multimodalities and multiliteracy in the ELA classroom…Moving Forward

      Digital media is reshaping the way that we think of literacies. It is evident that what is needed to move forward in this ever-changing and increasingly digital, multi-media environment is a skill set for interpreting these texts, (for as we know that the category of text encompasses much more than just the printed word), and synthesizing the information into a coherent manner, again, using the multimedia tools at hand. Jewitt states: “The concept of multiple literacies has emerged in response to the theorizations of the new conditions of contemporary society” (p242).

This leads to obvious questions, particularly for those educators who find themselves suddenly burdened with having to understand something that they have assiduously avoided for years (namely the shift to the digital over the traditional, and apparently outdated, concept of reading print text), of what exactly is meant by the terms multi-literacies, and the more intimidating, multimodality. If one steps beyond the initial intimidation, however, it is plain that multi-literacies is merely a reference to the skill set necessary to “read” texts through a variety of mediums. Jewitt phrases the issue perfectly when she states: “new relationships between production and dissemination are made possible across a range of media and technologies, remaking the conditions and functions of authorship and audience (Adkins, 2005; Lury, 1993).” (243).

Similarly, multimodality is simply an expansion of the means through which people have to communicate their thoughts, experiences, and ideas. It is quickly becoming the norm for written text to be interspersed with, and quite often back-grounded by, visual and audio compliments. This change in the way that information is now, in a digitally reliant age, disseminated, is particularly relevant to already established schools of thought including New Literacy Studies, Critical Literacies, and Discousre Studies. NCTE, in its “Declarations Concerning the Broadest Definitions of Multimodal Literacies”, emphasizes the fact that the combination of mediums should be seen as a meaning making process that extends “beyond illustration or decoration”. In a statement on what this means specifically for teachers, they state: “All modes of communication are codependent. Each affects the nature of the content of the other and the overall rhetorical impact of the communication event itself” (NCTE).

Again, though the technical aspects of this may seem daunting at first, the basis for these concepts trace back to studies concerning constructivism and collaboration. New Literacy Studies has been around for quite some time, endorsing  a focus on varied means of communication and meaning making, the technology is finally catching up to the ideology.   Finders and Hyndes address this when they point out that from the mid 20th century to our current position, that there has been a kind of dissonance between the desire to measure students’ progress through standardized testing and encouraging students’ personal growth and development as the main goals of literacy studies. They outline five categories of major shifts that have transpired in English Language Arts over this time: “(a) literacy as text, (b) literacy as cognitive process, (c) literacy as personal growth, (d) literacy as sociocultural process, and € literacy as sociopolitical practice” (28).

Tracing the changes of these educational initiatives, or the climactic struggles for power that they have engendered between the academic and the administrator regarding such things as the efficacy of standardized testing and teacher evaluations, can be a frustrating and sometimes dispiriting exercise. It should be kept in mind, however, that web 2.0 technologies not only make multimodality and multi-literacy skills more accessible to use as a teaching tool, they demand it. The rapid pace of information technology has irrevocably changed the face of education in general and ELA in particular, posing the question of whether  we are going to create a generation of graduates who are able to comprehend and interact with the information that they are bombarded with, (and therefore are able to act in a responsible and civically-minded manner), or if we are going to let slip our last opportunity to engender an appreciation for not just reading, but the pursuit of knowledge and truth as well.


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