Bridging Language and Literacy: Critical Pedagogy in Bilingual/ESL Education

The study of language and literacy is about how we make meaning of the world, how we communicate meaning to others and how we understand multiple perspectives. Each individual’s perspective is formed by an identity matrix that includes race, class, gender, culture, religion, language, and so on. Through this framework the world around us develops meaning. Language is how we communicate meaning and make significant connections with the world around us. Human beings understand language to be primarily about words but because human beings connect with the world in a multitude of ways, language takes on many forms. The overarching term “body language” includes gestures, physical contact, facial expressions to name a few. Here we can see how language is alive. It is not static. And like any life form, it exists in a context that is social, cultural and political. Similarly, literacy cannot be understood as just reading and writing. It is not a mechanical skill to be learned. It has a socio-political dimension, which involves agency and power (Freire and Macedo). Consequently, teaching language and literacy is more than a series of cognitive acts, it is more than standard scores gleaned from state-initiated performance tests, and it is more than the ability to secure a job or gainful employment (Grant, Wong & Osterling, 2007). Teaching language and literacy is a socio-cultural endeavor; it is a political act. The study of language and literacy are fundamentally intertwined, as both are dependent on perspective.

Traditional definitions of language and literacy learning are limited because they are not primarily concerned with the students’ perspective. Literacy [and language] instruction is often there to produce economic skills and a shared system of beliefs and values and to help create a “national culture.” Today, having a literate citizenry is deemed necessary for sustaining the United States as a military power and safeguarding its national security (Grant, Wong & Osterling, 2007). The process for defining what counts as literacy and how to measure it has always been linked to particular regimes of power and dominance (Luke, 1996). Research over the past thirty years points to a complex web of economic, political, cultural and educational factors implicated in the failure to educate children of color, many of whom are bilingual (Lipman & Gutstein, 2000). This fact urges responsible educators to rethink language and literacy education for the 21st century. Language and literacy education must be fundamentally concerned with student experience (Freire & Macedo, 1987). This suggests a paradigm shift.

Teaching and learning experiences for English Language Learners require a critical approach that emphasizes the connections among language and society, politics, ideology, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, and class, as well as the role language plays in perpetuating social inequalities and constituting categories on which inequities are based (Pennycook, 2001). The central goals of critical pedagogy are to help students understand their own lives and worlds, develop agency in making their own language choices, and participate in the building of a more democratic society (Leeman, 2005, p36.) Within this paradigm, the relationship between language and society are made explicit. The students’ own experiences act as the starting point to explore the ways in which language functions in society including how it is used to play out power relations. Understanding the socio-political function of language including identity awareness and relationship building in society is at the heart of critical applied linguistics. Language learning within this paradigm is primarily concerned with the socio-political purpose of language, how it can act as a strategic tool to address the inequities in society and promoting student agency.

While adopting a critical approach for language and literacy education in the US seems to hold the most promise in providing high quality instruction while also working towards a more democratic and egalitarian society, it is a challenge. In a recent review of Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners: Report of The National Literacy Panel on Language Minority Children and Youth (2006), the authors pointed out that critical perspectives that shed light on the educational needs of language minority students were ignored (Grant, Wong & Osterling, 2007). In fact, the report questioned the value of socio-cultural research in language-minority student achievement:

The examples presented are intriguing, but they only illustrate, rather than “prove” the contention that the strategic application of cultural resources in instruction is one important way of obtaining change in academic performance and of demonstrating that there is nothing about children’s language, culture, or intellectual capacities that should handicap their schooling. (pp. 328-329).

This is not surprising since there is a tendency to suppress critical policy perspectives on literacy issues as in the Carnegie Advisory Council on Reading to Learn (Snow & Biancarosa, 2003) and the Alliance for Excellent Education (Biancarosa & Snow, 2004) in which an an ecological view of adolescent literacy that encompasses policy, theory, and practice is missing (Franzak, 2006). Throughout the history of schooling in the United States, efforts to incorporate the cultural politics of difference into conceptions of literacy have been viewed as chaotic and a threat to social order (West, 1990, 1999). However, “cultural politics of difference” have always affected language and literacy education in the United States and globally. The term “language minority child” for example, to describe a child whose first language is not English is in itself laden with socio-political implications of status in the United States.

Notwithstanding, critical perspectives in education discourse, although not new –continue to gain momentum. This is greatly due to low literacy performance nationwide, the widening achievement gap and the alarming drop out rates amongst students of color and Latinos, many of who are English Language Learners. Only 30% of all students nationwide read proficiently, however, even more striking is that 89% of Hispanics and 86% of African Americans of middle and high school students read below grade level (NCES, 2005). 96% of 8th grade limited English proficient students scored below the basic levels in reading (2005, NAEP). 31% of ELLs fail to complete high school. The numbers of school aged children who speak a language other than English at home are growing consistently, from 3.8 to 9.9 million (or from 9 to almost 20%) between 1979 to 2003, for example (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007) English Language Learners are also more likely to be placed in a class with teachers who are not trained to teach basic literacy skills (Rueda & Garcia, 2001). Consequently, there is a noticeable shift in how schools of education are organizing their teacher preparation programs. The Learning and Teaching program faculty at the School of Education at the University of San Diego, for example, is organizing its program around the following principles: 1) Inquiry & Reflection 2) Values 3) Service 4) Technology 5) Social Justice and 6) Diversity and Inclusiveness (Quezada & Romo, 2004). Organizing teacher preparation programs around socially relevant themes is indicative of critical pedagogy and is a significant step towards formalizing socio-cultural and critical pedagogy in education praxis. A shift towards critical literacy is not exclusive to the United States. Critical literacy is now included in the state curricula design as a pedagogical platform in Queensland, Australia after years of transmission style literacy. Until now students have been encouraged to reproduce conventions of language in use (genres) without questioning dominant assumptions and values underpinning the text (Alford, 2001).

While critical pedagogy has benefits for all children, especially those who are disenfranchised and marginalized in society, a critical approach is widely argued to have specific benefits for the second language learner (Clark, 1995; Janks, 1999; Wallace, 1992, 1995; Wignell, 1995) even though second language learners are still faced with systemic sidelining (Alford, 2001). In view of the recent trends supporting English only legislation, bilingual and ESL education practice and policy are marginalized within the larger educational debate even though bilingual youth – particularly historically disenfranchised Latinos – are equally in need of a critical approach to teaching and learning. The historical segregation and compartmentalization of foreign language learning programs in schools, bilingual education programs and multicultural programs for mainstream children in monolingual classrooms is problematic.

Notwithstanding, some of the benefits of extending a critical approach to bilingual and ESL education models include:

· Many ESL learners come from cultures where the authority of the test is unquestionable. If ESL students can resist dominant assumptions in a text generated by their target culture and language, then the possibilities for validating their perspectives and their voices is enormous (Alford, 2001, p. 241).
· Drawing on ESL learner perspectives and interpretations can reposition students away form the edges (Moje, et al, 2000).
· The US Spanish speaking population is extremely diverse in terms of linguistic backgrounds and abilities. Many of these students speak varieties of Spanish associated with non-dominant social groups (rural, urban poor, etc.) and explicitly negative assessments of US varieties of Spanish are shockingly frequent (Gonzalez Echervarria, 1997; Varela, 2000). Critical pedagogy stresses the validation of students’ language and culture and channels linguistic awareness strategically to support the learning of and respect of multiple variations.
· Critical pedagogy promotes the use of the native language in order to transfer literacy skills from the target language as well as to encourage bilingualism as an asset rather than a handicap in the world community.
· Critical pedagogy aims to promote tolerance of linguistic diversity and underscores the notion that language prejudice is not based on the inherent linguistic worth of linguistic variants (Carreira, 2000). Carreira further suggests that heritage speakers’ recognition of the linguistic proximity of “non-prestige” and “prestige” varieties of Spanish, will lead them to perceive the latter as an attainable goal and strive to achieve it (ie. Academic literacy)
· Critical pedagogy challenges hegemonic constructions of linguistic inferiority implicated in the social and political marginalization of specific groups of people (Leeman, 2005, p. 41).
· Critical pedagogy increases social awareness and student agency, (Rios, 2007) both of which are fundamental social skills necessary to actively participate in a democratic society.
· In contemporary US culture, young children are not only oriented by their own multiple cultures (racial, ethnic, age, gender and family, to name several), but also by living and learning within a socioculturally conditioned world filled with many different conditions of cultural difference (Hyun, 2007). The contemporary child experiences early exposure to multiethnic perspectives and are often more adept at negotiating multiple perspectives and realities then they are given credit for. In this way, traditional schooling can “box” children into traditional groupings that no longer suit the needs of the contemporary child. Critical pedagogy uses the students’ multidirectional, multidimensional, multilingual and multiethnic experience (Hyun, 2007) and builds upon it in towards non-linear forms of critical thinking and subsequent agency in a global community.

Adopting critical pedagogy is not only a commitment to improving educational outcomes for bilingual students, it is a commitment to improving social and developmental outcomes for at risk youth overall. While a critical approach to teaching and learning is grounded in research that extends itself over more than twenty five years in language and socio-cultural studies, it is rarely valued in schools and school systems that are overwhelmingly concerned with standardized testing and have been proven to be counter productive to such initiatives (Gutstein). This proposes not only a challenge for individuals themselves but suggests that any significant success in these efforts can only originate out of teacher education programs that nurture and support critical research. Teacher education programs need to prioritize the creation, development and ongoing support of a cohort of new educators prepared to not only teach responsibly in the 21st century, but who are given concrete strategies that will arm them against the systemic oppression of critical approaches to education.

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Alford, J. (2001). Learning language and critical literacy: adolescent ESL students, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45(3), Research Library, p. 238

Carreira, M. (2000). Validating and promoting Spanish in the United States: Lessons from linguistic science. Bilingual Research Journal, 24, Available: http//

Franzak, J.K. (2006). Zoom: A review of the literature on marginalized adolescent readers, literacy theory, and policy implications, Review of Educational Research, 76(2), pg. 209

Freire, P. & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Grant, R.A., Wong, S.D. & Osterling, J.P. (2007). Developing literacy in second language learners: Critique from a heteroglossic, sociocultural and multidimensional framework, Reading Research Quarterly, 42(4), p. 598

Hyun, E. (2007). Cultural complexity in early childhood: Images of contemporary young children from a critical perspective, Childhood Education, 83(5) Research Library, pg. 261

Leeman, J. (2005). Engaging critical pedagogy: Spanish for native speakers, Foreign Language Annals, 38(1), Research Library, p.35

Lipman, P. & Gutstein, E. (2000). Undermining the struggle for Equity: A case study of Chicago school policy in a Latino/a school. Race, Gender, Class, New Orleans, 8(1), p. 57

Moje, E., Young, J.P., Readence, J.E. & Moore, D.W. (2000). Reinventing adolescent literacy for new times: Perennial and millennial issues. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43, 400-410

Pennycook, A. (1998). English and the discourses of colonialism. London: Routledge

Short, D.J. & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the Work: Challenges and Solutions to Acquiring Language and Academic Literacy for Adolescent English Language Learners, A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York, Alliance for Excellent Education