MET:Theory to Practice in Schools

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This page was originally authored by Ada Cheung (2007).
This page has been revised by Barbara Heard (2008), Philip Salembier (2008) and Carmen Chan(2008).


File:Multiliteracies Art.jpg
Multiliteracies Art from Lord Byng

'''Multiliteracies covers what has also been regarded as electronic literacies, technoliteracies, digital literacies, visual literacies, and print based literacies. [1]'Multiliteracies is a new approach to literacy pedagogy, a term first introduced by The New London Group in 1996. This is a group of authors who came together because they recognized and are interested in the significance of multiple literacies and wanted to make a difference for learners in classrooms. The term refers to supporting students in developing the range of literacies and communication skills highly valued in globalized, technologically-linked societies. At school, this means providing opportunities for students to make meaning from their work through text, media, technology, visuals, or digital tools, and valuing their culturally and linguistically diverse background no matter what mode they choose in expressing their knowledge. Moreover, with multiliteracies, students recognize how different disciplines are inter-related.

Past to present

Schools used to prepare learners for industrial employment and to encourage blending of differences. Literacy was focused on print text. This created a narrow window for learners with different strengths, weaknesses, backgrounds to comprehend one particular subject. Contrarily, schools today are beginning to recognize individual differences and preferences as resources for learning. The birth of multiliteracies is to allow people access to the mainstream without having to leave behind different subjectivities. The key is having schools as sites for access to various modes of media for communication and expression, and to welcome diversity. Schools of today need a different strategic framework that credits students for their cultural, linguistic, and technological knowledge accumulated outside of school life. In doing so, students' understanding, skills and interests will grow.

Academic perspectives

Child and youth literacy

Sonia Livingstone's research through the UK Children Go Online project recognizes that children are already using

the internet, television, camcorders, etc. for communicating, peer to peer connection, seeking information, and content creation. If children are already using multimodals to communicate and make meaning in their everyday lives, it is essential that schools help build on these channels of communication too.

In the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy's November 2004 issue, it had an article about fields of ideas at play when encouraging at-risk youth to explore literacy. The article argues for student access to multiliteracy projects, such as making music CDs telling dance stories to writing rap poetry depicting people's life, when school's are trying to get at-risk youth to meet curriculum requirements. This way, students are able to include their links to personal and cultural resources, as well as allowing for reflection with various modes of representation.

Adult literacy

In Kelder's article (1996, p.6) about rethinking literacy, he claims that research indicates those who had non-schooled literacies and used them, such as connecting a text they are reading to their own social practices, had higher cognitive improvement when learning. This proves that educational institutions must address the multiple literacies students already have outside of school when teaching. And the recognition of and opportunities for multiliteracies provide a channel for students and teachers to have meaning-making interactions as well as to talk about language, texts, and images.

Child Literacy According to the article The effects of incorporating a word processor into a year three writing program published in the Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, Beck and Fetherston conducted research into how the word processor can affect early childhood education. By incorporating the word processor into a year three writing program, they discovered that the word processor allowed students to focus more on the content of their writing instead of being distracted with grammatical errors, neatness and organization. Imagine all the other advantages schools can achieve by implementing other forms of technology into the classroom when a basic word processor is already able to improve early childhood writing development. Beck and Fetherston’s study also indicate that many of their subjects owned word processors; therefore, by combining students’ knowledge about word processors with new knowledge of writing, educators can increase students’ interest in learning and improve students’ skills as well as knowledge about technology.

The Multiliteracies Project

File:Orpheus Multimodal Analysis.jpg
Multilitearcies work sample from Lord Byng

The Multiliteracies Project is an international project to address and prepare learners for the multimodal ways people communicate knowledge in the diverse world through different teaching practices. Teachers at Sir Matthew Begbie in the Vancouver School District recognize the importance of providing multiple modes of communication for students to choose and explore when expressing their work across the curriculum. Together with many other schools, they have collaborated a website to express multiliteracies at work. This project is a great example of what schools can do.

Meaning-making tasks

In Language Arts, students are found using visuals as well as writing to respond to readings. In science, they can write haikus to express lessons about energy as well as calculate math problems about how a person's actions can make a great impact to the increase of pollution in the long term. When learning about planets, students physically role-played as different planets in rotation to visualize the effects. As for Socials, they had choices of completing the same project with a poster, a model, a PowerPoint presentation, a video, or a combination of several. Although groups had the same topic, they ended up with different projects because students had opportunities to depict their learning that allowed for cultural, linguistic, and

technological subjectivities through multimodals of media. Moreover, throughout these tasks, the teacher's role shifted from transmitting knowledge to orhestrating learning opportunities with and between students.

Impact on students

Print texts are heavily used in education however this textual setting is transforming. This rapid change is affecting the way learners interact and respond to information. As Hill discussed in her article Multiliteracies in early childhood, teacher researchers discovered that electronic books supported children’s reading and encouraged re-readings. This was especially true for kids with special needs.

Within these examples, it is apparent that multiliteracies is strongly at play. Not only do students recognize that when they are learning about one subject, other subjects are also intrinsically involved, but they also experience the freedom to communicate their learning in ways they find most effective. During open reflection on evaluating the various groups' Socials projects, student A points out that all the projects were just as good although some chose to use technology and some built models, and the different modes of representation actually made it more interesting for him as a learner because groups were able to incorporate their subjectivities in forms of imagination, humour, fluid identities, etc.. Student B, during the Science lesson, questioned openly why they were doing Math problems, which gave the whole class an opportunity to recognize how different disciplines naturally connected. As well, when writing haikus in Science, students were able to bring their own life stories about water into the content. Overall, students were more engaged and produced better work as a community sharing autobiographies with multiliteracies.


Despite all the benefits of multiliteracies referenced by scholars and observed at Begbie, it is still a new concept at work. As a result, schools and educators must recognize some flaws in the design elements of the multimodal framework for multiliteracies displayed below.

Multimodal diagram

The fact that it doesn't suggest how the different modes connect with each other and can be used together contradict with what advocates of multiliteracies encourage. Also, it is clear that students require tools to make meaning for the global flows of images, representations, and texts, but teachers need to be trained by having experiences engaging with texts and making meaning in various forms in order to facilitate the use of meaning-making tools. Schools should try to implement multiliteracies in ways that fit best with the class compositions and educators' comfort level.

The notion that underlies multiliteracy discourse: that “all meaning-making is multimodal” (New London Group, 2000, p. 29), is now rarely contested. Equally, it is widely accepted that engaging new learning environments through information and communication technologies is semiotic activity that extends beyond traditional, linguistics-based, semiotics. The New London Group clearly identified the elements of, and therein the challenges for educators in using a multiliteracies approach. However, the same complexity (illustrated in the above figure) that gives this model its potential power also makes it difficult to operationalize—especially the question of how meaning is made where text, image, culture, language, geography and behaviour interact.

Descriptive but not practical

Broadly, multiliteracies discourse has been criticized, especially by teachers attempting to implement its principles, for providing an analysis that is somewhat divorced from practice “…such research needs to move beyond mere categorization or enumerations of levels and types of student and teacher interactions and participation and also track the social dynamics, the social practices of literacy” (Luke, 2003, p. 399). Unsworth (2006), has suggested that a new metalanguage has to be devised to adequately describe these interactions: “Metalanguage entails systematic, technical knowledge of the ways in which the resources of language and images (and other semiotic systems) are deployed in meaning making” (p. 71). Yet, without such a metalanguage, educators are expected to design learning spaces that address “multiple modes of communication, multiple cultures in local educational contexts, continually emerging forms of digital communication, multiple Discourses needed in society, and the multiple identities of the students we teach” (Mills, 2005, pp. 72-75).

An ICT generation gap

Furthermore, many current educators tasked with designing learning environments that address multiliteracies are baby boomers or Gen-Xers who grew up and were educated prior to the proliferation of modern ICTs. Their students, whom Gee (2002, p. 59) calls millennials, and Prensky (2001) calls digital natives, “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” (Prensky, 2001). Those educators are then required to assess the learning that proceeds from ICT use. “Evaluating multimedia projects is difficult. We need to develop criteria that support the dynamic, creative, and even edgy work students produce” (Tierney and Rogers, 2004, p. 220). As well, the ease with which text, and other modes of meaning making, can be reproduced, manipulated and disseminated in digital environments create a “…heightened moral concern as students access a deluge of texts from powerful, unrestrained and potentially harmful Internet sources purporting to offer factual information” (Mills, 2005). And simply because students in affluent countries are immersed in technology “…educators must not assume that students are competent in techno-literacy practices because of access in informal social contexts” (Mills, 2005).

Equity concerns

Another caveat, more a practical concern of public educators than a critique of multiliteracies discourse per se, is access to the relatively expensive technological tools that facilitate new literacies. Au and Raphael (2000) note that in the U.S., literacy education tends to focus on the basics in low-income areas, and higher-level thinking in more affluent ones: "…expanding the literacy curriculum along these lines depends on the availability of technology and teachers' developing expertise in teaching both with and about visual images. Schools in affluent communities generally have ample funds to purchase technologies associated with new literacy forms. In contrast, schools in low-income areas often lack funds to purchase new technology and to install and maintain the necessary infrastructure" (p. 180). And the challenges do not necessarily disappear once access is established: “…we need to investigate whether equity promises are being realized in the alleged hierarchy-free zones of online communication. Are these spaces more inclusive, and do all students, regardless of cultural or linguistic differences, gender, habitus, or ability, have an equal voice…” (Luke, 2003, p. 399).

Implications for teacher education

Finally, teacher education is also a critical element where equity is concerned in education that seeks to employ a multiliteracies approach: "To what extent are teacher preparation programs providing more than mere operational skills training and incorporating a critical analytic perspective on these larger sociocultural and political issues, on changing educational epistemologies and practices, globalization, and the network society (Castells, 1996), or on the global digital divide?" (as cited in Luke, 2003).

Seeking prior knowledge in students is important to educators for this information will assist with planning for learning. This diagram below shows what children know about multiliteracies. File:Etec123.jpeg

Figure A. Multiliteracies Map

By making use of children’s prior knowledge, educators are connecting children’s interests and understandings with new information taught in school. Learning is taken one step further when educators give children the freedom to express their understanding in multimodal ways that makes sense to them. Often times, students are assessed by exams which require students to regurgitate what they have memorized; however, real learning occurs when students are encouraged to digest and interpret the information in their own ways.


A teacher at Sir Matthew Begbie designed a task that attempted to encourage students to connect the different modes in making meaning. Students, of varying abilities, had to put together a Socials Multimedia Project in groups that used as many of the modes as possible. Then, groups had to critique each other's projects and discuss how effectively other's used the modes to present the content. During this activity, students contributed their specific strengths to the groups, whether it be writing text, drawing, building models, acting, or creating PowerPoints and videos. In the end, students created impressive projects involving PowerPoint slides, role-playing, music, images, etc. that involved connections between many of the design modes of meaning. The success of this project proves that even if teachers do not have a wealth of experience with meaning-making tools, by giving students the opportunity to interact with the possibilities, they can be great leaders showing the teacher in return.

Multiliteracy Vs Traditional Literacy: The Reality in British Schools

Although it seems to be agreed that developing and valuing multiliteracies are steps in the right direction to making sure that the differences of culture, language and gender are not barriers to educational success, it still seems that traditional grammar in teaching English literacy is still more valued by many educational authorities. The teaching of traditional grammar is part of the curriculum in England and Australia (Unsworth, 2006). It is well supported in learning resources and therefore teachers may feel it is more important to teach. National tests that use monomodal approaches do not encourage teachers to explore teaching using a mulitlierate approach.

In 1988, Britain implemented The National Curriculum. The government anticipated that by teaching the National Curriculum teachers would be forced to concentrate on teaching and raising standards in the basic skills (Brown et al 1996). To insure the National Curriculum was being taught throughout schools in England national assessment was introduced in 1995. Each year students in England have to take Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs). The results of the SATs for students aged 7, 11 and 14 are then published in league tables. A second part of the assessment is teacher assessment, but these results are not published and are mainly used for tracking.

After 1995, Britain saw a renewed trend towards a more traditional form of teaching. Students were grouped by ability and there were many cases where teachers changed their teaching styles to match those of the SATs (Brown 1996). By 2003,and still in 2007 teachers and principals were urging the government to stop SATs testing of 7 year olds as the tests were considered too stressful (Smithers, 2003; Western Mail 2007).

In 2007, The Department for Education introduced a new National Secondary Curriculum and the new Primary Framework. These are to eventually replace the National Curriculum. Within these documents teachers are encouraged to explore more with listening and speaking, drama and ICT. Units of study encourage a much more multiliteracy approach. Ken Boston, Chief Executive of QCA said of the New Secondary Curriculum: "Our aim has been to increase flexibility. The new curriculum builds on the best of the past by maintaining the discipline of subjects, but at the same time offering greater opportunities for personalised learning, addressing the major challenges that face society and equipping young people with the skills for life and work in the 21st Century. "By mixing tradition with a more creative approach to the curriculum, we will achieve our objective of producing successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens."

The Department for Education Standards Site states that “The aim of the Primary Framework for literacy and mathematics is to support and increase all children's access to excellent teaching, leading to exciting and successful learning. There is a shared determination between the Primary National Strategy, schools, settings and local authorities (LAs) that all children are appropriately supported to make the progress of which they are capable. Children deserve:

  • to be set appropriate learning challenges
  • to be taught well and be given the opportunity to learn in ways that maximise their chances of success
  • to have adults working with them to tackle the specific barriers to progress they face.

The Primary Framework for literacy and mathematics is designed to help practitioners, teachers, schools and settings achieve this ambition.”

Have English schools begun to move into the light again? One might be excited by these quotes from the Department for Education. BUT the SATs tests have remained the same. Although test results for 6 year olds are more weighted on teacher assessment, students still have to sit traditional pencil and paper tests. The testing and results remain the same for children aged 11 and 14. For a brief explanation of SATs tests please visit Woodlands Primary School Web Site.

Although there is currently an independent review of the new Primary Curriculum there does not seem much hope for change in the near future. Colin Richards, a professor from the University of Cumbria, writes in the Educational Guardian that he believes Jim Rosen’s independent review of the new Primary Curriculum “is nothing more than a quick fix-it.” He claims that the review is far from being independence due to its brief that “it is focussed on the curriculum and is not considering changes to the current assessment and testing regime" (Richards, 2008).

The pressure on teachers for their students to perform well on the SATs tests is enormous. School’s reputations and therefore enrolment and budgets are affected by their position on the league tables. Although many teachers may know that students learn better using a muliliteracy approach, when they have to test their students using a traditional test method many will bend to the pressure of teaching for the test. After the introduction of SATs many experienced teachers moved to grades that did not have SATs scores that were reported to the public as they were not then under so much pressured to teach for the test (Brown 1996). SATs scores are supposed to evaluate how well the teacher is teaching. Personally I believe it has the opposite effect on the way teachers present their lessons (Brown, 1996 and personal experience).

What is the answer?

Valuing and trusting teacher assessment has to be the key to solving the situation in England’s schools. In many subjects such as social studies, history, geography and humanities, there is a lot of evidence that teachers are using muliliteracy as a way to engage their students. These subjects are not under the scrutiny of the SATs. Evaluating a multiliteracy project may be more of a challenge than evaluating a traditional test. But surly the learning potential involved is worth the effort. It will therefore be really important to not only provide teachers with training and resources to teach multiliteracy but also in assessment techniques. National tests will have to take a more multimodal approach which will then enable teachers to embrace and value multiliteracy. By doing this, the New National Curriculum may stand a chance of achieving its goals.

In May, my seven year old students are taking their SATs. I am under tremendous pressure for the students to perform well on these tests. THAT IS A REALITY!

See also


  • At Play in Fields of Ideas. (2004, Nov). Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy,48(3), 238-238.
  • Au, K. H., & Raphael, T. E. (2000). Equity and Literacy in the Next Millennium. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(1), 170-188.
  • Brown, Margaret, Taggart, Brenda, McCallum, Bet and Gripps, Caroline (1996) "The impact of key stage 2 tests", 3-13,24:3, 3-7

Web link:

  • Beck, N., & Fetherston, T, (2003). The effects of incorporating a word processor into a year three writing program. Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual, 139-161.
  • Gee, J. P. (2002). Millennials and Bobos, Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street: A story for our times. In D.E. Alvermann (Ed.) Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 51-67.
  • Hamston, Julie. (2006). Pathways to multiliteracies: Student teacher's critical reflections on a multimodal text. Australia Journal of Language and Literacy,29(1), 38-51.

Hill, S. 2005. Multiliteracies in early childhood. University of South Australia, Adelaide. Website:

  • Kelder, Richard (1996, Mar). Rethinking Literacy Studies: From the Past to the Present.Philadelphia, PA: World Conference on Literacy. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED417373).
  • Luke, C. (2003). Pedagogy, Connectivity, Multimodality, and Interdisciplinarity. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 397-403.
  • Mills, K. (2005). Deconstructing binary oppositions in literacy discourse and pedagogy. Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 28(1), 67-82.
  • Multiliteracy Project UBC. (2007). Sir Matthew Begbie Featured Projects. Retrieved February 25, 2007 from The Multiliteracy Project


  • Multiliteracy Project UBC. (2007). Lord Byng Featured Projects' Photo Gallery. Retrieved February 24, 2007 from The Multiliteracy Project


  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. NCB University Press, 9(5).
  • Richards, Colin (2008, Jan). "The Primary Curriculum Review will solve nothing." Educational Guardian, January 25, 2008. Retrieved January 26, 2008


  • Smithers, Rebecca. (2003, May 14). "Suffer Little Children" The GuardianWednesday, May 14, 2003. Retrieved January 25, 2008.

Web site:,,955598,00.html

  • The New London Group. (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. In B. Cope and M. Kalantzis (Eds.) Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of Social Futures. New York, NY: Routledge, 9-37.
  • Tierney, R. J., & Rogers, T. (2004). Process/content/design/critique: Generative and dynamic evaluation in a digital world. Reading Teacher, 58(2), 218-221.
  • University of London. (2007). Featured Projects. Retrieved February 12, 2007 from Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media


  • Unsworth, Len. (2006). Towards a metalanguage for multiliteracies education:Describing the meaning-making resources of language-image intergration. English Teaching: Practice and Critique. May, 5:1 p55-76 Retrieved January 23, 2008

Web site:

  • Veille scientifique et technologique - Institut national de recherche pédagogique. (2006). Information Literacy. Retrieved February 12, 2007 from Les lettres d'information


  • Western Mail(2007, June). "England considers scapping SATS" Western Mail at IC Retreived on January 25, 2008


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