Literary Criticism in the English Classroom:Using Critical Literacy in Literary Analysis By: Andrew Hitchcox

"Language is the prime medium through which pupils learn and express themselves across the curriculum, and all teachers have a stake in effective literacy."-Andy Goodwyn

1. Objectives of this Wiki | 2. Introduction & Overview | 3. How do We Define Literacy to Students? | 4. Developing Critical Thought in Secondary English Classrooms | 5. Why Should We Implement Critical Literacy? | 6. Critical Literacy in Practise

1. Objectives of this Wiki

This page is designed to assist educators with implementing critical thought processes into the Ontario Secondary English curriculum. As a result, students will grasp a better understanding of how to approach texts as well as other forms of literacy in a critical manner. The objectives of this wiki include:
  • To provide an understanding of critical literacy
  • To show the correlation between literary criticism and critical literacy
  • To show how critical literacy is an essential part of a student's progress within the Language Arts
  • To compare research and educational theories on literary criticism with mandates in the Ontario Secondary English curriculum
  • To provide lesson ideas, resources and publications that can assist educators in teaching their students the importance of viewing all forms of literacy in critical terms

2. Introduction & Overview

The ability to critically evaluate literature has become an important part in modern English classrooms. In the revised 2007 Ontario Secondary English Curriculum, it states that language and literacy should be designed for students to become 'aware of the many purposes for which language is used and the diverse forms it can take' (p. 3). Essentially this mandate suggests that students need to be aware of not only how literacy is used but what the implications of literacy can be. In order for this to happen, the Ontario curriculum suggests that students become familiar with what has been labelled critical literacy. The curriculum defines critical literacy as:

'The capacity for a particular type of critical thinking thatinvolves looking beyond the literal meaning of texts toobserve what is present and what is missing, in oder toanalyse and evaluate a text's complete meaning and theauthor's intent. Critical literacy goes beyond conventionalthinking in focusing on issues related to fairness, equity,and social justice. Critically literate students adopt acritical stance, asking what view of the world the textadvances and whether they find this view acceptable.'(pg. 110)
This wiki is designed to explore how teachers can effectively adapt critical literacy into English classrooms. By teaching students to view literature through a more critical perspective we are allowing them to develop the skills to view other forms of literacy (i.e. media, historical documents, etc.) in a similar fashion.

3. How do We Define Literacy to Students?


Although this wiki is dealing with a very specific form of literacy (critical literacy), it is important for teachers to provide their students with a general understanding of what it means for one to be 'literate'. However this can be more complicated than expected. What was once generally viewed as a term describing the ability to read and write has now become a much larger concept. In his essay entitled Defining Literacy, Peter Roberts argues that 'the term literacy is thus always a kind of misnomer; an inadequate way of describing the myriad specific literacies' (p. 422). He continues by stating that 'there is no core definition of literacy to which we can turn as a benchmark for testing the validity of particular defintions: particulars are all we have' (p. 422). Essentially what Roberts is arguing is that the word literacy is defined by the concept(s) that are being used or discussed (i.e. media literacy, technological literacy, etc.)

As educators we should be aware of the broadness the word 'literacy' has obtained. Students should be taught that to be literate is more than just reading and writing, it is the ability for them to function within a vast amount of environments and situations to the best of their abilities.

The following video provides interviews with both elementary and secondary teachers, explaining how approaches to literacy within schools have changed dramatically:

Of course not all forms of literacy mentioned in the video apply to what this wiki is discussing. However it is important for students to know that being literate goes well beyond school; being literate is key in their critical thinking development both as students and members of their society.

4. Developing Critical Thought in Secondary English Classrooms

In his essay entitled Developing Critical Thinking in the Junior High School Frank T. Arone argues that students must feel that there is 'a need to know the material' teachers introduce in order for them to apply any critical thought (p. 456). In other words, Arone proposes that if students cannot see how what they are studying relates to their day-to-day life then they will have little interest in thinking critically about any implications of the source material. Therefore it is for a student's own good that lessons are constructed to form some sort of vested interest.

Secondary English classrooms allow for many opportunities to engage students personally with textual materials. Because most literature is by nature an interpretive art form, English teachers can frame their lessons in a manner that allows for students to view material through their own perspectives.

The following video features American teacher and playwright Laura Turner explaining suggestions as to how Shakespeare can be introduced and used by intermediate and senior students:

Notice the overall theme of making Shakespearean texts relevant to a student's own life. It is essential for English teachers to realize that personal connections with classical literature (or all literature, for that matter) are often the most significant factor in a student's ability to critically examine these texts.

American teacher Traci Gardner has created a lesson plan which allows students to view Romeo & Juliet by having students re-tell the play in modern times. Specifically, she asks her students to create character profiles using technology. For example, how would Romeo and Juliet communicate if they had cell phones, instant messaging, Facebook, etc. By asking and answering these questions, students are expected to 'not only identify underlying meaning in the play itself but also find echoes of the drama's theme and subject in the modern world' (Gardner). By letting students see the story of Romeo & Juliet in a context that they are familiar with then they are more likely to view the play in a critical matter and be able to analyse what is going on within the play.
Essentially by having students see how literature reflects their own lives creates an instant personal connection with a text. As we see in Traci Gardner's lesson plan, students are given more opportunity to discover thoughtful and provocative questions regarding a text when they can personally relate to its characters (i.e. Why did he/she make a particular decision?, Would I have made the same choice?, etc.). By addressing these questions students will hopefully be able to think in a larger framework and, with assistance from their teacher, begin to question why an authors intent and decisions - a crucial element to literary analysis.

5. Why Should We Implement Critical Literacy?

'Critical literacy practitioners accept that language is never neutral or value free.'-Michele Knobel
'Teachers must invite and make space for discussions that are of concern to their students
in the classroom and the larger society.'-Michael J. Mitchell

In this video Allan Luke, who is a professor of Education at Queensland University in Australia, talks of how students are naturally participates in critical literacy. For teachers this video is important to watch as Luke explains that students of all educational levels are equipped with the necessary tools for teachers to implement critical literacy into their classroom.

As the Ontario curriculum suggests, including critical literacy in the English classroom will lead students to 'develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others and of the world around them' (p. 4). Much like the aforementioned importance of students having a personal connection with a text, letting them to see a text's themes within the political and social environments that surround them also allows students to think with their critical mind. In his essay entitled Teaching for Critical Literacy, Michael J. Mitchell argues that critical literacy is essential not only to develop a student's ability to analyse literature, but the world around them. He states:

'Teaching for critical literacy seeks to prepare students tocritique and question the texts they encounter rather thanaccept and absorb them. This adds, unarguably, a politicaldimension. A central goal of this approach is to promote adisposition and the necessary skills for working for socialjustice..Teachers of critical literacy seek to create learningenvironments that support personal transformation - thedevelopment of critical social consciousness - and theyprepare students to be both disposed to and prepared fortransforming the world into a better place to exist for allpeople.' (p. 225)
While Mitchell's argument may seem like a rather large task for teacher's to take on, it should be noted that by adding the elements he mentions into classroom study allows for students to think of literature as far more than just something to read. Critical literacy provides the opportunity for students to compare what they read to their own surroundings or social/political situations within the world. Attention to viewing literature in these terms can coincide with viewing an author's standpoint: Are there any social arguments that the author is making? What is an author saying about a certain societal issue? Do I agree with the author's argument? What is an author not saying in their work?
Critical literacy allows for students to think 'outside the box' and view literature as a document for human development. We as teachers can present literature to students in a manner that provides them with an opportunity to see how a text's themes and arguments are functioning in the world. Additionally, critical literacy in the English classroom provides students with the opportunity to use what they find within a text and use those ideas to critically think about and discover solutions to societal issues and injustices.

6. Critical Literacy in Practise

The following is a list of lesson plans and ideas that teachers may find useful. All items listed use some form of critical literacy to help students critically analyze literature.

1) Lord of The Flies - A unit plan (gr. 10/11)

This lesson plan (available as a downloadable PDF from the UBC online resource centre) created by Sarah Paulsen is designed to let students view a familiar text in a more socially conscious manner. Although teachers may not wish to follow this lesson step-by-step (and it is suggested that teachers should modify lesson plans according to their class), the essential concepts of this example allow for students to analyze the story by being critical literate analysts. Important elements of this plan include:

  • Relating the story of Lord of The Flies to modern society. Specifically, students are asked to question what rules are required to keep order in a civilization.
  • Discussing how the relevance and themes of Lord of The Flies is related to current political/social events happening globally and within a students own environment.
  • What does the text say about community? About how a society is built? About power (political and social) - These questions should also be related to a student's own thought on the issues brought up in the novel (i.e. What are my beliefs about power? Where have I seen/experienced power struggles? Who do I see as the most powerful/weakest in my society?)

Approaching Lord of The Flies in this manner allows for teachers to meet many expectations of the gr. 9/10 Ontario Secondary English Curriculum:

  • 'As a creative representation of life and experience, literature raises important questions about the human condition, now and in the past.' (p. 16)
  • '...understanding of texts, including increasingly complex texts, by making connections between the ideas in them and personal knowledge, experience, and insights; other texts; and the world around them.' (p. 74)
  • 'Identify and analyse the perspectives and/or biases evident in texts, including increasingly complex texts, and comment on any questions they may raise about beliefs, values, identity, and power.' (p. 74)

2) Twelfth Night - A Unit Plan (gr.9/10)

As mentioned previously, Shakespeare and other classical texts are often times the most complicated works for students to personally relate to. The language itself is daunting for most students and it can create a barrier between a student and the play. Twelfth Night is a very appropriate play for introducing junior high school students to Shakespeare as the themes and story can easily be made enjoyable and, most importantly, relatable.

This unit planon Twelfth Night provided by Penn State University approaches the play by asking several questions that most students have had some exposure to. Though this is a rather large example and teachers may want to pick-and-choose elements of it, the thematic questions is proposes are effective in allowing critical literacy to take place. Important aspects of this plan include:

  • Gender Roles - What role does gender play in Twelfth Night? Why would Viola decide to disguise herself as a man? Does gender representation in Twelfth Night reflect what society was like in England when Shakespeare wrote the play? (Note: These issues may seem like too complex to bring up within a gr. 9/10 classroom, however if discussed in a responsible manner, students should be able to view gender within the play in critical terms and question why Shakespeare has made certain arguments/insinuations.)
  • Tragedy in Comedy - Are there aspects of Twelfth Night that could be used in a tragedy? Why did Shakespeare make this play a comedy? Can we see experiences in our world that are both tragic and comedic? (Note: This theme allows for students to view the play in both a critical literary way as well as relating their analysis into their own world).

Approaching Twelfth Night allows for several curriculum expectations to be met including:

  • 'Make and explain inferences about both simple and complex texts, supporting their explanations with stated and implied ideas from the texts.' (p. 45)
  • 'Extend understanding of both simple and complex texts by making connections between the ideas in them and personal knowledge, experience, and insights; other texts; and the world around them.' (p. 46)
  • 'Analyse texts in terms of the information, ideas, issues, or themes they explore, examining how various aspects of the texts contribute to the presentation or development of these elements.' (p. 46)
  • 'Identify the perspectives and/or biases evident in both simple and complex texts and comment on any questions they may raise about beliefs, values, and identity' (pg. 46)

Sources Cited

Arone, Frank T. Developing Critical Thinking in the Junior High School. The Clearing House. Vol. 34, No. 8. Heldref Publications. April 1960. pp. 456-461.

Findlay, Kate. Goodwyn, Andy. Shaping Literacy in the Secondary School: Policy, Practise, and Agency in the Age of the National Literacy Strategy. British Journal of Educational Studies. Vol. 51, No. 1. Blackwell Publishing. Mar. 2003. pp.20-35.

Mitchell, M. Teaching for Critical Literacy: An Ongoing Necessity to Look Deeper and Beyond. English Journal. ProQuest Education Journals. Nov. 2006. pp.224-229.

Potter, Rosanne G. Literary Criticism and Literary Computing: The Difficulties of Synthesis. Computers and the Humanities. Vol. 22, No. 2. Springer. 1988. pp. 91-97.

Roberts, Peter. Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Harring. British Journal of Educational Studies. Vol. 43, No. 4. Blackwell Publishing. Society for Educational Studies. December 1995. pp. 412-432.

The Ontario Gr. 9 and Gr. 10 Revised Curriculum. Ministry of Education. 2007. <>