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Multimodal Literacy

NAGAMANI | Educator, Bangalore

Nagamani is a passionate educator with over two plus decades of experience. She has been contributing in the area of Industry-Academia relationship and interaction, training, internships and placements. She has, as a second in line, shouldered academic and administrative roles as well. She has edited and published seven books and few articles in the communication and media domain. She is also part of few social initiatives, education and leadership forums.


“It is no longer true that proficiency in language is the only measure of literacy. Multimodal literacy is the current paradigm of education.”

Currently education is in a transition stage. Literacy needs to be reevaluated within the existing curriculum contexts. Changes in the pedagogies are ensuing classrooms as a riposte to present-day communication and learning contexts. Teachers and educationists are making attempts across the world to respond to digital technologies within the existing curriculums and pedagogies. These digital technologies are impacting society at large and particularly the growing children, as these ‘digital natives’ are born into this digital era and are digital savvy. This swift changes in digital communication has enabled literacy to be combined with numerous multifaceted resources like colour, images, gestures, metaphors, music, graphic, sound, smells, pictures, photography and movies, etc. Multiliteracies have become indispensable skills for learning and interactional context in classrooms. With this construct today, literacy needs to redefine itself with ‘new language and literacy criteria’ within the context of multimodal literacy.

The term ‘multimodal literacy’ is an offshoot of the concept called ‘multimodality’. A 4th century phenomenon which saw a significant Multimodal Literacy upsurge in the 20th century due to exponential rise in digital technologies. In the 80s this term further developed and conceptualised learning through cognition. Consequently, Neil D Fleming’s through his research on ‘neuro-linguistic learning styles’ propagated three styles of learning that is, visual, auditory and kinesthetics. Fleming explained that these styles essentially facilitated the learner to learn and to interpret meaning making and at the same time create texts using digital technologies. This phenomenon has evolved with technology. And today we see traditional forms of teaching and learning transforming to digital forms.

Gunther Kress and Carey Jewitt proposed the term ‘Multimodal literacy’. Michael Halliday, a well-known linguist propagated this pedagogical approach. The term originates from social semiotics. It is an emergent research in learning multiple means of meaning making. It is the current paradigm of education as it is evident that educators should combine print-based learning with digital communication technology. Today there are numerous innovative and creative ways to engage students in effective learning by incorporating digital communication technology and notions of communication landscape brought about by new media technologies. In fact, this pedagogic approach focuses on explicit teaching strategies in a multimodal text to help students develop ‘evidence-based interpretation of texts and critical thinking’.

This term has numerous definitions. Few significant ones are as below: Kress and Jewitt (2003) states that “multimodal literacy refers to meaning-making that occurs at different levels through the reading, viewing, understanding, responding to, producing and interacting with multimodal texts and multimodal communication. It may include listening, talking and dramatizing as well as the writing, designing and producing of such texts. It also refers to comprehending the different ways knowledge is represented; the way discourse is designed to interact and integrate multimodal texts like advertisements, posters, reports, websites, films, etc. It is also interpreted as an extended form of social semiology dealing with how society interprets and manages signs and symbol. In this type of literacy, the text has to be interpreted separately in terms of sounds, writing, and visuals, and then has to be interpreted as a whole as a multimodal entity”.

Hocks (2003) states that “this process includes reading, comprehending, and analysing the texts shared in electronic media and then producing new texts through writing (cited in Tüzel & Tok, 2013)

Cordes (2007) in his research papers states “multimodal literacy is the synthesis of multiple modes of communication. This communication can result in a transformation of the singular modes into a form that often contains new or multiple meanings. The multimodal object can require a range of tools, skills, and sensibilities and often refiects collaborative as well as individual effort”.

Walsh (2010) describes it as “…meaning-making that occurs through the reading, viewing, understanding, responding to, and producing and interacting with multimedia and digital texts” (p. 213).

Mills and Unsworth (2017) states that “multimodal literacy refers to the study of language that combines two or more modes of meaning”.

Theo Van Leeuwen (2017) states “Multimodal literacy is therefore the ability to use and combine different semiotic modes in ways that are appropriate to the given context, both in the sense of the context-bound rules and conventions that may apply, and in the sense of the unique demands made by each specific situation”.

In the most basic sense multimodal literacy is

  • It is a meaning making tool which uses multimodal texts

  • It’s a union of multiples resources (modes) to create and infer meaning

  • It can make/produce/examine/construe meaning using any combination of modes of communication: linguistics, digital, aural, visual, gestural and spatial resources

  • It brings meaning through different objects of expression

  • It studies language using different modes of meaning

  • It uses digital media tools to enhance analysis and interpretation

  • It is an ability to combine semiotic resources to give appropriate meaning to a particular context

  • Last but not the least it’s a skill to critically look at multiple texts and make sense of it

The multiple tools used under linguistics, digital, aural, visual, gestural, and spatial design through which meanings are constructed and shaped in the process of learning are as follows:

This pedagogic approach can be applied to all the subjects and ­elds of discourse, as it aims to develop students to be discerning readers and savvy producers of multimodal texts. Today there is a mounting attention given to multimodal literacy even in informal social contexts like communities, recreational sites, homes, workplaces and others.

The future of education is interwoven with digital technologies, multimodal conventions and practices. Today’s digital natives know more about multimodal texts, because of early exposure to digital technologies. As educators we need to understand this impact and develop different modes to enhance literacy skills in today’s children. In fact, multimodal pedagogies can transform classroom learning to newer heights.

Educators, linguists, researchers and curriculum makers are looking at this fast-growing ­eld to bring transformation in learning to meet the needs of diverse cultural, social and digital contexts of students. This need has led the way to classroom pedagogies to examine the application of multimodal literacy for better learning. In fact, today’s students cannot escape from globalised communication environments. Consequently, they need advanced critical and digital skills to comprehend the array of knowledge they are constantly exposed too.

Contextually, different curriculum and teaching strategies can be adopted through multimodal approach that can go beyond language to embrace audio, visual, spatial, haptic, spoken and other modes of meaning making to equip students to learn across all levels of education. The pedagogy should include different paper based, live and digital multimodal texts like picture books, illustrations, text books, graphic novels, comics and posters; texts like dance, drama, live performance, role play and oral storytelling; and texts like soap operas, film, animation, slide shows, documentaries, e-posters, digital stories, podcasts, and creative web pages.

Educators should proactively use:

  1. Multimodal texts like Infographics, Videos, Slides. Visual worksheets, Interactive learning, Online and blended learning

  2. Properly organise the output to reduce overload

  3. Use digital learning opportunities to keep up with the everchanging landscape of digital communication

  4. Give multimodal assignments and assessments

  5. the feedback should also be multimodal in nature.

To conclude, the educational needs of 21st century learners are constantly evolving, traditional practices needs to redefine to include new multimodal literacies. Today there is a great emphasis on creation and innovation. Pedagogical practices should be reinvented and re-imagined to support students’ rapid changing needs. Teachers and educators programmes should create context and learning spaces with regards to learning technologies. In short, teachers have to explore and discover ways to weave Multimodal literacies into classrooms to enhance students learning.

This article originally appeared in the TeacherTribe Magazine June 2020 edition.


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