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What’s so different about multiliteracies?

Geoff Bull
Michele Anstey

On Friday, 25 May 2007 Curriculum Corporation presents Multiliteracies: Break the code, a conference for primary and middle years teachers presented by Michele Anstey and Geoff Bull. In this article the presenters define multiliteracies and introduce a professional development program for this area of learning.

In the media, the teaching of multiliteracies is often trivialised and caricatured: portrayed, for example, as the study of SMS text messaging in place of the plays of Shakespeare. For all their weaknesses, such arguments can still influence members of the public, most of whom do not have direct knowledge of the topic of multiliteracies from their own years at school.

In this article we hope to provide a more rounded view of multiliteracies. We hope to demonstrate the value of this approach to students, and to describe ways that professional learning and development about multiliteracies can empower teachers.

Defining new literacies and multiliteracies

As a result of globalisation, technological innovation and other social change, literacy and literate practices must now encompass a greater range of knowledge, skills, processes and behaviours than ever before. Society has moved away from a reliance on print toward digital technology, including sound, music, words and still and moving images. Therefore the texts that students write or read now often rely on processing several modes of text simultaneously in order to construct meaning. For example, while eating breakfast, students may be listening and speaking at the table while watching a morning news program that requires them to attend to print, view both still and moving images, interact with a website or view a film clip, and at the same time interpret the behaviour of the news broadcasters interviewing someone from another country on a split screen.

To learn within this environment, students need to be able to understand and use the grammars of language, still and moving images, music and sound. These grammars are often referred to as semiotic systems. Five semiotic systems have been identified; the linguistic (ie the traditional system of producing shared meaning using sounds, words, sentences, paragraphs etc), the visual (eg line, colour, vector, texture), the gestural (eg facial expression, body position and posture), the spatial (eg the organisation of people and objects in space) and the aural (eg sound, music and silence).

A 21st-century multiliterate individual needs to have the skills to consume all five semiotic systems. Conversely, they will be required to produce texts that use all five systems such as play scripts, email, video and PowerPoint presentations. The terms ‘consuming’ and ‘producing’ are used here because they more accurately describe the knowledge, skills and processes employed in constructing print and digital texts than the traditional terms reading, listening, writing and speaking.

The changes in society and technology that we have detailed require students to understand that the choice of live, electronic or paper text forms will vary according to purpose and context. The plays of Shakespeare, for example, could be approached through reading the traditional print text, viewing a live text (ie the production) of a play or through interactive engagement with a video or Internet reproduction, based on knowing what can be learnt from the live, electronic or paper versions.

Exposure to all these forms of text must go hand in hand with the realisation that all texts are consciously constructed in order to share information in particular ways – that texts can shape attitudes, values and behaviours. There is always a selection process going on when a text is constructed; information can be included or excluded and certain groups can be portrayed positively or marginalised. Therefore, being multiliterate must also involve being critically literate, that is, having the ability to analyse texts, identify their origins and authenticity, and understand how they have been constructed in order to perceive their gaps, silences and biases.

For a more detailed discussion on the range of literacies and literate practices encompassed by the concept of multiliteracies, see the references at the end of the article. For the origin of the term multiliteracies, see Cope & Kalantzis (2000).

In summary, we would define a multiliterate person as someone flexible and strategic in their literacy: able to understand and use literacy and literate practices with a range of texts and technologies, in socially responsible ways, within a socially, culturally and linguistically diverse world; someone able to participate fully in life as an active and informed citizen (Anstey, 2002).

Empowering teachers

To help teachers gain a greater understanding of multiliteracies, we have prepared professional development programs called Multiliteracies Projects that have centred on individual, classroom-based, action learning projects that occur over time. These projects have included professional learning sessions for the exchange of knowledge and challenges; professional reading, reflection and action; audio-taping and analysis of transcripts of lessons; formulation and implementation of individual action learning projects; and validating and sharing learning. 

The Multiliteracies Projects, tailored to the needs of the clients, have usually focused on some, or all, of the following:

  • Developing and practising self-reflective techniques within the area of multiliteracies
  • Developing and implementing strategies to improve pedagogical practices
  • Developing an understanding of leadership and the change process
  • Developing an environment of trust where teachers evaluate their multiliteracies practices
  • Using specific tools that genuinely validate the progress made by teachers
  • Developing mechanisms that support teachers throughout the project.

Teachers participating in the Multiliteracies Projects have reported deeper understandings about multiliteracies and the relationships between planning, pedagogy and practice. This improvement was also reflected in the comments that administrators made about changes in teachers’ behaviour.

The oral and written reports from the participating teachers have also described some specific outcomes of the sessions. Some have said that the PD provided or developed a metalanguage that they have found useful when talking about concepts and strategies in multiliteracies. For other participants the sessions identified a need to slow the pace and reduce the scope of their teaching units, to promote depth of understanding.

Some teachers have noted that the PD changed the nature of their interactions with students: encouraging students to take more responsibility for their learning, shifting the locus of control from teachers to students, and spurring students to engage in more substantive conversations. Participating teachers have also reported that they now read more extensively in their chosen research area, and are more likely to engage in collegial conversations about multiliteracies.


Our work with these projects suggests that there are certain factors essential to professional learning and development that result in real and sustained changes in knowledge and pedagogy. Professional learning and development projects should be long term, and should have a dual focus, on both literacy and pedagogy. Training needs to be validated: participants must be required to identify ways of measuring change in their knowledge, pedagogy and practice, collect data and share it with colleagues. Professional development should involve action learning, in which participants identify personal goals, plan to meet them, take action and measure results. There needs to be flexibility within the structure: projects must suit the goals of the particular learning community, and be responsive to the context and individual needs of participants. Finally, collegial and self-reflective conversations must be encouraged at every stage of the projects. Tasks such as the audio-taping of lessons and action planning provide contexts for such conversations.

For more information about the Multiliteracies Projects see our website at www.ansteybull.com.


Anstey, M and Bull G 2000, Reading the Visual: Written and Illustrated Children’s Literature, Harcourt, Sydney.

Anstey, M 2002, Literate Futures: Reading, State of Queensland Department of Education, Coorparoo, Australia.

Anstey, M and Bull, G 2004, The Literacy Labyrinth (2nd edition), Pearson, Sydney, Australia.

Anstey, M and Bull, G 2005, 'One School’s Journey: Using multiliteracies to Promote School Renewal,' Practically Primary, vol 10, no 3, pp 10–13.*

Anstey, M and Bull, G 2006, Teaching and Learning multiliteracies: Changing Times, Changing Literacies, International Reading Association, Newark, Delaware.*

*Anstey, M and Bull, G 2006, 'Responding to rapid change: multiliteracies and ICT,' in EQ Australia, Curriculum Corporation, Winter, pp 17–18.

Bull, G and Anstey, M (eds) 2002, Crossing the Boundaries, Pearson, Sydney.

Bull, G and Anstey, M (eds) 2003, The Literacy Lexicon (2nd edition), Pearson, Sydney.

Bull, G. and Anstey, M 2004, 'The Modern Picture Book,' in Hunt, P (ed) International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (2nd Edition), Routledge, London.

*Available to read at www.ansteybull.com.au/Resources/Purchase.aspx

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Multimedia systems
Video recordings in education
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
English language teaching
Visual literacy