Decolonizing Literacy Instruction

Ashley Wolstein

Literacy instruction too often reinforces the inequities of imperialism, and as a Language Arts teacher, my research involves exploring how the Language Arts classroom can be used to decolonize the mind. While many educators possess both the passion and ‘ike (knowledge) to deliver a curriculum that decolonizes the mind, current assessment models often hinder the actual implementation of such curriculum. I believe that educational policy holds both students and educators in a yoke of high-stakes testing which works to endorse conformity and strengthen the hold of the oppressor, and this is why my research interests involves decolonizing the Language Arts classroom.

As is noted in the introduction of Freire’s book (2000), students should be allowed to study epistemology and understand who produces knowledge, who controls knowledge, and whose interests, in the case of high stakes testing, all this testing really serves. We need radicals, revolutionaries, and comrades to challenge our educational system, to either dismantle the power held by policy makers or at least inject within them a shred of doubt. Too many policymakers, in my opinion, can be classified as either the right sectarian or the leftist counterpart, one that hopes to maintain status quo and the other that believes the future is predetermined (2000, p. 38-9). This is a harmful agenda and not very empowering for anyone.

While Common Core is an improvement from the Hawaii State Assessment, it still expects all students at a specific grade level to have a specific skill and be filled with specific content. The banking notion of education, where a student is a vessel to be filled by the teacher, is still embraced, even though the vessel is supposed to be filled with some skills. The constant testing detracts from our ability to help our students develop critical consciousness, to engage in dialogue and problem-based learning. For this reason, one of my primary interests is exploring how we can decolonize assessment in order to decolonize curriculum, and then, the mind. How can be truly make education bottom-up instead of top down, and truly serve the students it is allegedly designed to serve?

In order to decolonize the assessment, I believe that we need to research how current assessments reinforce a colonial mindset and any correlation this might have with current achievement gaps. Additionally, I want to explore how a decolonial literacy curriculum might improve student literacy skills. For instance, does anyone know if students are better able to make inferences when provided texts from their culture or a similar culture (given they would have more background knowledge) and what does this mean for assessment? How do current state tests detract time spent developing student’s critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving? How does one assess these important traits, and what role can literacy play in developing them?

Changing assessment, of course, will require “how” literacy is taught and “what” text make up the curriculum. It seems that providing students with literature from multiple perspectives (indigenous authors, postcolonial authors) is an important step in decolonizing knowledge, and this is my second research interest. In order for students to be successful and prepared for what the future may bring, a reading literacy curriculum needs to be studentfocused instead of text focused, present multicultural perspectives, utilize both print and digital sources, draw from fiction and non-fiction, offer flexibility, and most importantly, lead students to think and understand deeply. I hypothesize that this deep thinking would be best facilitated by allowing students to see the world through a multiplicity of eyes, instead of jus a Western perspective. In particular, if literature can be used in a transdisciplinary way to discuss and work towards solving real world problems such as racism and poverty, I believe this Language Arts model would help to decolonize the mind and improve student thinking, reading, and writing skills. To do, we must first ask several questions: How can we challenge and imperial view of the world represented in most school books? What critical strategies can be employed and how can these strategies be used to strengthen analytical and disciplinary literacy skills? How does the way we interpret literature shape the way we see ourselves? Our community? The world we live in? How has literature played a role in colonizing the mind, historically, and how can this be reversed? How can literature, instead, by drawing upon the epistemological value of indigenous text, serve as a tool for decolonization?

And we cannot stop with reading. This literacy project also begs the question, how can we decolonize writing practices? How can writing be used to heal, as a voice, and a means to decolonize one’s own mind? As a teacher, I believe it starts by allowing student’s more power and agency when constructing text. We can no longer serve as “dominant” co-authors of our student’s writing, having them write the essays we want them to write, often for no clear purpose, and instead, view “writing as a mode of social action, not simply a means of communication” (Prior, 2006, p. 58). Students need more authentic writing assignments, and they need to understand the goals of writing (purpose). Too often, we dictate some assignment to them that lacks a clear audience or purpose. It seems the academic community needs to conduct more research regarding how to decolonize writing for the purpose of social justice, and I am hoping to connect with other educators seeking to decolonize literacy practices, and of course, think deeply about the world.



Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Prior, P. (2006). A sociocultural theory of writing. In C.A. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (pp. 54-66). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Video Links

Freire Project. (2012, April 30). Paulo Freire documentary seeing through Paulo’s glasses: Political clarity, courage and humility.