Critical Discourse Analysis: An example of the good mother in
by Linda M. Phillips
One of the relatively new strategies of inquiry used in qualitative
research is critical discourse analysis. Michel Foucault, in his
seminal work on the archeology of knowledge in 1972, proposed that
a discourse includes not only written and spoken ideas and knowledge,
but also attitudes, the way topics are addressed, the terms of
reference used and the social practices embedded in conventions.
Critical discourse analysis (CDA) extends textual discourse analysis
by including conversations, interviews, observations, written materials
and visuals. CDA is thus a hybrid of linguistic and social theory
that focuses on discourse within social practice.
But whether CDA is a method of discourse analysis or a means to
study the use and implications of language as a social practice
is controversial. The emerging consensus is that CDA is not a method
of discourse analysis per se, but rather a means to relate textual
analysis to the social and political context under study. CDA is
an interpretive study of how language-in-use, in whatever form,
reflects sociopolitical relations.
Historically, CDA was used to study everyday practices and social
interactions within distinct settings including asylums, hospitals,
and prisons (Gubrium and Holstein, 2000). Current applications
of CDA have evolved to include more open settings. One interesting
and impressive example of CDA is captured in Suzanne Smythe’s
research for her doctoral dissertation “The good mother:
A critical discourse analysis of literacy advice to mothers in
the 20th century” (2006).
Smythe argued that communicating literacy advice to parents is
the central strategy used to address the persistent literacy achievement
gaps between socioeconomic groups. The implication, according to
Smythe, is that if families accepted and followed the advice, then
their children would become literate, succeed in school and be
productive members of society. However, her research demonstrated
that contemporary literacy advice to parents is deeply rooted in
the cultural ideal of the good mother. The good mother is portrayed
as being sensitive, smiling, calm, patient, attentive, and a sympathetic
The discourses of domestic pedagogy, intensive mothering and the
so-called normal family regulate middle-class domesticity and create
an ideal of the good mother that is essential to children’s
literacy acquisition and academic success. Her findings suggest
that relying upon women’s domestic literacy work to promote
children’s academic success not only reproduces gender inequalities,
but has implications for equity in literacy-learning opportunities
among diversely situated children and families (Smythe p. i).
Four research questions directed this extensive inquiry:
1. What discursive formations are associated with the “mother
as teacher of literacy”?
2. What discourse strategies are associated over time with the
normalization of the “mother as teacher of literacy”?
3. What forms of literacy and of mothering are excluded within
4. Who has gained power within the discourses of literacy and
mothering? (Smythe p. 10)
Smythe identified and collected three sources of texts published
in Britain and North America between the beginning of 19th century
and the end of 2005. They included best-selling child-raising manuals
and reports, popular parenting magazines and family literacy promotional
materials. She used some 300 literacy-advice texts as the primary
discourse data. In addition, secondary sources, that included policy
documents and theoretical and philosophical works used to frame
and contextualize the primary documents, were analyzed for evidence
of shifting trends in reading research, the project of schooling,
parent-school relationships and changing views of what counts as
literacy (p. 15).
Using a modified version of Foucault’s genealogical method
and adopting a critical approach to discourse analysis, Smythe
systematically studied the literacy-advice texts. The genealogical
method allows for the examination of such influences as the historical
style of the writing, methods of interpretation, as well as the
body of historical work itself for relevant social trends and patterns.
Each of the literacy-advice texts were grouped into similar time
periods. They were compared across and within those time spans,
as well as for differences across decades, on the basis of the
1. What are the differences and similarities across these texts?
2. What are the consequences of these differences and similarities?
3. Which understanding of the world is taken for granted and which
is not recognized?
She used the genealogical method to identify the ways in which
power and knowledge come together in discourse. By capitalizing
on feminist theories and the concept of mothering and literacy
as situated practices, Smythe used a critical approach to study
literacy advice to parents as a gendered practice of power rather
than an institutional truth. In other words, Smythe was keenly
interested in finding the source(s) and use of the literacy advice
offered in the texts.
Smythe reports that her topic arose from her lived experience
as a young mother acting upon “literacy advice I had barely
been conscious of reading or hearing” (p. 44). Drawing on
the guide developed by Jean Carabine (2001), Smythe followed several
1. Getting to know the data: “[I] read and reread
literacy-advice texts as I collected them, often searching out
data that had intertextual relationships to those already collected” (p.
2. Identifying themes: “The process of identifying
themes was embedded in the reading and rereading of advice” (p.
3. Looking for evidence of interrelationships among discourse: “[Examine]
existing scholarship on child-raising advice and mothering as well
as an analysis of literacy advice to mothers in the Nineteenth
Century” ( p.
4. Identifying the discursive strategies that are deployed: “[Attend]
to how the discourses of intensive mothering, domestic pedagogy
and the normal family are kept in place all circulated through
literacy advice…[I] looked for ways in which both mothering
practices and literacy practices were compared, distinguished and/or
divided” (p. 48).
5. Looking for absences and silences: “[s]trategies
of substitution…[I] looked for inherent contradictions in
advice which often suggested silences” (p. 48).
6. Looking for resistances and counter-discourses: “The
analytic strategy of multi-vocality was useful in identifying resistance
and counterdiscourses in advice…another strategy…was
to include in the analysis texts outside of the mainstream of popular
culture or commercial publishing” (pp. 48-49).
7. Identifying the effects of discourse: “[T]his
step refers to analyzing the implications of discourse in terms
of how power and knowledge are valued and circulated” (p.
8. Situating the analysis in the broader discursive context: “Situating
discourse analysis within a broader oeuvre, or terrain, is a central
component of a Foucauldian approach” (p. 50).
9. Attending to the limitations of the research, your data
and sources: “[D]ata used in this study represent
but one small window into a diverse and complex set of practices
and experiences” (p. 50).
This elaborate and intensive analysis identified some very fascinating,
persuasive and provocative findings.
Several themes emerged from Smythe’s analysis of these literacy-advice
texts and they include: that it is just common sense that mothers
are pedagogic teachers of their children; that mothers’ roles
as their children’s first teachers was not considered work,
but rather was rendered invisible by embedding literacy in everyday
routines associated with their domestic work; that storybook reading
was privileged over other literacy practices; and that the different
material conditions in which North American women do the work of
mothering and in which children are raised were completely invisible.
The findings from Smythe’s research are grouped here in four
clusters: mother as teacher; ideals of motherhood over time; who
is excluded; and who benefits.
Mother as teacher
The prevalent and dominant literacy-advice texts consistently
entangled the discourses of mothering (intensive mothering, domestic
pedagogy and the normal family) with the discourses of children’s
literacy. According to Smythe, this entanglement suggested that
there are “regimes of truth” surrounding policy and
practice in the support of children’s literacy (p. 272).
These entanglements persisted in literacy-advice texts across time
and location and the only differences were minor variations in
style. Furthermore, the 19th-century discourse is evident in contemporary
literacy–advice texts and reflects dated gender and race
theories (p. 273).
Ideals of motherhood over time
Nineteenth-century literacy ideals are enduring and continue to
shape literacy and mothering discourses. Women’s domestic
literacy work was, and still is, considered to be an important
part of maintaining social status and fostering appropriate morals
and habits in their children. This sacred maternal duty and responsibility
was not only visible but celebrated in advice literature (p. 274).
By the early 20th century, mothers’ roles changed to be more
didactic and pragmatic than sacred: mothers were promoting children’s
success in school and contributing to the development of a more
secular personality, rather than developing a spiritual and morally
By the 1950s, the bedtime story regimen emerged and the former
practice of family and friends engaging in social reading waned.
The late 1960s and early 1970s marked a decline in literacy advice,
which was concurrent with the intense social debate about the purposes
of schools and the roles of women in North American society.
Subsequently, the late 1970s marked the beginning of a dramatic
increase in the quantity of literacy-advice texts. By 2000, there
was a flood of mainstream best-selling texts on child-raising and
literacy development that expressed higher expectations for children’s
literacy attainment. Expectations for normal families along class
lines included messages such as: read 20 minutes to your children
every day, choose their schools, monitor teachers and find new
ways to stimulate children through home schooling.
According to Smythe’s research, “literacy advice changed
to fit new circumstances, but it never altered the fundamental
link between mothering, literacy and the reproduction of social
advantage and disadvantage” (p. 277). The literacy-advice
texts embedded messages of hidden treats and promises for children
who were successful in school. The backdrop for manufacturing new
pedagogical methods and products was based on claims of a current
or social crisis. These crises included immigration in the 19th
century; the reading crisis in the 1950s; the crisis in the family
in the 1970s; the low levels of literacy in the 1980s; and the
technological and new knowledge economy in the 21st century. The
literacy-advice texts remained consistent throughout all of these
crises, in counselling and regulating mothers on how to use their
domestic time and space. In particular, texts focused on ways for
mothers to manage their own and their children’s time and
the physical space of the home so that literacy, most often defined
as homework, storybook reading and doing chores with mom, could
Who is excluded
Lower-class families: The literacy-advice texts implied
that there were different expectations for lower-class families
in the 19th century and little advice was offered to them. This
erroneous view was challenged in the early 1980s when rich forms
of literacy were documented in the homes of low-income families
(Heath; Taylor). Regrettably, the view that there is little or
no literacy in the homes of low-income and low-education
families persists in some quarters, and the literacy-advice texts
have changed little.
Men: Fathers, and men generally, have a low profile in
the children’s advice literature, except as authors of the
texts. For a very short period in the 1960s and 1970s, fathers
were called upon to read stories to their children at bedtime and
to encourage other fathers to do the same. Otherwise, they were
and are invisible in the world of the literacy-advice texts.
Children: The 21st century has witnessed children engaging
in forms of literacy “connected to social worlds that their
parents did not necessarily share” (Smythe 283). Literacy-advice
texts do not see children as agents in their own literacy practices
despite the fact that ample evidence suggests otherwise.
There is an entrenched romantic notion of an ideal family. The
mother is seen as nurturer and teacher in a loving, warm and sensitive
home where the bonding children need to shape their bodies, minds
and souls develops through mother-child storybook reading. Many
examples challenge this romantic notion, but they are not mentioned
in the literacy-advice texts.
Who benefits from mothering and the literacy-advice discourses
is a pointed question. Literacy advice has become more prevalent
and insistent since the 1990s. One interpretation of this increase
is either that mothers are not following the advice, or, if they
are, that the literacy advice is not having its intended effect.
Public education since the 1930s seems to have drawn a line in
the sand for what is expected of mothers. At that time, literacy
learning became more or less institutionalized. Women’s domestic
literacy work at home was no longer recognized and thus became
invisible, “though nonetheless important for the social and
cultural reproduction of advantage and disadvantage” (Smythe
As applied in Smythe’s dissertation, critical discourse
analysis has revealed the power of inquiry into the language used
to situate motherhood and literacy practices. Smythe has mapped
out three possible routes into a new territory for mothering and
early literacy discourses: (1) develop a critical awareness of
the ways in which literacy research sustains the mothering
discourses; (2) pay attention to the realistic and situated experiences
of contemporary mothering in Canada and the United States as a
basis for policymaking; and (3) consider shifting research
away from instruction and advice, to questions of how to make social
policies for women more equitable and fair. Clearly, the good mother/caregiver
role represents a much more expanded one than that portrayed in
literacy-advice texts. The focus of this piece on critical discourse
analysis as a research methodology could not take up all of the
richness and detail in Smythe’s work of over 300 pages, and
so I close by recommending that you read her dissertation.
Linda M. Phillips is professor and director of
the Canadian Centre for Research on Literacy at the University
of Alberta. She also coordinates the Canadian Adult Literacy Research
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Foucault, Michel (1972). The Archaeology of Knowledge.
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Gubrium, Jaber F. and James A. Holstein (2000). Analyzing Interpretive
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Heath, Shirley B. (1983). Ways with Words. Cambridge:
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Smythe, S. (2006). The Good Mother: A critical discourse analysis
of literacy advice to mothers in the 20th century. Unpublished
doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia, Vancouver,
Taylor, Denny (1983). Young Children Learn to Read and Write.
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