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What Is Critical Literacy?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Critical literacy refers to a type of literacy, or viewing and reading of different types of media, in which a person is encouraged to think critically and look for new or underlying meanings in a work. This type of literacy is often encouraged and utilized in a classroom setting in which students are asked to read a particular work of literature and then critically analyze the work to look for themes or meaning that may not be readily apparent from a cursory reading. Critical literacy can also be applied to other media beyond literature or poetry, including film, television, and comic books.

The use of critical literacy largely grew out of the work of certain educators, such as Pablo Freire, and various developments in literacy. This approach to literacy can be utilized in a number of different ways, and various types of critical thought have developed from the overall concept of critical literacy. Feminist criticism, for example, is a method by which a work can be read or viewed to look for underlying meanings that may be misogynistic in nature or even pro-feminist. There are also a number of other critical movements, often based on different cultural or social statuses within a particular segment of the population.

Students engaged in utilizing critical literacy are encouraged to read materials with a questioning mind. This means students should read a work of literature and try to determine how the writer may have been using different literary devices or other methods to express more than he or she seems to say on the surface level of the work. Such critical literacy allows students to better understand what a writer may have been trying to express, and to construct new or original ideas and meanings from a work.

Critical literacy can also be applied beyond the bounds of literature and poetry. Films can often be viewed from a critical standpoint, and the images and audio used in movies can help create greater meaning than what may directly be happening on screen. Television can also be viewed in a similar way, with critical viewing allowing an audience to see symbolism or deeper meaning within the context of the work being presented on screen. Some readers have even applied critical literacy to comic books, usually finding ways in which writers have used super heroes or other comic book themes to tell stories about human nature or the modern world.

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