Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version



Published (as Chapter 19) in The Routledge Handbook of Educational Linguistics, edited by Martha Bigelow and Johanna Ennser-Kananen (New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), pp. 252–260.


Copyright © 2015 Taylor & Francis. Used by permission.


The classroom is a unique discursive space for the enactment of critical pedagogy. In some ways, all classroom discourse is critical because it is inherently political, and at the heart of critical pedagogy is an implicit understanding that power is negotiated daily by teachers and students. Historically, critical pedagogy is rooted in schools of thought that have emphasized the individual and the self in relation and in contrast to society, sociocultural and ideological forces, and economic factors and social progress. In addressing conceptualizations in Orthodox Marxism (with Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim) in the mid-19th century and the Frankfurt School (with Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock, Leo Lowenthal, and Walter Benjamin), contemporary critical theory still embodies the concept of false consciousness, the idea that institutional processes and material mislead people, and the internalization of values and norms, which induce people to act and behave according to what it is expected in society (Agger 1991). The problem of domination (which cannot be reduced to oppression, nor is it akin to it), a complex understanding of how social structures mediate power relations to create different forms of alienation (Morrow and Brown 1994), mainly depicts the reproduction of social struggles, inequities, and power differences, reflecting some of the main aspects of critical pedagogy classrooms.

Theoretically, critical pedagogy in classroom discourse embodies the practice of engaging students in the social construction of knowledge, which grounds its pillars on power relations. In utilizing critical pedagogy in the classroom, teachers must question their own practices in the process to construct knowledge and why the main knowledge is legitimized by the dominant culture. Moreover, through emancipatory knowledge (Habermas 1981) educators draw practical and technical knowledge together, creating a space for understanding the relations of power and privilege that manipulate and distort social relationships. In the end, participants in critical pedagogy classrooms are encouraged to engage in collective action, founded on the principles of social justice, equality, and empowerment (McLaren 2009).

In literacy studies, the discourse of critical pedagogy embodies the emancipatory force that challenges the idea of literacy as not being politically neutral, observing that with literacy comes perspectives and interpretations that are ultimately political (Gee 2008). In using literacy as a skill to prepare individuals to “read the word” and “read the world” (in Freirean terms), classroom discourse adds to the idea of learning the ability to decipher symbols and acquire the academic language to empower participants in their contexts, calling educators to open spaces for marginalized students to voice their struggles in political, social, and economic spheres. Freire (1985) defends the idea that literacy in itself does not empower those who live in oppressive conditions, but it must be linked to a critical understanding of the social context and action to change such conditions. In these terms, Auerbach (1995) refers to critical literacies as the “rhetoric of strengths’” (644) for focusing on cultural sensitivity, celebration of diversity, and empowerment of parents, and she also highlights that empowerment is not regarded in individual terms but in social terms (655). An essential aspect of critical pedagogy in literacy learning includes the ongoing recognition of the power relationships amongst individuals who are involved in education, such as the power dynamics within family, classrooms, programs, and institutions. Street (1990) also argues that the failure of literacy campaigns reflects the non-consideration of significant aspects of literacy practices by those more powerful outsiders such as teachers, administrators, and politicians.