Building critical consciousness through dialogic reading in the primary classroom

I originally wrote this article for the very first issue of 'Education for Tomorrow'. The original can be found at the link below.

Original article

IN HIS BOOK, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire defines 'conscientização', or critical consciousness, as “learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality”. [1] This concept is at the very heart of Freire’s transformative, liberatory vision of education. For Freire, education is a collaborative act of knowledge construction between what he terms “teacher-students” and “student-teachers”, in which both parties strive to become more fully human through “working, [to] transform the world”. [2] Freire proposed dialogics as an emancipatory pedagogy which combines reflection and action in a “radical interaction” [3] with each other and which empowers learners to play a fundamental rôle in the transformation of their own conditions of existence. “If it is speaking their word that people, by naming the world, tranform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings.” [4]

Building on the idea of dialogic pedagogy, Ramón Flecha, founder of the CREA research community at the University of Barcelona, introduce the concept of dialogic reading. [5] He identifies the ‘Matthew Effect’ – that the more of something (in this case, cultural capital and reading skill) one has, the easier it is to acquire more – as an unaddressed problem that excludes many learners from traditional literacy teaching, and proposes dialogic reading as a radical rethink of how reading is taught. Dialogic reading is based upon four key practices:–

Although the primary focus of this article is upon the 'dialogic literary gatherings', the remaining three practices will be brielfy outlined below.

'Extending learning time' is a technique by which learning, and reading in particular, is made more accessible both to learners and to members of the community. Increasing the number of reading activities available outside school hours, and involving a diverse group of extended family members and individuals from the local community, facilitates more opportunities for reading. It also deformalises reading, removing the pressure felt by some learners, and also encourages families to form a habit of reading, even outside of the school environment.

'Parent Readers' is a volunteering programme in which the family members of the youngest pupils attend school with their children in the mornings to be able to read together within the school context. It not only motivates the pupil, but also serves to tear down the artificial barrier between home reading and school reading; the pupil is already used to reading in school with their family member, so reading naturally continues at home with the same person.

"These discussions are not dry academic exercises, divorced from reality, but are based upon the children’s own life experiences, and support them to develop their reading comprehension, oracy and emotional literacy."

'Reading Buddies' is an initiative whereby older pupils are paired with younger pupils, reading together at different times and in different spaces. The older child interacts closely with the younger child, modelling and supporting good reading practice. This not only supports the younger child in their reading learning, but also reinforces good practice for the older child. It builds confidence, removes some of the pressure of the presence of an authority figure such as a teacher, and develops solidarity between pupils of different age groups.

Finally, the 'dialogic literary gathering', or DLG, is a particular way of conducting a reading lesson in which learners are encouraged to engage with a classic of world literature (or an appropriate abridgment thereof), which “address important topics that have always been important to human beings”, as one young participant noted. [6] The universality of issues addressed by classic texts is a cornerstone of the DLG, maximising accessibility to pupils from diverse backgrounds. Students are each given a copy of the chosen text to read either at home or as facilitated by the above practices. The DLG itself takes the form of a weekly session, either as part of the regular curriculum or as a family, community or extracurricular activity, in which the teacher facilitates a discussion between pupils. Having chosen and written down an extract or extracts that they have found particularly meaningful, pupils share, discuss and debate parts of the text on the basis of egalitarian dialogue. The teacher does not prompt or lead discussion; their rôle is purely to establish expectations of behaviour, to facilitate speakers’ contributions, and to record brief notes on the discussion.

Through engaging with the universal experiences of characters in classic literature, pupils are able to analyse, debate and discuss situations that arise within the story. These discussions are not dry academic exercises, divorced from reality, but are based upon the children’s own life experiences, and support them to develop their reading comprehension, oracy and emotional literacy. They are able to tackle significant philosophical issues, and form and express opinions which must then be justified and defended. This level of engagement then motivates other pupils, encouraging them to read to be able to be involved in the discussion. The other three practices are especially valuable here, as they are able to provide support and opportunities for reading which may not be available to every child.

"[…] dialogic reading provides an eminently viable means of developing both reading skills and critical consciousness"

In the author’s experience of conducting DLGs over an extended period, pupils find them to be an enriching experience. This is partly due to the challenge (perceived or otherwise) of reading a classic of world literature, especially if the original text is able to be used, but primarily due to the nature of the discussions in the DLG sessions themselves. Over the period in question, reading Kafka’s 'Metamorphosis' led to discussions around mental health and the experience of carers; reading Conan Doyle’s 'The Adventure of the Speckled Band' led to discussions around stereotyping and prejudice; and reading Homer’s 'Iliad' gave rise to a heated debate about sexism, war and the responsibilities of deities. All of these topics arose organically from the discussion of eight- and nine-yearolds who were connecting meaningfully with a text.

This is very different from the reading pedagogy which has become accepted in so many schools, where teachers use questioning to check basic comprehension and to lead students to preprepared answers, based on an ‘authorised’ reading of the text. As such, it challenges the dominant ‘banking’ concept of education, in which teachers are expected simply to ‘deposit’ knowledge into learners as empty vessels. [7] This is replaces with a transformative approach in which the teacher-student and student-teachers are engages in co-constructing meaning, working together, and, through that work, naming and changing their own lived experience.

The transformative aspect of dialogic reading was especially visible, as mentioned above, when reading the 'Iliad'. In one scene, an irate Menelaüs declares that his fearful soldiers must be women, not men. This tiny quote ballooned into a huge discussion over whether or not it was right to use “women” as an insult, and what the implications of using it in that way might be. Several male pupils expressed views of women that could diplomatically be called ‘old-fashioned’, which propelled the discussion further, as more and more of their classmates joined in, bringing their own opinions and experiences to the discussion, and playing out hypothetical situations within the context of the story. The discussion segued naturally into discussing the rôle of women in ancient Greek society, and how attitudes toward women have changed since then. Pupils left the session still debating and discussing enthusiastically, and this was able to form the basis of several follow-up lessons in PSHE exploring women’s experiences in various fields, led by a diverse range of volunteer speakers from the community. From one small section of a DLG text, pupils developed their oracy and debating skills, were able to use the text to illustrate a point, and also to confront and challenge reactionary ideas within their own classroom.

In conclusion, dialogic reading provides an eminently viable means of developing both reading skills and critical consciousness. It is practical to implement without being resource-intensive – the primary resources are the teacher and the text, many of which are available free of charge online – and it gives teachers and students greater shared control over the education process. It empowers pupils, and effectively works towards critical consciousness, which is not only the overriding goal of education, but also the basis of liberation.