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.

10 Essential Elements of Reading Instruction: Dixit

Dixit is a board game in which surrealist art is used to inspire vague stories. In order to play, players must develop a thorough visual literacy that can inform a classroom.

This 30 minute lesson goes over the 10 Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading. It’s based on Chapter 3 of  What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction by Samuels & Farstrup. Students will need to have read through the chapter or be familiar with the ideas.
(Estimated Running Time: 25-33 Minutes)


Teachers will be able to identify some or all of the 10 Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension by stopping the lesson to define them or by noting their absence or need for improvement.


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

Essential Question(s):

How can we tell if the 10 Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading are present or missing from our lessons?

  • Using the 10 Essential Elements makes sure our lessons are thorough.
  • By learning to recognize the 10 Essential Elements, we can fix holes in our teaching
  • It can be difficult to cover all 10 Essential Elements without missing one.
  • A lesson can succeed for most students but not all students if one of the 10 Essential Elements is missing.

Introduction to New Material:

(5 Minutes)
Since you’ve read through the 10 Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension, I’m going to jump straight in.

In front of you, you should have the list of all 10 Essential Elements. Today, I’m going to teach you a game called Dixit. As I teach you, I want you to consider the 10 Essential Elements, which ones are present in learning this game and which aren’t. Feel free to check them off as you see them and to stop me and point them out. Some elements may be missing. At the end, we’ll discuss which ones are missing, why, and how we might integrate them into a lesson. To begin with, please take one card and look at it privately.

Inquiry Exercise:

(2-3 Minutes)
Who here has played Apples to Apples? How about Cards Against Humanity? Balderdash? Wise or Otherwise? Why am I bringing up these games? Looking at your card and thinking about these other games, what do you think other people’s cards look like? How do you think Dixit is played?

(Pause to identify Element 1: Build Disciplinary and World Knowledge – drawing on similar card games identifies world knowledge of other games and puts people in the correct mode to learn Dixit. Additionally, rules are discipline; by introducing other games with similar rules, it sets up a set of guidelines and strictures that will inform how students learn the game. Finally, though I suspect it’s unlikely that all students might not know at least one of these games, if one does, the conversation allows the class to explain to each other similar rule sets and draw on their knowledge to illuminate their classmates.)

Guided Practice:

(10-15 Minutes)
Now I would like you to lay your card face up on the table. Take a look each of the cards face up. As you can see, every card is different and strange and fascinating. (As the variety of cards is considered, rules are explained and hands are being dealt and observed, students may pause to identify the cards representation of Element 2: Provide Exposure to a Volume and Range of Texts.)

Each round, one person will be the storyteller. The storyteller’s job is play a card from their hand secretly and give a clue to what is in the image of the card. The clue should be accurate enough that some players will be able to figure out which is their card, but not all players. The storyteller will not get a vote. Then, each other player will choose a card from their hand that they feel might match the clue. Once all card are face down on the table, the cards will be shuffled and turned face up and we’ll use the dice to vote on which is the storyteller’s card. If a player guesses which the storyteller’s card is, they get 3 points. Additionally, for every vote a card gets, the person who played it gets a point, so choosing your card well is important even if you’re not the storyteller. If everyone chooses the storyteller’s card, then all players but the storyteller get 3 bonus points. If everyone chooses a card other than the storyteller, then all players but the storyteller get 3 bonus points. If some people choose the storyteller’s card and some people do not, then the storyteller gets 3 bonus points. (Pause at some point during rules to identify Element 3: Provide Motivating Texts and Contexts for Reading. Because this is a game, the game itself could be considered self motivating, but the game also provide the context for reading the different cards. Also, Identify Element 7: Build Vocabulary and Language Knowledge. The terms storyteller, vote, and card are the vocabulary of the game, already defined.)

Let’s do a sample round. (Discuss some possible interpretations of and clues for the cards played. Identify Element 4: Teach Strategies for Comprehension. By discussing how we came to certain readings of the imagery of cards and comparing a variety, we prepare to play the game by providing comprehension strategies. Identify Element 5: Teach Text Structures. By looking at the ways different cards are laid out and the elements featured, we can discuss how cards function structurally. Identify Element 7: Build Vocabulary and Language Knowledge again. By dissecting the cards, we provide the opportunity to discuss the visual vocabulary of the cards and what language we would or could use when we’re the storyteller. Dixit is interesting in that it encourages players to look beyond words to songs or actions or dances or whatever their heart desires. Pointing this out can also be used to cite Element 10: Differentiate Instruction. The different types of acceptable response should represent the different learning styles and multiple intelligences)

Now that you’ve got the idea, let’s play a couple rounds. (Identify Element 9: Observe and Assess. The scorecard will show how well people understood the game/rules, and could act as an exit ticket. Additionally, their lists of the elements should be showing check marks and throughout I’ll be checking off which elements they identify, which they can point out as my observe and assess.

(At nearly any point during this exercise, we can pause to identify Element 6: Engage Students in Discussion, from the inquiry exercise to now.)

Individual Practice:

(3-5 Minutes)
Now take your list. Use the space at each bullet point to list the places each element appeared. Make sure to note if you think the element only works for Dixit or if it would work with other games as well. If there are any we didn’t identify, list where they might be identified in this game or in another game. Lastly, answer the question at the bottom of the sheet (Why are games often easily engaging and how might we use them in our efforts to teach reading?) Afterward, we’ll come back together to compare notes.

(Element 8: Integrate Reading and Writing should be glaringly absent unless I’m mistaken. Because the cards/rules represent reading, the only way to perform this one is either to create custom cards, which we have neither the time nor materials for, or to create custom house rules, which will be suggested in the conclusion. Wise or Otherwise and Balderdash are similar games which have the writing element integrated, but don’t have as much comprehension, hence my choice of Dixit. While doing this, I will list the 10 elements on a white board or giant post-it mimicking the sheet with two columns [In Dixit and Other Games] where all can see to prepare for the Assessment/Closing.)


(5 Minutes)
List answers on the white board as we go. Alright, what did you see while learning to play Dixit and where did you see it? What are a few of the other games that you think would be good to show these elements? What was missing? What games do you think would feature the elements we’re missing?

Each and every one of you already knows the difference between a good lesson and a bad lesson. This list of ten elements can seem daunting, but when you stop and think about it, the good lessons we teach already have these elements involved. If a lesson isn’t working, all you need to do is slow down and recognize what elements it’s missing. Your successful lessons already include these elements even if you don’t know it.