Multiple Literacies

We read the world through images, symbols, colours, signs, body language and in the gaps and margins as well as through printed text. But traditionally, the print text has been privileged in English language arts classrooms. The notion of “text” has broadened to include texts of all kinds including images, sounds, and even the body.

Graphic Novels

Today, book-length comics, better known as graphic novels, have evolved as a popular medium for children and adolescents.  There is a growing North American market for import books like Japanese Manga, and traditional bookstores and libraries are devoting multiple shelves and, in some cases, entire walls to their graphic novel collections.  There has been an explosion of graphic novels that retell classic stories and childhood favourites.  Graphic novels appeal to a generation of children and adolescents who have grown up in a more visual society, and their inclusion in English language arts classes has been touted as a wonderful new way to engage reluctant readers and especially boys (Christensen, 2007; Frey & Fisher, 2004; Gallo & Weiner, 2004; Schwarz, 2006). 

Contrary to this trend to promote graphic novels as “simpler” texts for struggling readers, graphic novels actually require different and possibly even more complex reading skills than traditional print texts.  The inclusion of pictures, for example, does provide the reader with visual clues to help understand what is happening in the text; however, readers of graphic novels need to understand not only print text and visual images (facial expression and  gestures, for example), but also how certain media techniques are employed for different effects.  For example, why is a close-up used in a floating panel or how is a panoramic image used to convey a certain effect?  As Peter Gutierrez (2009) points out, “By their nature [graphic novels] force readers to get information from the art within a panel, from the progression of images from panel to panel, from the printed text of speech balloons and captions, and often from the in-art ‘audio’ text of sound effects—all at the same time. You must synthesize as you go”.  Although comics have been around for decades, the increasing availability of graphic novels provide readers with opportunities to engage with a medium that complements the literacies required by the kinds of multimodal platforms many of them are immersed in daily, such as MSN, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. 

Christensen, L. “Graphic Global Conflict: Graphic Novels in the High School Social Studies Classroom.”  Social Studies, 2007.
Frey, N., & Fisher, D. Using Graphic Novels, Anime and the Internet in an Urban High School. The English Journal , 93 (3), 19-25, 2004.
Gallo, D. & Weiner, S. Bold Books for Innovative Teaching: Show, Don’t Tell: Graphic Novels in the Classroom.  The English Journal 2 (94), 2004.
Gutierrez, P. (2008).  Graphic Storytelling and the New Literacies: an Interview with NCTE Educator Peter Gutierrez. Bookshelf. Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on September 12, 2008.
Schwarz, G.  Expanding Literacies Through Graphic Novels. English Journal , 95 (6), 58-64, 2006.

Digital Story Telling in Grade 1

Diana Battaglia describes a media literacy activity that involved her grade 1 students (during her practicum) designing and creating imaginative sandwiches and then using Photo Story to tell digital stories about their creations.

Media Literacy in Grade 2

Lauren Robb describes a media literacy unit that involved her grade 2 students (during her practicum) in critically looking at websites (which portrayed fictional products and services) and creating information brochures for others.

Multiple Literacies

The argument for a pedagogy that takes into account, not only traditional print and oral literacies, but also visual and multimodal representations, has been well established in the literature (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000; Hammett and Barrell, 2002; Kress, 2003; Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996; Lankshear and Knobel, 1998, 2003; Luke, 1996; New London Group, 1996). A multiple literacies or new literacies approach focuses not only on responding to printed texts, but also understanding how texts are constructed and what meaning is conveyed through multimodal representations. According to Knobel and Lankshear (2003), the New Literacy Studies (NLS) “refers to a new way of looking at literacy,” one that takes a sociocultural approach to understanding and researching literacy (p. 23). A new literacy approach also focuses on “new forms of literacy” (p. 23).

In many digital texts, different modalities, aural, visual, gestural, spatial and linguistic come together in one surround in ways that reshape the relationship between printed word and image or printed word and sound (Jewitt, 2005). This change in the materiality of text inevitably changes the way we read or receive the text and has important implications for the way we construct or write our own texts. The materiality of the computer and the Web offer new ways of representing writing.

Our students are growing up “digirate” (Pack, 1996). They have been weaned on MSN and Nintendo, and the field continues to grow with their ever-increasing engagement with multiplayer internet games, ezines and wikis, and BLOGs and other social software. As Goodson, Knobel, Lankshear & Mangan (2002) point out, “Young learners inhabit a world of burgeoning new literacies different in kind, scope, and purpose from conventional literacies and familiar language uses forged in pre-digital times” (p. 126). What happens when these new reading and writing technologies are used by students and teachers in the English classroom? How can instruction be adapted in response to the changing literacy landscape? (Reinking, 1998). We know from studies in the areas of multiple literacies, new literacy studies, multimodal literacies, and digital literacies that students bring with them skills that remain untapped in the classroom setting (Alvermann, 2002; Alvermann & Xu, 2003; Gee, 2003; Knobel & Lankshear, 2003; Kress, 2003; Marsh, 2003; Pahl & Rowsell, 2005; Short, Kauffman & Kahn, 2000). We need to investigate how digital media are changing the literacy practices of our students.

Ignoring this phenomenon in our classrooms would be a mistake. If we do so, we run the risk of losing touch and school may become boring and irrelevant for students as a result. As Hammett and Barrell (2002) point out, “ICT and the Internet are not going to disappear any time soon. Rather, access and use will become easier and simpler” (p. 13). Using an “asset model” that suggests a more constructive approach to exploring the impact of new technologies on students’ literacy practices, we are working on the assumption that engaging in reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing with new media “can work as a benefit to literacy instead of as a social deficit” (Mackey, 2002, p. 199).

Multilingualism in multimodal literacy education

Heather Lotherington
Professor, Multilingual education
York University

Literacy development lies at the heart of the Grade 1–8 language curriculum. Literacy learning is a communal project and the teaching of literacy skills is embedded across the curriculum; however, it is the language curriculum that is dedicated to instruction in the areas of knowledge and skills – listening and speaking, reading, writing, and viewing and representing – on which literacy is based.

Language development is central to students’ intellectual, social, and emotional growth, and must be seen as a key element of the curriculum. When students learn to use language in the elementary grades, they do more than master the basic skills. They learn to value the power of language and to use it responsibly. (Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 3)

Literacy in Ontario schools is conflated with written English (or French) language. The Ontario literacy curriculum, though increasingly oriented towards multimodalism, does not embrace, or even truly acknowledge, the breadth of languages and literacies urban children bring to the educational project. Formal education in Ontario anticipates children entering school with a middle class socialization in English (or French), based on activities such as story-book reading. However, for the majority of children in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), this is not the case: over half of the children in the TDSB are non-native speakers of English ( ).

Literacy practices intricately weave language knowledge into new social, cultural and cognitive patterns. However, literacy is separable from language: mathematicians read, write, conceptualize and reflect on numeric formulae; musicians, musical scores; geographers, maps; electricians, electrical plans; architects, blueprints, and so forth. Children enter school with valuable literacy socialization that is untapped to the extent that exposure to English, the dominant language in the Toronto context, is. School children are familiar with electronic media, such as digital games, YTV, and animated narratives, for example, but, also with community language/s, and, for some, basic literacy in orthographic systems other than the Roman alphabet used to transcribe English. This might include a child’s being able to write her or his name in another script, e.g., Japanese, or Cree, or Arabic; and understand the cultural discourses of religious (e.g., Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah) and/or cultural practices (e.g., Chinese New Year). Children from language minority homes have a knowledge of at least two languages on school entry: the language/s of the home, and, to a lesser degree, the language of the pop culture media bridging their diverse heritage cultures: English. It must be remembered that children’s knowledge of any language is, at best, partial (Bialystok, 2001).

Entering an education system that introduces children to English and French becomes trilingual education, at the very least, for the majority of children in the greater Toronto area (GTA) who come from a minority language background. But teachers do not generally value pre-school communication in minority languages as a base on which to build children’s multimodal literacy engagement, though we know that learning a second language (such as English for literacy) is best accomplished as an additive rather than subtractive activity (Cummins, 1979; 1981; 2000). In other words, literacy education needs to build from the known to the unknown: from children’s knowledge of ways of using community language/s towards language proficiency and literacy development in English. English should add to rather than replace a child’s existing and developing linguistic knowledge.

The values inscribed in the Ontario curriculum lead teachers to ignore, and devalue the communication knowledge multicultural children bring into school. This is a great waste, not only for broad future learning, but for what the literacy curriculum sets out to achieve: responsive, thoughtful, and articulate children, who can capably interpret the world around them and express themselves in meaningful and self-affirming ways. Kindergarten teacher, Mike Zentena, explains why it is important for the kindergarten teacher to introduce children to each other in a climate of respectful multiculturalism, understanding multiple linguistic resources as personal assets rather than cultural embarrassments:

At the school where I taught before coming to JPS, there was a big focus on equity.  We had a lot of workshops which made me realize that respecting language differences should be part of the curriculum rather than something we do as a special project, especially at this grade where children typically giggle or point and laugh when they hear another language. We decided to count the children everyday in roll call using their home languages. The giggling soon stopped and the children started come to class exclaiming, “I learned how to count in my language!” (Lotherington et al, 2008, p. 136)

But how can the classroom teacher welcome into the classroom the languages of elementary school children when there may be 10 or 12 different languages represented in a single classroom? Numerous educators in the GTA are engaged in bringing the languages of the community into the classroom in the development of multiliteracies pedagogies (see, for example, Cummins et al, 2005; Lotherington et al, 2008; Schecter & Cummins, 2003; These projects can help to generate ideas for practitioners.

Classroom teachers need to think broadly about multimodal literacy instruction for millennium learners. Languages, like electronic media, provide an important dimension in multimodal literacy education. Indeed, digital media can facilitate multilingual literacy engagement – for all. Here are some ideas:

1. Using online translators as a bridge to minority language literacies

Online translators can be used to provide a rough-and-ready, but helpful method of welcoming into the classroom the recently arrived child who is in the very beginning stages of acquiring English. Use of such a system only works if the child can read his or her home language, of course, and the resulting translations can be extremely rudimentary. Projecting machine translated instructions to a screen also gives children in the class the opportunity to recognize other languages that their fellow classmates know.

2. Connecting to schools for language exchange

The old idea of penpal correspondence has been invigorated in an era of social networking and electronic messaging. Schools can find connections across language interests. Children can co-create multiple language descriptions of stories represented in pictures or sounds that showcase different ways of telling a story, in writing, orally, aurally, and visually.

3. Programming multilingual stories

Languages can be brought into story learning at many junctures, including at the beginning of a story project if a story is learned in English translation (e.g., Aboriginal legends). ESL children may need support to understand the English version of a story at the beginning of a project or in an ongoing manner. Community (either local or digital) assistance can be sought, which helps to open school doors to community involvement. A completed story can be retold in many voices that invite in the languages of the classroom, school or community. This can involve parents as well as children, and can be recorded in writing, on an audio sound track, or using visual media (useful for recording sign language versions as well). (See Lotherington et al., 2008, for further information on creating multilingual stories.)

4. Fractional use of languages as a jigsaw activity

Multiple languages can be incorporated fractionally in an activity using a jigsaw formation, and, even, in hybridized formats (with older children). In such an activity, children need to collectively pool their knowledge of minority language literacies to figure out the story, or game. This idea comes from a recent study of videogames in the geography classroom (Lotherington & Sinitskaya, 2007), where we found that an online gameshell into which children were programming familiar board games, such as Snakes and Ladders, using curricular input, had a bug that defaulted the screen to Spanish and French versions. Rather than foiling the children, this motivated them to guess what the words were, using visual clues from the game architecture, as well as cognates from French class and help from classmates who knew related languages. We were surprised to find that children found this an entertaining aspect of the game – rather than a frustrating game glitch!

Digitally networked communications have opened up global communicative possibilities. In large urban areas, such as the GTA, we begin the journey of teaching children to be literate beings with the languages of the world in our classrooms. Why throw away a head start?


Bialystok, E. (2001). Bilingualism in development: Language, literacy, and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cummins, J. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research, 49 (2), 222-251.
Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In California State Department of Education (Ed.) Schooling and minority language students: A theoretical framework (pp. 3-49). Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center, California State University.
Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J., Bismilla, V., Chow, P., Cohen, S., Giampapa, F., Leoni, L., Sandhu, P., & Sastri, P. (2005). Affirming identity in multilingual classrooms. Educational Leadership 63, 38-43.
Lotherington, H. & Sinitskaya, N. (2007). A Study of Classroom Use of Educational Games and Simulations for Literacy Skills Development: A qualitative sub-study of two schools. Institute for Research on Learning Technologies, Technical Report 2007-4.
Lotherington, H., Sotoudeh, S., Holland, S. & Zentena, M. (2008). Teaching emergent multiliteracies at Joyce Public School: Three narratives of multilingual story-telling in the primary grades. Canadian Modern Language Review, 65 (1), 125-145.
Schecter, S.R., & Cummins J. (Eds.) (2003). Multilingual education in practice: Using diversity as a resource. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.