GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

"I read it so it must be true"...

The importance of critical literacy skills has never been clearer to ensure young people can question the truth of what they read, watch and click

With fake news never far from the headlines, it’s increasingly vital that teachers provide learners with the critical tools and thinking skills to ask powerful questions about a text’s provenance, accuracy, authority and purpose. The need for such criticality has been amply illustrated by the findings of a recent Ofcom survey of UK-based children and young people’s news consumption, which found that 22 per cent of 8 to 11 year-olds believed the information they read on news apps or websites to be true, while 20 per cent of 12 to 15 year-olds also placed complete trust in the veracity of the news sources they encountered online (Ofcom 2016).

My students talk about what they read, think and feel, and they are learning that others can think and feel differently


More recently, a review by the National Literacy Trust (Picton and Teravainen 2017) has concluded that children and young people in England lack the critical literacy skills that would enable them to analyse, problematise or ‘read between the lines’ of the texts on- and off-line. Based on these findings, a Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools has been launched by the Westminster-based All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy, with the express purpose of finding out whether, where and how critical literacy is taught in England’s schools, and how it can be more firmly embedded into everyday classroom practices.

A Questioning Attitude

Gary Murray, a probationer primary teacher in the Scottish Borders, has used critical literacy to engage children with themes of refugees and migration:
“My own teaching experiences have allowed me to recognise the tremendous impact that critical literacy can have on children’s thinking. For example, I have observed children beginning to develop a questioning attitude after becoming aware that language can be used to influence and manipulate people. Similarly, I have watched children display massive changes in attitudes through becoming affectively engaged with social justice issues, and by developing the skills to resist unjust discourses. Most importantly, I have worked with children who have recognised their potential to become agents of change, who can pave the way towards a more sustainable future by taking action.”

In Scotland, knowledge and understanding of critical literacy is currently just as unclear, with only patchy guidance available for teachers. In the Literacy Across Learning Principles and Practice paper, critical literacy is labelled as “important skill” that can enable readers to work out “what trust they should place on … information and to identify when and how people are aiming to persuade or influence them” (Scottish Government 2004).

While we agree that being able to identify the impact of bias is a crucial part of being critically literate, we would also argue that there is a great deal more to critical literacy than simply spotting stereotypes. Yet such detail is not provided in official documentation and, aside from a couple of brief mentions, the concept of critical literacy is not explained or theorised for the benefit of practitioners.

We would argue that there is a great deal more to critical literacy than simply spotting stereotypes

To some extent, this lack of official clarity is helpful because as Allan Luke has explained, critical literacy is not a method or checklist that can be universally applied, but is better understood as an “attitude” or stance that can pervade the teaching of all text types (2000). Consequently, pinning critical literacy down to one definitive explanation is highly problematic, with many scholars recommending that teachers are best to ‘discover’ critical literacy for themselves. However, the lack of official guidance for Scottish teachers is also troubling, not only because it limits the potential of critical literacy to flourish and to be more widely understood, but also because it means that the common conflation of critical literacy with critical thinking (à la Bloom’s Taxonomy) can continue unchallenged and unabated.
As this last point begins to suggest, critical literacy and critical thinking are not one and the same, despite the similarities in name. Rooted in the critical social theories of Paulo Freire, critical literacy is an approach that encourages learners to question and challenge taken-for-granted assumptions through an analysis of language and power. According to Ira Shor, the critical education pioneer, critically literate reading habits go “beneath surface meaning… to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event, object [or], process…(1992: 129).”

Giving pupils an opportunity to apply skills and knowledge

Ian Armstrong, an experienced primary teacher from Midlothian, has used comics to explore issues of gender, and has focused on the reliability of online sources:

“I like to think of critical literacy as an engagement with a higher level of analysis, one beyond mere text level analysis. Thinking about it this way, I can regularly include critical literacy in my reading lessons, for example, when composing comprehension questions or prompts for literature circle discussions."

"Critical literacy provides excellent opportunities for pupils to develop the ability to apply knowledge and skills in new and unfamiliar contexts. Most obviously, writing and listening and talking skills can be applied when pupils are engaging in critical analysis of texts, but there is also tremendous scope for interdisciplinary learning.”

For Isabel Braadbaart, a primary probationer at work in Peterhead, critical literacy is “a tool for understanding and improving the world” that she is currently using to enhance her teaching of “the everyday basics” within her Primary Two classroom. She notes: “My students are busy learning how texts work, breaking the codes of phonics and making connections to their own lives. They talk about what they read, think and feel, and they are learning that others can think and feel differently. These early processes are at the heart of critical literacy. This is the beginning of a long journey, but these early steps help us to respect, utilise and question the power of words in our lives.”

Against this backdrop of fake news, social media and complex multimodal texts, interest in critical literacy is growing globally, with an increasing number of classroom-based researchers already exploring how teachers can support learners’ development of a critical perspective at every stage, including - and especially - the early years. As the work of Barbara Comber in Australia, Hilary Janks in South Africa and Vivian Vasquez in Canada has shown (see Reading List), teachers can respond to the social issues raised by their learners by supporting their use of language practices to take action for change. Seminal texts by these scholars have already had a significant shaping effect on current understandings of how it might be possible to ‘do’ critical literacy.

Yet far less is known about how to ‘do’ critical literacy in a Scottish context, with only a handful of studies directly addressing the issue. To help plug this gap, we want teachers to talk to us about critical literacy, both on-line and in person, in order to share views, approaches, questions and dilemmas about what critical literacy is and its potential. Starting off with a blog and forum, we hope to pool teachers’ knowledge about critical literacy, which we then plan to disseminate as widely as possible in 2018 and beyond. Please join us and add your voice to our conversation about critical literacy in Scotland!

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Reading list

Comber, B. (2003) “Critical Literacy: What Does It Look Like in the Early Years?” in Hall,
N., Larson, J. and Marsh, J. (eds) Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy, London: SAGE, pp. 355-368.

Janks, H. (2010) Literacy and Power. Abingdon, Routledge.

Luke, A (2000) “Critical Literacy in Australia: A matter of context and standpoint”,
 Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43(5), pp. 448-461.

Ofcom (2016). Children and parents: media use and attitudes report, London: Ofcom. Available from:

Picton, I. and Teravainen, A. (2017) “Fake news and critical literacy: An evidence re-view,” The National Literacy Trust. Available from:

Shor, I. (1992) Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change, Chicago: University of Chicago Books.

Vasquez, V. (2010) Getting Beyond “I like the book”: Creating spaces for critical literacy in K-6 Classrooms, International Reading Association.