Brian V Street. Abstract

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Literacy and Multimodality: STIS Lecture: Inter-Disciplinary Seminars O Laboratório SEMIOTEC, da FALE/UFMG Faculdade de Letras, Belo Horizonte, Brazil March 9, 2012 Brian V Street Abstract I will provide an account of the epistemological framings of both multimodality and the New Literacy Studies, and outline the histories of each theoretical framework thus enabling each to be situated within their respective intellectual traditions. I firstly describe the tradition of the New Literacy Studies, and its connection with ethnography and then consider how literacy practices can be understood as being situated within wider domains of practice and links made with multi modality. I address the different epistemological framings of New Literacy Studies and the multimodal tradition; one rooted in an ethnographic perspective and the other more focused on systemic function linguistics, to ask what the New Literacy Studies can do to inform research premised on a multimodal perspective. By drawing on specific instances of practice and describing a number of research projects that brought an ethnographic understanding of events and practices to not only literacy events and practices, but also multimodal events and practices (Lancaster 2003; Street 2008) a wider application of the theoretical tradition of the New Literacy Studies can be achieved. Multimodality and New Literacy Studies, brought together, fills out a larger more nuanced picture of social positionings and communication by building an equal recognition of practices, texts, contexts, space, and time. Recent studies that straddle both traditions (E.g. Leung and Sgtreet, 2011) are presented along side some considerations for future research. Introduction I begin with an account of the epistemological framings of both multimodality and the New Literacy Studies, and outline the histories of each theoretical framework thus enabling each to be situated within their respective intellectual traditions. By doing this, I aim to outline where the intersections between the two fields lie, to identify points where the two traditions came together and then I will be in a position to describe research that sits within both traditions. The aim of the presentation is to provide an up-to-date account of what research looks like that sits within the intersection of the New Literacy Studies and Multimodality. I begin with an attempt to define through a historical analysis the way in which the two intellectual fields


have been constituted and then move to a placing of specific research within those two fields. Research that merges New Literacy Studies with multimodality takes equal account of where, how, and by whom a text is made as it does of the physical features of a text as signifiers of contextual meanings. By understanding that literacy can be understood as ideological (Street 1993) and that literacy is situated within a myriad social practices, I argue below that the New Literacy Studies offers a locating standpoint for researchers. By equally locating multimodality as being about a focus on the material qualities of texts, I argue below that multimodality offers a way of showing how locating standpoints materialize in texts (Kress, 2003). Historical perspectives Multimodality During the 1980’s and 1990’s two distinct but parallel theoretical movements were gaining strength within research into literacy, language and linguistics. In 1978 Michael Halliday published Language as Social Semiotic, a ground breaking argument for the need to situate language within its social context, and apply the insight that text could be understood as sign. The text could be understood in relation to the ideational, interpersonal and textual functions of the sign. Halliday’s work enabled a layering and deepening understanding of text, form and function within a social context. Gunther Kress, firstly based in Australia and then moving to London in the 1990’s began to use these ideas in relation to social semiotics. In his early work he focused on an understanding of signs in society drawing on Halliday and started to map out the idea of the motivated sign (Hodge and Kress 1988). Social Semiotics drew heavily on Halliday and applied an understanding of signs to understand the way context shapes the making and receiving of a text. From this working with Theo Van Leeuwen, Kress drew on systemic function linguistics to create a new grammar of visual design, leading to his seminal work with Van Leeuwen Reading Images (2001). Kress’s new understanding of how signs are made and re-made in society, came upon the education scene in the late 1990’s to explosive effect. His 1997 book, Before Writing, outlined a new theoretical perspective for understanding how children interpret and transform the signs available to them. The concept of the motivated sign, and the ensemble of resources children have to create new signs, made an understanding of children’s drawings and writings suddenly accessible within a theoretical framework, which was identified with the concept of multimodality, that is, that all communication was multimodal. In this context a ‘mode’ is defined as ‘a regularised organised set of resources for meaning-making’, which might include image, gaze, gesture, movement, music, speech, writing etc. In the research that Kress describes, for instance, children’s drawings were made the focus as much as their writing. Multimodality, then, is an approach to communication wherein textual modes work in concert with each other without a necessary privileging of one over 2

another. Multimodality is guided by the interests of a sign-maker at given moment in time, place, and with particular ways of making the sign. The notion that a child’s drawing can be formed powerfully by the visual and other senses and modes points to principles of meaning making that offered a different perspective on literacy. In this way, all texts show “rationality, logic, human desire, and affect” (Kress, 1997: 19) by manifesting the interest of the text producer in its materiality. Close analysis of signmaker interest and its materialization in objects gave Kress’ work prominence – a merging of semiotics with literacy education that had not been explicitly coupled before. In later work, Kress (2003) looked more centrally at technology and how it has transformed our communicational landscape. ‘The world told is a different world to the world shown’ comes out strongly in Literacy in the New Media Age wherein he explores how technological changes are transforming literacy as we know it. Kress here teases out many of the terms foregrounded in contemporary research, such as affordance and constraint; reading path; and materiality, and their implications for being literate. Numerous studies have taken this framework and found it useful for the understanding of children’s text making (E.g. Pahl 1999 Kenner 2000, Lancaster 2003, Ormerod and Ivanic 2000, Jewitt 2006). Closely informed studies of children’s meaning making could then draw on a theoretical perspective that allowed them to examine anew how children come to what they see afresh, and to recognize how they often draw on a number of different modes to create these new signs. The concept of Multimodality enabled a language of description to be applied to children’s text making in a way that was generative, fresh and exciting for contemporary researchers. Multimodality has now developed into a field that is ‘thick’ with descriptive studies of, for example, how science teaching can be enriched by an understanding of the motivated sign and reading path (Jewitt 2006) or the way newspapers work as signs (Machin,), and its usefulness as a language of description for non linguistic phenomena is now accepted. New Literacy Studies At the same time a parallel theoretical field was developing in the field of literacy. In 1983 Shirley Bryce Heath published her seminal Ways with Words that outlined the literacy practices of three communities in the rural Carolinas: Trackton, Roadville and Maintown. Heath recorded how each of these different communities lived, spoke and wrote in different ways. Drawing on ethnographic research methods, she was able to record these ways of speaking and writing and identify that each community carried distinctive ways with words. However, in only one community, Maintown, middle class residents in the town, did the children bring into the educational context literacy practices that were congruent with schooled literacy practices. Roadville children experienced different literacy practices in their homes, as did the Trackton children. Heath’s work was published at about the same time as another key study by Brian Street of literacy practices in Iran, in which Street identified different literacy practices associated with different domains of practice. An understanding of the ideologically situated nature of literacy was borne from Street’s ethnographic work in Iran (Street 1984; 1993). In his fieldwork in 3

Iranian villages during the early 1970s (Street, 1985), what began to emerge as literacy practices were uses and meanings of literacy that were identifiable around three domains of social activity: maktab literacy practices, associated with the primary Qur’anic school; schooled literacy practices in the more secular and modernising context of the State school; and commercial literacy practices associated with buying and selling fruit for transport to the city and the market. The practices in this third domain of social activity were quite different from either of the other sets of literacy practices. Characterising them as literacy practices helped him to understand those differences, and he could then talk about whether there were certain identities associated with particular practices. In that context the identity associated with maktab literacy was derived from traditional authority in the village located in Qor’anic learning and with a social hierarchy dominated by men. Schooled literacy, on the other hand, was associated with new learning and with modernisation, leading some village children to urban lives and jobs. Commercial literacy emerged in response to the economic activity of selling fruit to the nearby cities at a time of economic boom and involved writing notes, cheques, lists, names on crates and so on, to facilitate the purchase and sale of quantities of fruit. The framework for understanding literacy in such a context involved the concept of ‘literacy practices’ (Street, 1985). This more social perspective on the uses and meanings of literacy aimed to provide an explanation for why commercial literacy was mainly undertaken by those who had been taught at the Qur’anic school rather than those from the modern State school, even though at first sight one might have expected the literacy skills of the latter to be more functionally oriented to commercial practices. Those with Qur’anic literacy had the status and authority within the village to carry on these commercial practices, whilst those trained in the State school were seen to be oriented outwards and lacked the integral relations to everyday village life that underpinned the trust necessary for such transactions. In this village context, then, literacy, was not simply a set of functional skills, as much modern schooling and many Literacy Agencies represent it, but rather it was a set of social practices deeply associated with identity and social position. It was, he claimed, by approaching literacy as a social practice that the researcher found a way of making sense of variations in the uses and meanings of literacy in such contexts rather than reliance on the barren notions of literacy skills, rates, levels that dominate contemporary discourse about literacy – what he has referred to as the ‘autonomous’ model of literacy. This approach by an English ethnographer also linked with work in the US tradition of the ethnography of communication which similarly identified ways in which everyday practice and ways of speaking and writing could be understood and interpreted, using ethnographic methodologies (cf Hymes 1996; Hornberger, 1987, 2002). Hymes like Halliday had made a move away from an autonomous model of language, in the way that Chomsky had somehow separated analysis of language structures from their social uses. The ‘ethnography of communication’ brought together a ore sophisticated view of how language actually worked with an ethnographic perspective on how people actually used it in their everyday communicative practices. Gee likewise was examining the language practices of the


African American children he studied, and describing the need to situate everyday language within wider contexts of social practice, as described in Social Literacies (1996). Gee used the term ‘The New Literacy Studies’ to describe the ‘social turn’ that had taken place in the 1980’s and 1990’s as researchers had documented literacy practices in community context, often using ethnography to aid an understanding of these practices. Combined with an understanding of practice, this tradition focused strongly on context, a position articulated by Duranti and Goodwin (1992) in their edited collection, Rethinking Context. Scribner and Cole’s Psychology of Literacy (1981) drew on their anthropological work with the Vai people in Liberia to further look at what counts as literacy in everyday settings and to consider ways in which an understanding of literacy is limited by a focus solely on ‘schooled’ literacy. Scribner and Cole further asked researchers to focus on the social uses of literacy and the domains in which literacy was used. Street and Street likewise considered this in their paper on ‘The Schooling of literacy’ which further identified the notion of ‘schooled’ literacy practices as opposed to literacy practice undertaken as part of everyday life (Street and Street 1991). Barton and Hamilton’s 1999 study Local Literacies was a thorough, sustained study that explored and mapped literacy practices across the domains where they were used, using ethnographic methodology to provide a rich textual account of these practices, focusing on one town, Lancaster. Indeed the Lancaster school of literacy studies has grown into one of the most significant in the social turn and many recent publications have extended the tradition (Tusting, 2012; ). All these studies had a common a focus on ethnography as a way in which repeated practices in everyday life could be accessed, understood and interpreted. The role of ethnography What united many of the researchers into literacy practices in everyday life was a focus on ethnography as a methodology. Street himself took from the British school of ethnography the interpretative methods that allowed him to observe and record literacy practices in Iran. Likewise Heath drew on the ethnography of communication, as developed by Hymes and others in the US, in order to locate and trace literacy and language practices in three communities in the rural Carolinas (Heath 1983), a perspective she has continued with a recent follow up study that maps the continuing experiences of people fom Roadville and Trackton as they left the area and moved across the USA (Heath, 2012). Researchers from the New Literacy Studies have drawn on the ethnographic fieldwork experiences of American anthropologists such as Cathy Hall (1999), and Wolcott (1994). Michael Agar (1996), in particular described both ‘etic’ and ‘emic’ perspectives in ethnography and thereby opened up the possibility of taking account of both external views of literacy – the ‘etic perspective and of the way literacy practices were interpreted and understood by people themselves in local context – the ‘emic’ perspective. David Bloome and Judith Greene (1996) addressed the dilemma that this essentially anthropological approach 5

raised for many working in the field of language, education and communication, that whilst adopting ethnographic approaches they did not necessarily want to become anthropologists themselves. Green and Bloome drew a distinction among three approaches to ethnography that enabled many to overcome this problem, referring to the notion of: doing ethnography, adopting an ethnographic perspective and using ethnographic tools. They argued ‘that doing ethnography involves ‘the framing, conceptualizing. conducting. interpreting, writing and reporting associated with a broad. in-depth. and long-term study of a social or cultural group, meeting the criteria for doing ethnography as framed within a discipline or field’, notably that of anthropology. But they opened up other possibilities too: ‘By adopting an ethnographic perspective, we mean that it is possible to take a more focused approach (i.e.. do less than a comprehensive ethnography) to study particular aspects of everyday life and cultural practices of a social group. Central to an ethnographic perspective is the use of theories of culture and inquiry practices derived from anthropology or sociology to guide the research’. The final distinction, using ethnographic tools. refers to the use of methods and techniques usually associated with fieldwork. These methods may or may not be guided by cultural theories or questions about the social life of group members’ (Green, J and Bloome, D. 1997). A recent book by Heath and Street (2008) has brought many of these threads together for those working in the field of language and literacy, invoking for instance the metaphor of ‘juggling’ to characterize the ways in which the ethnographer has to keep in play many levels of reality: ‘We think that learning ethnography is a lot like learning to juggle. Both call for practice, close observation, and the challenge of having to manage more and more balls in the air’. Following these leads, a wealth of research and publications have drawn upon ethnographic perspectives to describe literacy practices across different cultural contexts (Aikman, 1999; Doronilla, 1996; Heath, 1983; Hornberger, 1997, 2002; Kalman, 1999; King, 1994; Robinson-Pant, 1997; Wagner, 1993), contributing to both academic research and theory and to policy and practice. Bringing the two traditions together We can now begin to identify overlaps and ways in which both traditions – New Literacy Studies drawing upon ethnographic perspectives and Multimodality drawing especially upon System Functional Linguistics - can be said to speaking to each other and merging at times. In the latter years of the twentieth century, two traditions were developing. One, that of multimodality, placed text making within a tradition from social semiotics, and understood signs as being multimodal, imbued with intention and culturally shaped and constituted. The other, the New Literacy Studies, used ethnographic methodologies to look at ways of being and doing in communities and placed an understanding of literacy within a wider understanding of everyday life. What did these traditions have to say to each other?


In his inaugural lecture at King’s College London Brian Street made a bridge between these traditions. He described Kress and Van Leeuwen’s work, Reading Images (1996) and signalled that their work could be taken as bringing together work from linguistic perspectives on semiosis with work from an ethnographic perspective, thus leading to an understanding of multimodality in social context (Street 1999). His argument was that what is needed to understand contemporary texts, that often include both images and words in their presentation, is a combination of methods of analysis, an ‘inter-disciplinary array of methods’. These might include a focus on literacy events and practices of the kind he had advocated in a 1988 paper on ‘Literacy Practices and Literacy Myths’. Heath (1982:50) had described a literacy event as ‘any occasion in which a piece of writing is integral to the nature of the participants’ interaction and interpretative processes’. The lens of literacy events was used by Moss, for instance, to look at children’s reading in classrooms (Moss 2003). Maybin characterizes the development of the notion of literacy practices that helped New Literacy Studies moved into a more comparative phase: ‘Street has employed the phrase ‘literacy practices’ (Street 1984: 1) as a more general abstract term focussing upon ‘social practices and conceptions of reading and writing’, although he later elaborated the term to take account both of ‘events’ in Heath’s sense and of the ‘social models of literacy that participants bring to bear upon those events and that give meaning to them’ (Street, 1988). The concept of a literacy practice, like that of other social practices (Bourdieu 1990), links individual agency in situated activities with broader social structures’, a theme that has recently been pursued in a volume on New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu (Grenfell et. al., 2012). The distinction between events and practices was later taken up by Barton and Hamilton (1998) in Local Literacies, in which they described literacy events as ‘activities where literacy has a role’, and then literacy practices as ‘regular repeated activities’. Literacy practices, then, can be understood according to Barton and Hamilton as a set of social practices; these are observable in events which are mediated by written texts (Barton and Hamilton 1998). Street (2000) later added this commentary on the distinction:, …we bring to a literacy event concepts, social models regarding what the nature of the event is and that make it work and give it meaning. Literacy practices, then, refer to the broader cultural conception of particular ways of thinking about and doing reading and writing in cultural contexts. A key issue, at both a methodological and an empirical level, then, is how can we characterise the shift from observing literacy events to conceptualising literacy practices. (Street, 2000:1) Given these important conceptual developments in New Literacy Studies, it is significant that we now find the terms being used in the field of multimodality: as


Pahl has suggested: ‘I extend the concept of literacy events and practices to the idea of multimodal events and practices as described by Lancaster to account for the way texts are multimodal’ (Pahl, 2007, p. 81). This links with Street’s insight in the 1999 paper that alongside literacy events and practices a wider range of semiotic systems are needed to make sense of everyday life. In the context of a discussion about the changing context of education, he argues that, Employers realize this and in addition to the social characteristics they infer from observation and from references, they also implicitly or explicitly take into account awareness of the semiotic range required in their particular workplace and match that with the semiotic range indicated by applications. (Street 1998:16) Street, here signals that not to take account of multimodality would be problematic for schools as it would de-privilege children who are already drawing on a number of semiotic modes to make meaning and who are likely to be applying for jobs where the employer is quite aware of the importance of multiple modes in meaning making and communication. The school curriculum of today, heavily focused in the UK on a skills-based ‘autonomous’ model involving a focus on print literacies, is in fact rapidly being superseded by the reality of contemporary communication, embedded as it now is within a range of technologies, often screen-based as in computers, mobile phones etc.. This argument, for ‘new literacies’ was most forcefully put forward by Lankshear and Knobel in a series of books that critiqued contemporary curricula for their inability to cope with complex digital literacies emerging very rapidly (Lankshear and Knobel 2003; see also Gowen, 1994, on workplace literacies, ).

Street’s insight regarding the relationship of literacy events and literacy practices chimed with another, more globalised movement that had been developing under the guise of the ‘Multiliteracies’ curriculum in Australia and described in an important article written by a group called the New London Group in 1996. This group included Kress, Gee, Lo Bianco, Cope and Kalantizis, and others who focused on the curriculum of tomorrow in the context of the changing digital landscape, changing multiliteracies context and the need to incorporate a multimodal perspective into the curriculum. This multiliteracies curriculum privileged the concept of Design and focused on learning in schools needing to be organized around a much wider concept of communicative practice and representation that was currently presented to children in schools around the world (Cope and Kalantzis 2000). This brings us to the final aspect that could be brought to bear on the intersection of multimodality and the New Literacy Studies, which is the concept of Discourses, from Gee (Gee 1996; 1999). Gee identified that there were two types of discourses ‘language in use’ which he saw as being ‘little d’ discourses and’ big D’ Discourses which he identified as ‘language plus other stuff’, that is ,


forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions and clothes. (Gee 1996:127) Studies that merged the insights of Kress, Street and Gee began to be published in the early twenty first century. Elizabeth Moje, for instacce, in her study of the literacy practices of ‘gangsta’ adolescents used a lens that included multimodality, drawing on all three authors to examine the way these literacy practices sat within a much wider multimodal communicative landscape (Moje 2000). She argued that, Specific to my research, for example, are the works of art, music, dress codes, makeup, tattoos, body movements gestures, and hand signs that gang-connected adolescents use to identify themselves and to claim power and space in and out of their gangs. (Moje 2000:656) Street’s (2005) edited volume Literacies across Educational Contexts includes a number of chapters on semiotic practices in and out of school, such as Bronwen Low’s “Sayin’ it in a Different Way:” Adolescent Literacies Through the Lens of Cultural Studies’ set in a US context and Joanna Oldham’s ‘Literacy and Media in Secondary Schools in the United Kingdom’. Pahl in her study of three London homes, found that the children in the study used print literacy alongside drawing to represent their worlds. It became impossible to isolate literacy practices from the much wider range of semiosis that was presented to her within homes. A number of articles on children’s home communicative practices (Pahl 2001; 2002; 2004) outlined how these multimodal texts could be understood in relation to the social practices that were sedimented within them. In addition, an understanding of the multimodal text as betraying traces of the practices that went into its making made an understanding of multimodal texts as linked to social practice more visible. For example, Rowsell (1999) drew on Gee’s concept of D/discourses together with Kress’s account of multimodality to look at publishing practices as instantiated within textbooks used by children in the context of the UK’s National Literacy Strategy. Using a lens from Street, of an ethnographic account of what went on when texts were used in practice, she was able to forge a link between Kress and Gee to understand how multimodal texts themselves instantiated Discourses of a particular kind. Moss, (2003) in her work examining boys’ interaction with non-fiction books, drew on Street’s lens of literacy practices and events to interrogate their use of multimodal texts such as the Dorling Kindersley series. Rowsell’s work described how D/discourses materialize in modalities in texts and reveal traces of ideas, values, and concepts that inform how we take up the text (Rowsell, 1999). The materialization of Discourses can reveal micro, meso, and macro traces from locating elements of a child’s familial practices in a text; to location of community Discourses in signage; to locating global traces in textbooks or local newspapers. Textbooks, as I shall illustrate below with data from recent 9

classroom studies in the UK, are a good test case for locating the micro, meso, and macro, when analyzing how more local Discourses and turns of phrase materialize in texts to having textbook layouts simulate computer interface and global shifts to communication. The process of meaning making starts when meaning makers assemble Discourses, transform them, and materialize them in an artifact, another key term in the new conceptual array (cf Pahl and Rowsell, 2010). The conflation and intersection of Discourses become modalities in texts which serve as a window into meaning making. There are ways of deconstructing text so that you can identify the convergence of multiple, disparate Discourses in physical features in texts. In an article on sedimentation of Discourses in textual modalities, Rowsell and Pahl maintain that “that conflation and intersection of Discourses become modalities in texts, which, alongside practices provide a formative picture of the meaning makers – not only their pathway into literacy but also how they make meaning in certain contexts and engage in practice” (Rowsell & Pahl, 2007: 392). With a focus on how D/discourses could be instantiated within multimodal texts (Rowsell), and a focus on the literacy events and practices when children are interacting with multimodal texts (Moss) the two fields were coming together and were being actively used by researchers across the globe. Instances of the synergy between the two fields will be now described in relation to how the intersections were formulated and mapped. New Literacy Studies and Multimodality- research studies In this section, I review some relevant studies that work within the intersection of the New Literacy Studies and Multimodality, both seminal collections that worked across the two fields as well as particular research projects that have drawn on both traditions. I will also signal new and emerging trends within the combined fields that could prove fruitful for researchers. The bringing together of the two fields was firstly achieved through a number of edited collections where researchers explored the intersection in their work. The first, Multimodal Literacy (Jewitt and Kress 2003) placed literacy within the wider field of multimodality, arguing that, The act of writing is itself a multimodal practice that draws on visual and actional modes, in particular resources of spatiality and directionality, (Jewitt and Kress 2003: 2) This collection argued that, ‘a multimodal approach to learning starts from a theoretical position that treats all modes as equally significant for meaning and communication..’ (2003:2). The book then considers the implications for practice of that approach. Some of the chapters in the book took an ethnographic perspective to understand the multimodal texts that were the subject of the research. An ethnographic lens, it was argued, gives multimodal analysis a social map. Like a map, ethnographies of contexts such as publishing companies or homes or prisons, give us 10

a deep sense of context and identities in contexts that serve as indexical tools in multimodal analysis. Pahl and Rowsell’s (2006) edited collection, Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies, explicitly tried to link the two fields together. In their Foreword, Brian Street and Gunther Kress write of the New Literacy Studies and multimodality that while both approaches look at broadly the same field, from each of the two positions the field has a distinctive look: one that tries to understand what people acting together are doing, the other tries to understand about the tools with which these same people do what they are doing (Kress and Street 2006) Kress and Street identified a key point here, that while one focuses on practice (NLS) the other focuses on texts (multimodality). However, Pahl and Rowsell argued that seeing texts as traces of social practice and ethnography is essential to understanding the repeated practices that sediment into text making (Rowsell and Pahl 2007). In their introduction to Travel Notes, they argue that, We need the multimodal in the New Literacy Studies in order to understand texts as material objects. Multimodality gives an analytic tool to understand artifacts such as children’s drawings, and to recognize how literacy sits within a much wider communicational landscape (Pahl and Rowsell 2006). However, they argue, the New Literacy Studies is important because, ‘The New Literacy Studies ties the representation to social practice’. (Pahl and Rowsell 2006). The volume crosses different domains of multimodality that show the potential of using ethnography to inform multimodal analysis from digital environments (Marsh, Alvermann, Davies, Lankshear & Knobel); to multimodality in the local (Janks & Comber, Stein & Slonimsky; Kell); to multimodality in corporations and the marketplace (Nichols, 2006; Rowsell, 2006); and finally, multimodality in pedagogical environments (Street & Baker, 2006; Millard, 2006). The volume looked at where we sit in terms of multimodality and New Literacy Studies today. Whilst it seems obvious from such work that multimodality is the way of the future, its potential may remain limited by an exclusive gaze upon the text. As Brandt and Clinton say at the end of Travel Notes, “in the age of the internet, genres circulate for local use and innovation but also may stay more firmly tethered to centers of origin. Unlike Bibles that were set to sea in the holds of sailing vessels, electronic texts now reside in specific addresses” (Brandt & Clinton, 2006: 257). In this way the multimodal enriches the ethnographic. Kress and Street, in a Foreword to this volume, recognize the relative contributions of the two fields:


The editors of this volume bring together work from two fields of study, both relatively recent arrivals: Multimodality and New Literacy Studies. In the former there has been an attempt to redress the emphasis on writing and speech as the central, salient modes of representation, in favour of a recognition of how other modes – visual, gestural, kinaesthetic, three-dimensional – play their role in key communicative practices. So one major emphasis in work on multimodality is to develop a “language of description” for these modes, that enables us to see their characteristic forms, their affordances and the distinctive ways in which they interact with each other. Likewise, those in the field of New Literacy Studies (NLS) have attempted to provide a language of description for viewing literacy as a social practice in its social environments. Again there is an intent to change many emphases of the past – especially in educational contexts of the most varied kinds – from literacy as a static skill and to describe instead the multiple literacy practices as they vary across cultures and contexts.

One key question, according to Kress and Street, that is addressed by the writers in the volume (Pahl and Rowsell 2006), is how these approaches can ‘speak to each other’, in attempts to find correspondences and differences. All the authors, they argue, ‘resist moves to polarize, looking instead for complementarities in theoretical aims and approach’. For instance, in both approaches there is a worry about the stretching of the term literacy well beyond the NLS conception of social practices of representation to become a metaphor (and often much less than that) for any kind of skill or competence. One needs to ask whose interests are advanced and in what ways by the use of labels such as ‘palpatory literacy’ (skills in body massage), ‘emotional literacy’ (skills in affective massage?), ‘cultural literacy’ (skills in social massage??), and so on. Of course, one clear effect of such moves is that where ‘a literacy’ is identified, those with an interest in finding the corresponding illiterates are never far behind with their remedies. But even such uses where some aspects of literacy practices are involved – computer literacy, visual literacy – bring their own problems, not least of them the blunting of analytic and theoretical sharpness and power. Where there is a label there is already an answer; and where there is an answer, any need for questions has stopped. More significantly perhaps, there is the question of ‘complementarity’. This poses quite simply an as yet thorny question: where does the ‘reach’ of one theory stop – or, maybe better, begin to attenuate, ‘fizzle out’. ‘A social semiotic theory (of multimodality)’, they continue, ‘is interested in sign-makers, sign-making and signs; In being interested in signs it is interested precisely in what signs ‘are made of’, the affordances, the materiality and the provenance of modes and sign in that mode. In being interested in sign-makers and in sign-making necessarily it is interested in the social place, the history and formation of the sign-makers, and in the social environments in which they make their signs. A social semiotic theory of multimodality can attempt to expand its domain to include the features of the sign-maker and of the environment of sign-making; it would do so by treating all of the world as signs – the practices, the characteristics of social organization, and so on. And at times that is necessary. In most cases it is better by far to say: but look, there are those whose work is concerned precisely with these 12

issues, who have their tools, different tools. Your own tools become ever less useful, and their tools are so much more effective – whether those of sociology, of anthropology, or the varieties of ethnographic methods (Kress and Street, 2006). A theory of literacy as social practice addresses similar questions but with, perhaps, a focus upon a narrower range of semiosis – the uses of reading and writing, although always in association with other modes, such as speech or visual representation. What New Literacy Studies has added to traditional approaches has been the recognition that reading and writing vary across cultural time and space – the meanings associated with them vary for participants and are rooted in social relationships, including crucially relationships of power. Indeed, the very definitions of what counts as literacy already frame social relationships of literacy and what people can do with it – as we see in increasingly narrow Government demands on curriculum and assessment. How these schooled literacies relate to those of everyday social life, with its multiple literacies across different cultural and institutional contexts, is a key question raised by NLS and for which, at present, schooled literacy advocates are not providing answers. Researchers in NLS, with their ever expanding vision of literacy in society, have developed research methods and concepts for addressing such questions. We can, for instance, as we have seen above, talk of schooled literacy practices, or of academic literacy practices in the domain of education and, more broadly, of religious literacy practices or commercial literacy practices. NLS, then, is developing a language of description for addressing literacy in all its social variety. Kress and Street conclude by asking what the different fields can contribute: But again the question arises of what are the limits and boundaries here and what does NLS not address that, for instance, a social semiotic theory of multimodality can better handle? Whose tools are better suited to different aspects of the broader task? The question of ‘complementarity’ addresses itself to that – not a matter of mere eclecticism, but of compatible competences. NLS and multi modality, in this sense, are well placed to explore each others’ strengths and weakness, to develop a conversation that facilitates new growth and more powerful tools. This is timely and necessary precisely because burning issues in representation and communication have proliferated along with the profound changes in the social, cultural, economic and technological world, issues for which there are as yet no answers. In that context the need is to open up questions; and bringing the compatible and complementary approaches of NLS and Multimodality to bear, offers one means of getting further. For one thing, while both approaches look at broadly the same field, from each of the two positions the field has a distinctive look: one that tries to understand what people acting together are doing, the other tries to understand about the tools with which these same people do what they are doing. Each has defined its objects of study – practices, events, participants on the one hand, semiosis, modes and affordances, genres, signmakers and signs on the other. From each of these further questions follow, uncertainties open up. What is a mode, how do modes interact, how 13

can we best describe the relationship between events and practices, how do we avoid becoming the agents producing the new constraints of newly described and imposed grammars? This analysis of the key terms and of the potentially different contirnbutions of the two fields takes Kress and Street back ‘to quite fundamental questions, asking old questions again, in the light of new givens and the new difficulties they bring. What are the cultural technologies which are at issue here – the technologies of dissemination of meanings (the media), those of representation of meanings (the modes), and those of production of messages (print and paper; digitality and electronics)? How do they interact, what becomes possible for whom, where is power likely to shift, who is likely to gain and who is likely to lose, and what is our role as academics in all that?’ The authors in the Pahl and Rowsell volume are attempting just such a task, starting from their own experience as practitioners and researchers, trying to find ways of speaking across their fields, traditions and the data which they produce. They call on different methodologies – some more semiotic and some more ethnographic in style - reflective and close to the ground, able to see two things more precisely: the specific social, cultural and individual reasons for the uses of particular resources (why speech and gesture for this part of the task, and why writing and image for that?), and the significance of the work of those who make their representations, always in interactions with others. Kress and Street conclude: In this, then, the book makes its contribution to a growing move, a part of an increasing awareness that the complexity and fluidity of the world – of which the world of representation is but a part – demands the joining of intellectual, theoretical resources, demands the fashioning of new tools from the old. As two people involved in just that kind of work, we welcome the contribution made by those whose work is represented here.

New Literacy Studies focuses especially on the notion of power and how literacy practices carry more or less power when we move across contexts. In Street’s study (1984),those who had learned literacy in ‘maktab’ schools had the authority and social capital to then apply their literacy skills to new commercial practices. Understanding the relationship between texts and power is inherent to a bringing together of New Literacy Studies and multimodality. This has considerable implications for how education is designed in the enw media age. When doing ethnographic work in homes and communities, for instance, researchers have observed, that children draw on local objects and terms in their creation of such texts (Pahl, 2004).


How then might such home experience be built upon when children enter school? I will conclude this theoretical section by signaling recent work that has attempted to bring together New Literacy Studies and the theory and methods of the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (Grenfell et. al., 2012). Rowsell and Pahl note, “texts as artifacts are sites where the habitus can be discerned” (Rowsell & Pahl, 2007: 394). Uniting the local with the multimodal throws sedimentation into relief and in doing so, gives texts more salience in research contexts.

Ways of bringing the intersection into play: A Classroom Vignette An example of how this approach can help us ‘see’ aspects of classroom practice and the literacy involved, that might otherwise remain ‘hidden’, can be illustrated in the following account of a London classroom recently studied by Leung and Street (forthcoming). I describe these data in some detail in order to allow space for further exploration of the themes outlined above and my own comments are to be taken as initial signals of the kinds of directions the combination of NLS and MM might offer for understanding such situations. In many of the classes Leung and Street observed in an ethnolinguistically diverse London school, there was a complex mix of modes of information - written, spoken, visual - configured in different locations – on the walls, in notebooks, on black/white boards involving different technologies and formats – computer and internet sources displayed on a screen, text books, students’ note books, posters, folders, cards for writing on. One other frequently observed feature was that the teachers often mentioned examination requirements as part of the lesson objectives. The data is taken from observations of an Advanced Subsidiary level History class (17-year-olds, pre-university) in which students from a number of different language backgrounds were engaged with work on the topic of ‘The origins of the equal rights movement for women’. The teacher Donna took the students through a series of data sources and activities. The data sources included a powerpoint presentation with five slides on the day’s topic and homework, two handouts, 21 information cards and a poster. There were seven students, four boys, three girls (all with head scarves); three of the students were using English as an Additional Language. As they came into the room, they chatted away in lively style amongst themselves and with the teacher. The walls were full of writing and images. The segment of the lesson reported here begins after the class had settled down and the teacher announced the start of her teaching by drawing attention to the powerpoint slide on the whiteboard. Pseudonyms are used for all participants in this vignette.


At the start of the lesson the teacher, Donna, draws the students’ attention to the information on a slide displayed on the whiteboard. The topic of the lesson is: The origins of the equal rights movement for women.

After introducing the topic, the teacher asks the students to copy the information on the slide into their notebooks and to look up the meanings of the words ‘infiltrate’ and


‘desertion’ in the dictionary, which has been placed on the table in front of the students. The students proceed with the copying task quietly; the teacher sits with the students and occasionally reminds them to use the dictionary. After five minutes the teacher stands up and introduces a set of key words on a new slide (Slide 2).

The teacher tells the class that the main concept for the lesson is ‘how life changed for women’, and that the ‘basic key words’ for this topic are on the left hand side of the whiteboard. The students are asked to find a matching definition for each of the key words from the right hand side of the whiteboard. The teacher asks the students to write the words down on the board. After the students have been working quietly on their own for about three minutes the teacher then nominates individual students to go up to the whiteboard to do a worddefinition match. The teacher nominates two other students to come up to the whiteboard to perform this matching exercise. The students nominated perform this task without speaking. After that the teacher completes the matching task for the last of the key words, ‘pauper, herself. But the teacher intersperses the board work with recall questions related to a focal key word to the whole group. For instance, in relation to the last key word ‘pauper’ the teacher refers to the meanings of ‘pauper’ that she has discussed in previous classes:


At the end of this three-minute activity the whiteboard display is as follows:

The teacher now switches to the next slide and a new focus: Women Today:

The teacher divides the students into small groups to discuss the issues on the whiteboard – one pair on ‘work’, another pair on ‘marriage and divorce’, and a group of three on ‘education and sexuality’. The students are given one minute to do this. 18

The students immediately engage in animated talk. At the end of the allowed time the teacher tells the class to come back together and initiates a whole class discussion. In total this segment is approximately 9-10 minutes (of a 60 minute lesson). There is constant interweaving between different ‘modes’ of language (talk, writing, reading, listening) and literacy activities, involving a variety of multimodal material use. The lesson started with little or no spoken introduction into the topic; students had to copy key words displayed on the whiteboard and then use a dictionary to find out the word meanings for themselves. The nature of social participation shifted rapidly within minutes and often rested upon implicit rules and routines, e.g. concept (word) and definition (word strings) matching activities that included students performing at the white board. In terms of the knowledge and the time frames being invoked, the past and the present constantly ran into each other as the teacher referred, for instance, to earlier voting rights, and to contemporary laws regarding marriage and divorce and she also referred to earlier lessons, as in Extract 4 regarding her explanations of the word ‘pauper’. The lesson moved at a very fast pace – the teacher moved from one slide to the next slide, asked questions, then instigated a discussion around key terms. There were rapid transitions between teacher-led discussion and short question and answer sessions; at the same time there was considerable student/student talk. Other activities in this lesson (not in the vignette reported here) involved student writing in their notebooks, often associated with looking at visual images and looking up words in dictionaries. Links between all of these activities were established via key words, teacher questions and students’ hands-on activities – writing, matching and gluing word strips together. In the latter case, the shifts between modes and the use of material artifacts, a term invoked above (cf Pahl and Rowsell, 2010), involved reading short word strings from cards, selecting appropriate ones, then sticking them on to posters, which were then placed in their folders. As researchers interested in both language and literacy practices, particularly as it related to students from EAL backgrounds, Leung and Street’s interest was guided by the conceptual frames indicated earlier – notably New Literacy Studies and EAL learning from communicative perspectives with the question of how all of this related to multimodal communication. From the perspective of New Literacy Studies, we might say that we can observe all of the events described here, but recognise that this is not enough, we also need to ask how did the students and their teacher – and the researchers – make sense of them. In order to understand ‘what’s going on’ here, as the ethnographic perspective asks, we needed, as we noted above, to make the shift from events to practices, to begin to identify the meanings and concepts underlying the events, the relation of different modes and their location in social and institutional contexts. What social, cultural and ideological components were working here to construct meanings? For instance, the Academic Literacies research asks us to focus on the different genres, practices, social interactions involved in students engaging with formal requirements (Lea and Street, 1997, 2006). We might ask, in relation to 19

the data above, how did the students make links between the different sources of information, the different kinds of task, the words highlighted and the larger spoken and written accounts required? A key issue was how such activity and use of data sources linked with the examination tasks required, such as particular written genres. How were students learning the different genres of writing required for examination and how did their ‘ordinary’ language usage relate to that required for these tasks? And the work in Multimodality (e.g. Kress 2000; Kress et al 2005) asks us to identify the meanings associated with different modes and different artefacts (Pahl and Rowsell, 2010.. As the students moved from reading words on the white board to talking about them, and writing them into notebooks and folders, what contribution did the artifacts and the ways in which they were used make to the overall meaning making? At the same time, EAL literature draws attention to the varieties of English being called upon in these specific academic tasks, including how they may differ from those that students are familiar with in everyday communication. The data above, for instance, provides rich and complex examples of the focus on vocabulary and of the academic discourse the teacher is calling upon. Words such as ‘pauper’, not frequently encountered in everyday English today, were highlighted by the teacher and then associated with epithets used in specific legalistic and administrative frameworks, such as ‘apprentice’. And yet this focus on subject specific meanings and their language expressions was interspersed with talk concerned with classroom organisation and task management. English is both a constituent and an embodiment of such a flight of multifaceted meaning making Here we see subject-related vocabulary, what Halliday might refer to as ‘register’, and everyday language expressions interwoven in a way that Hymes might term ‘appropriate’ by virtue of the fact that this communicative event happened. A practice view would allow us to see that English is considerably more complex and intricate than dominant pedagogic and prescriptive models would allow. English, in this case English in an educational context, is, among other things, the interweaving of everyday expressions and specialist register, such as ‘academic English, uses of different sources of information embodied in different materialities and hands-on activities, and language resourcing in a broader sense. Above all, the content of the subject can be seen as a core meaning from which the various activities are developed, and to which they owe their pedagogic coherence in context. The vignette presented in this discussion provides a glimpse of the potential yield of looking at English as part of social, language and semiotic practices. Similar use of the MM and NLS perspective might be applied p other classroom events and practices, with different languages and registers in different subject areas. The bringing together of MM and NLS would seem to be a productive move which I would see as significant not only in terms of educational contexts of the kind described here but more broadly in terms of everyday communicative practices, for which the approach is only just beginning to unpack the often ‘hidden’ meanings.


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Pahl, K. (2006) An inventory of traces: children´s photographs of their toys in three London homes. Visual Communication. Vol 5 (1):95-114. Pahl K (2007) Creativity in events and practices: a lens for understanding children´s multimodal texts Literacy Vol. 41 Number 2 pp 86-92 Pahl, K. and Rowsell, J. (eds) (2006) Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Instances of Practice. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd. Pahl, K And Rowsell, J 2010 Artifactual Literacies: Every Object Tells a Story Teachers College, Columbia University; New York Robinson-Pant, A 2004 ed. Women, Literacy and Development: Alternative Perspectives Routledge, London Robinson-Pant,A 1997 Why Eat green Cucumbers at the Time of Dying?’: The Link between Women’s Literacy and Development Unesco: Hamburg Rowsell, J. and Pahl, K. (2007) Sedimented identities in texts: Instances of practice. Reading Research Quarterly. Vol. 42, Issue 3 pp 388-401 Scribner, S. and Cole, M. (1981) The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Silverstein, M. and Urban, G. (eds.) (1996) Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Sheridan, M and Rowsell, J 2010 Design Literacies: Learning and Innovation in the Digital Age Routledge: New York Street, B. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Street, B. (1988). Literacy practices and literacy myths. In R. Saljo (Ed.), The written word: Studies in literate thought and action (pp. 59-72). Heidelberg: SpringerVerlag Press. Street, B. V. ed. (1993) Cross-Cultural Approaches to Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Street, B. V. (1999) 'New Literacies in Theory and Practice: what are the implications for Language in Education?'(Inaugural Professorial Lecture, 19 Oct 1998) in Linguistics and Education 10(1): pp. 1-24 Street, B. (2000). Literacy Events and Literacy Practices. In M. Martin-Jones & K. Jones (Eds.), Multilingual Literacies: Comparative Perspectives on Research and Practice (pp. 17-29). Amsterdam: John Benjamin’s. Street, B.V. (2005) (ed) Literacies Across Educational Contexts. Philadelphia: Caslon Publishing Ltd.


Street, B. V. (2006) ‘New Literacies for New Times’ ‘Invited Address’ 55th yearbook of the National Reading Conference ed J Hoffman and D Schallert NRC Inc, Oak Creek, Wisconsin pp. 21-42 Street, B 2009 “‘Hidden’ Features of Academic Paper Writing” Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, UPenn Vol. 24, no 1, pp. 1-17 Street, B, Pahl,K and Rowsell,J 2009 ‘Multimodality and New Literacy Studies’ Chapter 15 of Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis Edited by Carey Jewitt Street, B. V.and Hornberger, N (2007) (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Volume 2: Literacy. Springer Street , B. V. and Lefstein, A (2007) Literacy an Advanced Resource handbook. London: Routledge Street, B.V. and Street, J. (1991) The Schooling of Literacy. In: D. Barton, and R. Ivanic, eds. Writing in the Community. 1991 London: Sage pp 143-166.

Parts of this paper have been adapted from Brian Street, Kate Pahl and Jennifer Rowsell 2009 ‘Multimodality and New Literacy Studies’ Chapter 15 of Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis Edited by Carey Jewitt. I have also borrowed a data account from a forthcoming paper by Leung and Street - Leung, C. & Street, B. (eds) (In press, 2012) English – A Changing Medium for Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. Chapter 1 Introduction English in the Curriculum – Norms and Practices


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