A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín
By Felipe Bedoya, Giselle Isaza and Tatiana Hoyos
Ever since the beginning, language and communication have been what have set us apart for other beings on this Earth. The ability to express meaning in oral and written forms has been attached to human beings since the first steps of human evolution as a society. Nevertheless, the concept of literacy and the worries that have come with it have not been with us as long. This concept was usually used in the 1960’s in order to name programs that made possible for adults to become proficient in reading and writing, even though it wasn’t seen as a significant problem or concern (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011, p.3). These “literacy teaching” courses were informal, mostly voluntary work, that sought to help adults who were deemed as “illiterate” as a result of not being part of the formal education system through their formative years or who were suffering certain conditions as poverty, “unemployment, imprisonment, drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, inferior physical or psychic health” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011, p.4), among others. Lankshear and Knobel imply then that illiteracy was only seen in terms of being able to read and write in a functional way as to be a productive member of society (2011, p.4).
Prior to the 1970’s literacy was not a social crisis, in fact the teaching of reading and writing in schools was thought to be a “quick” process in which the student acquired certain level of production and comprehension that served him well enough for the subsequent years in school education. As Lankshear and Knobel assert, at this time literacy was not a word you heard often in education discourse, instead there was a well grounded “academic field of reading research” that was focused on teaching pupils “how to encode, decode and comprehend printed alphabetic texts” (2011, p.3). According to Street (1985, p.20) there are many differences in understanding written and oral language; the latter can have different sets of meaning for it “can be constantly modified according to its effect”, also “it is directed to a particular individual, usually with some intended effect such as influencing his views, maintaining a certain relationship or controlling his actions” (p.20). In relation to written language he asserts that through writing, language can be specialized, and it is possible to use it in order to serve specific functions; writing is more impersonal for the receiver does not need to be present. Besides, he states that “it can be conducted through time and space, and is less subject to immediate feedback” (p.20).
Subsequently, this early conception of literacy changed by the end of the 1970’s in the First World English-speaking countries as a result of various reasons that changed the perspective on how literacy was perceived and its importance in society. Mainly, it was the presence and the critique of a group of important scholars what made this change in thinking about literacy as a worldwide phenomenon. Scholars such as Paulo Freire (1978), Allan Luke (1988/2012), Brian Street (1985/2008), Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope (1989/2008) among many others, wrote extensive works on how a view of literacy confined to just reading and writing was a limited scope to measure the ability of a human being to produce and interpret meaning within a classroom setting. It was clear to these scholars that we, as a society, were heading to (as in fact we are living in now) a media-driven society, where information is everywhere and available at any given time. In a world where technology expands every single day, people are now forced to go beyond reading and writing, and to do so critically, they have to produce meaning through other ways like images, video, instant messaging, and must be able to share these products with people around the world, considering that in the era of information, possibilities are endless and geographic limitations do not represent a concern anymore. The work of these scholars was based on “the changing word and the new demands being placed upon people as makers of meaning – in changing workplaces, as citizens in changing public spaces and in changing dimensions of our community lives, our lifeworlds” (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008).
As expressed by authors such as Freire (1978) and Cope & Kalantzis (2008) literacy is not just about reading and writing, it is about social equity, social justice and the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity. Freire’s work integrated the abilities of reading and writing into social praxis; his theories about “reading the word and the world” gave way to critical thinking and critical pedagogy. They were about using reading and writing as a way to analyze the world we live in as a society. Similarly, other theorists shared parallel ideas and expressed that “learning how to encode and decode alphabetic print was integrated into an expansive pedagogy in which groups of learners collaboratively pursued critical consciousness of their world, via a reflexive or ‘cyclical ’ process of reflection and action” (Lankshear & Knobel, p.4). As seen here, language and communication is part of a social change, and in Freire’s perspective, teaching words that were meaningful to the person’s oppressed reality was a crucial way to get them to engage in action towards changing their realities. Although Freire’s work was solely contextualized in Brazil and Chile, and their social realities, it resonated in other contexts as well, for example in English-speaking countries where literacy was also an opportunity to break free and to change the world of oppressed minorities desperate for change. “It provided the theoretical underpinning for the development of critical pedagogy, including critical literacy, in the USA during the 1980’s” (p.4).
There has always been an intricate relationship between literacy, language, society and power; even in Latin America where the constant social struggle has made the improvement of young people’s abilities in reading and writing a difficult task. Fighting illiteracy has been a struggle in the region since the 1960’s when governmental and nongovernmental organizations started to fund programs and studies to assess the quality of literacy among the youth. Through the 1960’s there were a proliferation of programs based largely on Freire’s work and others designed by the UNESCO and the World Bank. These programs started based on the data they collected through various studies which tried to assess literacy using a very narrow scope, taking into account only the dominant language, which in a multicultural society excludes a large sum of people that speak, for example, indigenous languages. As Bartlett and her colleagues argue, statistical data confirms “that indigenous youth in particular, are affected by illiteracy, poverty and social exclusion” (Bartlett et al, 2011, p.177). In their research they show that measuring literacy as a skill related to only reading and writing is shortsighted, and prove that the people labeled as “illiterate” are also socially excluded, marginalized and often blamed for violence and destabilization of society, which confirms that literacy affects society and the way people relate to it as active and productive members. Being literate does not only give you the tools to be able to read and write, but also gives you a place in the world, where you can participate economically, politically and critically.
New Literacies, New Learning
Consequently, after the 1980’s with the up-and-coming new technologies, new media and new and faster ways of communication, a few great minds came together to think about what all this entailed for education and how it would have to be turned around to form the minds of the future members of society. This select group was called the New London Group, and it was formed by academics from all over the globe that wanted to explore new roads in terms of education, literacy and language. As Cope and Kalantzis (2008) state, the developments of communication and languages (especially English as a sort of universal language) gave way to a new understanding of literacy, one that had to be set aside from “old pedagogies of a formal, standard, written national language […] instead […] [they] suggested an open ended grammar that helps the learner to describe language differences (cultural, subcultural, regional/national, technical, context specific, etc.) and the multimodal channels of meaning now so important to communication”(p.3). This theory was coined by the name of “New Literacies”; now, there is not only one way to look at literacy, the idea is that there are different types of literacy that vary according to the modes of meaning you choose to express yourself. “New Literacies” or “multiliteracies” give people a chance to look, analyze and be critical about the world from different perspectives and to express that critique in different ways, not just through written language. This supposed also a change in the paradigm of learning as for new societies pedagogy could not be just about “sitting up straight, listening to the teacher, […] [which represent] all the rigid classroom discipline” (p.5). It couldn’t be expected that students just sat there and absorbed knowledge uncritically and passively, and do exactly as they were told; this was no longer the case. In today’s new economy, driven by the use of new technologies, people need to be multi-skilled, more flexible, and able to undertake a range of tasks shifting from one assignment to another. This comes from a flexible education where students develop “knowledge of sufficient depth for a life of change and diversity”. Furthermore, it is not only a question of technology for the sake of technology, “indeed technology is now very much about the relationship between tools and the knowledge of these tools in people’s heads” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2008, p.6).
Nowadays, cultural diversity and technology go hand in hand. It is possible now to be yourself while you broadcast it to millions of people over the internet, using a blog, a video blog, a YouTube account or a Facebook profile. Technologies like the Internet are key in this new sense of self and community building; they give people a chance to self-express, to own their self-made identities and to create diverse identities.
Conversely, education has had a hard time keeping up with technology and new social realities. The essence of the problem was the relationship with knowledge, and how in the old basic approach, the idea was that knowledge only came from the teacher and was stagnant, only to be repeated through drills. In addition, it was believed that knowledge came hand to hand with authority and that in order to obtain knowledge you had to do obey blindly and then accept that all these learning conceptions were sufficient foundations to be an active member of society. This old concept about the nature of knowledge, does not apply in a world “which puts a premium on creativity, problem solving and the active contribution of every person in a workplace or community setting”(p.7).
In addition, the concept of multiliteracies comes along with the issue of multimodality. Multimodality is the concept that defines that a text is no longer just written language; a text is now comprised of image, sound and words. Nowadays it is not something linear; information involves a constant flow everywhere we go and it takes what it needs from different directions in order to convey the messages. Multimodality, as the word suggests, involves different modes. Modes are all the different resources we use to convey meaning. As Kress explains further, modes are those elements of meaning that form a text, there is a visual mode (where the concept of Design comes in), a way to make it visually attractive; there is a gestural mode if it is a person who is presenting the text; there is a sound mode where the tone, the pronunciation and other aspects may apply and give meaning. In conclusion, there is a mode for each one of the five senses. Here is Gunther Kress himself in a conference in the University of London, where he talks about modes and multimodality.
Kress on multimodality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt5wPIhhDDU
As shown in the videos, multimodality is a concept that applies to our current communicative situation in a perfect way. Messages are now ultimately complex, full of different elements that convey meaning. All these resources of meaning, as Kress (2012) explains, are encompassed in a Design, especially created to enhance what each mode has to offer.
What Do We Have Now?
There have been several differences in the conception of the term literacy. These differences lie upon factors such as the language and the term’s evolution, but certainly despite all those differences, Literacy deals with the process of reading, understanding and decoding messages in its diverse modes or presentations and it is absolutely connected with teaching-learning processes. Since it is impossible to decode the messages without referring to reading and writing as fundamental skills for the educational world, we would like to mention and quote some information published in El Pais (local newspaper) on April 1st. We refer to an article about the levels of reading comprehension and other basic subjects’ skills that were evaluated through an International Students Evaluation Program PISA test applied to several participant countries, and that points at the results that our students got in terms of their proficiency level compared with other countries.
The results of the PISA test showed that Colombian students are in some of the lowest positions in reading comprehension, mathematics, science and problem solving skills. As quoted in El País: “Among 44 different countries that were evaluated, our country held the last place being overcome by countries such as Estonia, Slovenia and Finland among others”. These are some things we all should worry about since these skills are the foundation of educational programs and it is almost impossible to conceive formal education without them.
These low results make us question several things: first, what kind of factors may interfere with teaching and learning how to read in all the school subjects? What is Colombian Education doing wrong? What are countries in first positions doing well? What kind of educational strategies should be adopted in order to help our students be at the level of international standards when it comes to literacy? And what should government institutions do in order to facilitate the solution of this problem?
Several and very particular factors such as social inequality, social strata, students dropping out, poor or lack of school resources are just some examples that can resolve the first question and explain what is negatively affecting the quality of education in our students. Another relevant insight the results showed is that our teachers have been using the same teaching standards for more than a century to educate students that need to face the realities of a fast pace globalized world where the permanent introduction of new technologies translates into the need for developing new skills, far away from the ones our educational model was thought for. El País journal said: “Another worrying result that this study showed is that teachers are still using 100 years old educational standards which translates into poorly prepared students who do not have the tools to develop their competences and ideas to face today’s new scholar challenges. The problem is not only the level of the students, but also that it is definitely necessary to invest more on the training of teachers.
Moreover, we need to land these insights to the reality of our classrooms for literacy and understand that nowadays the conception of being literate means going beyond the written code. As mentioned by Kramssh (1998) “to be literate means not only to be able to encode and decode the written Word, or to do exquisite text analysis; it is the capacity to understand and manipulate the social and cultural meanings of print languages and codes, feelings and actions” p. (56). There is a pronounced and permanent concern about how to implement big changes that can contribute to improve literacy levels. Kramsh (1998), Bayman (1997) and Zuñiga (2011) propose two trends to understand literacy, the first focuses on the comprehension and mastery of the written medium (the traditional view) and the second one understands literacy as a social practice. The last conception, which is a lot wider, takes into account what happens in the mind and world of a person who reads a message and the social context of the message itself. This means that literacy is a social practice and the social and cultural differences should be taken into consideration when it comes to assess and compare literacy levels.
On the other hand, some other authors also recognize the multiple quality of literacy, which means there is not only one. Bayman (1995) and Zuñiga (2001) state that there might be visual literacy, computer literacy , cultural literacy, print literacy , manual literacy, scientific literacy, music literacy, political literacy and others. This wide idea of the topic suggests that it is related to all aspects of our lives and that we use it in almost all situations. In addition, if our country is so behind in terms of reading comprehension standard level, we should accept that we are also far from the development of critical thinking and so from critical literacy. New technologies and social media networking are offering a wide range of opportunities to enable both teachers and students to develop skills that cope with these new challenges. In fact, today’s classrooms are provided with technological gadgets that were not even thought a few years ago. Technological objects such as video beams, intelligent boards, and computers have become part of the usual material for our classrooms. Laptop computers, tablets, iPhones, iPads, tablets and Smart phones are also being part of students’ school supplies. Along with all these tools for education, we also have Social Networks and Internet services at hand.
Burnett and Merchant (2011) claimed that “social media offer some new and exciting possibilities for educators have now been well rehearsed. Clearly, the potential for social media to support new or extended forms of participation and collaboration that could promote learning is attractive to those who embrace “student-centered ideologies and those who believe that traditional structures of knowledge and power are loosening”. However, all this comes with a cost. The use of these technologies is inclusive but at the same time is leaving behind those who have not been able to adopt them and adapt their teaching-learning routines to the new needs. New communication technologies have transformed the lives of many but not all. Also, all this diverse amount of resources could not be worthy, if teachers do not know how to guide and lead students towards a healthy usage. Then, these gadgets would only be part of the landscape of the classroom and the exciting learning chances would be lost.
So, there is nothing clearer than a great necessity for change, transformation and adaptation. Alvarez Valencia (2009) claims that “it can be stated that education is confronted with new challenges and that qualified teachers are in charge of facing those challenges and consolidating critical perspective to solve problems by generating innovations”. Then mentors should have the sensibility to make students the creators of knowledge and help them improve their skills to identify and respond to their own needs. Literacy classrooms need literacy teachers.
Regarding the skills that literacy teachers need to have students develop their best performance , Mario Ospina, a teacher at the ITM university in Medellin, gives us some insights that might be useful. See video above.
A Glimpse inside Colombian classrooms in the near future
Multimodality defined as “the integration of various designs such as visual, linguistic, and audio in one text” (Chandler-Olcott, K. &Mahar, D. 2003, p.3) is a key concept in the future of literacy considering that the different modes and the never ending emerging technological tools in which these modes are capsuled will determine the way people learn to “read the word and the world” (Freire & Macedo, 1987). Nowadays, these technological tools highly represent most of the modes that people utilize to make meaning and thus to communicate and represent ideas accurately. Besides, it is through these modes that the vast majority of individuals, specially the new generations, are engage into the learning processes that they face.
Multimodality relies completely on modes. In 2010, Kress enlightened us with a very precise definition of modes. He affirmed that a mode is “a socially shaped and culturally given semiotic resource for making meaning,” and added that “image, soundtrack, layout, music, gesture, speech, moving image, soundtrack, and 3D objects are examples of modes used in representation and communication” (p.1). In this way, we can agree on the fact that a great variety of modes is available for the multicultural audience that the world holds. And these modes are often the same even though they come in different packages or vessels. Technologies of today and new technologies serve humanity as bridges in the exchange of information and in the displaying of modes to communicate meaning, and they definitely stamp the way in which the new and coming generations will negotiate meaning in our societies, becoming the packages or vessels sheltering the modes that will get the world involved into learning.
All these technologies are constantly and rapidly changing leaving our mouths wide open a little bit more. At the same time all these changes are modeling the way we learn and the practices we do in order to construct meaning. Therefore, before we commit into a look on how classroom learning will be in the future, we would like to illustrate some examples of how some technologies have change through time to the extent of considering unimaginable living in the past without what we have now. After this illustration, we will be ambitious enough as to depict the way in which our future generations will face learning by using the technology that they will fortunately have.
In the beginning of the eighties the Walkman was introduced by Sony Corporation. It consisted of a system that permitted user to listen to music while they were walking on the streets. It was the first time in history in which people could walk around by the rhythm of the music melodies without disturbing the tranquility of the other passers-by as the Boombox, which was the only alternative that music lovers had to take their music everywhere, certainly represented a big headache for the ones who preferred quiet.
Only thirty years after the Walkman was unveiled, it has become an obsolete device that lives in the memory of those who lived in the Eighties and Nineties and does not even make part of the vocabulary of those who were born in the Twenty-Hundreds. It is amazing how a technological device that was so widely accepted and used came to be a useless tool due to the introduction of new alternatives that highly overcome the features offered by such device. In order to observe how this is true we only have to visit the following video on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uk_vV-JRZ6E. In this site we can see the reaction that kids have after they are shown a Walkman for the first time. First, most of them do not know what it is for. Then they have a hard time trying to open it up to make it work. And finally after being fully introduced to the characteristics of the device, they are so disappointed about the technology of the Eighties and Nineties to the extent that they even felt bad about those who lived in the Nineties and could not picture a world without the music possibilities that we currently have.
Another example of this type comes from the same online TV show (www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkuirEweZvM). This time the kids reacted to rotary phones, those old home phones in which a finger wheel had to be rotated in order to dial a number. Kids were asked question about how to use the phone but any of them could figure out how to make a call. When they were taught how to use it they all agreed that it was simple. Then they were introduced to certain characteristics and concepts of the phone as busy signal, and long distance calls and they were amazed how complicated was phone communication in the last century. Dylan, a 12 year old boy in this episode, stated “this was awesome like twenty or ten years ago and look how technology advanced and now people don’t even know what this is.” The kids were also asked a trick question: “How do you think you send a text message with that phone?” They all tried to figure out how but when they were told that last century generations did not have access to text messages they were surprised and found it hard to believe that the only way to communicate with a relative or friend was if they were at home. Lydon, an 11 year old girl, was more considerate and argued that “it definitely made it harder, but still, people got around. People survived.” To conclude, we can claim that these two videos pretty much illustrate what we are witnessing now: a series of fast pacing changing technological devices that are in charge of transmitting the messages and the knowledge that make part our daily lives.
These two examples, of how technological devices have changed, give us a meaningful idea about how the message has always been the same and show us to what degree the package has been the one that changes its form. Having this idea of changing in mind, it is prudent to assure that in the course of this technological times, the learning processes cannot be detached from these packages as that would be, as suggested by Blake (2008), depriving learners of the fast pace understanding that new technologies provide.
Now that we have been through a historical overview of literacy, a current contextualization of learning processes and a description of how technology has changed and how it opens the doors to multimodality, we can finally imagine the way in which our Colombian classrooms will be harmonized in order to facilitate learning for both, students and teachers.
First of all, teachers will be trained to have a complete understanding of the implementation, benefits and possible drawbacks of using technology inside the classrooms. Then the government will invest, along with the help of the most important multinational companies, on intelligent desks that displays a computer screen, a keyboard and a mouse. Each student will have the chance to be connected to the world during their whole stay in school and in this way they will be more compromised with their own learning process. All the classes will have students commit on learning construction processes where students will receive and share ideas with their teachers and classmates. The negotiation of meaning and interaction will involve several computing applications as well as personal encounters in order to keep a balance between virtual and presence learning activities. Now as technology is constantly being reshaped, and it involves high costs as most of the software and hardware needs to be imported, students in thirty years will be so highly aware of the functionality of the different technologies that Colombia will not need to be importing hardware and software, but we Colombians will be constructing our own computing systems that will be used in the industry and therefore in all our schools.
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