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What do we mean by critical? Implications and opportunities presented by the new SACE Literacy Strategy

Paul Sommer
Paul Sommer worked as the Literacy Project Officer in the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia (SSABSA) during the first half of 2005.

This week Curriculum Leadership publishes the second part of the article 'What do we mean by critical? Implications and opportunities presented by the new SACE Literacy Strategy'. Part one, featured in last week's edition, examined critical literacy as a disposition and in relation to social purposes. This article first appeared in Opinion, the journal of the South Australian English Teachers' Association (SAETA), Summer 2006.

Critical approaches as a framework

‘Critical approaches as a framework’ develops a position from which to view, define and practise literacy. It takes a 'big picture', organisational, structural perspective. The concern is how best to organise curricula.  It recognises literacy as a range of skills in several roles and modes. Researchers in this field typically identify three elements: the technical (my term to refer to structures and features of language: the nuts and bolts, the metaphors, images and rhythm in poetry; the camera angles, editing and music in film), the contextual and the critical.

In its excellent introduction to Critical Literacy, The Department of Education, Tasmania (2004) includes the following chart that compares two of the more influential frameworks: 

 Literacy frameworks

Luke and Freebody’s Four Resources Model

Bill Green’s Three Dimensions of Literacy Model

Code breaker


Text participant


Text user

Text analyst


This shows the kind of scope offered by frameworks. The 'critical' is presented as being one of several roles. However, it would be misleading to suggest that it is a separate role. All of the ‘roles’, ‘dimensions’ or ‘resources’ profoundly shape each other.

The federal government’s National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy (DEST 2004), offers eight definitions, in Briefing Paper Number 1, that reinforce these technical, contextual and critical elements of literacy practice [1]. The Four Resources Model has been most influential over the past five years and is the most broadly adopted by curriculum and support writers (eg MYREAD, The Learning Federation, Millennium) and a vast range of researchers [2].

Effective literacy draws on a repertoire of practices that allow learners, as they engage in reading and writing activities, to:

  • break the code of texts: recognising and using the fundamental features and architecture of written texts including: alphabet, sounds in words, spelling, conventions and patterns of sentence structure and text
  • participate in the meanings of text: understanding and composing meaningful written, visual and spoken texts from within the meaning systems of particular cultures, institutions, families, communities, nation-states and so forth
  • use texts functionally: traversing the social relations around texts; knowing about and acting on the different cultural and social functions that various texts perform both inside and outside school and knowing that these functions shape the way texts are structured, their tone, their degree of formality and their sequence of components
  • critically analyse and transform texts: understanding and acting on the knowledge that texts are not neutral, that they represent particular views and silence other points of view and influence people's ideas and that their designs and discourses can be critiqued and redesigned, in novel and hybrid ways.

The proposition here is that all of these repertoires are variously mixed and orchestrated in proficient reading and writing. The key concept in the model is necessity and not sufficiency: each is necessary for literacy in new conditions, but in and of themselves, none of the four families of practice is sufficient for literate citizen/subjects (DEST 2004, p.12).

The approach has an enduring place in shaping the way educators think about literacy for several reasons. It provides a structure for discussing literacy that does not set up models in competition with others. Other models can be seen as accommodated in the framework: phonics (code breaker); reader response (text participant); whole language (text user); critical (text analyst).

The Four Resources Model recognises that the four roles of a reader are 'necessary but not sufficient'. It is expressed in various ways: repertoire of practices, family of practices, map of possible practices, and the idea that there are no 'magic bullets':

we do not view how to teach literacy as a ‘scientific decision, but rather as a moral, political and cultural decision about the kind of literate practices that are needed to enhance people’s agency over their life trajectories … 

Any program of instruction in literacy, whether it be in kindergarten, in adult ESL classes, in university courses, or any points in between, needs to confront these roles systematically, explicitly, and at all developmental points (Luke & Freebody in Comber 2002, p. 8).

Recognising that competent readers do a range of things simultaneously, one might be less satisfied to teach a set of techniques without asking how they combine (conspire) to create meaning. One might be less likely to concentrate on our roles as teachers without recognising that students are actively using texts in particular ways. One might be less likely to set a reading task without 'setting it up' in some way.

Luke’s concern with narrow definitions of literate skills is not just that we might fail in their delivery, but that we might succeed. Literacy as narrow skills in limited text types might succeed in students’ mastery of those (limited) skills and types, but it would leave students unprepared for a complex world.

There is also a risk that our teaching [uncritically] might succeed – succeed at generating forms of reading and writing that don’t have much purchase or power in New times …. Essay writing as a preparation to enter and deal with employment possibilities and potential rip-offs of new, volatile service and information industries? (Luke 1998, p. 3)

He asserts that nothing will happen in school unless curriculum, pedagogy and assessment work together. Tinkering is counterproductive. For a body like SSABSA, it presents a challenge. SSABSA’s concern is assessment and curriculum design. What could and should SSABSA be doing in terms of pedagogy?

dealing with the ‘curriculum’ without reorienting ‘pedagogy’ isn’t good enough. And dealing with curriculum and pedagogy while ‘assessment and evaluation ‘ runs in another direction won’t help either. (Luke 1999, p. 3)

He goes on to discuss pedagogies in terms of ‘productive’ or ‘authentic’ pedagogies as 'an approach to creating a place, space and vocabulary for us to get talking about classroom instruction again.' (Luke 1999, p. 5)

The term ‘critical’ in SSABSA’s curriculum statements is a way of usefully discussing, or indicating, pedagogy without becoming prescriptive or doctrinaire. Once teachers acknowledge that the use of the term is ubiquitous and deliberate in curriculum statements [3] and start to consider exactly what is meant by it in each instance, we are well on the way to considering methodology. 'Critical' is very much about what people do. What teachers do. What students do. What participants and those being observed do. And why.

The sense of the dynamic is important. Otherwise, as Cervetti et al. 2001 warn, there is a danger of simply paying lip service.

While we do not want to essentialise critical literacy, we do feel that in the absence of these kinds of conversations, critical literacy and teaching for social justice could become meaningless and experience the fate of the whole language movement … when groups of educators, curriculum developers, and policy makers jumped on the bandwagon, appropriating and twisting its terms in ways that were radically different from and inconsistent with the tenets of whole language philosophy. (Cervetti et al. 2001, p. 10)

The aim of this paper has been not to argue for one critical position over another, though, for reasons discussed, educators interested in literacy should be aware of the Four Resources Model. Rather, the aim has been to consider what is mean when the term critical is used in documents such as SSABSA’s curriculum statements and in the light of a ‘new’ position with regard to literacy practices.

I have attempted to alert teachers to differing readings, uses and implications. It gets to the heart of what is asked of students, especially in Investigations or Investigative Studies and other extended research projects. In these, students will not be highly rewarded for passive collection and regurgitation of facts, but need to demonstrate critical engagement.


Cervetti, G, Pardales, MJ, & Damico, JS 2001, April. 'A tale of differences: Comparing the traditions, perspectives, and educational goals of critical reading and critical literacy', Reading Online, vol 4, no 9. Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/cervetti/index.html

Comber, B 2002, Critical Literacy: Maximising children’s investments in school learning, viewed 30 May 2005, http://www.unisa.edu.au

Department of Education, Tasmania, School Education Division 2004, English Learning Area: Critical literacy, viewed 20 June 2005, http://www.education.tas.gov.au/english/critlit.htm

Freebody P 1992, ‘A socio-cultural approach: resourcing four roles as a literacy learner’ in Prevention of reading failure, eds Watson & Badenshop,  Scholastic Australia, Lindfield.  Viewed 19 June 2005, http://www.myread.org/readings_freebody.htm

Lankshear, C & Knobel, M 2004, ‘Text-related roles of the digitally "at home"’, Paper presented to the American Educational Research Association, AGM, San Diego, 15 April 2004.  

Luke, A 1991, ‘Education 2010 and new times: why equity and social justice still matter, but differently', prepared for Education Queensland online conference, 20 October 1999.

Luke, A 1998, ‘Getting over method: literacy teaching as work in new times’, Language Arts NCTE: USA. Viewed 20 June 2005, http://www.schools.ash.org.au/litweb/page401.html

Luke, A 2000, ‘Critical literacy in Australia’, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, vol  43.

Luke, A & Freebody, P 1999, ‘A map of possible practices: further notes on the four resources model’, Practically Primary, vol 4, no 2.

McKenzie, J  ‘From now on’, The Educational Technology Journal, Vol 7, no 8, viewed 14 April 2005, http://www.fno.org/may98/cov98may.html#anchor241649

MyRead 2005, Strategies for teaching reading in the Middle Years, http://www.myread.org

Seaton, A 2002 ‘Reforming the hidden curriculum: The Key Abilities Model and four curricular forms’, viewed 30 May 2005, http://www.andrewseaton.com.au/reform.htm

SSABSA Online 2005, viewed 20 June 2005, http://www.ssabsa.sa.edu.au

SSABSA Support, 2005, viewed 20 June 2005, http://www.ssabsa.sa.edu.au/res-advice/index.htm

SSABSA Literacy, The new SACE Literacy Strategy 2005, viewed 20 June 2005, http://www.ssabsa.sa.edu.au/literacy/new.htm

[1] This was written before the inquiry finished. Its conclusions are marked by a determined reluctance to accept these definitions in its own briefing paper, in favour of a phonics-based method of instruction. (See Lyn Wilkinson’s’ article in this edition of Opinion).

[2] See references in MyRead and the Tasmanian Education Department website. It would be a mistake to suggest that the Four Resources Model is hegemonic or uncontested.  Its value is that it has currency and that it broadens understandings of literacy while still attempting to provide a conceptual framework. Criticism by Lankshear and Knobel is that it does not go far enough.

[3] If you are not convinced, I’d suggest doing a word search of ‘critical’ in your particular curriculum statements. The question that follows is: what are the implications for practice?

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Senior secondary education
South Australia
Curriculum planning