Liberation Literacies: Teaching for Social Justice


First published with Heinemann Publishing

Students:“Miss, we can’t be speakin’ in class like we speak in the hood. We leave that stuff at the door”


Students:“‘Cause it’s not proper”

Me: “Why?”


I refuse to accept a world where my language is deemed worthless in the classroom while it clearly has the power to garner billions for a private corporation. — Me

What if I told you that the way you use language every day in your classroom, regardless of content area, has the power to either reinforce or disrupt inequality?

The day my 2014 TED Talk, “3 Ways to Speak English,” was released, detailing my unapologetic pride in the 3 varieties of English I am fluent in, I received hundreds of messages from people of every race, class, and creed across the world. Most of the messages were long testimonies about how painful it has been to navigate the tensions between “Standard” English and the varied forms of English that mark their communities. The word “shame” was used a lot. The word “fear” was used a lot. My heart was warmed and deeply disturbed at the same time. There was something here…


Fast forward to 2016 when Rihanna’s hit, “Work” began topping the charts. Not surprisingly, a barrage of articles, tweets, etc. accusing her of speaking “gibberish” in the song followed close after. Then…madd posts (especially from Black Twitter) came to her defense callin’ people out and assertin’ that Rihanna, was in fact, using creolized forms of Jamaican English with West African roots called,Patois. In just one line of the song, “he say mi haffi work work work work work work,” the absence of past tense, and the word “haffi,” unique to Patois, are a few features of the complex rule-governed linguistic practice that was casually dismissed by too many as “nonsense.”

What is Liberation Literacies Pedagogy?

Every literacy practice is a powerful container full of culture and history about the people who use it. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, the land of my people (Boop! Boop!), the Creolized Caribbean English used in everyday life is often peppered with the word “Oui.” My father be like “Wayyyyy. De man gon’ quite down de road, oui!” (translation: “Wow. The man went really far down the road.”). The use of the word “oui” in Trinidadian English is a residual of the French settlement in Trinidad during the French Revolution!

Liberation Literacies rests on the conviction that because every literacy practice is a unique container, they each possess a unique capacity to open new worlds for you, your students, and your classroom! Because every literacy practice is a unique container, the literacies that we center and decenter in the classroom are actually centering and decentering different cultures, histories, and identities whether we know it or not!

The failure of the masses to understand and value diverse forms of expression that come from People of Color…the fear my students harbor in their spirits that if they speak the “wrong” way in the wrong place they will be looked down on as “ratchet”…the way negative attitudes toward Black forms of language and expression run parallel to negative attitudes toward Black bodies in our society…and equally as important, the enrichment we rob ourselves of when we fail to value what diverse forms can add to our world…are some of the many reasons why over the past 2 years I have been working with dozens of early career educators to implement what I have termed Liberation Literacies Pedagogy into their classrooms. Together we’ve used this approach to center hip-hop, spoken word, digital literacy, and non-standard forms of English and watched the transformation of both students and teachers. It is a framework that demands every teacher to create space for student voice and action by equipping their classrooms with multiple literacies toward:

Academic achievement

Actualization, and


It is a framework that sustains the literacies, interests, and cultures of students that are traditionally labeled “nonsense”…as not intellectual…as valueless in their quest for education. Simultaneously, though, the famous McDonald’s slogan, “I’m lovin’ it” utilizes a feature of African American English called consonant variation…the same feature that African American students are taught is “wrong” in their classrooms even as they watch its power to effectively help McDonald’s gain mass appeal.

I refuse to accept a world where my language is deemed worthless in the classroom while it clearly has the power to garner billions for a private corporation.

So Liberation Literacies pedagogy creates collaborative contexts where content MUST BE engaged through literacy practices relevant to students and their communities for intellectual development, critical consciousness, and social action against the educational injustices that directly affect their lives.


Begin the year with a Literate Identity Assessment of each student

One of the goals of Liberation Literacies as a pedagogical framework is for students and teachers to find and employ agency within the stifling constraints of most classrooms, such as the pressures of teaching to the test. Within Liberation Literacies pedagogy teachers challenge the goals of assessments in their classrooms so that alongside the mandate of rigid exams are a series of assessments beginning on the first day of school to better understand the background knowledge, interests, and learning needs of each student as necessary for shaping curriculum. A Literate Identity Assessment at the beginning of the year can include the following prompt along with one or two others:

  • Name 3 different places where you spend most of your time every day or every week. For each place, describe how you use language. For example, do you speak differently at school than you do when you are at home or with your friends? Explain in detail.

As an essential component of this strategy, Liberation Literacies draws on Critical Language Awareness (CLA) within sociolinguistics to assess student and teacher attitudes toward different languages and literacies in the classroom (see the work of H. Samy Alim, Norman Fairclough, Hillary Janks, and April Baker-Bell). For this reason, along with understanding the types of languages and literacies your students engage in inside and outside of school, try to understand how they feel and how they think others feel about each respective literacy practice. This can serve as the beginning of shaping your classroom into a critical context where literacies and languages are always employed and understood in relation to power.

Add a Multiple Literacies goal into one of your units

For the duration of just one unit, include texts that are written in a literacy practice other than Standard American English for content instruction (this can be chosen directly from the Literate Identity Assessment. In my work I have used hip-hop, dance, spoken word, art, Spanglish, African-American Varieties of English, social media texts, etc.). Throughout this unit, create opportunities for your students to:

  • Critically analyze and produce this form of literacy to engage with content

  • Put this form in conversation with the essential texts and questions being used for the unit

  • Reflect on how these non-standard texts help them to think about content differently

(*I have never had a problem aligning these goals with Common Core Standards. Make sure to do this as you set up this goal.)

Allow your students to decide on one social issue that feels relevant to both their lives and the literacy practice that you have chosen

For example, if you are Social Studies educator and you have chosen to use spoken word or Creolized English, you might discuss the historical period of your unit alongside the work of Jamaican poet, Louise Bennett to discuss her piece, Colonization in Reverse and explore how multiple perspectives of historical events impact lives (i.e. you would create opportunities for your students to connect this to their own realities).

Create a platform for students to act on the ideas they have been producing

This may be a student showcase or equivalency project that connects ideas from the unit to their lived realities. For example, discussing multiple perspectives about historical events in social studies and through spoken word might inspire your students to write spoken word pieces about their perspectives on present-day events. The opportunity to act through performance to peers or presenting their concerns to administrators to suggest changes for their school community (these are just two examples) is essential to a Liberation Literacies pedagogical approach.

Challenge yourself to learn new literacy practices and to deepen your knowledge about the social issues that concern your students

A High School English teacher once asked me how he can be expected to teach spoken word when he does not possess the skills to write or understand spoken word on a deep enough level. My response to him was that he was not born possessing the skills to write a 5-paragraph essay, but because this form has been asserted as valuable for academic achievement in school, it continues to lord over our classrooms and exams as inherently superior. Another teacher complained to me that not all students in her classroom would feel authentically connected to hip-hop, so she does not think it is a good idea to use it. I asked her if her students felt authentically connected to Shakespeare and if she would be removing that from her curriculum this year in light of this concern.

If we value the multiple literacies, identities, and perspectives our students bring into the classroom then we have to center, cultivate, and sustain skills in new areas with the conviction that they have the capacity to foster academic excellence and social change. Find the resources, environments, and networks to deepen your knowledge so that this work can be done with integrity. In this way, your classroom should be a community of practice and not a didactic environment so that students see you as a learner and themselves as already having authority over various skills and knowledge in the world. Liberation Literacies cannot be a series of strategies employed without a critical understanding of how many of the classroom practices we have normalized perpetuate inequality.

…But this just scratches the surface! There’s more to come! In the mean time…Be bold in your classrooms and make each year as LITT as possible! Mi say yuh haffi work work work work work work!!!!

P.S. If you’ve made it this far into the post, here’s an extra treat…


Book an appointment with JAMILA J. LYISCOTT, PH.D