Sharpening Students' Critical Literacy Skills Through Corpus-Based Instruction: Addressing the Issue of Language Sexism

Sharpening Students' Critical Literacy Skills Through Corpus-Based Instruction: Addressing the Issue of Language Sexism

Paschalia Patsala (Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK) and Maria Michali (South-East European Research Center, Greece)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2722-1.ch012


In the past, corpora were primarily employed by linguists. Recently, there has been a growing interest from teachers and researchers in the pedagogical applications of corpora. However, literature of corpus-based instruction has little explored whether corpus-based instruction can reinforce English Foreign Language (EFL) learners' critical literacy. This chapter builds on research and practices that explore how corpus-based teaching may enhance learners' critical literacy skills, offering recommendations to teachers of English as a foreign language. The main features of critical literacy teaching are presented, and consideration is given to tools and techniques through which educators can encourage EFL learners to critically look at authentic language data and question both the language and the reality they are exposed to, affecting or enabling social change.
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Moving from the original, traditional definition of literacy as one’s ability to read and write (Online Cambridge Dictionary) towards a more dynamic approach to the concept, different understandings of literacy have been proposed in contemporary theoretical approaches. These include definitions of literacy as: 1. an autonomous set of skills, 2. applied, practiced and situated, 3. a learning process, and lastly 4. text (UNESCO, 2006). Within this framework, the current chapter aims to exemplify how corpus-assisted language teaching and data-driven learning (DDL) can not only accommodate the above theoretical underpinnings of literacy, but also further enhance learners’ critical literacy, namely of the ability to employ “the technologies of print and other media of communication to analyze, critique, and transform the norms, rule systems, and practices governing the social fields of everyday life” (Luke, 2012, p. 5).

A corpus is a representative collection of pieces of a language that are selected according to explicit linguistic criteria and reflect natural chunks of this language in order to be used for a linguistic analysis (McEnery, Xiao, & Tono, 2006; Sinclair, 1996; Tognini-Bonelli, 2001). When considering the pedagogical applications of corpora, it becomes evident that corpus use can enhance DDL and assist learners in facing various literacy demands. The concept of data-driven learning was originally put forward by Tim Johns in 1990, in an attempt to explain how learners could investigate and analyze language data on their own, making language learning evolve from a set-of-rules acquisition process into a more dynamic and “flexible system of recurring and interrelated prototypes” (Hadley, 2002, p. 99). Although the initial work in DDL was performed with rather simplistic, mainly locally accessible sources and less advanced methods (see, for instance, Aston, 1996), the rapid technological advances in Corpus Linguistics with vast amounts of electronically accessed data and sophisticated concordance tools promoted a radical DDL implementation. More precisely, during DDL procedures, learners process examples of the target language, formulate hypotheses, and test them for reaching the target rules (Johns, 1991). Being accompanied by grammatical consciousness-raising (Rutherford, 1987), DDL also encourages learners to perceive language learning as a flexible process where they themselves discover the rules of the language, and not merely as a product where the target language rules are selected a priori and presented to them (Geluso & Yamaguchi, 2014; Lin & Lee, 2015; Moon & Oh, 2018). Besides grammar, lexis can also benefit from DDL; vocabulary learning is a core part of language learning, but it is a complex process including many and diverse skills, such as acquisition and retention (Schneider, Haley, & Bourne, 2002).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Corpus: Derived from Latin where it originally meant ‘body’, a corpus is a large body of texts which can be stored and processed in an electronic form. Given its size, it constitutes a representative sample of language, while its machine-readable format allows annotation, as well as various types of analysis based on the criteria set and the tools used (e.g., part-of-speech, frequencies, key-word-in-context, etc.). Specialized software allows processing of the data that a corpus contains. (Plural form: corpora )

Critical Literacy: The origin of critical literacy is traced back to Marxist critical pedagogy which strongly supported approaching and analyzing texts through a critical viewpoint to identify hidden or implicit concepts, beliefs, and practices. In its contemporary form, critical literacy is perceived as a teaching strategy, or the ability to identify in texts or media (un)conscious bias and social inequalities with an ultimate goal to peacefully fight against them.

Gender Asymmetry: The concept signifies the unequal treatment of genders as reflected in the morphology or the semantics of a language. A typical example is the morphological marking of the feminine form of a word while the corresponding masculine form is always unmarked—implying a kind of superiority of the masculine gender, as in the case of female-specific occupation lexical items (e.g., steward vs. stewardess ).

Social Justice: The concept signifies the fair distribution of (material and non-material) goods to individuals and peoples, as well as ensuring that all people are offered equal rights and opportunities.

Language Sexism: A form of sexism encountered in the use of language when it devalues people of a specific gender, usually the female members of a society while assigning a higher status to males. This type of sociolinguistic bias against a specific gender can take many forms, such as how that sex is named and represented, perpetuating stereotypes and social beliefs about sexes.

Data-Driven Learning (DDL): A teaching approach based on which students are presented with samples of naturally-occurring language, and they are encouraged to discover any systematic patterns on their own, without being presented with grammatical rules, the meaning of lexical items, etc.

EFL classroom: The educational setting where English is taught to learners whose native language is not English and they are in a country where English is not an official language. For example, a class where Greek students learn English in Greece.

Concordance (or Concordance Line): A listing of each occurrence of a word (or phrase) in a corpus together with the text it occurs with, shedding light on a word’s collocations and other language patterns. The term is also employed to signify the ‘Key-Word-In-Context’ (KWIC) results retrieved through corpus linguistics software tools.

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