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The Page Turner

Media Literacy

A Starting Point: Media Literacy

Next Step: Critical Literacy

Drawing on "Funds of Knowledge"


Critical Literacy:
Using Media to Engage Youth
In Inquiry, Production, Reflection,
And Change

by Meghan McDermott

"By imagining, we are enabled to look at things, to think about things as if they were otherwise."
— Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar

Over the past ten years, youth media has emerged in the United States as a powerful movement of practitioners and youth dedicated to using media to support young people’s creative expression and vocal presence in the public sphere. What began as small community-based efforts now encompasses a wide variety of multimedia art forms. With high-end software and digital equipment increasingly available at lower cost, young people are producing a dizzying array of media that reaches ever larger and more diverse audiences hungry for an informed youth perspective.

Like the art forms it uses, youth media is multifaceted. Its promising practices come from the fields of youth development, arts education, youth organizing, and media arts. Youth media programs address goals that range from fostering leadership to nurturing new artistic sensibilities to civic engagement. A core component of youth media—when it is well practiced—involves developing young people’s imaginative and critical understanding of their lives and their world. Youth media programs challenge young people to become both learners and producers of knowledge, so that they experience what education philosopher Maxine Greene describes as "an initiation into new ways of seeing, hearing, feeling, moving" (2001).

A Starting Point: Media Literacy

Why is such growth important? Every day, young people experience the world around them through media—movies, comic books, video games, iPods, blogs, television, cell phones, even billboards. They interpret these images and messages as a way to define themselves. Though they are sometimes aware of their choices, generally young people—like adults—are passive consumers, rarely questioning the images and sounds around them.

One strategy for helping young people deconstruct the multiple "texts" that inform their lives is media literacy, commonly defined as the ability to read, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms. Media literacy encourages youth to pause and assess their environment, to examine who a message is aimed at, why it is framed a certain way, what perspectives or facts might be missing, and what additional sources would help them gain a deeper understanding. Media literacy is a "habit of mind" that enables young people to analyze words and images in order to make connections between themselves and the text, the text and the world, and the world and themselves. Check out our links page for resources that connect media literacy to traditional literacy skills, and see How I Did It for an example of a program that uses peer trainers to empower young people’s development of media literacy skills.

Next Step: Critical Literacy

At Global Action Project (G.A.P.), a leading youth media arts organization in New York City, we take media literacy to the next level, encouraging what we call "critical literacy" through media production. Critical literacy embraces the approach of Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1987), which moves beyond "the treatment of letters and words as purely mechanical" to viewing literacy as the "relationship of learners to the world" (p. 36). This approach engages young people in a process of interpretation, reflection, and a "rewriting of what is read" (Freire & Macedo, 1987, p. 36). Critical literacy skills enable youth to analyze, interpret, and produce media products that, as G.A.P. staff have described, use "the power of storytelling to challenge dominant narratives and write new histories."

G.A.P. wants to do more than encourage a new set of thinking strategies. We want to make young adults aware of their own agency in the world. When youth discover the power of their voices through making media, they find themselves, as Maxine Greene says, "able to ‘name’ and imagine how they might change their worlds" (Greene, 2003, p. x). Critical literacy emerges as young people inquire into their lives and environment, produce a story that explores that life, reflect on the social and historical context of their experiences to understand root causes of inequities, and then become agents of positive change. As one G.A.P. youth recently reflected, "Youth are empowered through the media they make, and create change, even in the form of dialogue, in their communities."

Concretely, what that can look like is a group of young people identifying and debating an issue that affects their community. Take HIV/AIDS, for example. Through research and street interviews, a group of young people discovers a fear of being tested. They produce a short documentary that explores why testing is taboo and offers resources for learning more. When they screen their work for the community, in partnership with a clinic or school, they spark a dialogue. Throughout, they are not merely capturing and repeating information but asking "Why?" "Who benefits?" "What else do we need to know?" By sharing what they have learned and generating a new perspective, they challenge viewers to become active learners, too.

Drawing on "Funds of Knowledge"

Critical literacy through media making draws on what Moll, Amanti, Neff, and Gonzalez (1992) define as "funds of knowledge": the resources and strategies fostered by family and community proficiencies. These funds of knowledge put the youth in a position of power. Their meaning-making authority comes to life when they publicly share their work. Critical literacy goes beyond simply comprehending the world to participating actively in making it better.

Interestingly, as youth media was beginning to have a real presence, new approaches to understanding the needs of adolescent literacy were also appearing on the scene. Recognizing that young people "use literacy as part of their identity development" (Learning Point Associates/NCREL, 2005, p. 3), researchers pushed for definitions of literacy that expand the concept of "text" to include "electronic media and adolescents’ own cultural and social understandings" (Learning Point Associates/NCREL, 2005, p. 7). A review of ten years of literacy research by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory notes:

Understanding the full range of adolescent literacies and the role of literacy in adolescent development leads to the conclusion that . . . positive outcomes are possible when students are invited to tell their stories and extend their development of self-concept and self-in-society into the literate world. (Learning Point Associates/NCREL, 2005, p. 7)

Like good literacy instruction, media production is a collaborative effort in which young people inquire, reflect, and apply their knowledge in order to connect with and negotiate the world. Critical literacy goes farther by engaging youth in making visible change: sparking a conversation, creating a new perspective, or using their video to educate communities and organizers. For those committed to adolescent literacy development, critical literacy through media offers more proof that good teaching and learning can happen in a variety of spaces and ways. Reading the word means much more when youth can read the world. As anthropologist Ray McDermott points out, "literacy is no magic technology of the mind. . . . Literacy refers less to a set of skills than to a medium of participation" (McDermott, 2005, 114). Critical literacy—the outcome of such participation—offers a new way of connecting youth with the word and the world through the most pressing untold stories: their own.


Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. London: Bergin & Garvey.

Fairbanks, C.M. (1998). Nourishing conversations: Literacy, democracy and urban adolescents. Journal of Literacy Research, 30, 187-203.

Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education. Teachers College Press.

Greene, M. (2003). Foreword. In S. Goodman, Teaching youth media: A critical guide to literacy, video production, and social change (pp. ix-x). New York: Teachers College Press.

Learning Points Associates/NCREL. (2005). Ten years of research on adolescent literacy, 1994-2004. Naperville, IL: Learning Points Associates.

McDermott, R. (2005). ". . . An entry into further language": Contra mystification by language hierarchies. In T. L. McCarty (ed.), Language, Literacy, and Power in Schooling (pp. 111-124). Mahwah, NJ: LEA.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, 31, 132-141.

The Page Turner, published electronically by The Robert Bowne Foundation, focuses on literacy development in afterschool programs. Contents copyright © 2006 by the Robert Bowne Foundation.

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