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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Helping teachers to explore multimodal texts

Michèle Anstey
Geoff Bull

 The authors are co-directors of Anstey & Bull Consultants in Education (www.ansteybull.com). Michèle Anstey is a former Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland, where she was Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Education. Geoff Bull is a former Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland where he was a Program Head and taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses in literacy and literature. He is a former national president of the Australian Literacy Educators' Association.


Current definitions of literacy frequently refer to multimedia and multimodal texts. There are references to such materials throughout the Australian Curriculum: English Draft Version 1.0.1, which defines literacy in the following way:

In the 21st century, the definition of literacy has expanded to refer to a flexible, sustainable command of a set of capabilities in the use and production of traditional texts and new communications technologies, using spoken language, print and multimedia. (p 5)

One of the six aims stated in the draft curriculum is that students will have the opportunity to 'understand, interpret, reflect on and create an increasingly broad repertoire of spoken, written and multimodal texts across a growing range of settings'.

It is therefore timely to consider how teachers can become familiar with and confident in their use of multimodal texts in the classroom.

What are multimodal texts?

A text may be defined as multimodal when it combines two or more semiotic systems. There are five semiotic systems in total:

  1. Linguistic: comprising aspects such as vocabulary, generic structure and the grammar of oral and written language
  2. Visual: comprising aspects such as colour, vectors and viewpoint in still and moving images
  3. Audio: comprising aspects such as volume, pitch and rhythm of music and sound effects
  4. Gestural: comprising aspects such as movement, speed and stillness in facial expression and body language
  5. Spatial: comprising aspects such as proximity, direction, position of layout and organisation of objects in space.

Examples of multimodal texts are:

  • a picture book, in which the textual and visual elements are arranged on individual pages that contribute to an overall set of bound pages
  • a webpage, in which elements such as sound effects, oral language, written language, music and still or moving images are combined
  • a live ballet performance, in which gesture, music, and space are the main elements.

Multimodal texts can be delivered via different media or technologies. They may be live, paper, or digital electronic.

Helping teachers support students’ facility with multimodal texts

Based on our research, and the work we have conducted with teachers in Australia and New Zealand, we have identified six areas of professional learning of particular value for integrating multimodal texts into classroom practice.

1.    Knowledge and understanding about reading and writing multimodal texts that are delivered in different ways (paper, live and digital electronic).

Particular understandings about the design of multimodal texts support their effective classroom use. These include an understanding that texts perform a particular function over time or within a specific context, and they are designed to achieve particular communicative purposes. An understanding of a text’s purpose, audience and method of communication is key, as is an understanding of not only what is included in a text, but how different elements relate to each other, and the effect they are designed to achieve.

2.    Knowledge of the five semiotic systems of which a multimodal text can be composed.

Teachers and students need to understand the codes and conventions of each of the five semiotic systems in order to make or convey meaning through them. Therefore just as we now need to know and teach a linguistic grammar we must provide teachers and students with a grammar that enables them to select and use semiotic systems effectively in a multimodal text. For example, when composing a multi-modal text they will need to make decisions about whether to show a character’s emotions through sound, gesture, facial expression or descriptive words, or some combination of these.

3.    Metalanguage that facilitates the analysis, discussion and understanding of how multimodal texts work.

Metalanguage refers to the specialised terminology that describes how a multimodal text works. For example, the grammar for each of the five semiotic systems provides a metalanguage for discussing how they convey meaning.

4.    Explicit pedagogies that make the processes of reading and writing multimodal texts transparent.

Explicit pedagogy is functional and goal directed and ensures that teachers and students have a common understanding about the expectations and responsibilities of learning. In an explicit pedagogical approach, classroom interaction has particular characteristics and it is recognised that every literate practice in the classroom builds students’ understandings about what counts as literacy or literate practices.

5.    Ensure that the school has a balanced, school-wide approach to the teaching of literacy and multimodal texts.

It is essential that the school has mechanisms in place to assist teachers in maintaining a coherent approach to teaching with multimodal texts across all year levels in order to reinforce a common terminology for talking about texts and common understandings about them. A balance among the text types and the semiotic systems used must also be maintained. School curriculum plans and unit and lesson plans should be audited regularly to ensure balance and consistency.

Commencing the professional learning process

Teachers who are beginning to work with multimodal texts often associate them with technology, and may be reluctant to engage with them if they lack confidence with ICT. An excellent alternative for introducing the terminology, concepts and issues involved with multimodal text is via the picture book. This familiar example of multimodality, that is suitable for all year levels, can be used to examine and articulate the codes and conventions of the visual and linguistic semiotic systems.

Many of the codes relating to still images are common to those of moving images, so once confidence is achieved with picture books teachers can move on to film and video. A good place to start is with advertisements that, while short, provide all the characteristics of a multimodal text using audio, gestural, visual, linguistic and spatial semiotic systems. A great resource for advertisements is www.bestadsontv.com, from which material can be downloaded for a small fee.

Teachers who begin to engage with multimodal texts and more sophisticated technologies will find that their concepts about literacy, definitions of literacy and their literacy-related pedagogies are challenged; which can be confronting. When supporting teachers through this professional learning it is important to actively talk and learn about the change process as a topic in its own right, including how it affects us and how we can prepare ourselves for working through change. Teacher leaders can also work with teachers in identifying the types of challenges they might encounter and support mechanisms that will help them address and meet these challenges.

Further reading

For comment about the change process we recommend the works of Fullan, Calabrese and Hargreaves in the references below. Further information on explicit pedagogies that make the processes of reading and writing multimodal texts transparent is provided in Chapter six of our forthcoming book (Bull and Anstey 2010a). See also Cole and Pullen (2010) pp. 142–145. A description of auditing instruments that ensure that the school has a balanced, school-wide approach to the teaching of literacy and multimodal texts is provided in Chapter 6 of Anstey and Bull (2006) and Chapter 6 of Bull and Anstey (2010).


Anstey, M & Bull, G 2006, Teaching and Learning Multiliteracies: Changing times changing literacies International Reading Association, Newark, Delaware, (available through Education Services Australia).

Anstey, M & Bull, G 2009, Using Multimodal Texts and Digital Resources in a Multiliterate Classroom e:update 004, e:lit: Primary English Teaching Association, Marrickville, pp. 1–8.

Bull, G & Anstey, M 2010 a, Evolving Pedagogies; Reading and Writing in a Multimodal World, Education Services Australia, Melbourne.

Bull, G & Anstey, M 2010 b, 'Using the Principles of Multiliteracies to inform Pedagogical Change', Chapter Eight in Cole, DR & Pullen, DL Multiliteracies in Motion,  pp. 141–159  Taylor and Francis, London.

Calabrese, RL 2002, The Leadership Assignment: Creating Change, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Fullan, M 2001, Leading in a Culture of Change, Wiley, San Francisco.

Hargreaves, A 1994, Changing teachers Changing Times: teachers work and culture in the postmodern age, Teachers College Press, New York.

Hargreaves, A & Fullan, M eds. 2008, Change Wars, Solution Tree Press, Bloomington.

The Australian Curriculum: English Draft Version 1.0.1 available at www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Documents/English%20curriculum.pdf


Subject Headings

Visual literacy
Multimedia systems