Critical Literacy Theory

Subscribing to Critical Literacy Theory entails the careful examination and evaluation of text in order to “see” multiple versions of the same story. It requires deliberately questioning the voices of the majority perspective by bringing those of the oppressed to the forefront. It involves analyzing the structure and content of words and images to understand their impact on particular groups of people. It necessitates looking for hidden messages—comparing what’s being said to what’s not.

Being critical requires a healthy dose of skepticism. It also requires curiosity and a willingness to pursue ideas that diverge from the norm. As Luke (2019) writes, critical literacy focuses “on students’ engaging in forms of ideology critique: exposing and reconstructing misleading ideological versions of the world provided in media, literature, textbooks, and everyday texts” (p. 354). This perhaps goes against what some students of the not-so-distant past were taught: Teachers and textbooks are always right.

One pivotal assignment as an undergrad included an opportunity to deconstruct a series of elementary school lessons about Christopher Columbus. We students had to establish the dominant perspective, look for biases within the text and images, and determine whose story was being left out. It was an eye-opening experience because it forced us to, as Luke says, critique the ideological version of what had been, for years, our accepted truth. Or at least the accepted truth of the many white Americans of European decent. It is the type of lesson, however, that you do not forget. Once you learn to see other versions of the truth, you can’t unsee them. In fact, you begin to look for them.

Brooks (2019) echoes this sentiment in writing about intersectionality, or the idea that an individual’s “categories of differences” make up the whole person (p. 421). For example, I am more than just a graduate student. I am a woman. I am cisgender. I am a wife and mother. I am a white, middle-class Democrat unsure of her religious beliefs. To consider me through only one of those lenses would provide a very narrow view about who I am as a person. Much like Critical Literacy Theory, subscribing to the concept of intersectionality requires “unlearning (dominant) social imaginaries, attending to alternative world views, and centering the disremembered” in order to get the whole picture (Brooks, 2019, p. 427). To do otherwise is an injustice.

In school, we consider students’ intersectionality to determine their funds of knowledge, or the knowledge and skills they bring to the classroom from their home culture. When we strive to know the whole child and not just the student, we create an environment in which what is relevant and important to them matters and is a welcome addition to the curriculum. For example, one aspect of the edTPA certification process involved explaining how my focus learner’s family history, strengths, and interests shaped my teaching. This required seeing my focus learner as a whole child rather than simply a student or, even more impersonal, a subject to be studied and written about. Children do not come to school wearing only one hat. They are complex, multi-layered individuals. Similarly, they come from families with complex, multi-layered histories and experiences. It would be wrong to leave the potential of what they bring to the classroom unexplored.

I see Critical Literacy Theory, intersectionality, and funds of knowledge as being interconnected. They each require asking probing questions to get below the surface level. They require seeing many different sides. They require accepting many different truths.


Brooks, M.D. (2019). Untapped possibilities: Intersectionality through literacy research. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.) Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 419-429). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Luke, A. (2019). Regrounding critical literacy: Representation, facts and reality. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, M. Sailors, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.) Theoretical Models and Processes of Literacy (7th ed.) (pp. 349-361). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Moll, L.C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31(2), 132-141.

Published by Melissa

I am a certified general education and special education teacher with a master's degree in literacy education. I currently co-teach 2nd grade in the morning and provide ELA and math instruction to a small group of 4th graders in the afternoon. I love my job!

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