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Review of  Negotiating Critical Literacies With Young Children

Reviewer: Seyyed-Abdolhamid Mirhosseini
Book Title: Negotiating Critical Literacies With Young Children
Book Author: Vivian Maria Vasquez
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.2164

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AUTHOR: Vasquez, Vivian Maria
TITLE: Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children
SERIES: Language, Culture, and Teaching
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2004

Seyyed-Abdolhamid Mirhosseini, Board of Education, Tehran, Iran


I found Vasquez’s work a fascinating book that could be a groundbreaking
contribution to critical literacy education. Following this short overview
paragraph I will present a chapter by chapter synopsis of the book and then
some brief critical reflections on her contribution. The book begins with a
foreword by the general editor of Language, Culture, and Teaching series in
which the book appears. It includes a brief preface by the author, an
introductory chapter and seven main chapters. Following the main chapters,
five short sections appear at the end of the book: endnotes, references,
suggested readings, author index, and subject index.



“A critical literacy curriculum needs to be lived” (p. 1). This is the
opening sentence of the introductory chapter in which Vasquez elaborates on
the ongoing nature of developing a critical literacy curriculum. She
highlights ‘negotiation and contestation’ as the core features of an
endeavor aimed at bringing issues of social justice into literacy
education. Reviewing her previous inquiries into critical literacy
education for young learners, she briefly explains how an ‘audit trail’
generated topics for her critical curriculum and how it shaped the basis
for her research presented in this book. The chapter also includes more
than twenty pages of pictures illustrating the audit trail as the
centerpiece of Vasquez and her students’ negotiated curriculum.

Chapter 1: Finding Space for Critical Literacy

This first main chapter portrays the general atmosphere in which the
negotiated curriculum was created. The author discusses how she managed to
negotiate and develop the curriculum so that it surpassed the mandated
curriculum. Referring to the complexities of engaging with critical
literacy, she elaborates on how she found support for her pedagogical
practice both within and out of school. Moreover, Vasquez describes the
unique classroom environment in which the curriculum was shaped and also
the organization of class meetings and activities. The final section of the
chapter discusses the role of students’ parents in the negotiated curriculum.

Chapter 2: Getting Started

In this chapter Vasquez explains the way she started the school year with a
children’s song from a picture book and how it generated student critical
inquiries into serious issues of environment and gender. A student’s
question about an illustration of an amphibian in the book created a
discussion and inquiry into animal life, rain forests, and environment.
Through the inquiry, students contributed various drawings and pictures to
the growing audit trail and they also performed a play. While examining
various materials in the environmental inquiry, a student’s question about
a picture created another critical discussion shaping a further aspect of
the negotiated curriculum: “Why is it a man not a woman cooking?” (p. 55).
This second chapter also includes an extensive chart depicting various
issues represented on the audit trail.

Chapter 3: The French Café

The third chapter of the book is the first of the four chapters in which
the author presents four major themes representing her negotiated
curriculum. The chapter evolves around teaching French to students at
school and the issue that at their school, kindergarten students were not
allowed to take part in French classes – ‘the French café’, as they called
it. The question that was raised as part of the critical classroom
negotiations was “why can’t we go?” (p. 93). Questioning the way the French
café was organized, students started a survey about how the French classes
were held at other schools and what other kindergarten students thought
about it. They took action to tell the café organizers that kindergarten
students wanted to take part in the French café and that it was not fair to
deny them the right. In her analysis of the French café story, Vasquez
discusses the action taken by her students as a process of understanding
the socially constructed nature of knowledge, questioning the existing
structures, and pursuing alternative actions.

Chapter 4: Our Friend is a Vegetarian

The critical curriculum theme presented in this chapter emerged after the
annual school barbecue. The issue was raised when the day after the
barbecue one of the students told the class that he had not been able to
eat at the barbecue because he was a vegetarian. After discussing the
issue, students decided to write a letter to the organizers of the barbecue
and ask them to include food for vegetarians at the next barbecue. The
author describes how students reflected on marginalization as a critical
social concern when they searched for vegetarian food to suggest to the
organizers and when they wrote to other schools to ask them to take care of
vegetarians if they had barbecues. She also elaborates on how they worked
out the language of their letters to the barbecue organizers, the school
librarian, and other schools. Through the vegetarian story, Vasquez shares
another experience of questioning a social structure “that led to taking
social action” (p. 111).

Chapter 5: Save the Beluga

An environment related concern is the critical curriculum theme dealt with
in this chapter. It emerged when one of the students talked about a
television news report about endangered beluga. Vasquez describes how she
and her students “used this media text to reread a picture book” (p.113).
The class discussion about the danger caused by toxic chemical waste in
rivers led to the critical rereading of the text of a children’s song
called ‘Baby Beluga’ and to creating a new version of the song. The beluga
story, as part of this negotiated curriculum, illustrates how texts can be
critically examined to allow students to ask questions about the way texts
are constructed and how they can be created in different ways. Moreover,
the critical encounter with the beluga text and other related texts
“provided a space to explore the social construction of truth and reality”

Chapter 6: We Know How McDonald’s Thinks

The critical theme in this chapter shaped around interrogating the social
text of McDonald’s promotional strategies and discourses. The author
describes how her students critically questioned the way McDonald’s used
toys to attract child customers. After one of the students raised the issue
of McDonald’s toys, a discussion started on “how McDonald’s thinks” (p.
124) and students critically explored McDonald’s consumerist promotional
strategies. Referring to the story of a student’s boycotting McDonald’s
after the discussion, Vasquez highlights the extension of literacy
practices constructed in a negotiated curriculum “into the lives of
children outside of school” (p.132)

Chapter 7: A Look Back Over the Year

In her final chapter, the author describes how a junior kindergarten
conference was organized at the end of the school year and also presents
some final reflections. The idea of a conference came from a student whose
mother had participated in a conference. Subsequently a junior kindergarten
conference, named Celebrating Our Questions, was negotiated in the
classroom. Vasquez, in her final reflections, briefly refers to two major
features of the critical literacy curriculum she negotiated with her
students: social critique, social analysis, and social action shaped the
basic tools in constructing a critical literacy curriculum; and, the
difference between what happened in this negotiated critical literacy
curriculum and what usually happens in other literacy classes is asking
“questions that matter” (p. 141).


To many people, the word ‘critical’ might entail complicated issues
belonging to the tough world of adults not children and certainly not young
preschool children. This is, however, a misconception of what criticality
involves. Critical approaches are centrally concerned with questioning the
unquestioned in social life and, therefore, they are not to be confined to
any particular social group and obviously not to any particular age. In
line with this view, Vasquez illustrates the fact that questioning the
taken for granted social beliefs by young children is not only possible but
also quite meaningfully practical. I would consider this as perhaps the
major contribution of this book. Moreover the book depicts a telling
example of real negotiation of learning experiences. Many of the
educational practices discussed in the book were not based on a pre-planned
syllabus but rather emerged out of authentic classroom dialogue. I think,
nevertheless, that the author could have incorporated more elaborate
descriptions of the classroom context to represent a more touchable picture
of real classroom life with all its resistances and challenges. As it is,
it looks like everything went on very smoothly with no disagreements and no
problem. However, real classroom life, especially one with critical
negotiations, is quite likely to be full of problems, challenges, and even
fights. Another excellent aspect of the book is that it intriguingly
portrays several cases of incorporating critical grappling with linguistic
elements at the same time that class participants focus on critical social
issues. I found it very interesting that Vasquez at several points
represents her students’ critical encounter with linguistic aspects of
texts as social practices when they read and also their critical
consideration of word choice and sentence organization when they write. The
beautiful personal narrative and story telling style of the author and many
pictures and illustrations make the book appealing and readable. I would
highly recommend the book as a source of insights into critical literacy
practices for researchers and students dealing with language and literacy
education as well as language teachers.

Seyyed-Abdolhamid Mirhosseini received his MA in Teaching English as a
Foreign Language from the University of Tehran and has been involved in EFL
education at various levels in Iran. His areas of interest include critical
language education, critical discourse analysis, and qualitative research

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0805840532
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 176
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