Topic 3: Basic visual literacy
Introduction to visual literacy is essential so that multimodal texts can be critically evaluated. I also feel that given the exposure to picture books, comics, animation and video games, students will find it easier to be critical visually than textually. (I would verify this hypothesis and modify the sequence if required).

Group Assignment: Sorting photographs
Students to bring to school a photograph of their choice from a newspaper, magazine or website. Small groups are assigned the following tasks (Callow, 2006):

· Sort selected photographs into categories such as trustworthy/ untrustworthy, friendly/ unfriendly. Discuss the classification process. Discuss students’ opinions and differences if any.
· Identify the purpose for which the selected photographs can be used- family album, election or advertisement.

Annual assessment: Teacher to conduct a written test and provide feedback to students.

(Std. 9, Month 1)
Topic 4: Visual literacy (Continued)
Group Assignment: Students (in groups of 5) to evaluate 8 photographs based on criteria identified. Students to determine criteria, facilitated by the teacher. Suggested criteria (Callow, 2006):
o Shot location/ background
o Lines that lead the eye (vectors)
o Symbolic representations (a model for beauty, fresh food for good health)
o Colors used - what do they represent?
o Interactive aspects- relationship between the viewer and what is viewed: Angle used- high/ low or eye level (power relations), distance-close up/ mid/ distant (to create viewer rapport- intimacy/ detachment)

Group assignment: Poster evaluation: This exercise is timed with the selection of the class representative. 5 students who compete for the post of class representative must create posters as a part of their campaign. The remaining students are to be divided into 7 groups of 5 each and asked to critically evaluate these posters. (Based on exercise conducted by Callow, 2006)

(Std. 9, Month 2)
Topic 5: Identify the different types of content in a newspaper or a magazine and understand the purpose for that content to be there
o Editorial opinion/ news item (factual report)/ Reader comment/ Advertorial/ Advertisements / Public service messages/ Government messages/ Messages sponsored by individuals or companies/ Public notice/ Obituaries/ Images/ Cartoons

Writing assignments:
Identify a cartoon based on a current news item and relate it to the news story. How does the cartoonist create humor out of the story? Is he/ she taking a position on the subject covered?
Compare and contrast any two types of content- say a news item and an editorial opinion OR a news item and an advertorial.

(Std. 9, Month 3)
Topic 6: Advanced visual literacy
Understanding change blindness: Change blindness is a phenomenon in visual perception in which very large changes occurring in full view in a visual scene are not noticed. (O’Regan) This will help them in critically evaluating image and video content. (Some illustrations can be found at

(Std. 9, Month 4)
Topic 7: To evaluate a newspaper or magazine article that expresses an opinion.

Group assignment: Students to choose a recent article from the newspaper and bring it to the classroom. Teacher to shortlist 8 articles and assign them to groups of 5 students each for evaluation.

Types of news stories:

  • IIT students rejecting jobs at Dow Chemicals

  • Hindu idols drinking milk offered to them

  • Claims of climate change

  • Smoking scenes in movies

Writing assignment: Identify a news story and compare how a national newspaper and an international newspaper cover it.

(Std. 9, Month 5)
Topic 8: Articles that make claims
These could be evaluated using additional questions such as: What do the numbers mean? Do the numbers justify the claim made? How is the point made- in absolute numbers, in terms of percentage, as an average? Can this be interpreted in any other way?

Writing assignment: Create a news story making a claim using a fictitious or real set of numbers (to be provided by the teacher).

Writing assignment: Verifying a claim: The school cricket teams in Bombay are better than those in Bangalore.
How can this claim be verified? What is a better team? What data sources would you look at- survey research or statistical records?

(Std. 9, Month 6)
Topic 9: Evaluating Website content
Having spoken to a few students, I understand that they tend to use the internet to access Wikipedia, search for information (predominantly using Google & Yahoo) and use networking sites like Orkut and Facebook. It is therefore important that students learn safe usage of the internet and evaluate the reliability of information available. They need to know the differences between search results and sponsored links, websites and blogs and information and opinion.

Group assignment: Use 2 different search engines and evaluate the search results on relevance and recency and the sponsored links displayed.

Group assignment: Visit 2 websites on any topic of choice and evaluate them. Both websites must belong to the same subject/ genre.
Again, the criteria for evaluating the websites must be arrived at from discussion with students. Suggested criteria (Based on course material, USQ):

  • Linguistic design – Purpose of the text, language used- simple or technical, choice of words

  • Audio design – Sound effects either independently or associated with actions- rolling over of mouse, clicking on a link etc.

  • Spatial design – Page layout, links highlighted, overall architecture

  • Use of a spokesperson/ mascot, images used

  • Visual design – Foreground and background colours, perspective, vectors (the way your eyes are led to view an image in a particular spot)

(Std. 9, Months 7-8)

Topic 10: Media literacy
This topic will focus on current advertising themes in print and online advertising. Categories to be covered could include product advertising (especially categories that are targeted to the youth, such as aerated soft-drinks, fast-food and cigarettes), celebrity endorsements and political advertising.

Writing assignment: Compare a print or online ad with a Television commercial for the same brand. Are the messages in the two media different? Determine the purpose the two media serve, which one is more effective and why.

(Std.9, Month 9)
Annual assessment: Teacher to conduct a written test and provide feedback to students.


Given the increasing disparities in income, complex relationships between religion, politics and business, unabated crime and violence and proliferation of media choices, critical literacy is increasingly relevant today.

Before learning critical literacy, students may need to be prepared by providing critical thinking and analytical skills. The following statement summarizes the correct approach: “I won’t tell you what to believe and do; but I will help you acquire the ability to decide for yourself what to believe and what to do, familiarize you with the beliefs and procedures of others and help you master some of these procedures” (Mohanan).

When teaching critical literacy, the content must be thought provoking and relevant to the students. The emphasis should be on learning the process rather than getting the right answer to secure marks.

1. Barger, R. N. (2004). History of American Education- Web Project [Electronic Version]. Retrieved 20-12-2007 from
2. Bennett, D. J. (2004). Logic Made Easy: Penguin Books.
3. Callow, J. (2006). Images, politics and multiliteracies: Using a visual metalanguage Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol.29 (No.1), 7-23.
4. Guan, T. Y., Nowacki, M., Williams, J., & Leong, W. Y. (2005). Analytical Skills: Constructing and Evaluating Arguments: McGraw Hill.
5. K.P.Mohanan. Knowledge and Inquiry: Leaders and Citizens [Electronic Version] from
6. O'Regan, J. K. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science- Change Blindness. Retrieved 25-Dec-2007, from
7. Shor, I. (1999). What is Critical Literacy? Journal for Pedagogy, Pluralism & Practice, Vol.1 (Issue 4) Retrieved 30-Dec-2007 from
8. Sim, J. E. K., & Lau, E. (2007). Knowledge & Inquiry- The Textbook: Panpac Education.
9. Tan, C. (2006). Creating Thinking Schools through 'Knowledge and Inquiry': the curriculum challenges for Singapore. Curriculum Journal, Vol.17 (No.1), 89-105.
10. Walsh, M. (2006). The 'textual shift': Examining the reading process with print, visual and multimodal texts. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol.29 (No.1), 24-37.

No comments: