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Multi-Literacy and the Digital Environment

Written by Antero Garcia
May 10, 2013

What is Multi Literacy? – Anna Haschke, Sergio Rushing, Carla Vangrove

  Multiliteracy is a fairly new term that has come about because the way people are communicating is changing due to new technologies.  Not only are their shifts in the way English is used within various cultures, but we are redefining what it means to read and what it means to compose.  Written text is not the only way in which we communicate anymore.  These days the term “text” is being extended to include sounds, videos, and images.  In our E402 Teaching Reading class, we believe this term not only refers to digital sounds, images, and videos “read,” but also that spaces can be read, such as museums, objects, or situations.  At the beginning of the semester we were given 15 minutes to go around campus and take a picture of reading.  Some of use took pictures of books, others of signs, still others of people to demonstrate how one can read situations as well.
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 “Reading doesn’t always have to be words.”  -Fairon Bleam, Shelby Jackson, and Linda Alexander

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“Jacquelyn has a “Passion To Know.” A picture of reading taken in Morgan Library.” ~Jacquelyn Wood & Anna Haschke

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“Lexi Reading Social Situations” — Jake Pappas, Alexi Yeager, and Nick B.

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“Our photo of “reading”. Reading body language. -Anna Burris, Matt Cleland, and Jessee Macklin

This activity was a good way for us to be thinking about how, as teachers of reading, it is not only our job to teach our students how to read word text, but be able to “read” and comprehend all kinds of text being used for communication in our world today.
Online Class Community Pages

In our Teaching Reading class, we explored the potential uses of online community pages such as Google+ and what these pages offer to the classroom environment. Not only did we find that these pages offer new mediums for discussion, but also offered students an online space where they could share information and related media with one another. Through this page, we built a classroom community. The Google+ page was a place where we could all share ideas and thoughts, as well as connecting to one another by sharing class jokes, helpful information, and pictures taken at events that our whole class participated in.

We found that online communities such as Google+ are full of potential in the field of education. Not only do these pages offer a space for discussions, but also offer a space in which discussions can be inspired. They offer students an online space to ask for help outside of class, and give students an opportunity to share media that they feel is related to what their class is discussing, as well as allowing students to share things they have done for the class, or are working on. Finally, these spaces offer students new opportunities for community building in their classroom.

 One of the main purposes of the Google+ page our class used was to initiate class discussion based on a topic from the previous class period’s discussions. A prompt would be posted, and we all wrote responses to the prompt by the next time we met. This writing activity served as an interactive method of brainstorming before opening class discussions. During the following class discussions, students would often cite discussion posts made by themselves or their peers.

 Here’s an example of what a Google+ discussion usually looked like: our professor, or another student in the class, would post a topic for discussion. Everyone else left their responses to that discussion in the form of comments left on the post. Responses often ranged from a couple of sentences, to a couple of paragraphs.

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 The Google+ page also served as a space for students to ask one another for advice or assistance. When students became sick, they could post on the Google+ page to communicate with group members during group projects, or to find out about anything they missed during class. Others used the space to ask their classmates where they could find information that they did not know the location of, or if anyone had recommendations for a project they were working on. Assignment sheets and syllabi were posted to these pages as well, so that students always had access to them.

The following example shows two different students using the Google+ page to ask their fellow students for information. If anyone had an answer, they always posted it in the comments below the original inquiry.

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When we were not using the Google+ page for inquiries and discussion, we used it to post media. Some of the media was directly related to our class discussions, such as photos we had all taken at locations we visited for class, or chapters from books that we needed to read for the next day’s discussions.

 Other media was less related, but served to spark discussions. Some students posted music videos to share with the class, which got other students thinking and discussing the topics addressed in the videos. Not all of the media added to the page was discussable, but served to build the community as a whole. The non-engaging media came in the form of gifs posted in response to comments or announcements.

The example below shows a collection of photos taken at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery after our class visited that space.

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Teaching Demonstrations

Not only did we discuss how we could use and teach multiliteracies in our classrooms, we but it into action. One assignment we had this semester was working in groups to create a 4-6 week unit for a certain kind of text. The groups were The Things They Carried, The Absolutely True-Diary of a Part-Time Indian, To Kill A Mockingbird, a collection of films of the group’s choice, “Julius Caesar,” and a collection of Multicultural poetry.  Each group’s unit had to include one multi-modal activity and many of our in-class demonstrations exhibited the use of multiple kinds of texts as well.  Below is a list of the various kinds of multiliteracies we used in our in-class demonstrations and how we used them.


 We discovered that sometimes using a video can engage students more with something that might otherwise be very boring and uninteresting to them. Sometimes that visual element is that last step required to captivate your students.  Incorporating video into your classroom will also benefit your students who are more of visual learners. One example of taking something that might be less interesting to a student and making it more accessible by presenting it in video form is how the Things They Carried group opened their in-class teaching demonstration. This group explained that they would introduce their unit by showing the class an interview by Tim O’Brien. Instead of simply handing the class a print transcript of the interview and having them read it silently or take turns reading it aloud, students would be given the opportunity to hear Tim O’Brien’s words directly from his mouth by watching a video recording of his interview. Not only is watching images move more interesting than reading static text, it is more engaging overall because students can see what the speaker looks like and hear how he is saying what he’s saying, which can have an effect on how the information is received as well.

Another great thing videos can offer to the classroom is the opportunity to analyze and give commentary on media and pop culture in the classroom. With the vast amounts of video available to us through academic sites like PBS and less academic affiliated sites like YouTube, there is nothing to keep us from bringing all sorts of resources into the classroom.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian group took advantage of this possibility and incorporated a video into their teaching demonstration. They had the class think about the different ways in which Native Americans are portrayed in different texts, and how these portrayals relate to common stereotypes. One of the five texts they gave the class to analyze was a trailer for the movie “The Lone Ranger” that had been uploaded to YouTube. This video on YouTube allowed them to present a depiction of Native Americans in pop culture easily and effectively. Using movie trailers or clips are not only visually engaging, but students can also make connections between these videos and their personal lives which will automatically make them more invested in the activity at hand.

Still images

Still images can be really helpful in the classroom as well. They are another great multiliteracy for students to read, and are more visually engaging than plain word text.  Sometimes having a picture accompany text can enhance it and help students better understand the words. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian group also used still images for the class to analyze. One of the pictures was actually a page out of Sherman Alexie’s novel. Images are a large part of this novel, so it only makes sense that they would make images a part of their lesson.

This picture is accompanied by descriptions that are presented as labels. The group could have easily provided the class with two lists: the characteristics of White person, and the characteristics of an Indian, but this would have not had the same effect.  By presenting these characteristics along with the drawing, students can get a better insight into what the author was thinking. Other novels, such as Bone, also rely heavily upon images to tell the story. The mentioning of Bone brings up a whole new topic about how graphic novels are becoming more and more present in classrooms, and since a graphic novel would be practically incomprehensible without the pictures, the need for students to learn how to “read” images properly is growing in importance.

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[Picture of image on pg. 57 of Part-Time Indian]

Pictures from graphic novels can also be used as a tool for other lessons. The film group demonstrated this in their teaching demonstration by using images from Bone to illustrate the different kinds of shots within framing:

Long shot: the whole room (scene)

Medium shot: see the face, not the whole body

Close-up: extremely zoomed in

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[Picture of images on pg. 93 of Bone]

They also used videos to demonstrate these terms, but the graphic novel was a great way to connect these ideas back to novels. Using a graphic novel to demonstrate these techniques can help bridge the gap to students understanding how authors can use these same ideas and present them through written words as well. Students will learn to see these long shots, medium shots, and close-ups in the images they create with their imagination while reading written text.


Finally, we discuss the use of sounds in the classroom. Music, recorded interviews and speeches, and sound effects all have their place in the classroom as well, and what better group to demonstrate their benefits than the film group?  The film group discussed the “reading” of sounds and how we interpret them. Certain sounds can have an ominous feeling while others make us feel joy. Being able to examine these parts separately will help students become better readers of film, a form of multiliteracy that is being used more and more for instruction these days. 

The film group also addressed the effect music can have in films. To demonstrate this, they showed a clip of the last scene from the movie “Children of Men” and we discussed what the music and sounds were doing, and how it changed the tone and meaning of the scene.

Music can also be a good tool standing alone. Culturally relevant music can be a nice accompaniment to literature being read it class. It can further students’ knowledge of the culture they are reading about and give them insight into the kind of world in which this piece was written. Music can also strongly benefit the study of poetry because of the parallels in sound structures and rhythm.

Google Hangout

Along with our Google + class page, some of us also had opportunity to ask questions and have a genuine discussion with Danille Filipiak and Jamie Gartner about their classrooms. Although this video chat took place in a different classroom (Cindy O’Donnell Allen’s Teaching Writing to Adolescents) the link for Danille’s video was posted to our Google + class page in Antero Garcia’s E 401 Teaching Reading so it was more available. These video chats are the perfect examples of how multi literacy can be used within the classroom. It provided us as pre-service teachers the ability to get questions answered from teachers who are experienced in the educational system and have personal beliefs about power structures and classroom management. The video below is Danille Filipiak’s chat with our classroom. Unfortunately there were technical issues with Jamie Gartner’s chat but it still was very beneficial to my class.

 Danille Filipiak,  a renowned doctoral student/teacher in both secondary and post secondary schools in Detroit. She has many useful and inspiring articles on the Digital Is site along with conversations we have with some of her own students in her education classes. The chat we had with her focused on issues of power and also how as a teacher you have to be somewhat vulnerable to have a conversation with your students about their cultural background. This conversation resonated with Filipiak’s experience in Detroit’s education system, which is heavily diverse, with students that from low-income families. These schools are also faced with budget issues and substantial scrutiny coming from the media.

 Jamie Gartner, a five-year teacher in the Boston area. We connected with her based on an article we read that she wrote, which is called It All Came Down to This. The article is about her experience from earning her teaching degree in a white middle class area to actually teaching at Foreman High School, which has the twelfth highest poverty rate in the United States. The discussion we had with her focused on her experience since she wrote the article. Some of the main topics consisted of defensive and resistant students, building the classroom, culturally relevant texts, SIFE students in her classroom, collaboration with ESL teachers, becoming a parent figure for those who don’t have any, and showing that school is something they can control and succeed in.

 A Digital Experience

These types digital meets were a great way to gather information from some very credible and relevant teachers. As pre-licensure teachers, we need more of these opportunities so we can get different perspectives and see the realities of education in the United States and even out of the states. More teachers should be taking advantage of these types of digital meets to give the student’s a different way to attain knowledge that is coming directly from an individual, who either wrote the article that you discussed in class or has gone through the necessary experience to be able to speak about a certain topic.

 Wrapping Up/Our Thoughts

There is a time and place for everything. Multiliteracies are excellent tools to work into the classroom for both teaching and for student response.  Students are already immersed in a world filled with multiliteracies, we might as well use them to our advantage in the classroom, too, as well as teaching students how to read and comprehend all kinds of text. Using multiliteracies in the classroom offers students a chance to look at media they already use, and learn how they can use it as a responsive tool, or a way to get their ideas out into the world. Showing them how they can use something like Google+ as more than just social media gives students a new way to see digital spaces, or showing them how different angles in an image changes the focus can teach them not only how to think critically about that media, but also give them what they need to use it to their advantage.  Understanding all forms of literacy is essential for student’s success beyond the classroom, so perhaps all forms of literacy should be used to work towards success in the classroom.

We believe that being in a 21st century society means that students have to literate in various forms of literacy. Traditional text has its uses, but as the world progresses we have to progress with it. Students will benefit from these multi literacies by being able to make connections between text, video, images, and sounds. One of my favorite books by Gunther Kress, speaks about multi literacy in his book Literacy in the New Media Age. He states: “The world told is a different word to the world shown” (Kress 1). I believe his statement is true and students have to be able to make relevant connections to these types of literacies, but they also need to know how to understand them singularly. I think that multi literacy and the digital sphere is talked about in a lot educational environments, but as teachers and pre-licensure teachers we need to be able to show the benefit and difference in writing and reading in these types of contexts rather than just accepting it as another version of the traditional print based literacy.


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