The links on this blog mostly reflect the increasingly popular way of referring to literacies, such as: the use of digital technology as digital literacies or ICT literacies; the use of image as visual literacies; the critical searching for information as information literacies; and working in international groups as requiring global literacies, and so on.
However, the text I've written takes a different approach. Instead, it gives some of the theoretical background to literacies and multiliteracies, which is not usually reflected in popular discourse about "e-literacies".
In my mind I'm writing this both for interested participants of the Multiliteracies Topic Option Group (in the University of London, Online Education and Training Certificate) and in preparation for part of the literature review of my doctorate.
So be prepared for a theoretical overview about multiliteracies in the context of the study of literacies and literacy practices. Some of the key concepts are: identity, design, meaning-making and multimodal. Even if you don't manage to read it all, you might like to go directly to the conclusion. I have cited large passages of the concluding chapter by Gunther Kress in his book "Literacy in the New Media Age" where he reflects on the future of new literacies.
In this text I'm going to refer mostly to the work of:
James Paul Gee
The New London Group
All comments and suggestions are welcome.
Introduction to "literacies"
The study of literacy has moved from the idea of one, single unified thing called literacy to the concept of "literacy practices" that indicates a multiplicity of literacies that are always related to specific cultural contexts.
In a chapter called "perspectives on literacy", Brian Street compares two different of literacy and literacy practices (1994:143)
John Ogbu, a well-known educational researcher defined literacy as:
"the ability to read and write and compute in the form taught and expected in formal education ... (literacy then is) synonymous with academic performance" (Ogbu, 1990)
Reid, on the other hand, gives a description of a form of literacy in SE Asia that gives us a different basis from which to look at literacy practices:
"The old Indonesian ka-ga-nga alphabet was taught in no school and had no value either vocationally or in reading any established religious or secular literature. The explanation given for its persistence was the local custom of manjan, a courting game whereby young men and women would gather in the evenings and the youths would fling suggestive quatrains (pantun) written in the old script to the young women they fancied" (Reid, 1988:218))
This change in language (from literacy to literacies or literacy practices) represents an important shift from viewing literacy as something autonomous which has pre-defined consequences for a person who has it (or not) to practices which are ideological and never neutral.
This later body of research and practice distinguishes itself from the former one by calling itself "New Literacy Studies".
New Literacy Studies (NLS) denies the earlier notion of literacy as being a set of skills or competences that rest on culturally specific values about what is proper literacy. It challenges the way that literacy practices associated with people of different classes or different ethnic groups are presented as inadequate or unsuccessful attempts to achieve the proper literacy of the dominant culture. NLS uses language like "dominant literacies" and "literacy varieties" rather than, simply, "literacy".
Multiliteracies and the New London Group
In Spring 1996 the article `A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies', written by The New London Group, was published in the issue of the Harvard Educational Review. This study addressed the changing social conditions of our time and the new demands of the workplace, urging that teaching literacy had to respond to these changes. In `Putting Multiliteracies to the Test' Cope and Kalantzis outline the rationale for multiliteracies:
The Multiliteracies argument runs like this: our personal, public and working lives are changing in some dramatic ways, and these changes are transforming our cultures and the ways we communicate. This means that the way we have taught literacy, and what counts for literacy, will also have to change.
The term `Multiliteracies' highlights two of the most important, and closely related changes. The first is the growing significance of cultural and linguistic diversity. The news on our television screens screams this message at us every day. And, in more constructive terms, we have to negotiate differences every day, in our local communities and in our increasingly globally interconnected working and community lives. (...)The globalisation of communications and labour markets makes language diversity an ever more critical local issue.
The second major shift encompassed in the concept of Multiliteracies is the influence of new communications technologies. Meaning is made in ways that are increasingly multimodal in which written-linguistic modes of meaning are part and parcel of visual, audio, and spatial patterns of meaning. Take for instance the multimodal ways in which meanings are made on the World Wide Web, or in video captioning, or in interactive multimedia, or in desktop publishing, or in the use of written texts in a shopping mall. To find our way around this emerging world of meaning requires a new, multimodal literacy.
Following from this presentation of the need to master multiliteracies, The New London Group introduce the notion of a pedagogy based on Design, where "(t)eachers and managers are seen as designers of (their) learning processes and environments" (2000:19).
They also highlighted the importance of design in the construction of meaning. They describe the design of meaning as an active and dynamic process where meaning is constructed through accessing the resources of Available Designs, Designing your own meaning based on your interaction with these resources and then producing the Redesigned (ibid.:20-23).
This reference to multimodal texts and literacies is picked up by current writers of literacies. Ilana Snyder, editor of the book "Silicon literacies" points out that:
"what looks like the same text or multimedia genre on paper or on screen is not functionally the same. It follows different meaning conventions and requires different skills for its successful use." (2002: 3)
Gunther Kress, a member of the multiliteracies project, puts it more dramatically:
"Over the last two or three decades a revolution has taken place in the area of communication which forces us to rethink the social and the semiotic landscape of Western `developed' societies. The effect of this revolution has been to dislodge written language from the centrality which it has held, or which has been ascribed to it, in public communication." (200: 182)
Kress emphasises the distinction between the visual mode of image with what is popularly called visual literacies. However, whereas writing and images are different resources and require different competencies in their use and design, we increasingly use both modes (image and writing) together in new technologies. This means that
"To use both modes, image and writing, together, as is ever more frequently the case with the new technologies, is to be involved in the use of the resources of visual composition (layout), in the use of the visual mode of image, in the use of the mode of writing, and all in ways which both draw on the existing knowledges and resources and yet are also quite new." (2003:24)
Modes are crucial elements for meaning-making and are therefore part of our semiotic landscape. It is this semiotic landscape which is changing at the most fundamental levels, representing changes in social, cultural, economic and technological domains. Kress' definition of modes is:
"semiotic resources which allow the simultaneous realisation of discourses and types of (inter)action. Designs then use these resources, combining semiotic modes, and selecting from the options which they make available according to the interests of a particular communication situation." (2001: 22).
A key component in the study of literacies is that of identity. At its simplest, whatever forms of reading and writing we are learning and using are associated with certain social identities. In 1994 Gee described it like this:
"Literacy is seen as a set of discourse practices, that is, as ways of using language and making sense both in speech and writing. These discourse practices are tied to the particular world views (beliefs and values) of particular social or cultural groups. Such discourse practices are integrally connected with the identity or sense of self of the people who practice them; a change of discourse practices is a change of identity" (Gee, 1994:168-169)
Ten years later, Gee, also reflecting the work of Etienne Wenger, talks of learning as an identity project in which learning represents a trajectory, an ongoing designing and redesigning of identity in relation to the social and cultural practices in which we are involved:
"All learning ... requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one's old identities to the new one." (Gee, 2003:51)
The New London Group, who wrote "Multiliteracies: literacy learning and design of social futures" (2000), relate identity to the ongoing change and reconstruction of meaning that we do in the ongoing design and redesigning of our available resources. We need multiliteracies to act out our (multilayered) identity as transformers of meaning and makers of culture.
Identity and meaning are themes running through a number of different discourses about globalisation. Castell's second volume in the series "The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture"(1997) is titled "The Power of Identity". In his first volume "The Rise of the Network Society" (1996) he discusses identity in the context of globalisation and the networked society:
"In a world of global flows of wealth, power, and images, the search for identity, collective or individual, ascribed or constructed, becomes the fundamental source of social meaning. This is not a new trend since identity, and particularly relations and ethnic identity, have been at the roots of meaning since the dawn of human society. Yet identity is becoming the main, and sometimes the only, source of meaning in a historical period characterised by widespread destructuring of organisations, delegitimisation of institutions, fading away of major social movements and ephemeral cultural expressions. People increasingly organise their meaning not around what they do but on the basis of what they are". (Castells, 1996:3)
In conclusion I'm going to quote large passage directly from Gunther Kress who, on page 172 of his book "Literacy in the New Media Age", proposes "an agenda for further thinking". He states that:
"traditional forms of reading require the reader to follow the set reading path and to fill the entities which are encountered with the reader's meaning. It is an activity which is inwardly directed, `inner-directed. The form of imaginative activity which it fosters is withdrawing, directed to inner activity, contemplative. It is not action on the world, but action by the individual on the individual in line with materials taken from the world. The new forms of reading by contrast require action on the world: to impose the order of a reading path on that which is to be read, arising out of my interests. Ordering a message entity in the world in this manner is a different form of action - not contemplative but actional, not inner-directed but directed outwardly. (...) In the new forms of reading, knowledge is not necessarily set out in such an ordered, sequential manner, but is frequently shaped by the reader in the act of determining/ constructing/ imposing such order by the new reader. This is a very different manner of engaging with the world. It has many affinities with other aspects of the contemporary world, with its demands for obtaining information and linking pieces of information horizontally, with its turning away from `bodies of knowledge' and towards currently relevant information, and so on.
At this point the question arises yet again: is this problematic, and how is it problematic? Can we envisage a world which is so reduced intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, culturally, socially, politically, that all we can be focused on is the instrumental, the pragmatic, the gathering of information, unreflectingly? Will there be no need for reflective action, for introspection, for reassessment and critique? Will understanding in its profounder sense not be needed?" (Kress, 2002: 174)
In reflecting on authority and knowledge he says this:
"The affordances of the new technologies of representation and communication enable those who have access to them to be `authors', even if authors of a new kind - that is, to produce texts, to alter texts, to write and to `write back'. Where before the author was a publicly legitimated and endorsed figure, now there is no such gate-keeping. In the former era knowledge was assessed case by case, and that which passed muster was admitted to the status of canonical knowledge. Whether in the form of school curricula, or of the books on the shelves of libraries, or the `knowledge' disseminated by the organs of the media, or knowledge emanating from anyone of a multitude of public institutions, it was clear what was what was not knowledge.
In the era of multimodality, however, the relation of mode and knowledge has become newly problematic. Mode, it is clear, has a profound effect on the shaping of knowledge. However, this time the problem cannot be settled by recourse to power, because there is no longer an unquestioned acceptance of such power, not even in schools. Given this absence of power and of authority, the answer is to insist on the teaching of principles of assessment, analysis and comparison. As it has become impossible either to teach or to assess what is true or authoritative, it has become essential to provide principled means for assessing claims around truth and authority. In this, the processes and environments of representation are crucial.
The awareness of design in production/articulation as much as in interpretation, and an awareness of the always present rhetorical aspects of design, will be essential in this." (ibid.: 173)
Kress concludes this chapter and the book with a further reflection on the profound changes in the social economic and technological world which he claims will shape the futures of literacy:
"However, we are the makers of meaning, and we can move into that period with a theory that puts us and our sign-making at the centre - not free to do as we would wish, but not as the victims of forces beyond our control either. That is the point and the task of theory. That will need to be the guide of our practices." (ibid: 176)
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