Reading for Comprehension Isn’t Enough

Two strategies for teaching students to be critical of messages they encounter in texts and other media and to voice their own views.

A group of four teenagers reading and discussing literature together on an outdoor table at school

Students are often given assigned readings along with written assignments that ask them to retell or summarize what they read, and perhaps to explain why the information is important. This may also include asking them to connect the reading to another text, or to their prior knowledge.

We need to move students beyond these comprehension tasks and into critique—teaching them to question what they read (and watch and hear) and how to push back when that seems necessary to them.

That’s where critical literacy comes in. Teaching critical literacy is moving students from comprehending to critiquing, and then to creating their own responses to media or text, and to the author or the narrator.

Resistance Reading and Counter-Narratives

Two key critical literacy strategies, resistance reading and writing counter-narratives, assist students with developing the skill to critique a text (or an image or other media) and to respond in writing, sharing their concerns and critiques.

Resistance reading: Once we know that students are past decoding and have wholly comprehended the text or other media, we can move them into pushing back on the information or story. Reading critically requires students to analyze a book, song lyrics, a commercial, or a poem by first thinking about the context and purpose that informed the text.

We can pose any of the following questions to assist them reading with a critical lens:

  • What do we know about the author or narrator? Why have they selected this topic? What’s the context and purpose?
  • Who gains or benefits from the stance or perspective? Who loses? Whose voice is excluded? Who is left out of the story—whose perspective or experiences?
  • What are the effects of word choice on you as a reader? How about the organization? The title? The images used (if any)?

Counter-narratives: Using what they discovered during resistance reading, students can then craft a response to the text following one of two patterns. A rebuttal to the author or the text calls out what is questionable, exclusionary, inflammatory, or oppressive. The student can write this as a letter to the author, as an essay, or in the style of an op-ed article.

The second option is to rewrite the original from a different perspective. This works especially well if the text is fictional. For example, the student can write as a marginal character from the story, or create their own character in order to share a viewpoint that was missing.

A Few Examples

Here are examples of resistance reading and counter-narratives from classrooms.

Informational text: In an 11th-grade English class, students read the play The Crucible and then deconstructed the speeches of Joseph McCarthy, finding parallels between the scare tactics used in the Salem witch trials and those employed in the 1950s hearings in which McCarthy claimed that Communist traitors had infiltrated the State Department, the U.S. Army, the movie industry, and universities. Some students chose to write a letter as their counter-narrative, calling out McCarthy, while others wrote an op-ed piece.

In another class, eighth graders read newspaper articles about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in various communities in New Orleans and analyzed author biases, looking closely at word choice in particular. The students then chose an article and re-wrote it using strategies like replacing “refugees” with the more neutral “displaced community members.”

A few students in the class chose to craft rhyming and free-verse poetry for their counter-narratives, paying tribute to the fortitude, ingenuity, and resilience of the hurricane survivors and countering the biased, negative language used in the articles.

Storytelling: A high school language arts teacher had her students watch several excerpts of classic, well-known cartoons. As they watched, they charted stereotypes of women and men, people of color, people with disabilities, and poor people. After this resistance reading, students discussed how the stereotypes they saw represent ideas that are present in our society and how it was concerning that they were being presented to children.

The students then wrote counter-narratives. One student wrote a counter-narrative called “Help Me Syndrome,” which confronted such classics as The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty for rendering the female protagonists as mainly helpless and needing to be saved.

Other students chose to rewrite classic fairy tales, making the lead characters people of color, or women, or people with disabilities to counter the most typical hero—the able-bodied, white male prince. The teacher explained, “If I want my students to wrestle with the social text of novels, news, or history books, they need the tools to critique media that encourage or legitimate social inequity.”

When we encourage students to be critical of messages in texts and other media—messages that may have been accepted as truth but deserve questioning—we help them develop their ability to voice their views beyond the classroom walls. As early as we can, we need to prepare our students to push back and question what they read, watch, and hear. Their ability to do this is, in part, what makes for a healthy democracy.