Seventeen years later, evidence for “a pedagogy of multiliteracies” remains elusive

Sheep Asleep: by Z. Hagerman, Age 7.
Created on her iPad

Yesterday, I had two professional exchanges that highlighted, for me, the pressing importance of expanding students’ understanding of what an informational source can be while reading on the Internet or using digital tools in school. I blogged about this idea a while back…but my conversations yesterday have prompted me to revisit it.

Back in 1996, the New London Group crafted something of a treatise on multimodal pedagogies. From the abstract:

The authors argue that the multiplicity of communications channels and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today call for a much broader view of literacy than portrayed by traditional language-based approaches. Multiliteracies, according to the authors, overcomes the limitations of traditional approaches by emphasizing how negotiating the multiple linguistic and cultural differences in our society is central to the pragmatics of working, civic, and private lives of students. (p. 60)

The New London Group went on to say that “literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (p. 61).  Seventeen years ago, they recognized that students would need to become adept at negotiating and constructing meaning from the multiple and convergent semiotic systems afforded, in particular, by the Internet (which turned 21 a couple of weeks ago). Certainly, reading printed text would be part of the digital literacy landscape but so too would be images, video and new genres of texts unique to the Internet. Multiple semiotic systems, they argued, would require the flexible application of multiple literacies — and of course, teachers would need to adopt pedagogical practices that support the acquisition and application of multiple ways of constructing meaning from multiple systems of meaning.

Seventeen years on from this seminal work, I fear that the vision for “a pedagogy of multiliteracies” articulated by the New London Group remains just that — a vision. Two pieces of evidence from conversations yesterday have lead me to conclude (for now) that teachers and students have not yet embraced this vision fully.

1) Research: Students usually read and take notes from typed text

Kara Sevensma, a phenomenal New Literacies researcher, who recently defended her dissertation entitled, Negotiating New Literacies in Science: An Examination of At-Risk and Average-Achieving Ninth-Grade Readers’ Online Reading Comprehension Strategies, shared some of the results from her study with me. My dissertation is also focused on ninth-graders’ online reading of science topics and our observations of students’ use of images, video, infographics, graphs etc. were very similar. Although four students in her study did construct meaning from images at least once during the three days of her data collection period (p. 124), this strategy was certainly more the exception than the rule. Usually, as I have also observed, students read only typed text — a single, and very traditional, way of making meaning. Moreover, the weakest reader in her study worked tirelessly to take meticulous verbatim notes from the websites she read. I too, have seen students do this. We agreed that this approach looks a lot like taking notes from a textbook. Students read the print, copy the words down onto a piece of paper, and then use the “next” button to go the next page of copy. More sophisticated readers may skim through the text, using headings or an awareness of purpose to guide their strategic reading choices. It is rare, however, to see students actively seek out multi-modal sources of information (e.g., video) to inform their reading purpose or understanding of a topic. It’s even rarer to see them record their ideas using web-based tools (e.g. Evernote, Diigo or even a plain old Google Doc). All of the students in her study chose to write their ideas down on paper, although they were given the option to use digital tools.

2) Teachers don’t teach digital reading and writing — even in 1-to-1 programs

What’s more, it seems that it’s a difficult leap for teachers — especially new ones — to conceive of and then teach multimodal reading and writing processes. My second conversation was with a pre-service teacher who had just completed a one-month internship in a one-to-one iPad classroom. During his time in this classroom, he had taught a social studies unit than allowed students to research a topic of personal interest connected, broadly, to the theme of civil rights. Brilliant, right? Authentic, inquiry-based and very well conceived over all. And yet, the products his students created could easily have been made in 1980, long before this digital native teacher had even been born. Using bristol board, glue, markers and cut-out images printed from the Internet or, in some cases, drawn by the students using markers, pens and crayons, he shared a display of posters that, I can only assume, will be sent to the recycle bin next week. To be sure, his students had done fantastic work — but when I asked him why his students hadn’t created these posters using their iPads, his eyes widened. He told me that for this project, he needed to have posters to display but also that it would have taken a long time to create the posters on the iPads. I came away wondering. Had his mentor teacher not suggested the products be digital? Collaborative? Linked or uploaded to a webspace? Why would it have taken longer to create the posters digitally?

I’m starting to understand how powerful the influence of printed text has been and continues to be in schools. Don’t get me wrong — as I type this blog post, I recognize print as rather useful 🙂 I just wonder how a singular and enduring adherence to this modality is preparing students (and pre-service teachers) for the realities of their digital worlds. I also see that to realize the New London Group’s vision for “pedagogies of multiliteracies” will require more and more emphatic advocates working to expand teachers’ and students’ conceptualizations of “text” in schools.


The New London Group. (1996) A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66:1, 60-92.

Sevensma, K. (2013). Negotiating New Literacies in Science: An Examination of At-Risk and Average-Achieving Ninth-Grade Readers’ Online Reading Comprehension Strategies. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

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