Paulo Freire: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

While Paulo Freire is strongly associated with critical pedagogy, I often remind myself that Freire came to his philosophy of teaching and learning through his commitment to teaching adults to read and write.

The U.S, finds itself repeatedly in a state of crisis-paralysis because people periodically discover illiteracy and aliteracy among our students and even adults.

The irony of the nearly nonstop and melodramatic cries of “reading crisis” is that the need for literacy always remains vital for human autonomy, human dignity, and human freedom, but the crisis approach always fails that need.

The problem is that public fears around illiteracy and aliteracy are often overly simplistic, and then calls for solving the “reading crisis” are equally simplistic.

The current Reading War driven by the “science of reading” movement is once again repeating that failed dynamic, notably by claiming that the simple view of reading (SVR) is the current and settled reading science (it isn’t; see here).

And concurrent with this Reading War is a dramatic rise in censorship and book banning—yet another layer of misunderstanding reading and teaching/learning.

Since we seem destined to remain stuck in misreading reading, I want to share Freire’s The Importance of the Act of Reading as an ideal text to reconsider what reading is and why literacy is central to the human condition.

First and vital to understanding literacy, Freire begins by asserting “the practice of teaching—which is political practice as well.”

In other words, teaching reading and any reading done by students (or anyone) are inherently political acts—behaviors that necessarily place humans in situations of power imbalances.

Freire’s meditation on reading was originally presented as a talk in Brazil in 1981. Then, Freire challenged the mechanical and reductive view of reading:

Reading is not exhausted merely by decoding the written word or written language, but rather anticipated by and extending into knowledge of the world. Reading the world precedes reading the word, and the subsequent reading of the word cannot dispense with continually reading the world. Language and reality are dynamically intertwined. The understanding attained by critical reading of a text implies perceiving the relationship between text and context.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

One side of the reading debate often focuses on isolated text-only approaches that argue for phonics-first and/or systematic phonics instruction for all before addressing comprehension (or critical comprehension, which is often only approached for some students deemed “advanced”).

Freire, however, grounds reading in the context of reading the world before beginning to decode text for meaning.

In short, context matters, and lived experiences form the basis of anyone acquiring reading and writing. This is key to understanding the problem with focusing exclusively or primarily on in-school reading and writing instruction.

If we in the U.S. value reading for all students and adults, we must acknowledge that addressing the lived experiences of all people—eliminating poverty, food insecurity, job insecurity, etc.—is an essential aspect of needed reading policy.

Simply changing how we teach reading will never achieve the goals we claim to have.

And in this talk, Freire used his own experiences to think aloud and complexly about reading:

I put objective distance between myself and the different moments in which the act of reading occurred in my existential experience: first, reading the world, the tiny world in which I moved; afterwards, reading the word, not always the word-world in the course of my schooling.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Yes, young students must make the transition from reading their world to reading the word, but those acts of reading cannot (and should not) be separated (think of the reductive practice of having students pronounce nonsense words).

Freire speaks not only to acquiring reading, but also to why we read—and this is a powerful refuting of the rise in censorship and book bans being imposed by some parents onto all parents and students:

As I became familiar with my world, however, as I perceived and understood it better by reading it, my terrors diminished.

It is important to add that reading my world, always basic to me, did not make me grow up prematurely, a rationalist in boy’s clothing. Exercising my boy’s curiosity did not distort it, nor did understanding my world cause me to scorn the enchanting mystery of that world. In this I was aided rather than discouraged by my parents.

It was precisely my parents who introduced me to reading the word at a certain moment in this rich experience of understanding my immediate world.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Like Freire, my journey to literacy was enthusiastically driven by my parents and their commitment to me having free access to essentially anything I wanted to read. And like Freire, I had that freedom significantly reinforced by teachers when I was in high school:

I would like to go back to a time when I was a secondary-school student. There I gained experience in the critical interpretation of texts I read in class with the Portuguese teacher’s help, which I remember to this day. Those moments did not consist of mere exercises, aimed at our simply becoming aware of the existence of the page in front of us, to be scanned, mechanically and monotonously spelled out, instead of truly read. Those moments were not reading lessons in the traditional sense, but rather moments in which texts were offered to our restless searching, including that of the young teacher, Jose Pessoa.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Reading and all literacy as well as formal and informal education are human ways of coming to understand the world—including the dark and light—so that we gain agency in our living, so that we are not paralyzed by fear and ignorance.

The why and how of reading, then, are not mere mechanics, but a complex process of critical comprehension:

Mechanically memorizing the description of an object does not constitute knowing the object. That is why reading a text taken as pure description of an object (like a syntactical rule), and undertaken to memorize the description, is neither real reading, nor does it result in knowledge of the object to which the text refers.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

And regardless of the simplistic calls by Republicans and conservatives to “just teach” and to not be political, we must recognize that all teaching, learning, and literacy are political acts. As he did throughout his career, Freire denounced the banking concept of teaching that erases human agency and views students as empty piggy banks into which teachers deposit value:

First, I would like to reaffirm that I always saw teaching adults to read and write as a political act, an act of knowledge, and therefore as a creative act. I would find it impossible to be engaged in a work of mechanically memorizing vowel sounds, like in the exercises ba-be-bi-bo-bu, la-le-li-lo-lu. Nor could I reduce learning to read and write merely to learning words, syllables, or letters, a process of teaching in which the teacher fills the supposedly empty heads of the learners with his or her words. On the contrary, the student is the subject of the process of learning to read and write as an act of knowing and a creative act. The fact that he or she needs the teacher’s help, as in the pedagogical situation, does not mean that the teacher’s help annuls the student’s creativity and responsibility for constructing his or her own written language and reading this language.

The Importance of the Act of Reading, Paulo Freire

Freire builds to this: “Reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

Reading is not simply decoding text or recognizing whole words. Reading is context, and reading requires context—a context that is far more than letters, sounds, words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Reading is a very human and individual act because “reading always involves critical perception, interpretation, and re-wrìting what is read,” which is how Freire wrote his talk before sharing it aloud as yet another act of re-reading in order to re-write.

Freire’s essay anchors this award-winning volume: The SAGE handbook of critical pedagogies.