Empowering Multilingual Learners Through Critical Liberating Literacy Practices in English-Dominated Speech Communities

Empowering Multilingual Learners Through Critical Liberating Literacy Practices in English-Dominated Speech Communities

Mario R. Moya (University of East London, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2722-1.ch011


This chapter explores the nuances of critical literacy reviewing the influence of the sociocultural context and the critical element that arises from the individuals who negotiate their identities as they interact with others in a variety of settings. The perspective adopted here focuses on multilingual learners as they engage in literacy practices in English, the dominant language, within schooled environments resulting in hybrid productions within a Third Space, which is a metaphorical setting that promotes expansive learning. Such literacy productions consider the lived-in experiences of the individuals and their personal histories as tools for learning with the potential to liberate themselves from the dominant literacy practices. The chapter includes a discussion of the role and status of English to empower non-dominant groups within English-speaking settings.
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Literacy is often viewed as a complex process that is very challenging to define. In 1989, James Gee concluded that this concept encompasses much more than the mere knowledge of letters and sounds and, consequently, proposed that literacy, as solely the application of alphabetic knowledge, was quite narrow. Gee (2015) maintains that the concept of literacy needs to acknowledge its complexity, the purposes of the people who engage with it, and the contexts where literacy practices happen. In line with Gee, other researchers, such as Street (1984), Dyson (2001), and Brandt (2001), also highlight the intricacies of a definition. Street's (1984) research, for example, indicates that an exclusive focus on the application of the alphabetic principle to define literacy is restrictive. While this alphabetic knowledge is still very important, contemporary research from Barratt-Pugh (2002) and Brandt and Clinton (2002) expand the concept of literacy by focusing on how individuals’ interactions at home, school, or other community settings contribute to an understanding of the uses, the power, and the need for literacy as a social practice. From this position, literacy is a social tool used by individuals in their daily life shaped by people’s socio-cultural experiences. As Hammer (2005) explains “[the] socio-cultural view of literacy emphasizes the role literacy plays in today's society and supports children to actively take part in and access a wide range of social and cultural activities” (p. 71).

Literacy, in its most basic sense, refers to communication involving the use of written language. Reading and writing are recognizable literacy activities; however, perspectives on what is meant by literacy and what it means to be literate vary according to the particular traditions that researchers or policy makers draw on. Studies of literacy have been carried out within various academic disciplines —notably psychology, applied linguistics, anthropology, sociolinguistics, and education. Not surprisingly, studies from such a range of academic disciplines focusing on different aspects have given rise to rather different conceptions of literacy. Most obviously, literacy studies are characterized by:

  • A focus on the individual’s perceptual and cognitive functioning (within psychology);

  • A focus on the analysis of written texts and the use of such analysis for the teaching of reading and writing (within applied linguistics);

  • An interest in the observation and documentation of literacy activities in everyday life, emphasizing the social contexts of literacy (within anthropology and, increasingly, sociolinguistics);

  • An interest in researching ways in which children and adults learn to read and write (within education).

The debate on the definition of literacy is mostly centered on the positions of those who advocate a code-based approach to teaching reading and writing and those who emphasize the place of meaning. Such a distinction has led to two dominant positions or models out of several, namely the autonomous and the ideological (Damber, 2012), where the former is associated with a set of cognitive skills (Cook & Klipfel, 2015) whilst the latter sees literacy as embedded in social practices (Street, 2013). The autonomous model considers that literacy itself has consequences irrespective of, or autonomous of, context while the ideological model argues that literacy not only varies with social context and with cultural norms but with discourses regarding, for instance, identity, gender, and beliefs, and that its uses and meanings are always embedded in relationships of power. Street (2013) argues that it is in this sense that literacy is always ideological—it always involves contexts over meanings, definitions and boundaries, and struggles for control of the literacy agenda. It is this latter aspect that this chapter explores, emphasizing critical literacy in relation to its socio-critical and cultural aspects focusing on a metaphorical place called the Third Space (Guitiérrez, 2008) where individuals coming from nondominant linguistic backgrounds are empowered through liberating literacy practices based on their lived experiences to develop their own voices. The chapter, therefore, aims to:

Key Terms in this Chapter

Autonomous Model of Literacy: A model underpinned by the assumption that literacy in itself (i.e., autonomously) has effects on other social and cognitive practices that are neutral and universal.

Critical Literacy: Learning to read and write as part of the process of becoming conscious of one’s experience as historically constructed within specific power relations. Critical literacy moves the reader’s focus away from the “self” in critical reading to the interpretation of texts in different environmental and cultural contexts.

Ideological Model of Literacy: A model that posits that literacy is a social practice, not simply a technical and neutral skill but it is about the ways in which people address reading and writing rooted in conceptions of knowledge, identity, and being.

Expansive Learning: The capacity of individuals involved in an activity to interpret and expand the definition of the object of activity and respond to it in increasingly enriched ways. Expansive learning involves the creation of new knowledge and new practices for a newly emerging activity: that is, learning embedded in and constitutive of qualitative transformation of the entire activity system.

Socio-critical Literacy: The capacity to historicize literacy that privileges and is contingent upon students’ sociohistorical lives, both proximally and distally.

Cultural Literacy: The ability to understand and participate fluently in a given culture, normally a culture different from one’s own.

Functional Literacy: Knowledge of reading and writing which enables individuals to acquire basic cognitive skills to accomplish practical ends in culturally specific settings.

Zone of Contact: Social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.

Multilingualism: The ability of an individual speaker or a community of speakers to communicate effectively in three or more languages.

Third Space: A poststructuralist sociolinguistic theory of identity and community realized through language or education. Third Space theory explains the uniqueness of each person, actor or context as a “hybrid.”

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