4.3.2 Understanding multimodal texts

Being surrounded by such texts, it is important that we understand how meaning is derived from individual elements in a text, such as words, pictures and sounds, and how the meanings of these elements interact to form a whole.

Many researchers believe that such an understanding of multimodal texts is so important that it should be a central part of literacy pedagogy. The New London Group (or Multiliteracies Project), whom we briefly mentioned in section 2.3, first published ‘A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures’ in 1996. It sets out a pedagogy for ‘multiliteracies’ aimed at broadening traditional conceptions of literacy to encompass multimodal communication. The authors give their reasons for advocating a broad definition of literacy as follows:

First, we want to extend the idea and scope of literacy pedagogy to account for the context of our culturally and linguistically diverse and increasingly globalised societies, for the multifarious cultures that interrelate and the plurality of texts that circulate. Second, we argue that literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies. This includes understanding and competent control of representational forms that are becoming increasingly significant in the overall communications environment, such as visual images and their relationship to the written word – for instance, visual design in desktop publishing or the interface of visual and linguistic meaning in multimedia. Indeed, this second point relates closely back to the first; the proliferation of communications channels and media supports and extends cultural and subcultural diversity. As soon as our sights are set on the objective of creating the learning conditions for full social participation, the issue of differences become critically important. How do we ensure that differences of culture, language, and gender are not barriers to educational success? And what are the implications of these differences for literacy pedagogy?

New London Group, 1996, p. 61

The authors argue that literacy pedagogy must take account of the different literacy demands made on students in an increasingly culturally diverse world, where future employment depends less on manual skills and more on communication skills. The purpose of education, they argue, is to equip students with the skills to participate fully in social and economic life.

These are broad and ambitious aims. Small studies into how children begin to engage with literacy support them, however. Millard and Marsh (2001) looked into the relationship between children’s visual literacy skills and emergent writing, and teacher responses to their pupils’ drawings. They found that drawings, although often a vital part of the child’s communication of a story and its significance, were largely ignored or seen as an unimportant part of the transition into ‘proper writing’. Millard and Marsh state that, increasingly, pressures on teachers to achieve certain standards in writing mean that an important part of children’s literacy development is being overlooked. The effect on boys, in particular, was to engender lower motivation and achievement (Millard and Marsh, 2001, p. 55).

Coles and Hall (2001) consider how contemporary texts often require different ways of reading than do conventional books, with their linear and ordered reading paths – from left to right in English, for example. They looked at some modern children’s books which break down these traditional pathways and subvert our expectations – by having characters break out of the story to speak to the reading child, or by having the Big Bad Wolf defend himself in an alternative version of the Three Little Pigs fairytale, or by weaving together different narratives which require the reader to make choices to proceed with the story. Coles and Hall describe these as displaying the fun, parody and irony of postmodernism:

The search for ‘true’ gives way to playfulness where coherence is formed by constantly unfolding meanings, and expressed through choices the reader makes.

Coles and Hall, 2001, p. 112

The term ‘postmodernism’ is sometimes used interchangedly with poststructuralism which you met in section 3, but is used by Coles and Hall to convey a perceived sense of the precariousness of meaning-making in texts (see Graddol, 1994, pp. 17–19).

Children also regularly interact with websites and periodicals, which make similar demands on them. Because reading in these texts is non-linear, and readers have to actively engage with them rather than passively consume them, the authors argue that there are implications for how reading is approached in school:

[T]he reading curriculum, and associated assessment criteria, still promote a linear view of reading, and rarely promote the kinds of literacy which are required in the workplace and in the home.

Coles and Hall, 2001, p. 112

4.3.1 The increase in multimodal texts

4.3.3 Understanding how and why texts are produced