Contextualizing Difficulties in Literacy Development
reviewed by Eric J. Weiner - 2004
Title: Contextualizing Difficulties in Literacy Development
Author(s): Janet Soler, Janice Wearmouth and Gavin Reid (Editors)
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415289017, Pages: 328, Year: 2002
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Many literacy scholars have argued that developing a range of critical literacies is a necessary political tool in the fight against the global hegemony of neoliberal ideology among other repressive systems of thought and behavior. From racist and sexist discourses to corporate media’s domination of mass communication systems, critical literacies have been discussed as an important part of what it means to think and act consciously against oppressive social structures. Critical literacies are those modes of “reading” and “writing” that critically intervene into oppressive structures of “language” and power in an effort to transform or destroy those structures. Language, in this context, is understood inclusively as “any sound, word, image, or object which functions as a sign, and is organized with other signs into a system which is capable of carrying and expressing meaning” (Hall, p. 19). More than just semiotic strategies, critical literacies are deeply concerned with disrupting oppressive relationships of power.
This conceptualization of “literacy” in combination with an inclusive understanding of language and a dynamic theory of power (i.e., more than repressive force) has the potential to disrupt that which has become— symbolically and materially—a matter of common sense. By disrupting the familiar, critical literacies can help, as Erich Fromm (1942/1995) writes, to make both the command and commander visible and accountable. Critical Literacies, as strategies of resistance and transformation, cut across and are conceptualized within different epistemological domains. As such, we can critically “read” poverty, media, capital, geography, race, etc., all with their own “language,” “grammar,” and logic. This type of reading, Homi Bhabha (1994) argues, “breaks and breaks into” the ideological, political, cultural, sociological, economic, and pedagogical spheres of knowledge development.
In Contextualizing Difficulties in Literacy Development: Exploring Politics, Culture, Ethnicity, and Ethics, edited by Janet Soler, Janice Wearmouth and Gavin Reid, the authors, for the most part, although there are exceptions, neither conceptualize nor engage literacy in this way. This collection is primarily about developing reading skills and the challenges this technical problem brings to the fields of reading pedagogy, dyslexia, and special education. Although there are discussions about race, gender, and technology, as well as politics and literacy theory, the collection seems to be mainly concerned with the pragmatics of what it means to develop reading pedagogies that are progressive (in a liberal sense) and responsive to current educational contexts (i.e., mainly England’s National Literacy Strategy (NLS), the U.S., Australia, and Canada) . Nevertheless, the book offers readers a wide ranging discussion of many of the major issues concerning reading that dominate contemporary mainstream debates about language policy, reading methodology, political and historical considerations of literacy development, and socio-cultural practices of literacy, language, and learning.
Editor Janet Soler writes that “The volume brings together specially commissioned and previously published articles which examine the relationship between political, social and cultural contexts and the development of particular pedagogical responses to difficulties in literacy development” (p. ix). With the exception of four chapters, Contextualizing Difficulties in Literacy Development is a relatively large compilation of previously published articles. I mention this because the chapters written specifically for this collection are often, although again there are exceptions, more substantive in their studies of literacy than those reproduced for the book.
PART 1: INTRODUCTION
Soler writes the introduction to the collection of essays, outlining the historical nature of the debates over how best to teach reading. Her essay, written specifically for this book, provides an important framework for the remaining chapters. Discussing in a clear and concise manner many of the major points of contention within the field of reading, Soler takes the reader through the Great Debates over Reading in the 1950s, through the Literacy Wars of the 1970s, and into our current context which is dominated by the ideology of scientific management and neoliberal values.
PART 2: WHAT IS LITERACY: A SIMPLE OR COMPLEX PROCESS?
Following the Soler’s chapter in Part 1, the book is divided into six remaining parts. Part 2 is titled “What is Literacy: a Simple or Complex Process?”, and is comprised of two chapters. Naz Rassol’s chapter, “Literacy: In search of a Paradigm” is one of the strongest and complex discussions in the collection. He begins by recognizing that literacy is not a singular skill but rather is a multiple and complex process, an “organic” praxis that is undertaken as conscious action. Moreover, Rassool points out that literacies are also “multidimensional because [they are] seen as serving a variety of social, economic, ideological and political purposes” (p. 17).
Within this theoretical framework, he critiques what he calls “bounded discourses”; that is, disciplinary straightjackets that have informed various models of literacy development. From cognitive and experimental psychology to social psychology and psycholinguistics, Rassool compares and points out the limitations of each of these disciplines in addressing the multidimensional nature of literacies. Not discounting any of the models per se, he wants the reader to consider “border crossing,” exemplified in the New Literacy Studies and critical literacy movements, as a way to reconceptualize “literacy as a regionalized field of inquiry” (p. 34).
For Rassool, the regionalized filed of inquiry is represented by the “overlaps or interstices” created by the “interface between subject-disciplines and the literacy knowledges that are thus made available” (p. 34). As such, literacy constitutes “a social practice, an ideological practice, a cultural practice and an educational practice” (ibid). These simultaneously intersecting fields suggest the need for a pedagogy that is critical and a method of analysis that is what Douglas Kellner (1995) has called “multiperspectival.” The analysis of literacy, in other words, cannot be limited, according to Rassool, to a single disciplinary sphere or it will be confined “to the parameters of knowledge inscribed into them” (p. 34).
The second chapter in the second part, “Framing the Issues in Literacy Education,” written by Frances Christie and Ray Mission, discusses early and contemporary definitions of literacy, or what it means to be a literate person. They point out that literacy in the 21st century must be theorized, and has been theorized beyond its functionality by scholars like Henry Giroux and Colin Lankshear. In short, the chapter considers literacy as a social practice, exploring the interrelationship between text and context. At the heart of their discussion is a comparison of the paradigms of functional linguistics and critical literacy. However important this comparison might be to understanding the pedagogical and political implications of literacy development, both studies are extremely brief and, at most, provide a cursory glance at these two theoretical models. For example, in their explanation of the aim of critical literacy, they use Freire’s (Friere and Macedo, 1987) well-worn dictum that students must learn “to read the word and the world.” Unfortunately, they go no further in explaining what this means politically, pedagogically, culturally, economically, sociologically, etc. As it stands, critical literacy is reduced to a method of ideological critique. And although this is an important concern of critical educators, it is by no means the only foundation on which many conceptualizations of critical literacy rest.
PART 3: ARE THERE INCREASING DIFFICULTIES WITH LITERACY?
The first article in the section, “Explanations of the Current International ‘Literacy Crisis,’” is written by Anthony R. Welch and Peter Freebody. Their discussion focuses on the relationship between standards on one hand and power and literacy on the other. They organize standards in terms of rationales, or in their words “hypotheses.” According to Welch and Freebody, there are four hypotheses that reflect the reasoning behind the current standard debates: Slide, Demands, Credentials, and Invention. Each of these hypotheses is critiqued for its inadequacy to measure appropriately standards of literacy. Each critique, although unique and important, rests on the idea that standards must be measured against inequities of power before they are applied to particular outcomes. They make the point succinctly when they write, “It is rather to assert that analysis of and discourse about ‘standards’ cannot be divorced from contemporary social and economic changes…” (p. 70). It might have been helpful for these authors to create articulations between these hypothesis and the “social formations” in which they achieve legitimacy. If, as Alfie Kohn (2000) has said and these authors seem to imply, that standards of opportunity must preclude standards of outcomes, does this mean that the “educational whole” represents a general good that simply must be redistributed equitably? Or, is distributive justice insufficient in and of itself to deal with the content of the structures? If so, equity must be understood as more than a juridical referent; it must come to represent a reconceptualization of content as well as form.
The second article in the section, written by Barry Stierer is entitled “Simply Doing their Job? The politics of reading standards and ‘real books.’” This chapter is dedicated to critiquing a publication called Sponsored Reading Failure: An Object Lesson by Martin Turner (1990), Senior Educational Psychologist in the London Borough of Croydon. Cutting to the chase, Stierer’s writes, “[Turner’s] numerous references to the ‘classics’ of British philosophy and literature reflect his privileging of enduring elitist traditions” (p. 80). The critique holds Turner ideologically accountable for a position that hides beyond neutrality in its attack on authentic texts for literacy development. It appears that Turner, like E.D. Hirsch, understands the cultural significance of literacy and power, and wants to protect and perpetuate elite interests against democratic practices through imposed standards. Importantly, Stierer brings attention to the “problem” of assessment and valid evidence that historically troubles progressive educators. But the question concerning assessment and evidence that he does not address, and I think is important, is not which “methods” of research are valid for the assessment of literacy practices per se, but rather what are we attempting to measure and why. By defining a clear project first, we might then be able to articulate the appropriate methods of research. Escaping the positivistic paradigm, in which both quantitative and qualitative methodologies can and do reside, is arguably the research problematic that progressives must struggle to transform.
O. L. Davis Jr.’s extremely short but important article entitled “When Will the Phonics Police Come Knocking?” is a wake up call to literacy educators and other political workers about the serious threat to academic freedom, teacher professionalism, and just good teaching practices that the phonics-only advocates represent. As a graduate student of mine confessed after she first read the chapter, the problem of surveillance and control that Davis discusses seems overstated and by his own admittance “outrageous and monumentally bizarre” (p. 84). But then she was brought before an attorney that her student’s parents had hired to outline what they thought was an appropriate reading method for their child: phonics. The experience was both frightening, she said, and enlightening, making Davis’s call for immediate action against the “phonics police” hit home. His directness is refreshing in an era when disciplinary turf is defended at the expense of academic solidarity. His parable about the person who did not speak when the Nazi’s came for the Jews, and then the communists, and then the trade unionists, until, when they finally came for him there was no one left to speak out, is a warning about the consequences of atomization; a reality of education’s geo-disciplinary divisiveness. Or as the poet Audre Lourde (1984) famously wrote, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Chapter seven, written by Sharon Murphy, entitled “Literacy Assessment and the Politics of Identities” is important because it draws attention to the productive qualities of assessment in the context of identity formations. She writes,
To ask people to read or write is to ask them to engage in an act of self identification that echoes biography, history, and a sense of place. To engage in the assessment of that reading and writing is to mark that biography, history, and sense of place within a larger landscape of pasts, possible futures, and the recognized or unrecognized politics of the assessment situation. School assessment has a particular impact on identities because it not only deals with identities revealed through the acts of reading and writing, it also creates them. (p. 87, my emphasis).
By identifying the practice of assessment, especially as it is used within the discourse of scientific management, as a constructive force in the creation of identities, Murphy highlights one of the ways in which schools reproduce “identities of failure” (p. 89) thereby corrupting the notion of fairness. The insidiousness of the process is illustrated, argues Murphy, through standardization advocates’ contradictory appeal to a neutral instrument for “meritocratic sorting” on one hand, and the general understanding that standardized tests are “systematically biased against some children” (p. 91).
The last chapter in Part 3 is Bill Green’s and Alex Kostogriz’s article “Learning Difficulties and the New Literacy Studies.” I found this chapter, written specifically for this collection, to be particularly provocative in its efforts to link a “critical literacy perspective and cultural-historical psychology, within the reconceptualized context of the New Literacy Studies” (p. 111). This theoretical project, built primarily on the work of James Gee, Henry Giroux, and L.S. Vygotsky, is taken up in the service of understanding the relationship between the label “learning disabled” and the socio-political-pedagogical context in which the label is made meaningful. Taking from Foucault and Gee the authors point out the important notion that schooling functions in large part on the logic of classification. That is, schools effectively classify students as “normal,” “abnormal,” “gifted,” “disabled,” etc. This process, argues Green and Kostogriz, must be understood as “a generalized technological apparatus” that legitimates and delegitimates, and in Foucault’s language “normalizes” certain behaviors, attitudes, and ideas (p. 104).
This theoretical base makes problematic notions like “disability,” in which the focus is upon those who have been labeled “disabled, not on those that are labeled “abled,” nor on the environments in which people experience themselves as such. As the authors cogently point out,
For a disabled child, blindness or deafness represent normality—not a condition of illness. The child experiences the handicap only indirectly or secondarily, as a result of living and communicating with social others. In this sense, a disability becomes socially interpreted and constructed from the point of view of the abled (p. 111-110).
The authors conclude with a provocative idiom: “culture itself produces disability.” As such, one practical project of critical pedagogy might be to transform the epistemological, ideological, and material conditions that continue to manufacture a discourse that is hostile to “civic pluralism” and “cultural-linguistic diversity” (p. 112), a discourse that classifies people while it remains invisible and beyond critique.
PART 4: WHAT POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS SHAPE CURRICULA AND PROGRAMMATIC RESPONSES TO LITERACY DIFFICULTIES?
The first article in the fourth section is written by Shirley A. Carson, who shares her own experiences as an emergent reader and reading professor. This type of narrative does, indeed, personalize the reading experience, but it risks a kind of imposed clarity of the reading process upon a five year old reader. She writes, “I constructed my own learning as I watched Mama and Daddy read it to me. I remember distinctly how I progressed through levels of emergent reading” (p. 117). As personal experience is non-falsifiable, my critique is not based upon the “truth” of
Chapter Ten engages the differences and similarities between two popular reading models: Reading Recovery (RR) and Pause, Prompt, and Praise (PPP). Janice Wearmouth and Janet Soler compare and contrast RR with PPP along four separate although interrelated trajectories: model of reading; form of delivery; resource implications; and approach to ownership and control (p. 134). They conclude that both models are linked by a number of common indicators: they are proven programs; they are based upon the whole book/whole language view of reading; target lowest achieving pupils; encourage active community involvement; and function as a one-on-one tutoring practice (p. 149). They differ on the complexity of the reading process as well as on who should control and have “ownership” over the reading context.
In the following chapter (“How Inclusive is the Literacy Hour”) these same two authors take on the contradiction that they see between two policy documents that guide literacy goals for England and Wales: the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) and the statutory General Statement on Inclusion (GSI). The author’s find the NLS’s definition and aims of literacy to be “narrow and reflect a unitary definition of what constitutes literacy” (p. 153). As such, the Literacy Hour emphasizes a pedagogy that is skill based, standardized, and unresponsive to the diverse needs of learners (p. 154). The GSI, by contrast, stresses the importance of diversity, thereby creating a contradiction within the governmental policies on literacy development (p. 155). This contradiction, argues Wearmouth and Soler, must be reconciled by reconceptualizing not only the literacy process as one which is complex and social, but by reconceptualizing “a view of teaching as a learned profession where teachers make reflective judgments about their particular pupils and learning situations based upon a sound theoretical knowledge of literacy and literacy development and the practice of teaching literacy to children with difficulties in the area of literacy” (p. 163). The latter consideration is vitally important if educators generally, and literacy educators specifically hope to resist successfully state and corporate incursions into their professional lives. The consequences of not reconceptualizing what it means to be a teacher and an intellectual is the continued “deskilling” of the workforce, and, by effect, the diminishing of its political and pedagogical power.
Chapter Twelve is entitled “Developmental Dyslexia: Into the Future.” Roderick Nicolson is not a futurist, as one might think from the title. But he is immensely concerned with rethinking policies on dyslexia, especially funding policy. The problems with funding policies, he argues, are, in part, due to a number of transformable conditions. First, those concerned with understanding dyslexia are a diverse group of educationalists, researchers, parents, doctors, etc. These people often have different priorities and “are thrown into opposed roles” (p. 166). These “manufactured” oppositions are due to the “zero sum” philosophy that, according to Nicolson, drives much funding of dyslexia. He writes, “It is important to perceive that this apparent oppositional rivalry reflects an attitude of mind rather than an immutable law” (ibid.). In the chapter he methodically reviews many of the different theories, policies, and pedagogical supports that have informed research on dyslexia though the 1990s and into 2000 in an effort to develop a foundation upon which to build “a system in which theoretical work led to the introduction of early screening tests that detected dyslexia at pre-school, and these in turn led to proactive and ongoing individualized support” (p. 166).
PART 5: HOW DOES SOCIAL CLASS, CULTURE, ETHNICITY AND GENDER IMPACT UPON LITERACY DIFFICULTIES? CAN THEY BE ADDRESSED?
Part 5 is organized around the theme “Impact of Social Class, Culture, Ethnicity, and Gender” and is composed of four chapters that take up the issues of gender differentiation in reading (Gemma Moss. “Text and Context: Mapping out the Gender Differentiation of the Reading Curriculum”); iniquitous educational outcomes of Black and Asian students due to the institutional neglect of bilingual and biliterate heritage (Theresa Reed. “The Literacy Acquisition of Black and Asian EAL Learners”); issues of bilingual education such as the deficit hypothesis, teachers’ knowledge of multiple literacies, and family literacy (Deirdre Martin. “Bilingualism and Literacies in Primary School); and the psychosocial factors of learning disabilities (Thomas G. O’Connor and Robert C. Pianta. “Psychosocial Factors in the Aetiology and Course of Specific learning Disabilities). All four chapters are interesting studies of their subjects, although there is some obvious overlap with Reed’s and Martin’s discussions of bilingual education. Moss’s chapter summarizes her research on the Fact and Fiction project, and it offers many positive contributions regarding textual content, reading practices, and what they come to mean in the context of gender. Unfortunately, her discussion does not address directly the material implications of how gender and power come to mean what they do beyond the textual considerations of fact and fiction, two referents that she acknowledges are problematic. More generally, a section which is about “Social Class, Culture, Ethnicity, and Gender” as these social and political categories relate to literacy and learning that does not take up power and its abuses directly (Reed’s chapter does, in fact, discuss racism directly.) lacks a critical epistemological and political foundation. This critical foundation might help to articulate, more specifically, what is at stake in these studies.
PART 6: THE IMPACT OF THE POLITICAL, SOCIAL, AND CULTURAL FACTORS UPON INDIVIDUAL DIFFICULTIES WITH LITERACY AND THE SCHOOL CURRICULA
Part 6 is entitled “How can Political, Social, and Cultural Factors Impact Upon Individual Difficulties with Literacy?” and is comprised of two chapters. Eve Gregory’s “Myths of Illiteracy” begins by discussing how the “Babies needs books” view of good literacy development, born out of the reading debates in the 1970s and 1980s, has come to differentiate, in the 1990s and beyond, “good” from “poor” parenting (p. 247). Stemming from this differentiation, literacy researchers, argues Gregory, have analyzed the experiences of “lower social class homes” in terms of the “disadvantages” that the children experience once in school (p. 248). His project in this chapter is “to examine a contrasting paradigm of home literacy and [to] argue against the view that disadvantage leads to school difficulty (ibid.). More to the point, Gregory, borrowing from Duranti and Ochs, believes that literacy is “sencretic”; that is, “reading practices from different domains are blended, resulting in a form of reinterpretation which is both new and dynamic” (p. 249). His conclusions come out of a study he did of different generations living in East London, in which all of the study’s participants insisted “upon the importance of their ‘invisible’ or ‘unofficial’ home and community literacy practices in contributing to their school reading success” (p. 261).
The major issue that Gregory does not address in this very interesting study is the notion that “indigenous” literacy practices are often deemed “barbaric” by the dominant educational apparatus. For many critical literacy scholars, the problem is not with indigenous literacy practices specifically and indigenous knowledges generally as deficits, but rather with the systemic invalidation of those literacies and knowledges. It is extremely important to recognize, as Gregory points out, that resistance does, in fact, occur under the harshest conditions, and in unexpected ways. Moreover, it is vitally important to understand the rich literacies and knowledges that develop and merge sencretically with contrasting/cooperative traditions and activities, but it is also important not to confuse tactics with strategies. As Paul Willis (1977) has shown in his study of the lads, some indigenous literacy practices as they manifest themselves in dominant educational contexts might, in fact, work against working and “lower” class people intervening into the reproduction of their social and political circumstances. Resistance through success (i.e., reading) might not be as revolutionary as we might hope. Nevertheless, the “sencretic” literacy tactics that the study’s subjects utilize in a hostile school and social environment should make literacy researchers think twice about categorizing working and “lower” classes as reading deficient.
Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel author the second chapter in the sixth part entitled “New Times!
PART 7: ETHNICAL AND SOCIAL JUSTICE ISSUES
Part 7 concludes the book with two chapters organized around the theme “Ethical and Social Justice Issues.” Joseph A. Diorio (“Justice, Literacy, and Impediments to Learning Literacy”) discusses literacy and justice using the philosophical categories of “intrinsic” and “instrumental” as evaluative markers. Diorio, for example, using the work of Reaume and Carens, argues that although all languages are intrinsically valuable to those who use them and therefore should be supported, size nevertheless matters in determining what kind of “official” support the language should receive. Diorio admits that knowing when a community becomes big enough for “official” linguistic support is beyond his discussion. But he does state that “we must accept, however, that in many instances minority language groups cannot expect to have official services provided in their own language” (p. 295). His rationale is built upon Rawls’ notion of “morally arbitrary” occurrences, our minority or majority language status being an example. As such, the pursuit of justice should “work against, rather than build on, such natural and social contingencies” (p. 295). This leads him to conclude that the problem is not that there is one language that dominates in a heterogeneous community, but rather the problem of literacy lies with the pedagogical practices that are utilized to teach those from linguistic minority positions the dominant language.
The major flaw in this argument, and what finally distinguishes it from a discussion of social justice, is the problematic assertion that inequities of power via language are a natural occurrence and that we are “born into” a majority language community. Does being born into an established social formation at the same time make it natural and morally arbitrary? It is true that we might be born into slavery as well, but does that mean we try to learn and/or adopt the dominant discourse of slavery, or do we (should we) resist and transform the institutions that normalize it as natural. Through colonization and imperialism, for example, indigenous languages of the majority are often made into a minority discourse. From this perspective, language domination is always a major aspect of imperialism and colonization. An anti-colonial and anti-imperial model of literacy, instead of ignoring these manufactured occurrences of language domination, would confront them, in part, by “officially” democratizing the public spheres in which literacy and language practices converge. By rationalizing domination, linguistic or otherwise, through pragmatic pedagogies and the irrational rationalities of Enlightenment philosophy is to leave untouched the formations from which the ideology of domination grows.
In the last chapter, Michael M. Gerber (“Reforming Special Education”) holds advocates of special education “inclusion” accountable to nurturing and legitimizing “attempts by school administrators and policy makers to regain control over [special education] that for a hundred years has threatened the traditional structure, economy and culture of American public schooling” (p. 303). He argues that special education is “subversive” because it demands that school structures accommodate extreme differences, an idea that contradicts the role of traditional schooling. “Special education in the 20th century,” explains Gerber, “is better understood as a school enterprise, as an organizational strategy schools have adopted to accommodate sometimes extreme differences in children” (p. 304). But this notion of accommodation brings attention to the contradiction between “access” and “opportunity.” “Mere access to the physical environment of schools or classrooms within schools confers no specific or necessarily appropriate opportunity to learn” (ibid.). And this is one of Gerber’s major problems with those who urge inclusion. That is, he argues that they emphasize place at the expense of “instructional practice” and “confused participation” with opportunity (ibid.). Gerber advocates instead for a “gradualist” model of change, fearing that “radical inclusion” proposals make it too difficult to hold administrators accountable to their policies on special education. But his ideas of social justice, at least in terms of what constitutes effective schooling, are more radical than gradualist. “Schools are effective when and if their poorest performing students demonstrate significant achievement gains” (p. 317). And this outcome can only be measured, he argues, not only by redistributing resources and developing new technologies of instruction, but also by constructing “a fundamentally different structure, economy and culture of schooling to permit and support individually variable programmes of instruction” (p. 317). His ideas are, in an important way, transferable to schooling in general. Beyond the context of special education, Gerber points out directly the intrinsic relationship between universal mass education and social justice.
The collection of articles that Contextualizing Difficulties in Literacy Development: Exploring Politics, Culture, Ethnicity, and Ethics speaks to a number of issues that are relevant to the work of literacy students and scholars, as well as other professionals in the fields of education, social services, and educational policy. Understanding that no collection on literacy can cover all topics related to such a broad field of study, this collection, in general, pays attention to techniques of reading at the expense of a more expansive consideration of literacies and languages as they might be taken up in the context of democracy, agency, subjectivities, activism, social movements, liberation, globalization, and neoliberalism, to name a few omissions. Nevertheless, it provides important studies of reading and at times, social structures, that are relevant to contemporary debates about literacy.
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