On Friday 15th April 2013, the UKLA held their annual conference at Chancellor’s Conference Centre in Manchester. The conference was entitled ‘Multimodal Approaches to Literacy Teaching’ and brought together a range of practitioners and academics interested in new ways of learning involving literacy. There was an impressive array of experiences and ideas shared in key note speeches and workshops throughout the day giving those attending plenty of inspiration and justification for using technologies in new and exciting ways. This report summarises some of the key themes and ideas from the conference.
There was a clear message from the conference that technology and digital literacy reflects and is part of today’s children’s worlds before they even start school. Both Guy Merchant and Jackie Marsh noted that the prevalence of the technology in lives of children from birth is perhaps best characterised by the recent availability of the ‘iPotty’ on the market to help potty-train digital age toddlers! However, internet access is not yet universal amongst all children. Jackie Marsh revealed that while the majority (83%) of children do have the internet at home and a further 8% have the opportunity to go online outside of the home, a notable 9% remain without any online access. These statistics are not without socioeconomic context and warnings of a ‘digital divide’ or an ‘app gap’ were supported by data presented by Marsh: 47% of children from higher socio-economic backgrounds have access to apps compared just 14% of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Common Sense Media, 2011). Suggestions as to how to reduce this disparity included providing children with their own digital devices for use at home and school, and giving children designated times at school to use technology unavailable to them at home in the form of before/after-school or lunchtime clubs.
The overriding theme of the conference was multimodality, which Jane Bednall succinctly defined as ‘communicating in different forms.’ In her workshop, Bednall emphasised that multimodality is not a new concept and has been part of literacy across the ages in forms including storytelling, song, poetry, gesture, costume, art and sculpture. Multimodality was integral to all of the projects and research presented at the conference, and took a wide range of forms. For Althea Samuels, multimodality was encapsulated in the form of cinema. She found that by deconstructing the cinema form into its component parts of experience, stills, movement and sound, different literacy skills could be developed. She exemplified a way of doing so by using the ‘Baboon on the Moon’ short film, beginning by playing the soundtrack without any visual to encourage us to use our imaginations to envisage the action and setting which may accompany it. We then watched the film and explored how our initial impressions changed and how different elements and images from the film affected our emotions and interpretations of the story. Samuels recommends using short films, such as ‘Baboon on the Moon’ which is less than seven minutes long, or extracts from longer films to allow several viewings of the film during which different foci can be developed. A wide range of appropriate clips are available from the BFI website, PocketMovies.com and YouTube.
As well as highlighting the different components of film, Samuels also stressed how multimodal literacy can enhance learning across the curriculum. By building a ‘cinema’ in a Reception classroom, she helped a teacher to incorporate the cinema theme into other areas, including numeracy skills in the formation of pricelists, art and literacy in the creation of cinema posters, and PSCHE in determining the roles necessary for the daily running of the cinema. Samuel’s rich case studies show how film can provide both a short and long-term impetus for the development of skills and learning in the classroom. This notion of cross-curricular multimodal learning was also promoted by Kate Cosgrove who presented alongside Marsh to reveal how her primary school in Sheffield used iPads to create artwork worthy of public display. Cosgrove set iPads up on easels around a collection of plants in a specially designated quiet room. The children then used the ‘Brushes’ app to create their own still life drawings of flowers inspired by artwork which David Hockney had created using an iPad. The children’s artwork was then uploaded and printed to create a ‘meadow’ of digital flowers and displayed in Sheffield’s Winter Garden. By giving the children space, time, purpose and an audience, this project was successful in creating a stunning multimodal experience for all involved.
Most contributors highlighted that today’s use of technology relies on an audience. As David Mitchell explained, while the internet was previously characterised by passive consumption, today’s so-called ‘Web 2.0’ form of internet and technology usage centres on interaction. He recounted the role of the audience in the development of the blogging project he established with Upper Key Stage 2 children in Bolton. The blog was initially set up to inform parents/carers of the class’ day-to-day activities. His class’ blog included a globe which would instantaneously pinpoint and display anyone accessing the blog at any time. He found that as people from around the world started logging on to the blog and the worldwide audience grew, so did the children’s interest in contributing to the blog. As children began to receive personal responses to their blog posts they were encouraged to write more often and some even began their own blogs. Mitchell credits the project with significantly improving the school’s SATs scores as children increased the amount and frequency of their writing. He told us of one reluctant writer’s transformation as she independently began her own blog which she used to write her first novel which she disseminated chapter by chapter with an audience voting system determining the action of the next instalment. Mitchell –and all of the conference audience- were astounded to hear that this former reluctant writer used a notebook to draft multiple chapters for all of the possible outcomes her audience could vote for to ensure she was ready to post the next instalment promptly online for her awaiting audience. Such impressive reports make a strong case for technology in literacy that cannot be disregarded. Mitchell recommends ‘quad-blogging’ whereby four schools form a blogging partnership to rapidly increase the audiences that encourage children to become involved in such projects.
Involve the community
As well as a global audience, multimodal literacy can also capture the attention of more local onlookers. Blogs with updates sent to mobiles can provide parents and carers with immediate insights into their children’s learning and encourage a greater sense of integration between home and school. Guy Merchant is also a keen proponent of involving the wider local community in school literacy work. His project in Heathlands Park in Sheffield involved using QR codes which children from a local primary school placed around the park and then linked information to. The QR codes could then be scanned by anyone with a mobile device connected to the internet to read and respond to the children’s information. This approach could be taken to any community context to encourage school links with the local community.
This report was written by Jennifer Brown and Rachel McGinnety, trainee teachers at Manchester University, and is designed to give an insight into some of the key messages from the conference. Some of the projects mentioned are part of the ‘Digital Futures in Teacher Education’ project based at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University with many more examples of digital literacy in action available to view on their website: http://www.digitalfutures.org/
Conference speeches referred to in this report:
Bednall, Jane (Education Consultant) Painting with Words: Developing Children’s Oracy and Writing using Multimodal Texts and Teaching and Learning Strategies
Marsh, Jackie (University of Sheffield) and Kate, Cosgrove (Teacher, Mundella Primary School, Sheffield) Digital Futures in Teacher Education
Merchant, Guy (Sheffield Hallam University) Moving with the Times Mobile Devices and New Literacies
Mitchell, David (Deputy Head Teacher, Caton Primary, Bolton) Sprogs with Blogs: Linking Audience to Learning
Samuels, Althea (Literacy Consultant) Cinema in the Classroom