Developing Critical Literacy through WID

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I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I had to write a paper on the results of an empirical study in graduate school. Even though it was a small-scale study, I had never written anything like that before. I had all kinds of questions: What is a “lit review”? What do they mean when they say to “write a methods section”? Am I really supposed to talk about limitations of the study?


Take a moment to think about a time when you had to write something in a genre that was new to you or unfamiliar to you:

  • How did you feel?
  • What did you do?
  • How did you figure out what was expected?

Our students often experience this unfamiliarity, too. My goal as a writing teacher is to find ways to help them successfully respond.


One of the best tools I’ve found to help students ask the right questions as they enter new writing situations in school and beyond is to help them explore the writing of different disciplines and professions. And if students are learning about writing in the disciplines and asking questions about the rhetorical context of their writing, this helps them develop critical literacy.


Critical literacy encourages students to analyze and question what they read and write, consider multiple perspectives, and understand how an author’s values, subject, position, and purpose shape a text. When students understand how to analyze the rhetorical situation of a text, they begin to ask questions that develop critical literacy.


From its roots in the work of Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Paulo Freire, a major component in critical literacy has been to create more access to education. The work of teacher-scholars in community colleges and open admissions institutions—exemplified by Mina Shaughnessy’s ground-breaking work in the CUNY system in the 1970’s—has shown us that we not only have to consider how to increase access to education, but we must also consider what we do in the classroom once students have access. The traditional model of teaching writing as a way to help students fit into the status quo and become more “cultured,” which emerged at Harvard in the 1800's, is inadequate. It grew from an elitist view of education.


But as Ira Shor (1999) reminds us: “Standard usage, rhetorical forms and academic discourse make democratic sense only when taught in a critical curriculum explicitly posing problems about the status quo based on themes from the students’ lives (and experiences).”


If we are to teach students about the rhetorical situations of their writing (and the writing of others) and to embrace writing as socially situated, we should examine in depth with them the academic literacies we are asking them to practice and master. We don’t do them justice if we only ask them to challenge the status quo (culturally) while writing within a status quo (academically). I’ve become increasingly convinced that this is what we do when we teach a politically or culturally themed course that asks students to question power dynamics and political processes but requires them to do so in “standard” academic forms without asking them to question and analyze the ways they are writing and the choices they make as writers.


Teaching a WID-based approach can take many forms, however. Two popular ones are to either have students write about and analyze writing in a range of academic disciplines and professions, or to have students practice writing in varying disciplinary genres. I generally focus more on the first approach but mix in a little of the latter.


Of course, no pedagogy is neutral. And in my years of teaching a WID-based approach, I’ve seen WID become a bit authoritarian by treating disciplinary writing as fixed and genres as templates for writing. In many ways, this isn’t any different from formulaic current-traditional approaches to writing. By contrast, when teachers use a critical approach to WID, they ask students to:

  • Explore their own experiences and make connections to the writing they are analyzing
  • Investigate disciplinary conventions and values, including how they change, how people learn them, and how to identify expectations
  • Question expected academic norms, understanding where they come from and why they exist


So, what might this look like? What are some assignment ideas you have for helping students develop this kind of critical literacy through WID? What are the biggest questions and concerns that you have about trying a WID approach? If you’ve tried it already, what are some of the strategies you have found to be most effective?

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About the Author
Susan Miller-Cochran, now Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona, helped shape the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University while she served as Director from 2007-2015. Her research focuses on instructional technology, ESL writing, and writing program administration. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and she is also an editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press, 2009) and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition (NCTE, 2002). Before joining the faculty at NC State, she was a faculty member at Mesa Community College (AZ). She has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Executive Board of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. She currently serves as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.