Language and Social Justice
This chapter is about language and social justice or more precisely about relationships between the way the language is used and the challenge of providing equal opportunities in the society regardless of one’s gender, ethnic identity, wealth, educational background, or other identifiers. There are two main purposes in writing this chapter: One is to show the significance of language in how social structures in a society are produced, maintained, and reinforced, demonstrating why we must avoid narrow definitions of language which underestimate its power and why it is essential to see language as social practice. The second purpose is to display how such a critical awareness of the role language plays helps us understand issues of social concern and create a platform to contribute to empowerment of people. The chapter will also emphasize the pedagogical implications of adopting a critical language awareness perspective for social justice in education.
KeywordsLanguage awareness Social justice Education Critical literacy
Whatever we do we do it with language. We use it constantly – whether we fight, talk, play games, or work in the office, language is there. Despite its enormous role in our lives, we hardly pay attention to it. We simply take it for granted. To most of us it is a system of communication based upon words which are combined into sentences. It is used to express thoughts and feelings in addition to enacting various functions such as thanking, giving commands, and so forth.
Language is definitely far more than that. It is an emblem of nationality and cultural identity and embodies subjective values and ideals. The language you use communicates information about you: your background, education, and age. Likewise, we draw conclusions about people we talk with. Having an accent, for example, might be associated with a certain linguistic background respected or marginalized. The language we use (differences in pronunciation, word choice, or grammatical choice) varies depending on who we talk to (e.g., age, gender, education) and what we talk about and the nature of the encounter (e.g., place). The way we talk to a close friend is different than the way we talk to our boss at work. Likewise, the way we write a personal letter to a friend is different from a formal letter written to apply for a job. The words you prefer to comment on a person or an event would reflect your attitudes. For example, when you refer to a group of people as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists,” you position yourself in an argument. The choice of certain language may reinforce male superiority and reinforce stereotypes and assumptions about gender roles. The use of male pronouns even if we do not know the sex of the person or associating certain jobs with men or women would be sexist language and serve the interests of men not women.
[t]he most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved, it maintains itself as the source of all arts and the core of all science. It is always known as the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations.
Ferdinand de Saussure believes that “in the lives of individuals and societies, speech is more important than anything else. That linguistics should continue to be the prerogative of a few specialists would be unthinkable – everyone is concerned with it in one way or another” (1966, p. 7).
Chilton (2004) argues that human beings use the language as a very complicated tool not only to interact with each other but also to represent the world the way they want. Bell and Garrett (1998) also point to the fact language cannot be isolated from the social context in which it is used because relations we have with people are only possible through language. Fairclough (1999) also emphasizes this point and claims that an understanding of how language enables people to live together is essential in order to be fully aware of the range of functions the language fulfills in our lives. In fact, he is for a conscious engagement with language so that we would better understand power relations in a society. Such an approach to language, undoubtedly, requires, as Habermas (1967) puts it, seeing language not only as a tool for communication but as a medium of domination and social force.
What is of interest here is, not the ability of human beings to produce an infinite number of grammatical sentences but how this linguistic capital can act as a primary medium of social control and power. In other words, how language as an act of power provides access to social, economic, and cultural goods (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 145) is important. Thus, the aim is to move away from narrow definitions of language and problematize language practices, showing that studying language as social practice will allow us to understand how dominant groups exercise power as well as to provide ways to counter and resist this process.
Language as Social Practice
Language acts as a medium to represent the world, positions people in their respective circumstances, and thus serves as an integral part of our social lives, defining it as a social practice (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). Fairclough and Wodak’s contribution is based on their criticisms of traditional studies done in linguistics areas such as grammar, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics as they define language “as a potential, a system, an abstract competence” (Fairclough, 1989, p. 7). Fairclough finds that this conception of language is very narrow and limiting mainly because it separates language from the social and historical context in which it exists. Instead, he proposes a more critical perspective on language as a form of social practice. To him, the adoption of such a view has several implications: first, language is a part of society; it is not external to it. Second, language is a social process; and third, language is socially conditioned, that is conditioned by other (non-linguistic) parts of society.
Fowler and Kress (1979) claim that “lexical items, linguistic forms and linguistic processes carry specific meanings” (p. 186). Like Fairclough, they find that the traditional view of language that underestimates its social nature, and that language structure is independent of dynamic social context is insufficient. Instead, they argue that people’s “total language ability is a product of social structure” (p. 187). To them, “language serves to confirm and consolidate the organizations which shape it, being used to manipulate people, to establish and maintain them in economically convenient roles and statuses, to maintain the power of state agencies, corporations and other institutions” (p. 190).
The emergence of interest in relating language to social practices did not take place in isolation. During the 1960s, we see a move toward a more critical perspective in how we conceive the language. There are a number of social theorists such as Foucault and Habermas who had a considerable impact on exploring the role that language plays in terms of social control and power. Fairclough himself acknowledges their contribution to the emergence of language as the primary medium of exercising power on discourse participants. Bakhtin (1981) and Volosinov (1973) are also prominent figures to postulate an integration of language and social processes.
This complex relationship between language and power requires treating language as social practice. For example, as highlighted before, the words chosen in reading or writing to describe a person or event can show the attitude of the person. To exemplify, Fairclough (1995, p. 48) presents four expressions from a text that define a particular group of young people who are perceived as misfits by their communities. These are “incorrigible,” “defiant,” “lacking responsibility,” and “delinquent.” He explains how these four expressions could be replaced with alternative words when looked at these young people from a different ideological perspective: irrepressible (incorrigible), debunking (defiant), refusing to be sucked by the society (lacking responsibility), and spirited (delinquent).
A man who suffered head injuries when attacked by two men who broke into his house in Beckenham, Kent, early yesterday, was pinned down on the bed by intruders who took it inturns to rape his wife. (Daily Telegraph)
A terrified 19-stone husband was forced to lie next to his wife as two men raped her yesterday. (Sun)
To Cameron, these newspaper reports represent rape as a crime against a man rather than a woman. Through a number of syntactic choices, the experience of the man is foregrounded. He is the subject of the main clause while the woman is referred to not by her name but as his wife.
Critical approaches differ from non-critical approaches in not just describing discursive practices, but in showing how discourse is shaped by relations of power and ideologies, and the constructive effects discourse has upon social identities, social relations and systems of knowledge and belief.
Being committed to a critical approach to language clearly means accepting language as social practice and that how we use the language has implications on social status, solidarity, and distribution of social goods, and power (Gee, 2004).
Critical Language Awareness
The origins of critical language awareness (CLA) can be traced back to the development of Critical Linguistics, a socially oriented linguistic analysis of texts that grew out of work at the University of East Anglia in the late 1970s (Wodak, 2006). The adjective critical adheres to Frankfurt School and “is understood as having distance to the data, embedding the data in the social context, taking a political stance explicitly, and having a focus on self-reflection as scholars doing research” (Wodak, 2002, p. 9).
Language is used to organize, understand, and express our perceptions of the world. This function is called the ideational function. In analyzing this function, we would be asking ourselves how is the social world represented? Who is presented as responsible for actions in important events (e.g., wars)? How are beliefs and ideologies encoded in language?
Language is also used to enable us to communicate with other people, to take on roles (e.g., expert-layperson, parent-child, teacher-student), and to express and understand feelings, attitudes, and judgments. This is called the interpersonal function. Questions we might ask here are what kind of relationship is expressed between speakers or between readers and text, for example, between universities and students in student prospectuses? Is the discourse formal or informal?
Finally, language is used to create coherent and cohesive texts, both spoken and written. This textual function concerns how bits of information are foregrounded or backgrounded, taken as given or presented as new, chosen as “topic” or “theme.” What interests us here is not just what aspects of information are foregrounded or backgrounded but also why this happens (e.g., the foregrounding of a business model for higher education).
SFL’s emphasis on language as a social semiotic led to the development of critical linguistics, critical discourse analysis, and later critical language awareness (Fairclough, 2003; Pennycook, 2001). Critical language awareness is seen as the social action dimension of critical discourse analysis committed to social change especially where unequal power relations are at issue. Undoubtedly, they complement each other in their quest for connecting linguistic analysis of discourse with its surrounding social context.
CLA is defined by Fairclough (1992, p. 2) as “conscious attention to properties of language and language use as an element of language education.” Similarly, Donmall (1985), expanding this definition, describes language awareness as “a person’s sensitivity to and conscious awareness of the nature of language and its role in human life.”
Clark and Ivanic explain the aims and scope of CLA, as to “empower learners by providing them with a critical analytical framework to help them reflect on their own language experiences and practices, the language practices of others in the institutions of which they are a part and in the wider society within which they live” (1997, p. 217).
CLA is clearly interested in the dialectical relationship between language and social structures and how power is exercised through language (Fairclough, 2009; Pennycook, 2001; Wodak, 2006). How power manifests itself through language can be observed in such patterns as: who controls the interaction (e.g., asks most of the questions; assigns speaking turns; interrupts contributions or changes topics) and further, who is positioned as the “knower” (i.e., whose knowledge, worldviews, beliefs or assumptions tend to be privileged during the interaction?) (Fairclough, 2009; Pennycook, 2001).
Janks (1993, p. iii) asks us to reconsider the choices we make in naming our world through CLA:
Critical Language Awareness emphasises the fact that texts are constructed. Anything that has been constructed can be de-constructed. This unmaking or unpicking of the text increases our awareness of the choices that the writer or speaker has made. Every choice foregrounds what was selected and hides, silences or backgrounds what was not selected. Awareness of this prepares the reader to ask critical questions: why did the writer or speaker make these choices? Whose interests do they serve? Who is empowered or disempowered by the language used? (1993, p. iii)
CLA sees the notion of power as one of its major premises. By looking at texts critically, as Janks suggested above, we might be in a better position to understand how discursive preferences of the people in power control and shape our worldview through language. However, the relationship between power and language is not always easy and subtle. While it is possible to find situations in which this relationship is achieved in direct and observable ways, power is also exercised through common-sense assumptions of which people are not much aware of.
These “commonsense” assumptions reveal how we make sense of the world around us, what we take as normal or appropriate. When we use the language we assume that the receiver on the other end of the communication will share similar perceptions and understand the message accordingly. These assumptions, sometimes, are disguised as common sense and taken for granted to legitimize existing power relations. Fairclough explains how:
It is important to emphasize that I am not suggesting that power is just a matter of language. … Power exists in various modalities, including the concrete and unmistakable modality of physical force … It is perhaps helpful to make a broad distinction between the exercise of power through coercion of various sorts including physical violence, and the exercise of power through the manufacture of consent to or at least acquiescence towards it. Power relations depend on both, though in varying proportions. Ideology is the prime means of manufacturing consent. (2001, p. 3)
CLA and Ideology
Ideology is most effective when its workings are least visible. If one becomes aware that a particular aspect of common sense is sustaining power inequalities at one's own expense, it ceases to be common sense, and may cease to have the capacity to sustain power inequalities, i.e. to function ideologically. And invisibility is achieved when ideologies are brought to discourse not as explicit elements of the text, but as the background assumptions which on the one hand lead the text producer to ‘textualize’ the world in a particular way and on the other hand lead the interpreter to interpret the text in a particular way. (Fairclough 1989, p. 85)
The news genre has been the most prominent research focus so far in critical language approaches to texts and ideology, especially in discourse analysis. As an example, Van Dijk (1988) observes that the way the language of media presents news is far from being unbiased and objective, but rather it is ideological and in favor with dominant groups in society. In his analysis of the role the news media plays in the reproduction of ethnic prejudices and racism, he revealed that the attitudes toward refugees, immigrants, and minorities in news reports were similar to those in everyday talk.
As van Dijk’s study shows, when the ideology is dominated by a powerful social institution such as media or government, it will be embodied in language. How language is used by these institutions will have an impact on the perceptions of people. It is very often the case that such language practice will aim to maintain the power of these institutions on people.
Van Dijk (1998, p. 209) sees interactional control as an ideologically relevant discourse structure. To him, those who hold the power in an interaction will also have the power to initiate the topics, end them or interrupt them. Billig et al. (1988) introduce a more complicated view of ideology. They offer the concept of dilemmas inherent in ideologies, which are far from being coherent structures. They argue that through discourse people negotiate dilemmas. In such a negotiation, for example, a speaker opposing to the rights of ethnic minorities may choose to refer to these rights as “special privileges” not to appear as biased.
Critical Language Awareness, Education and Social Justice
The term “social justice” is commonly used by educators to foreground it in their work. Educational institutions, school mission declarations, and teacher education programs pledge allegiance to social justice for all. However, despite all the talk on the centrality of a social justice orientation to education, it is hard to come up with one coherent understanding of the concept.
In general, social justice refers to the relation between an individual and society in which equal distribution of wealth and health and equal access to education and public services are ensured. In social justice movement, the emphasis has been on removing the barriers for individuals to fulfill their roles in institutions and in turn get the basic benefits and privileges the society offers. One of these institutions is education.
… [S]ocial justice education is both a process and a goal. The goal of social justice education is full and equal participation of all groups in society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure. We envision a society in which individuals are both self-determining (able to develop their full capacities), and interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others).
To Sensoy and DiAngelo (2012, p. xviii), the concept of social justice should go beyond demanding equality for all people. They use the term “critical social justice” which “recognize[s] that society is stratified (i.e. divided and unequal) in significant and far reaching ways along social group lines that include race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Critical social justice recognizes inequality as deeply embedded in the fabric of society (i.e., as structural), and actively seeks to change this.”
As suggested above, key principles of social justice in a society are eliminating inequity, promoting diversity, equal access to power and economic resources, providing an environment free from all sorts of discrimination and oppression (Barsky, 2010; Reisch, 2002). In education, social justice, in short, may be seen as a fact directly related to providing equal opportunities for everyone in schools regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, social class, wealth, family structure, sexual orientation, disability, etc.
Clearly, CLA as previously mentioned is already linked with social justice values, particularly justice, equality, and a commitment to anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice (Dominelli, 2002). Just like social justice in education is committed to providing equal opportunities for all students while at the same time finding ways of reducing existing inequities, and thus working for democratic rights for all students (Cochran-Smith et al., 2009), CLA also seeks to alter “inequitable distributions of economic, cultural and political goods in contemporary societies” (Kress, 1996, p. 15). However, despite the fact that both areas are predicated on empowering people to have equal access to social, economic, and cultural goods, there seems to be very limited attention on how this transformative power of language can be used to advance social justice.
One possibility would be to incorporate CLA into educational curricula of teacher education programs to heighten prospective teachers’ awareness of the dialectical relationship between language and social structure. Such a theoretical awareness would enable them to challenge the existing power relations in their practice and find ways of changing it in favor of equality and social justice.
Alim (2010) claims that CLA pedagogy has “the potential to help students and teachers abandon old, restrictive and repressive ways of thinking about language and to resocialize them into new, expansive and emancipatory ways of thinking about language and power” (pp. 227–228). This potential, according to Alim, is illuminated when CLA pedagogy is also infused within the context of teacher training programs with two recommendations as a guide: (1) Educate teachers about critical language issues, and (2) engage teachers in reflexive analyses.
Making visible assumptions that normally go unexamined
Recognizing how language encodes social relations
Identifying and challenging prejudice embedded in ordinary, daily discourse practices
Interrogating and redirecting the nature of questions asked about schooling
Raising questions that have not been asked
Undoubtedly, neither social justice issues nor CLA can be taught in one lesson. It is a long-term undertaking. It has to do with recognizing it as a teaching philosophy to become responsible learners as well as responsible language users.
Critical Literacy and Social Justice
Repositioning students as researchers of language.
Respecting student resistance and exploring minority culture constructions of literacy.
Problematizing classroom and public texts.
Similarly, Luke and Dooley (2009) focus on how texts can be used in critical literacy to uncover and challenge existing cultural, social, and political relations. In other words, critical literacy advocates the adoption of a critical stance toward texts. It encourages learners to engage in active analysis of what they hear and read to uncover underlying messages. Proponents of critical literacy recognize that language use is not neutral or unbiased. They suggest that critical literacy is an effective means to become critical consumers of the information we receive (Hull, 2000). Lessons incorporating such a perspective will contribute to repositioning learners as researchers of language (Comber, 1994) and help them identify the ideologies in the texts or in ordinary language practices. And when/if necessary accept or reject them.
Such a critique of texts or language practices in general would help learners consider or reconsider different ways of knowledge construction and learn how to interact with a text. In this respect, learners’ critical reading skills might be developed and that, in turn be reflected in higher levels of language proficiency (Janks, 2008). Bloor and Bloor (2007) also introduce a range of techniques which could develop readers’ awareness of the relationship between language and ideology. They present, referring to different types of analysis, ways of dealing with particular grammatical features such as modality and transitivity. They see them as essential elements of a critical analysis perspective unraveling the power of language to persuade and manipulate individuals.
Wharton (2011) reports on her attempt to design a course which aims to integrate the skills of linguistic analysis and critical thinking. Her study is based on a text, a bureaucratic text, analyzed from a critical point of view. The purpose is to help students exploit the text in terms of lexical choices made by the writer and also certain assumptions that the text represents. The study also shows that students are encouraged to critique the text, and, as a result, they feel empowered when they realize that they, as learners, are able to analyze the text rather than just being on the receiving end of the reading process. Cots (2006) also demonstrates how a critical approach to language can be put into practice in a classroom situation. He presents activities that teachers may make use of while adapting existing materials from a critical literacy perspective. As in Wharton’s study mentioned above, the purpose is to raise students’ consciousness and guide them into how they can approach a text with an attitude, a critical attitude.
Description of the text
Interpretation of the relationship between text and interaction
Explanation of the relationship between interaction and social context.
What experiential values do words have? What classification schemes are drawn upon? Are there words which are ideologically contested? Is there rewording or overwording? What ideologically significant meaning relations are there between words?
What relational values do words have? Are there euphemistic expressions? Are there markedly formal or informal words?
What expressive values do words have?
What metaphors are used?
What experiential values do grammatical features have? What types of process and participants predominate? Is agency unclear? Are processes what they seem? Are normalizations used? Are sentences active or passive? Are sentences positive or negative?
What relational values do grammatical features have? What modes are used? Are there important features of relational modality? Are the pronouns we and you used and if so, how?
What expressive values do grammatical features have? Are there important features of expressive modality?
How are (simple) sentences linked together? What logical connectors are used? Are complex sentences characterized by coordination and/or subordination? What means are used for referring inside and outside the text?
What interactional conventions are used? Are there ways in which one participant controls the turns of others?
What larger scale structures does the text have? Fairclough (1989, pp. 110–112).
In the second stage, the relationship between the discourse and its production and its consumption is interpreted. Here, in addition to an analysis of formal properties of the text, the relationship between the text and social structure needs to be determined. In other words, what is in the text is combined with what the reader or analyst brings with him/her to an interaction.
Social determinants: what power relations at situational, institutional, and societal levels help shape this discourse?
Ideologies: what elements of Member Resources (MR) which are drawn upon have an ideological character?
Effects: how is this discourse positioned in relation to struggles at the situational, institutional, and societal levels? Are these struggles overt or covert? Is the discourse normative with respect to MR or creative? Does it contribute to sustaining existing power relations, or transforming them?
Critical to the understanding of Fairclough’s three-dimensional model is the characterization of the notion of discourse. He (1992) identifies three ways in which language operates as discourse: (1) as text; (2) as the social processes of producing and interpreting a text, or the interaction; and (3) as the social conditions for the production and interpretation of the text, or the social context. As mentioned above, these dimensions of discourse form the premise of his model and may represent one possibility for encouraging learners to decode and analyze texts they come across critically.
The advantage of such an approach is that students become actively engaged in their own learning and as they develop their critical awareness of language, they will be able to uncover any bias or prejudice a text might contain. They will learn the importance of particular vocabulary and grammar choices made by the authors, for example. This might be the first step before teachers attempt to involve students in social change through such a critical interrogation of texts they read because, in essence, critical literacy is built upon learners questioning and challenging the way language constructs our world.
This chapter has argued that a critical understanding and awareness of language is essential to see how language reflects but at the same time shapes and reshapes prevailing social structures. In this perspective, it is not sufficient to see it as an arbitrary system of communication. The study of language should go beyond vocabulary lists and grammar exercises; rather we must recognize its place to understand contemporary society and how language can function as a basis for social emancipation.
The term “emancipation” implies that a critical approach to language is essential to understand how it is linked to practices of domination and subordination of people. Critical is used in the sense that language cannot be isolated from the dynamic, ever-changing social context in which it is used. Language is social practice and it is an integral part of society.
Critical Language Awareness is concerned with power relations in society and how they are mediated through language. It helps learners to recognize how certain language choices empower some while disempowers others. However, being aware is not enough. Learners need to be able to have conceptual and analytical resources that promise to significantly sharpen their abilities to recognize, question, and ultimately challenge oppressive discourses (Fairclough, 2011; Wodak, 2006). In other words, awareness needs to be turned into action.
There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how tp participate in the transformation of their world.
The final part of this chapter has considered how CLA might contribute to such “practice of freedom” and equip students with strategies required to see between the lines or get hidden messages embedded in texts. Critical literacy has been presented as one possibility of practicing critical reading, listening, and viewing rather than being passive recipients of the information. Through a range of analytical skills, it is suggested that learners can become conscious users of language, be able to go beyond the surface meaning of a text. They question the conventions and try to understand why they are there in the first place and challenge them if necessary.
As CLA plays a crucial part in uncovering prejudice and discrimination in society, it does contribute to social justice. CLA can help learners have a voice to assert their concerns or recognize unjust situations around them. Classrooms can be places to be involved with texts as they are closely related to issues of power. Teachers can encourage learners to ask critical questions and become more critical readers. By working on different types of texts such as advertisements, reports, cartoons, and stories, they will find opportunities to develop a wider awareness of the world texts regarding gender, economic, and racial issues. And all is done through the medium of language.
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