The following is an extract from my PhD thesis, part of a series I am publishing on this blog discussing the background of some contested territory in English curriculum.



In addition to theorising the teaching of literacy, Green argues that “there are two particularly insistent matters that need to be engaged in thinking about the contemporary situation of English teaching…these are the question concerning literacy, on the one hand, and the question concerning technology, on the other” (Green, 2004, p.292). The increasing integration of ‘information and communication technologies’ (ICTs) into the workplace is one of the key influences identified by the OECD (2001) as signalling the growth of the knowledge economy and the related demand for multiliterate knowledge workers. As has just been discussed, ideas about what it means to be literate have developed over time, so that the concept of literacy now extends beyond breaking the codes of written words, to also encompass an understanding of conventions and discourses. Literacy is no longer limited to the physical and mechanical processes of reading, and in technologically rich world of the 21st century, it is also no longer limited to reading printed materials.

The term ‘multiliteracies’ began to be widely used after the first meeting of the ‘New London Group’ in 1994, who used the term to refer to the contemporary need to engage with not only the grammar of written language, but also the grammars of still and moving images, music and sound. However, the need to extend the concept of literacy beyond print literacy was just one aspect of what multiliteracies would entail – it also meant the application of established literacy practices, such as engaging critical literacy, to a wider range of semiotic systems. In a paper co-authored by a number of scholars including Bill Cope, Mary Kalantzis, Norman Fairclough, Jim Gee and Allan Luke, the manifesto of the New London Group proclaimed the authors’ twin goals for literacy learning to be: “creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community, and fostering the critical engagement necessary for them to design their social futures and achieve success through fulfilling employment” (Cazden et al., 1996, p.60).

In an online article for the Curriculum Corporation’s 2007 conference Multiliteracies: Break the Code, Geoff Bull and Michele Anstey lament that “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” (Bull & Anstey, 2007). What is ignored in such “trivialised” portrayals of multiliteracies is the very real impact that technology has had on society, and the culturally and linguistically diverse environment of today’s globalised world. It is these two important factors that the notion of multiliteracies addresses, by supplementing traditional literacy pedagogy in order to engage with “the multiplicity of communication channels and media”, and with “the increasing salience of cultural and linguistic diversity” of the contemporary society in which our students will grow up, live and work in (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000, p. 5).

There is no argument in any of the research literature that ‘linguistic’ semiotic systems and learning to code and decode written language do not constitute a key facet of literacy, however literacy across multiple modes – identified by Bull and Anstey (2007) as ‘linguistic’, ‘visual’, ‘gestural’, ‘spatial’ and ‘aural’ – is widely acknowledged as being required in contemporary society. The question therefore is one of balance, and debates about the balance of attention given to various semiotic systems in the English classroom can be seen to align with broader debates about what the function of schooling should be in the 21st century. While the ‘cultural-heritage’ function of schooling identified by Hunter (1993) may appear compromised in an English curriculum that embraces multiliteracies, as traditional content is lessened to make way for newer content, the role that schools play in providing ‘human-capital’ and a ‘skilled’ workforce is also reflected here. Although “moral panics proliferate about the perceived loss of foundational skills in the net generation” (McWilliam & Dawson, 2008, p.4) the growth of the knowledge economy and the increasingly iconographic and screen-based nature of everyday reading (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p.14) demands an increase in skills across multiple literacies. In the next section I discuss in greater detail the nature and influence of the traditional western literary canon, and how debates over its role and importance in the curriculum intersect with these wider concerns about literacy and text.



Bull, G., & Anstey, M. (2007). What’s so different about multiliteracies? Curriculum Leadership, 5(11).

Cazden, C., Cope, B., Fairclough, N., Gee, J. P., Kalantzis, M., Luke, C., et al. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (Eds.). (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures. London: Routledge.

Green, B. (2004). Curriculum, ‘English’ and Cultural Studies; or, changing the scene of English teaching? Changing English, 11(2), 291-305.

Hunter, I. (1993). The pastoral bureaucracy: Towards a less principled understanding of state schooling. In D. Meredyth & D. Tyler (Eds.), Child and citizen: Genealogies of schooling and subjectivity. Brisbane: Institute for Cultural Policy Studies.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2003). New Literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press.

McWilliam, E., & Dawson, S. (2008). Pedagogical practice after the information age. Journal of Futures Studies, 12(3), 1-14.

OECD. (2001). What schools for the future? Paris: OECD.


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  1. English curriculum: Contested territory | Kelli McGraw

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