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When Basic Skills and Information Processing Just Aren't Enough: Rethinking Reading in New Times

by Allan Luke - 1995

Using historical and contemporary perspectives, the paper argues that reading is a malleable social practice with identifiable moral and ideological consequences. A model that defines reading in contemporary social life through four interconnected roles is presented. The importance of critical reading in everyday life is illustrated through analysis of three functional texts.

Is reading simply a matter of neutral information processing or functional skills? This article draws on historical and contemporary perspectives to make the case that reading is a malleable social practice with identifiable moral and ideological consequences. It builds a four-tiered model that defines reading in contemporary social life in terms of four interconnected roles: coding, semantic, pragmatic, and critical. Critical reading—an awareness of and facility with the techniques by which texts and discourses construct and position human subjects and social reality—is an essential component of everyday life in social institutions. This is illustrated through text analyses of three “functional” texts: a textbook passage, a tenancy agreement, and a job application.


In 1914, Edmund Burke Huey, the first American reading psychologist, argued that in learning to read the child reader retraced and recovered the footsteps of “the” culture. His metaphor was a product of the evolutionary theories of his age, depicting the child’s individual development (i.e., ontogenesis) as paralleling and catching up with that of the larger dominant culture (i.e., phylogenesis). To this day, psychological theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, Habermas and Vygotsky, are built on a similar conceptualization of the relationship between individual cognitive “development” and the linear “progress” of culture. But central to Huey’s position was a stress on reading as a form of moral formation and regulation. Huey, like many of his American contemporaries, had been strongly influenced by colonial Protestantism; hence, in the midst of his drive to apply experimental approaches to the physiology of reading, he retained a belief that reading was and should be tied up with learning the values and ways of a culture. This is the theme of this article: the moral and political consequences of ways of reading. My argument is that reading instruction is not about skills but is about the construction of identity and social relations, and that, in light of the new work-place relations and citizenship of late capitalist society, we can and should shape it differently in current adult basic education and English as a Second Language (ESL) contexts. To do so, I argue here, requires that we teach and practice a critical literacy, one based not only on theories of language and discourse but, more importantly, on a sociological vision of work, social institutions, and social change in the next century.

Huey died shortly after writing his Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (1914), after turning away from his focus on reading to the dubious enterprise of intelligence testing. But in many ways his work opened Pandora’s box: It was extended, interpreted, and applied by the behaviorist psychologist Thorndike and, later, Gray, Gates, and others to build a psychological model of reading that fit industrial-era U.S. educational policy. The residual traditions of those models—the construction of reading as behavior, skill, and, now, information processing—still form the heart of current reading instruction, both in schools and in adult programs. In its short, 100-year history as a focus of psychological research and curricular development, reading has been redesigned substantially: from a means of communication with divinity and a means for moral development, to reading as behavioral skills, to reading as deep linguistic processing and “a psycholinguistic guessing game,” to reading as vocational competence.

But an explicit critique of these models, and their tendency toward sociological naiveté, is not my focus here (cf. Luke, in press). My concern here is with the version of the social order, the vision of institutional life implicit in recent adult education curricula, syllabus materials, skills profiles, and so forth. Looking over current and recent reports on “key competences,” “audits,” “profiles,” and “generic skills” in Australian and American adult education, one could be forgiven for thinking that we inhabit a world of literal language users: that the domains of everyday institutional life are conflict-free places of robotic consensus; where nonfiction work-place texts are, more or less, clear and unambiguous; where readers and writers go about their work each day reading, quite literally recalling and doing as texts tell them—telling and writing truths, responding “acceptably,” “efficiently,” “appropriately,” and, as one Australian set of competency scales remind us, “often.” Such approaches to reading assume that one can and should “read the truth” in the memorandum posted on the notice board, the commercial or political flyer handed out on the streets, and “tell the truth” on the job form. Such approaches assume that occupational literacy is principally a matter of recognition and compliance.

Functional reading, as it is defined in most current scales and recent reports, is conceived of as a nonproblematic instrumental activity. By these accounts, it entails simple, straightforward basic skills of information processing and assembly that, once possessed, can be deployed automatically and efficiently. These definitions tend to assume that, for instance, the job instructions one encounters are economical and effective and yield optimal results; that, for instance, the instruction sheet that goes with a particular appliance is accurate and correct. They assume that the extant power relations in the work place that such texts construct and represent not only are fair and explicit, but that such power relations are the most efficient, effective, and, indeed, “productive.”

In the rush for enthusiasm for national profiles, industry-wide scales, standardized curricula, benchmarks, it is imperative that we ask: Is this the literacy of “New Times”? Will this vision of discursive work transform work sites into competitive work places that engage workers constructively in globally competitive production, “quality assurance,” and work-place democracy? At first glance, it looks to me largely like the industrial work place of old—the one that got us and other OECD countries into trouble in the first place—where compliance, where holding one’s tongue, where “minding one’s P’s and Q’s” (Bourdieu, 1991) is the premium. It assumes that speedy compliance is the way to productivity, work-place efficiency, and so forth. If this is the “clever society,” then cleverness in many competency statements is rule-recognition and acceptance of extant texts, genres, and discourses.

My proposition here is simple: that there are no universal “skills” of reading. Reading is a social practice, comprised of interpretive rules and events constructed and learned in institutions like schools and churches, families and work places. Implicit in ways of teaching reading are social theories— models of the social order, social power, and social change; models of the institutional everyday life; models of worker/employee relations; and ultimately models of how the literate worker and citizen should look and be. Simply put, reading instruction has always described and prescribed forms of life: of how Dick, Jane, and Spot should be and act as citizens and readers, and indeed of how migrants and workers, women and men, should be and act as citizens and readers.

In this sense, reading is never a “foregone,” consensual, or harmless conclusion, any more than living and participating in those institutions are foregone, consensual, and/or harmless conclusions. Are work places, families, public administration, and other institutions models of consensus and agreement? I think not. As Game and Pringle (1983) have argued, just as changes in technology and work-place relations run hand-in-hand with changing systems of patriarchy and domination, they can be contested, rebuilt, and remade. What I am suggesting here is that how programs construct “reading” and “literacy” in the work place depends on sociological explanations of how institutions work, of how power works, of how particular cultures and classes of workers and citizens use written and spoken language in the work place. Literate in whose interests? To what ends? What kinds of readings and readers? These key questions are on the table in current curricula and study programs, but often buried in normative terms like “acceptable,” “appropriate,” and “effective” reading.

In what follows my argument proceeds in two steps. I begin with examples from the history of reading, showing the moral and political regulation of reading pedagogy and indicating how perspectives of the last 100 years continue to influence current agendas, defining and constraining how we see reading. I follow this with a brief summary of how reading instruction is about prescribing a relationship of power between text and reader. I then make the case for a model of reading as social practice that Peter Freebody and I have developed (Freebody & Luke 1990), arguing that this model is suited for making critical readers for the “New Times” of a globalized economy and post-Fordist production.


In nineteenth-century colonial countries like Canada and Australia, reading education was constructed along a great divide of class, gender, and urban/rural location. Of course, color and ethnicity were not yet factors— insofar as indigenous peoples and slaves were not entitled to education. Most children studied the three Rs in primary schooling, leaving school after a few years to enter the rural sector and domestic work. Those who stayed were moved incrementally through matriculation levels toward a literacy that introduced them to a classical canon. In a manner similar to current calls for “minimum competence” for lower socioeconomic students and “cultural literacy” for elite students (Cope & Kalantzis, 1993), the nineteenth-century model of schooling generated two literacies, and two interpretive communities: those with the “basics” and those with elite literary competences (deCastell & Luke, 1986). Hence, while all began with versions of the British authored Irish Readers (for example, in Canada, The Ontario Readers and in Australia, The Royal Readers), elite white males moved on to a grammar school education that centered on literary study. Whether in Fiji or India, Australia or Canada, the political function of schooling thus was to construct a colonial class system of workers (and, when necessary, soldiers) in agricultural and resource-based economies, and an upper class of male managers and civil servants with unwavering allegiance to the Mother Country. In this process, the moral messages of civilized, Christian, and gentlemanly conduct were inseparable from instruction in reading and writing.

A similar, if more politically autonomous, discipline developed in the United States. There three Rs training pivoted around books like Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book and the McGuffey Readers, stressing the dangers of papism, traces of Anglophobia, and the virtues of the Protestant work ethic and the emergent American nation state. The key point I would make about nineteenth-century reading instruction, then, is that it was overtly about shaping and constructing a moral human subject. That construction pivoted around a vision of the social order and where and how different kinds of readers/citizens/workers would figure. Without a psychological theory, prior to the pedagogical innovation of mass silent reading, its regime of skill and drill stressed physical discipline of a literate “habitus” (cf. Bourdieu, 1991): What counted as literacy was basic skills of penmanship, copying, oral recitation, and, in advanced study, the imitation and rote recitation of literary and spiritual texts (deCastell & Luke, 1986).

The significant breakthrough in the redefinition of reading occurred in the United States after the First World War. Then several socioeconomic factors converged to enable and encourage a redefinition of reading as psychological skills. Not least of these factors was the rapid expansion and diversification of the U.S. population, its urban manufacturing and retail base, and, with these changes, the growth and articulation of a comprehensive “free” state schooling system. As part of a larger agenda of social engineering, and the application of emergent sciences of efficiency, management, and manufacturing to all domains of the social, the state schooling system was redesigned as an industrial factory for the production of literate workers. Unlike the class-based system of nineteenth-century education, industrial-era education promised to be fair, equitable, based on “merit” (hence, meritocracy). These conditions set out a fertile environment for the emergence of educational psychology as the guiding discipline for the reorganization of schooling and, ultimately, reading (Luke 1988). In this regard, the official regulation and surveillance of literacy training took on the guise of neutral, “disinterested” scientific practice.

This redefinition of reading in the interwar period had two powerful strands: behaviorism and progressivism. Behaviorist psychology redefined reading as a set of behaviors or skills that could be generated by various textual and instructional stimuli. Psychologists like Thorndike, Gray, and Gates set out to taxonomically identify the skills of reading, and to generate standardized reading texts and tests (as “stimuli”) to efficiently transmit and measure these skills. At the same time, Deweyan progressive education lodged reading curricula within project and theme-based instruction, stressing civic, community, and family activities and values. The results, amalgams of psychological definitions of reading and progressive themes, were series like the Dick and Jane readers, prototypes for the modern basal readers still used in many Australian schools. The aim of such programs was the “total” instructional package— which was “teacher-proof,” adaptable to various student clientele regardless of background or nationality, and complete with teachers’ guidebooks, standardized tests, progress charts, and other adjunct products.

The debate between “phonics” and “word recognition” advocates reached a pitch in the 1950s, when Rudolf Flesch’s polemic, Why Johnny Can’t Read (1955), accused American reading psychologists of aiding and abetting a Moscow-based attack on American youth by stressing word recognition approaches to early reading (Luke, 1988). The great debate over who had the best, most efficient, and “true” psychological model of reading—and, relatedly, about whose textbooks, tests, and instructional schemes should be bought and used—continues to this day. However, the current manifestation in what we might term “reading wars” has been between advocates of direct instruction in psychologically defined skills and those who advocate progressive, holistic approaches to reading. The latter have been strongly influenced by psycholinguistic and cognitive theories that define reading in terms of the construction of meanings. Like the earlier debate between phonics and word advocates, the current debate is being waged in terms of who has the “true” psychological, “intra-organistic” (Halliday, 1978) explanation of reading, and of which model is most “efficient” at delivering reading competence.

I would argue that the terms of these reading wars have been fundamentally misconstrued (and misrepresented) by the participants. Since the early twentieth century turn from overtly ideological approaches to reading, reading experts and state school authorities, supported by governments and industry, have succeeded in “changing the subject”—in redefining reading as psychological skills, in redefining the reader as a skilled worker, and in redefining teaching as the neutral transmission of skills. What technocratic models of education fail to recognize is that reading is always tied up with the formation of moral values and identities, political ideologies and beliefs, and the construction and distribution of particular kinds of textual practice, authority, and power.

In this light, the cultural limitations and political blind spots of conventional reading instruction are not simply errors of instructional emphasis and timing. Research in the psychology and pedagogy of reading has a long history of shunting normative social and cultural issues to the sidelines of instruction, as subordinate to the acquisition of cognate skills, whether described as “basic,” “functional,” or “higher-order” text-processing strategies. These key theoretical and practical omissions are continuing characteristics of cognitive and psycholinguistic approaches to reading. Schema theories of reading, for example, recognize the relationship between structured, culture-specific background knowledge that readers bring to texts and the knowledge demands of text. However, such models stop short of recognizing how knowledges and texts can be ideological, that is, how particular knowledge structures operate in the interests of social configurations of power (Freebody, Luke, & Gilbert, 1991). In this way, psychological versions of reading tend to privatize and individuate social and cultural knowledge. Where comprehension and critique are defined as matters of the personal deployment of individualized knowledge resources, a socially critical model of reading is not possible.


The foregoing is a story about how reading has evolved and been defined in relation to particular industrial, economic, and political agendas. I have drawn principally from work on the North American emergence of progressive and technocratic approaches to literacy; Australian and British patterns would vary (e.g., Green, Hodgens, & Luke, 1994). I have suggested that the “truth” claims of psychological, linguistic, psycholinguistic, and literary theories have not been the central factors in the definition of reading and literacy. Rather, the normative agendas of governments and their attendant school systems, class and industrial interests, larger cultural and economic changes, have driven the selection and framing of particular approaches. This is particularly important to bear in mind when “reading” the politics of literacy and whose interests are involved, in, for instance, the most recent enthusiasm for work-place literacy linguistic audits, key competences, and so forth. Whether such models are “true” has less to do with their pedagogical value than with the larger political forces vying to shape literacy, literate workers, and citizens into the next century. Those of us who build, propose, and implement models of literacy training are constrained and enabled by these same politics and power relations.

I would here want to draw attention to three aspects of this history:

1. Even and especially where it has been framed in terms of culturally neutral, universal skills, reading has been used in literate cultures as a way of forming or shaping up particular kinds of moral and social identities. In effect, there is not a “right way” to read, but rather differing approaches to reading shape or form up what will count as reading differently—from literary recitation to baseline decoding, from scriptural memorization to word recognition, to doing job tasks and filling in forms “effectively.”

2. Tied up with this has been the formation of a canon, the sanctioning of particular topics and contents—an ideological field—deemed worth reading and writing about.

3. Reading instruction constructs a relationship between text and reader. This relationship is not one that is “reflexive” or “interactional” as described in cognitive and psycholinguistic theory, but it is a social relationship in which the relative authority/agency of text and reader is shaped up—it is, in sum, a relationship of knowledge and power.

Let me take this third point further. When we teach reading we teach relationships of authority—of where texts can be criticized, where they are fallible, where they can be questioned, when, by whom, under what auspices. Delpit (1988) has argued that there are codes and rules for what she calls “the culture of power,” a culture dominated by particular classes, and, we would have to add, racialized formation and genders. She goes on to argue that explicit knowledge about and access to that culture is prerequisite for power sharing or access—and that organic, progressive pedagogies systematically favor mainstream, middle-class children. I agree with Delpit’s argument. But I would argue that it is mistaken to assume that texts per se are imbued with power. Neither texts nor genres themselves have power (Luke, in press). Rather, they are sites and capillaries where relations of power are constituted and waged, and these relations are contestable (Foucault, 1987). Power is not something static that we carry around in our heads; nor is it the intrinsic property of the linguistic features of the text. Power is something that is done in local sites; power is “in your face.”

I mean contestable not in a broad revolutionary sense, but rather in terms of everyday struggles and transactions on the shop floor, in the marketplace, in the office. Relations of power are played out not solely in terms of the wielding of texts as metaphorical swords, between bosses and workers, between supervisors and assistants. Rather, they are part of the complex strategies and tactics of face-to-face relations in the work place. As McCormack (1992) recently pointed out, this entails deciding when to speak, when to be silent, when to commit something to print—or when that commission to writing may be used to indict you, your superiors, or your co-workers, or when to talk behind someone’s back. For example, as Game (1989) and Game and Pringle (1983) demonstrate, office work entails relationships of gendered power, subordination, and a comprehensive sexual economy. What I am suggesting is that there is more at stake in work than recognizing a genre, having a conscious grasp of its textual characteristics, and then deploying it or deciphering it. What is entailed in strategic literate practice is not only the mastery of linguistic rules and competences to construct a meaningful spoken and written text, but the “reading” of a set of social rules to decide whether to construct it at all, whether the institution and event are worth participating in, contesting, ignoring, dismissing with humor, and so forth (deCastell, Luke, & Maclennan, 1986).

Let me try to translate this into the issue of reading in adult education and ESL programs. If power is relational, and students learn in reading instruction a social relationship with the text, then reading instruction fixes a set of relational possibilities and constraints on what practices can be done with the text. In those conventional programs that stress so-called lower-order reading skills, or even those programs that stress so-called higher-order comprehension skills, the meaning of the text typically goes uncontested and unchallenged. Quite simply, where reading is conceived of as basic skills—whether decoding, word recognition, recall, or even “meaning-making”—pragmatic questions about the strategic place and use of the text in a context of situation tend to be subordinated, and critical questions about the veracity, validity, and political authority of the text tend to be silenced. As an alternative, I would argue for a model of reading that not only enables one to decode and construct messages, but that makes explicit and overt the social relations of power around the text, and places squarely on the table the issue of who is trying to do what, to whom, with and through the text.


Concepts of critical literacy in reading psychology are theoretically and practically limited. Where it is mentioned, critical reading is taken to refer to higher-order skills with text, such as the capacity to make semantic predictions, to infer and construct alternative outcomes and authorial intents, to spot propaganda and bias. In the first volume of Handbook of Reading Research, “critical reading” warrants only two comments: Baker and Brown (1984, p. 356) observe that in most American reading programs instruction in critical reading is developmentally delayed, and often given little more than token attention in comparison with, for example, the teaching of decoding or recall skills. Although they vary greatly, current instructional approaches construct reading as psycholinguistic and cognitive “processes” internal to the student reader. What is omitted from conventional psychological approaches is recognition of two key aspects of reading and texts. First, reading is not a private act but a social practice, not a matter of individual choice or proclivity but of learning the reading practices of an interpretive community. Second, texts are not timeless aesthetic objects or neutral receptacles for information. Rather they are important sites for the cross-generational reproduction of discourses and ideology, identity and power, within these same communities. In this sense, I would want to affirm the value of current emphases of many programs: teaching people how to crack the “code” of written language and how to “construct meaning,” as much of the aforementioned psychological literature suggests. But I would argue that these pragmatic and critical dimensions of reading practice are equally essential aspects of reading practice.

Accordingly, Freebody and I have developed a model to describe what we see as four key elements of proficient, critical reading as social practice in late-capitalist societies (see Figure #1). You will recall that I concluded my historical overview noting the inescapable moral regulation in reading. Here we argue that the following model of reading is not “true” in a scientific sense—but rather that it is normative statement about what we think reading should entail in the institutional life of a democratic multicultural state (Freebody & Luke, 1990). In what follows, I review some of the challenges that each presents to students and teachers. Because of the vast research literature and current instructional concentration on coding and semantic competence, I here concentrate on pragmatic and critical competence, and provide some examples of the latter in action.


Mastery of the technology of written script requires engagement with two aspects of the technology: the relationship between spoken sounds and written symbols, and the contents of that relationship. Early difficulties with the acquisition of proficiency with the structured nature of spoken language and its components can be major factors in reading failure and can lead to avoidance strategies that extend far beyond primary schooling. These findings are corroborated in Johnston’s (1985) study of adult illiterates, who reported that they experienced “success” in early reading instruction through memory and the use of pictorial aids, but that their lack of resources for contending with the technology of writing became a source of withdrawal and failure in school.


We are not here providing justification for isolated “skill-and-drill” approaches to phonics and word recognition, for learning decontextualized spelling and grammatical rules. For learning to read effectively entails far more than this. Instead, we argue that knowledge of the alphabet, grapheme/phoneme relationships, left-to-right directionality, and so forth is a necessary but not sufficient condition for using literacy for particular social functions in actual contexts. As Cole and Griffin (1986) suggest, it is a matter of providing understandings of what that technology entails and of practicing its use with the aid of an accomplished text user. Part of mastering that technology entails learning one’s role as text participant.


By semantic competence, we refer to development of those knowledge resources to engage the meaning systems of text. Cognitive, literary, and semiotic theories of reading together stress the importance of topical and textual knowledge in the reading of new texts and genres. In effect, readers bring complex “intertextual resources” to reading (Luke, 1994b), a stock of knowledge built up from prior readings of texts of various media, everyday community experiences, and so forth. These resources are neither universal nor wholly idiosyncratic, but tend to take on culture-specific configurations and patterns, drawing from extant ideologies and discourses available in particular interpretive communities.

This signals that the use of texts about which learners have limited background knowledge can be a hindrance to comprehension. This would be particularly significant in the case of instruction for ethnic and linguistic minorities, where learners bring divergent bodies of cultural knowledge and semantic resources to bear on the text. However, beyond the use of “relevant” text, it also underlines the need for explicit instructional introduction to those texts and genres that make new culture- and even gender-specific meaning demands on students (Luke, 1994a).


A reader may be a fluent decoder and able to construct meaning, but be wholly unfamiliar with how, where, and to what end a text might be used. As ample ethnographic studies now demonstrate, reading occurs in boundaried, identifiable literacy events (Barton, 1994; Heath, 1988). These events are far from spontaneous and arbitrary but occur in the contexts of institutional life and entail social relations of power. There readers learn what the culture counts as an adequate use of reading in a range of school, work, leisure, and civil contexts. In the structured language games around text, particular conventions are in play regarding how to get the floor, turn-taking procedures, what can be said about a text, by whom, when, and so forth. To use a simple bank form, for example, one cannot just read and fill out the form, but one needs to know the rules for the service transaction within which the form is used. This contextual characteristic of reading practice has been a long-standing concern of communicative approaches to English as a Second Language. However, it tends to be omitted in those approaches to reading that stress behavioral and cognitive skills.

Views of reading as a private, internal act are very much a legacy of both monastic traditions of scriptural exegesis and of nineteenth-century Romantic models of reading, which were featured in, for instance, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and were the object of satire in works like Madame Bovary. There literacy is defined as a technology of the self, as a means for the conduct of an internal mental life. But if we view literacies as social practices undertaken with others, then indeed students are required to learn what to do with text in a broad range of social contexts. Whether one is trying to make sense of a loan contract, planning a job-related task, or participating in a classroom lesson about a text, one needs to know how to “do” reading as a pragmatic, face-to-face competence. Being a successful text user, then, entails developing and practicing social and socio-linguistic resources for participating in “what this text is for, here and now.”


One may be able to decode a passage of text adequately, and bring to bear the relevant knowledge resources to make sense of a text, and further be able to use the text to meet particular purposes at work, school, or home. But all of these can remain fundamentally acritical procedures: that is, they can entail accepting, without question, the validity, force, and value of the text in question. Written texts are not neutral, transparent windows on the realities of the social and natural world (Voloshinov, 1986). Rather, they are refractive; that is, they actively construct and represent the world. To read critically, then, requires awareness of and facility with techniques by which texts and discourses construct and position human subjects and social reality. Recent models of critical reading as discourse critique set out to engage students in the practices of critiquing reading, writing, and speaking practices, such that the political power and knowledge relations expressed and represented by texts and discourses are foregrounded (Baker & Luke, 1991). Their purpose is to engage readers directly and actively in the politics of discourse in contemporary cultures, to open institutional sites and possibilities for alternative “readings” and “writings.”

The theoretical parameters for a discourse-analytic approach to reading are drawn from poststructuralist and feminist discourse theories, systemic functional linguistics, and neo-Marxian cultural studies (Fairclough, 1992). Kress (1985) outlines how texts construct “subject positions” and “reading positions.” That is, texts both represent and construct “subjects” in the social and natural world, and they position and construct a model reader. The lexical, syntactic, and semantic devices of texts thus portray a “possible world,” and they position the reader to read or interpret that possible world in particular ways. Accordingly, a discourse-analytic approach to critical reading would include, for instance, an understanding of how words and grammatical structures shape portrayals of the world, human agency, cause and effect, and so forth. It might also foreground some of the linguistic techniques that texts use to define and manipulate readers (e.g., imperatives, modality, pronominalization).

These devices for building up possible worlds and social relations are most obvious in texts like newspaper and magazine articles, advertisements, commercial and political pamphlets, and, not surprisingly, textbooks. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from a secondary school “Social Issues” curriculum used in one Australian school:

Think of your own family. You are probably aware that you belong to a separate group in society. You feel that you are in some ways “different” from the Browns or the Smiths across the road. Each member of your family plays a number of roles. You may look up to your father or mother as the “head of the family” or the “family breadwinner.” Your mum or dad, for their part, will expect you to behave in certain ways— to help out with the dishes or in the garage, for example.

The version of a monocultural social order built up here is readily identifiable and contestable in classroom talk. A version of the ideal, Anglonuclear family is built up through this “nonfiction,” with the Browns and Smiths across the road, and two parents who expect you to do dishes and clean the garage. But the reading position is established through the use of the imperative—“Think of your own family,” which literally tells you what to do when you read. Further, the reader is constructed and positioned by the use of pronominalization (“you,” “your”), which depicts your identity in relation to your “separate group” and the social “other.” Classroom discussion of “what the text is trying to do to me” can begin from analyses of such allegedly nonfiction but value- and ideology-laden texts of everyday life (for classroom frames and strategies, see Fairclough, 1992, and Freebody et al., 1991).

The model I am forwarding here is not some kind of academic “deconstruction” or “ideology critique” divorced from everyday life; it is essential for dealing with apparently quite straightforward and innocent workplace texts like job applications and consumer documents like credit forms and loan applications. These too have powerful positioning devices that bear debate and discussion, careful consideration before signing on the dotted line. Consider the following text, an extract from the current Real Estate Institute of Queensland Agreement for Tenancy of Residential Premises (n.d.):

The Tenant hereby covenants and agrees with the Landlord . . .

(e) Damage by the Tenant—To repair at the Tenant’s expense within a reasonable time damage to the premises [sic] furniture, fixtures and fittings caused by the willful or negligent conduct of the Tenant or persons coming into or upon the premises with his [sic] consent.

(f) Nuisance—To conduct himself [sic] and to ensure that other persons in the premises conduct themselves in a manner that will not cause disturbance or be a nuisance or an annoyance to adjoining or neighboring occupiers. (p. 2)

In this text as well, we encounter yet another construction of an ideal social order of [male] tenants, a set of moral codes governing behavior, and so forth. But there is more to this than just a set of legal sanctions and an attendant “dominant ideology” at work. The moral description here is polysemous, subject to interpretation. To read and sign this, and to put down your first and last months’ rents and deposit, is to effectively open yourself up to someone’s (the landlord’s? the magistrate’s? your solicitor’s?) interpretation and “reading” of your behavior. The positioning of the reader/tenant is complete: Your fate pivots on the ambiguity of the terms reasonable, willful, negligent, nuisance, and annoyance. You (and your students) might be well advised to consider and clarify these meanings and implications before you sign and pay.

My third example is a job application used by a major national fast-food franchise that requires applicants to read and reply to typical questions about contact addresses, driver’s license, health history, banking details, and so forth. A further series of questions concerns “personal history,” asking about education and “previous employment history” (5 blanks)—asking the applicant to specify “company name,” “phone no.,” and “reason for leaving.” The form concludes by asking the applicant, among other things: “Do you agree to join a union?” “Reason for applying for the job?” “Do you like shift work?” “Any hobbies?”

Is filling out a form such as this just a matter of decoding, constructing meanings, and truth-telling? I do not think so. To “read” and respond “appropriately” to these questions requires a careful second guessing of how the text is trying to construct an ideal (fast-food) worker, and to position me, the applicant, to respond. To answer, and to get the job, requires something far more complex than simply telling the truth. It requires that I second-guess these constructions and positionings and come up with a strategy for answering. The first set of basic information is relatively straightforward, except for those unemployed who might not have a fixed address: Do I reveal this? Do I reveal that I live in “that” end of town? Or do I offer the “half-truth” of listing a friend or relative’s address? Regarding my previous employment history: Do I list all the jobs I have held? Only related ones? The ones where I had a dispute with the manager? Do I give my reason for leaving (e.g., “I couldn’t stand the place”; “I messed up”; “sexual harassment”)? Or a euphemism or decoy (e.g., “relocated to another city”)? Finally: Will “agreement to join a union” help me get this job? Deter me? I guess the latter depends on what state I live in, the particular kind of job in question, and so forth.

My point is that there is far more to reading here than simply deciphering requests for information, processing those requests, and responding truthfully. Just as the textbook passage and the tenancy agreement prescribe versions of the world, so does this job application, where the ideal applicant/reader is constructed and positioned to respond.

By “critical competence,” then, I refer to the development of a meta-language for talking about how texts code cultural ideologies, and how they position readers in subtle and often quite exploitative ways. My argument is that in order to contest or rewrite a cultural text, one has to be able to recognize and talk about the various textual elements and features at work. I offer these critical readings as examples for what could be discussed in relation to functional texts; I would argue strongly that no one meta-language can be set by government curricula or institutional edict. Differing literate communities develop ways of talking critically about texts, in interaction with key “primary discourses” (Gee, 1990) and extant registers in people’s lives.

The approach I have outlined here does not aim for effective “comprehension,” the valorization of the “power” of literature, the “liberation” of “voice,” or, for that matter, the development of esoteric skills of “deconstruction.” Rather it sets out to teach critical reading as “an understanding of how texts are public artifacts available to critique, contestation and dispute” (Freebody et al., 1991, p. 453). To those working with this model in syllabus and program design I would underline two crucial qualifications:

1. Each element is necessary but not sufficient for a critical literacy. Just as stressing the code at the expense of meaning will not suffice, doing Freire-style critical analysis and not attending to issues of students’ intertextual resources or cracking the code in, for example, an adult ESL class may present problems.

2. This is not a developmental sequence or cycle or taxonomy. Hence, these should not be construed as “stages” or “levels” to be dealt with in turn. In the study of all texts at all stages in our programs, we should rigorously look to ask ourselves what kinds of code, meaning, and pragmatic and critical demands and possibilities are in play.


I have not devoted sufficient time to outlining the New Times of a globalized, post-Fordist economy and what this might mean for industry restructuring, for adult basic education, and, more importantly, for the growing ranks of the structural unemployed. The questions of where and how literate work is being skilled and deskilled, of which work places are requiring robotic skills and which are engaging workers in more creative, autonomous textual work, of which work places will and can remain viable in a transnational division of labor, are issues being taken up in this country and overseas (e.g., Gee, 1995; Lankshear, 1993; Wood, 1989).

To conclude, I want to restate the case for the kind of critical reading I have here described. Conventional reading programs, both humanist and skills-based, tend to developmentally delay the introduction of critical textual analysis, assuming that basic reading and writing skills are required before students can engage with larger value and ideology systems in texts. The Freebody and Luke (1990) model makes the case that all adult and child readers need to learn a diversity of literate competences. It does not tell teachers, curriculum developers, and teacher educators, yet again, that they have been “wrong” about the teaching of reading. It simply shows them how they have been shaping reading and its normative social outcomes in particular ways, defining the horizons for what will count as literacy in particular moral and political directions. And it argues that whether you as a teacher have been emphasizing cracking the code, or making meaning, or even talking about personal responses to politics and literature, your approach is potentially part of a broader, more comprehensive description of what reading practice could be about.

The question of how and what to teach as reading is not solely a pedagogical question; it is not one of finding the right behaviorist or cognitive, linguistic, or psycholinguistic theory of reading. We have been down that road for the past 100 years and it has not “solved” the problem. Rather it has deferred it. Reading is a sociological and, ultimately, a political question. The question of what will count as critical reading in literate cultures cannot be addressed solely by reference to literary descriptions of the virtues of literature, psychological descriptions of mental processes, or linguistic descriptions of texts. How nations, communities, and school systems decide to shape the social practices of reading is a normative cultural and sociological decision, tied up with how power and knowledge are to be constructed and distributed in print cultures. This is what the current policy debates are all about; it is what the national competency profiles are all about; and, ultimately, it is what our classroom practice is all about.

Western late-capitalist cultures center on semiotic exchange, where signs, symbols, and discourse have become the principle modes of economic exchange and value. Reading is clearly essential for participation in the lived realities of everyday life, childhood, work, and leisure. But to become a functional reader may, quite ironically, make one more susceptible to the discourses and texts of a consumer culture that at every turn builds and defines readers’ identities and actions, and their very senses of “reality.” That is, possession of rudimentary decoding, pragmatic, and semantic skills to construct and use meaning from text may appear “empowering,” but in fact it may open one to multiple channels of misinformation and exploitation: You may become just literate enough to get yourself badly in debt, exploited, or locked out. In this kind of literate environment, conventional skills models, personal growth and reader response, and comprehension teaching may fall short of meeting the necessities of social participation and citizenship. Critical reading would have to entail an explicit understanding of both how texts are ideological and how reading is a potential avenue toward constructing and remaking the social and natural worlds. Classroom instruction can be reshaped to enable students to read and write “differently,” to see, discuss, and counter the techniques that texts use to position and construct their very identities and relations.

Some would claim that these critical, political issues are at the heart of higher-order elite literature study—that they are not central to adult education, migrant education, or prison education, where many are struggling with the code. Certainly, this is what is implied in those proficiency scales that place literary reading on higher-order levels. Further, you may be thinking that for the client in an adult literacy program or a recent migrant, basic skills are what count, that your clients, for instance, need to read to operate a forklift effectively, or, for that matter, to wire an electrical item without electrocuting themselves. I think that we can all come up with instances where the automaticity and accuracy of reading is warranted. But even these texts are potentially fallible, polysemous, and suiting particular interests: All texts prescribe and endorse possible worlds. As Gee’s (1990) widely cited analysis of an ostensibly innocent aspirin-bottle label suggests, there is a whole approach to medicalization, to illness, to diagnostics and treatment of illness, to multinational pharmaceutical corporations, to physician/patient relations, on your local Bayer label. There is, likewise, a whole universe of gender relations constructed on women’s “personal hygiene” products, and, for that matter, a whole universe of how to run vehicles and appliances in instruction manuals, which insist you use more of the makers’ unnecessary products. Is it absolutely essential to use Ford parts? Or Ford brake fluid in your forklift? Will other brands do? Is it in your best interests to fill out this form and take out this VISA card at 21 percent interest in the first place? Gee’s point is that there are economic interests, power relations, and, crucially, judgments involved in all everyday texts, the kind we teach with and about in adult basic education and English as a Second Language programs.

So I disagree with those who claim that learning critical skepticism, that learning critique, is some kind of bourgeois add-on, unnecessary for marginal clientele. Judgments about what to buy, what to comply with, when to argue back, whether to get angry or hold your peace, how to argue back in speech and writing, are key moves and moments in the politics of everyday life, not frills, added extras, or luxuries for literacy training. For recent migrants—just as for my grandfather and grandmother when they moved into a new culture, new jobs, new communities—what to say, what to do, when to comply, when to disagree, are not luxuries. In discriminatory work markets, in situations where you cannot get proper housing because of your color or class, in hard times whether the 1930s or now, in the midst of structural unemployment, these are crucial life decisions, around which migrant, working-class, and women’s groups develop a “folk wisdom.” From my father—a Chinese-American printer, actor, and social worker who ran into a succession of dead-end jobs in the 1930s and 1940s—the axiom was: “When the white boss tells you what to do, you agree, then go off and do what you think needs to be done.” Whether you agree with it or not, this bit of folk wisdom embodies a theory of institutional power relations, of everyday pragmatic survival, and of criticism. (I think he was telling me that the bosses in his day were idiots.)

This is the sociological and cultural “stuff” that many mainstream adult basic education ESL programs and school-based reading programs never raise. They are more likely to tell me to read and comply “appropriately,” “effectively,” and “efficiently.” Yet the emergent work-place and community social relations of New Times are well underway in some sites. The globalization of economies and cultures, the transformation from manufacturing to service work, cuts both ways. For each documented instance of new forms of productive diversity, new forms of exploitation, of exclusion, of marginalization, have also emerged (Hall, 1991). In this context, it would appear that “basic skills” and narrowly defined and behaviorally specified job skills may simply render one ready for obsolescence and exploitation in a fluid job market characterized by rapid sector change and structural unemployment.

Pierre Bourdieu repeatedly points out that one never simply learns language and literacy, but, more importantly, one learns a “disposition” toward language and literacy, a social relation to texts and textuality (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1989). It is this relation that comes to count as a marker for the achievement of literate competence, perhaps more so than any single identifiable skill or knowledge. At the heart of contemporary curriculum—whether phonics or word recognition, progressivist or classicist, skills-based or humanist, explicit or implicit—is the teaching of the authority of print culture. Beginning in early childhood education children are taught variously to “understand” and “comprehend,” “appreciate” and “experience,” literature. Where it is dealt with at all, a skeptical, questioning relation to written texts and text knowledge is considered a later developmental achievement—somewhere down the line in schooling or up the scale on Huey or Piaget or Kohlberg’s moral levels.

The opportunity we have is to construct and develop a reading instruction that foregrounds ways of working with, talking about and talking back to, and second-guessing texts. In the larger context of work-place reform and social justice, a critical social literacy that values critique, analysis, innovation, and appraisals for action may be of social, economic, and political benefit for the community, for the individual, and ultimately for the nation.

The model of reading proposed here is the result of work with Peter Freebody, whose ideas figure centrally in the section “Critical Reading in New Times.” An extended, collaborative exposition of the model will appear in Freebody, Luke, Gee, & Street (forthcoming).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 1, 1995, p. 95-115
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1411, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 6:14:37 PM

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