Critical Literacy and Co-Constructed Meaning

Since reading is a conversation between the author and audience, critical literacy allows a reader to gain more control over the context of texts. In this Qwantz Dinosaur Comic, "ryoma" is defined wholly through context clues and the reader's critical literacy.

This 25 minute lesson gives students a basic sense of how critical literacy and awareness help a reader gain more control over the meaning of a text by reading and creating Dinosaur Comics.
(Estimated Running Time: 25 Minutes)


Students will be able to demonstrate some or all of the four suggested techniques by constructing and analyzing Dinosaur Comics.
Students will be able to critique each other’s comics by examining how critical literacy techniques affect their reading.


Required materials are normal text, recommended but not required materials are italicized

Essential Question(s):

How can a reader’s sense of control help them?

  • Critical literacy can offer readers control
  • Having control is empowering for readers
  • Readers are more likely to engage with a text if they have a sense of control
  • As teachers, we can create a sense of control
  • A text is controlled by different factors including the language, the author, the reader’s background knowledge and the reader’s skill
  • A reader can have control of a text
  • A reader can never fully control a text
  • The more control a reader has, the more engaged they’re likely to be

Inquiry Exercise:

(3 Minutes)
Lay out a series of Dinosaur comics. Pick one. Read it. After reading it, consider whether or not you understood it, whether you found it funny, and what you think someone would need to know in order understand it. If you didn’t understand it, think about what you feel you were missing. Share your comic with a partner. Allow them to read it as you read theirs. Explain how you felt about each one and what you felt you needed to understand it.

Choose another comic, lather, rinse, repeat!

Introduction to New Material:

(5 Minutes)
Chapter 3 of Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives focuses on the types and features of narrative texts. It offers several examples of simple routines to engage with a text. Each routine attempts to fulfill one of the four steps of critical literacy.

TSRD defines Critical Literacy as “the practice of evaluating information, insights and perspectives through an analysis of power culture, class and gender.” TSRD suggests four techniques to do so:

  1. Question the Commonplace in a Text
  2. Consider the Role of the Author
  3. Seek Alternative Perspectives
  4. Read Critically

Since we’re working with these four questions, let’s look at one of these comics and dissect how each technique can be applied to Dinosaur Comics.

Firstly, what’s the “commonplace?” What’s commonplace in a comic? What’s commonplace in these comics? How do you think Dinosaur Comics plays on the commonplace in comics?

Next, the author, Ryan North, chooses what text goes in these comics and how that text relates to the images. What can you tell us about North based on your comic?

Each comic has a topic that’s different. What is your comic about? What in your background allows you to read or not read the comic? How was your partner’s reading the same or different?

Finally, what does it mean to read critically? How does Dinosaur Comics require or encourage you to read critically or not? How are you involved in creating meaning when reading the comic? Do you feel included in the process?

Guided Practice:

(5 Minutes)
Take a copy of a blank Qwantz comic. Today, we’ll be making our own comics. Because we want this to be focused around our control and sense of agency, I would like you to write the four techniques of critical literacy on the comic, one outside each of the four edges. Keep these techniques in mind as you make the comic, since the people reading your comic will need to either experience them or experience the lack of them.

We’re going to choose a common theme. Brainstorm a theme. What elements do you think we need in the text to make the comic about this theme?

(If this hasn’t been established during the intro/inquiry) Because Dinosaur Comics uses the same image over and over, how can we use that repetition, that representation of the commonplace, to our advantage?

Now think about the theme in relation to your life. I want you to brainstorm silently for a minute a few things you think you’ve experienced in relation to the theme that others may not have. Think about how you would include that.

One of my favorite things about puns or jokes is that they often use double meanings for the humor. Find a term or two from our brainstorm list and think about possible alternate meanings and whether you can use them to add depth or make a joke.

Finally, the majority of comics, especially Dinosaur Comics are referential. Do we need to do anything more to bring us to thinking critically?

Individual Practice:

(10 Minutes)
Now that we’ve written up a comic together, we can already see that even variations on a theme come out differently.

This time, I want you to go through the process on your own. Afterward, we’ll trade comics, and as we read each other’s comics, I’d like you to think about how much control you have over what the comic means and how much control you feel your partner allowed you in reading this comic.


(2 Minutes)
Critical Literacy is really a means to create agency and grant control of a text to a reader. The techniques it suggests and the routines TSRD recommend allow students to gain that sense of control. The best authors and books allow the reader at least some control, but by expanding beyond the text and using the four techniques, the reader can effectively take more control and therefore engage more fully.

LGBTQ Literature: Building a Representative Deck

Using LGBTQ literature in the classroom is important, but not having a representative sampling throughout makes it stand out like a joker in a deck of cards.

This 25 minute lesson is intended to give teachers a sense of what equitable representation for the GLBTQ community might feel like through text selection. It’s based on “Reading LGBT-Themed Literature with Young People: What’s Possible?” by Caroline T. Clarke and Mollie V. Blackburn. (PDF)
(Estimated Running Time: 23-25 Minutes)


Teachers will be able to identify how text selection can represent their classroom by building ideal decks representing their students.


Required materials are normal text, recommended but not required materials are italicized

  • A deck of standard cards for every 4 students. Not all cards will be used. The distribution of cards should be 1/2 spades (16), 1/3 clubs (10) and 1/6 hearts (6). Of the four decks, one will have 3 hearts, one will have 2 hearts, one will have 1 heart, and one will have no hearts. Clubs and spades will be evenly distributed.

Essential Question(s):

How can we engage students in GLBTQ literature without actively or tacitly supporting a homophobic, heterosexist environment?

  • Using GLBTQ literature in a classroom only once or twice makes it stand out as different from the norm.
  • Deliberately citing the GLBTQ nature as a purpose for reading makes it stand out as different from the norm.
  • By making it regular and representative and queering other texts, GLBTQ lit can be normalized.
  • Some GLBTQ literature presents a heterosexist view of the GLBTQ community.
  • Older GLBTQ lit is often not representative of the current GLBTQ culture.

Inquiry Exercise:

(3 Minutes)
I’m assuming you’re all card players, that all of you have played a type of card game or has friends who do. What card games do you play at home, with your family, with friends? What makes a card game fun and engaging?

Lead students toward recognizing participation, cooperation, equal competition, and possibly the ability to play it their way.

Introduction to New Material:

(5 Minutes)
Before we begin, I want you to know two terms: heteronormative and heterosexist. Heteronormative means relating to a world that promotes heterosexuality or straightness. Heterosexist refers to active bias against same-sex relationships.

Blackburn and Clark’s article states that because LGBTQ literature and issues are so new to the classroom, teachers do not have adequate means of introducing them that doesn’t tacitly support the homophobic social norms currently in place. There are however, four things you can do to make it easier. The first of which, I’ve already done by assuming you’re card players. Blackburn and Clark state that if you enter a classroom assuming kids are LGBTQ allies already rather than treating them as homophobic, it sets a precedent where the class can engage in the conversation from a positive standpoint. The rest will be shown in our activity for the night and I’ll explain them after.

The decks of cards you have represent the books we might teach over the course of the year. Don’t think about this too hard. For right now, they’re just cards. In these decks are hearts, spades and clubs, no diamonds. The cards go from five to ace. Each deck is a unique set of eight cards taken from this distribution.

Choose one suit, number or face card (King, Jack, Queen, etc) to represent yourself. Don’t show or tell anyone right now. Take a minute to write down what represents you, why you chose it, and three adjectives you would use to describe yourself/what represents you. For example, I’m represented by 8s because it’s my favorite number, it becomes the infinity sign when turned on its side, and it can symbolize glasses and wisdom; my three adjectives would be wise, infinite, and observant.

Look through your deck of eight cards and analyze its makeup. Take a minute and write down what you think sets your deck apart. What sort of cards comprise it? What stands out?

Guided Practice:

(5 Minutes)
Group up (groups of 3 or 4). Compare your decks. Do not reveal what represents you. Discuss what’s different. Compare what stood out to each of you.

Now, without revealing what represents you, let’s build a communal deck. Your job is to make sure you’re represented in the deck. The communal deck will also be exactly eight cards. Decide together how to build this deck drawing from each of your decks.

Individual Practice:

(5-7 Minutes)
Sorry to burst your bubble, but we’re not actually going to play a card game. Instead, I want you to write about your experience today. How did you feel you were represented in your original deck? How about in the communal deck? What problems did you have making sure you were represented in the final deck? How do you think the others felt?

If spades represented the traditional heteronormative canon, clubs represented minority focused heteronormative texts, and hearts represented LGBTQ literature, how does that affect the way your look at your communal deck?


(5 Minutes)
Collect writings as the exit ticket.

Blackburn and Clark’s essay points out that treating LGBTQ literature as special rather than normal already sets a classroom up for failure. If you only read one LGBTQ book or article, it will stand out, much like a single heart will stand out in a sea of black suited cards. By making LGBTQ-friendly literature and concepts a regularity normalizes the students to its existence.

In addition, you want to make sure that the books you read reflect your class and allow them to explore their own experiences. Just as you were represented in the decks, your students are represented in the books you read. Blackburn and Clark divide LGBTQ literature into three categories: “homosexual visibility,” in which the story revolves around the LGBTQ characters’ sexuality and the response to it, often battling homophobia; “gay assimilation,” in which LGBTQ characters appear, but their sexuality isn’t key to the plot; and “Queer consciousness or community,” where LGBTQ characters are shown to be in supportive communities and families regardless of the plot. Just because a book has a LGBTQ character doesn’t mean it’s representative of the LGBTQ members of your classroom, so presenting multiple and positive LGBTQ experiences is important for varied representation.

Lastly, books, like card games, are supposed to be pleasurable. Choosing a book simply because it deals with a difficult topic is like playing solitaire: it’ll take up some time, and you might feel accomplished at the end, but who’s going to call it fun? Really. If you choose LGBTQ books that are enjoyable, your students will be more engaged and more willing to explore other books that are queer-friendly.