Multimodal literacy is a term that originates in social semiotics, and refers to the study of language that combines two or more modes of meaning. The related term, multimodality, refers to the constitution of multiple modes in semiosis or meaning making. Modes are defined differently across schools of thought, and the classification of modes is somewhat contested. However, from a social semiotic approach, modes are the socially and culturally shaped resources or semiotic structure for making meaning. Specific examples of modes from a social semiotic perspective include speech, gesture, written language, music, mathematical notation, drawings, photographic images, or moving digital images. Language and literacy practices have always been multimodal, because communication requires attending to diverse kinds of meanings, whether of spoken or written words, visual images, gestures, posture, movement, sound, or silence. Yet, undeniably, the affordances of people-driven digital media and textual production have given rise to an exponential increase in the circulation of multimodal texts in networked digital environments. Multimodal text production has become a central part of everyday life for many people throughout the life course, and across cultures and societies. This has been enabled by the ease of producing and sharing digital images, music, video games, apps, and other digital media via the Internet and mobile technologies. The increasing significance of multimodal literacy for communication has led to a growing body of research and theory to address the differing potentials of modes and their intermodality for making meaning. The study of multimodal literacy learning in schools and society is an emergent field of research, which begins with the important recognition that reading and writing are rarely practiced as discrete skills, but are intimately connected to the use of multimodal texts, often in digital contexts of use. The implications of multimodal literacy for pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment in education is an expanding field of multimodal research. In addition, there is a growing attention to multimodal literacy practices that are practiced in informal social contexts, from early childhood to adolescence and adulthood, such as in homes, recreational sites, communities, and workplaces.
Kathy A. Mills and Len Unsworth
In the digital era, written communication for children and youth is changing. As texts and media include complex intersections of print, image, sound, and other modalities, the ways in which writing is conceived is shifting. The evolution and impact of digital technologies follow a long history of invention, innovation, and change in written communication, with critiques of writing and communication technologies present in both historical and contemporary contexts. A new development in contemporary digital culture is the significant and widespread participation of children and youth in digital media and communication due to the ubiquity, affordances, and appeal of mobile digital devices. In the history of writing instruction, pedagogical approaches and perspectives have continued to evolve, with the teaching of writing at times positioned as subordinate to the teaching of reading, a pattern that has repeated into the digital era in which an emphasis on digital writing production and text creation has been similarly less of a focus than receptive consumption of media. Shifts in digital practice and the emergence of new devices for writing present both challenges and opportunities for the teaching of writing and the creation of texts in schools, with issues of digital resource provision and access to technology presenting hurdles for some teachers. Teacher awareness of the digital worlds, practices, and “funds of knowledge” that students are bringing to the writing classroom is vital to reimagining the writing classroom within contemporary digital culture. In the 21st century, writing instruction needs to be inclusive of the operational demands of writing as well as sociocultural and critical requirements, in addition to responding to fluid technoliteracy contexts and consideration of how “writing” itself is changing.
Donna E. Alvermann and William Terrell Wright
Naming is a curious practice. It entails rudiments, now mostly taken for granted, that serve to categorize everyday literacy practices across fields as diverse as cultural anthropology and the management of multiple Git profiles. As a term unto itself, adolescent literacies is not immune to the vagaries of naming. In fact, it serves as an excellent example of how commonly named concepts in education embed the field’s histories, debates, pedagogies, and policies writ large. Conceptualizing literacy in its plural form raised eyebrows among academics, researchers, practitioners, publishers, and indexers concerned with the noun–verb agreement in phrases such as “adolescent literacies is a subfield” of adolescence. For some, the very notion of literacy extending beyond reading and writing is still debatable. With each passing day, however, it becomes noticeably more evident that multimodal forms of communication—images, sounds, bodily performances, to name but a few ways of expressing oneself—are competing quite well in the marketplace of ideas that flow globally with or without a linguistic component attached to them. Aside from the naming process and its attendant political overtones, the practice of treating youth between roughly the ages of 12 and 17 as a monolithic group has been common in the United States. Largely traceable to a time in which developmental psychology dominated the field of literacy instruction (in the early to late 20th century), designating youth as adolescents equated to viewing them as some a normative group devoid of racial, class, gender, and any number of other identity markers. Even with the sociocultural turn in early 21st century and its abundance of studies reifying the socially constructed nature of adolescents, the term persists. Its adhesive-like attraction to literacies, however, may be weakening in light of research that points to youth who are agentic and dynamic game changers when it comes to participating in a world grown more attuned to the need for collaboration based not on hierarchical standing but instead on working through commonplace tensions too complex for any one solution.