Understanding and Using Multiliteracies for Learners in a Digital World

by Tom Hanlon  /   May 11, 2021

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In two recently-released books, two College of Education professors help educators navigate a world of multiliteracies to help learners use various forms of meaning-making in their lives.

In 2020, Professors Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis came out with a two-volume set, published by Cambridge University Press, that explores a grammar of multimodal meaning. The books received rave reviews [i]from renowned experts in the field of multimodal and digital literacies. The two volumes are Making Sense: Reference, Agency, and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning and Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning. The two professors, recognized globally for their expertise in this field, talk about their two books here.

A reviewer wrote that you two consider the traditional notion of literacy, with its focus on reading and writing, to have outlived its usefulness, and that educators must focus instead on educating for multiliteracies. Can you explain multiliteracies, and how educators can best operate in a world where multiliteracies are so important?

Kalantzis: We are really interested in meaning-making—its forms (how we mean) and the functions that go with them (what we mean). Humans have always been synesthetic in the way that they make meaning, moving between sounds, images, their bodies, space, speech, and written text. The invention of writing, which historically speaking is a recent phenomenon, and later the printing press, have in modern times come to dominate education as a privileged conduit of knowledge. The case we make is that the digital age opens up multiple forms of meaning-making and manufactures them with the same tools—even a small child can now send a digital audio message, visual, or text message on the same device! This is what is revolutionary about the digital age in which we now live. Our aim is to prompt educators to consider the affordances of the digital for meaning-making and to provide a language with which it can be described and analyzed.

Cope: Traditional literacy separated written text from other forms of meaning; however, in digital media today, text is rarely separated from other forms. For instance, web pages and their navigation paths are essentially visual in their overall design. The literacy of even traditional academic subjects is changing. History comes to us these days in video, timeline infographics, immersive reproductions of events, and participant interviews. Scientific articles include diagrams, images, tables, datasets, and visualizations that are sometimes manipulable by the viewer, and in some disciplines video as well. Accessible digital media have changed the way we “read” and “write.” Some time back, we coined the term “multiliteracies” to capture this reality—as well as the growing diversity of usage in the context of a deeply multicultural world.

True to its title, in Making Sense, you provide ways for readers to “make sense” of meaning-making wherever it occurs and for whomever it is relevant. Can you speak to this idea of meaning-making and its relevancy, particularly from the vantage point of educators?

Kalantzis: Alphabet/symbolic literacy has become the gold standard for powerful meaning-making; however, for better and for worse, the most powerful means that are now emerging take a principally visual form—video, the instantly-shared image, the dominance of images in social media feeds, and so on. Educators need to enable learners to understand the power of each mode (and in its mixed or multimodal forms), its uses, and how it circulates. No longer is the visual simply an adjunct to “writing” in any discipline. For instance, in engineering, medicine, and the arts, the visual has become central and equally powerful in communicating content in the form of diagrams, infographics, plans, and data visualizations. The use of imagery in education cannot be simply as pastiche or decoration; learners need to understand how to manufacture multimodal making that is more powerfully evidence-driven and explanatory. It also can provide an additional channel for the purposeful voice of the learner-creator.

Cope: We often think of literacy as communication, and the focus of learning as cognition. Our notion of “sense” broadens both these ideas. More than communication, sense-making is representation (how we make sense to ourselves, meaning-making that we may never communicate). Then, if another person catches my meaning (communication), there is interpretation. This is how we make sense of something that has been communicated. In a world of deep human diversity, communication is never a matter of transmission. The person “catching” my meaning always does so on the basis of their own life experience and interests. Sometimes the difference is beneficial (for instance, learning), other times it reproduces prejudice and misunderstanding. But there is always a difference. Interpretation is about how we live harmoniously and productively with our differences.

On the question of cognition, this is never something just “in our heads.” We figure things out with media—writing notes, sketching diagrams, speaking to ourselves, taking photographs and a myriad of other pre-communicative practices. We use these artifact-making practices to make sense for ourselves. Pens, computers, and recording devices become what we call “cognitive prostheses,” or tools of our mind. So learning is not just about cognition; it is also about how to use these meaning-making tools as extensions of our selves.

In your book, you describe “grammar” as shorthand for “identifying and naming patterns in meaning,” and note that your grammar is a “grammar of multimodality.” What does this mean for educators? How should this inform their communication with students?

Cope: We like this old-fashioned word, “grammar,” because it captures the idea of thinking explicitly about our meanings, their forms (the “how” of meaning-making), and their functions (“what” we mean) . But we want to extend this as a framework to describe all forms of meaning and their multimodal overlay: text, image, space, object, body, sound, and speech. Think about a visit to the museum, or watching sport on TV—all of these forms of meaning come together.

Kalantzis: It is important that educators have the tools to help learners understand and deploy various forms of meaning-making in meaningful and impactful ways. Also, this facilitates a shift in the balance of agency, allowing learners to be substantive co-creators of content in their subject areas, to add their voice and orientation to the meanings with which they engage.

You also write that “transpositional grammar” can be used to bring together major theoretical approaches to understanding meaning into one comprehensive framework to systematically parse multimodal texts. How does this work, and why is this important, particularly to educators?

Cope: The main question we ask in these books is, “How do we develop a shared terminology to describe different forms of meaning?” For instance, let’s take something as simple as a proper noun and a common noun in text. How do we do this in images? “Mary Kalantzis” is a proper noun; “person” is a "common noun.” In image, a selfie is a like a proper noun, and a person is the familiar generic icon that we now see everywhere. To develop a common language, we call “Mary Kalantzis” and her photo an “instance,” and “person" and the icon a “concept.” To go back to our subject examples, in history and science we generalize by moving between instances and concepts, and when a learner writes a multimodal science text, they do this in both image and text.

Kalantzis: It’s not an either/or situation for us; we are not abandoning traditional grammar with its emphasis on labeling parts of speech and their function. We are just changing the labels in order to expand their applicability to multimodal texts. We want to expand the repertoire that educators have for the complex multimodal meaning that are relevant across all subject matter, both in its delivery and reception.

A reviewer noted that you present much more than merely an exposition on a grammar of multimodality in your book. He wrote: “It is also a rich historical account of meaning and grammar, tracing the lives and ideas of personalities across cultures, some well-known, many less so, and in so doing, often vindicating and validating their contributions to human knowledge.” Can you give an example or two of whose lives and ideas you traced, and what their contributions were?

Kalantzis: It is important that we do not just live in the immediate present as if it was always thus. Educators need to understand why some forms of meaning-making are privileged, how that came to be, and what other possibilities are emerging and even necessary.

Cope: We are both historians, so we like to uncover the stories behind the media and the thinkers. Who knew that the first emojis were created at the University of Illinois? Who could have imagined that Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest language philosopher of the twentieth century, gave up philosophy for a time to become an architect? Who remembers today that the first grammar was by the Indian thinker Panini more than two thousand years ago, whose work on language also anticipated the abstract logics of computer programming? How can Indigenous peoples give us a sense of the scope of human meaning that goes well beyond our own comparatively simplistic senses of time and space?

This same reviewer called your work “a political and scholarly tour de force—an advocacy for the forgotten and marginalized.” Talk about how it advocates for the forgotten and marginalized.

Kalantzis: All meaning-making is political in some way, as it represents a worldview or philosophy of living. We believe it’s time to reflect on all that seems solid, our habits and what we privilege, and our implicit biases—not in order to discard immediately but to understand the effects of what we value and what might need to change. Certainly education, of all the sites of social activity, seems at times to change slowly and only begrudgingly. You can enter many classrooms today and it is like walking into the past: the textbooks, the exams, the arrangement of the room, the student-teacher relationships. Much of the time, if there has been change, it has been minimalist. The infrastructure that supports it is expensive and doggedly pervasive. The digital portends a break with tradition, but it has dangers as well as advantages that educators need to be aware of as they harness its new tools.

Cope: We have tried to provide rich examples from a wide range of cultures—the great Arab thinkers at the end of the first millennium; that brilliant but still largely unknown philosopher of “empathy," Edith Stein; W.E.B. DuBois’ stunning visualizations, neglected until recently; and Gladys B. West, an African-American whose work on GPS has changed the way we experience space.

A different reviewer wrote that your book would help educators “whose main educational challenges are education inequality, learner diversity, and the potentials of new technologies.” Can you speak to how the book will help educators facing these challenges?

Kalantzis: Stubborn inequalities are underpinned by a system of meaning-making and habits associated with them. Both need reflection because today we must recognize diversity that has until now been unacknowledged. Despite  globalization, the world is fostering more diversity, not less, and the new technology allows more agency and differentiation—for good and bad social outcomes. It is imperative to understand this infrastructure and its effects, to help design it and deploy it in the interest of the common good. We can’t just tread water, sticking with what we know and value and think that the trajectory of meaning-making in the world is marginal and won’t impact each of our lives. Our work, as educators, has always this challenge at its core. Diversity and new technology are the twin pillars of what we need to grapple with in education in order to prepare learners for a complex, contested future.

Cope: These books offer a conceptual basis for our work in the area of literacy. The original “multiliteracies” article that we wrote jointly with our colleagues in the New London Group for the Harvard Educational Review has become one of the most cited articles in the area of literacy teaching and learning. Our Literacies book, like Making Sense and Adding Sense, was published by Cambridge University Press. Now in its second edition, Literacies has since been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek. The two new Sense books provide the comprehensively researched, multimodal grammar that we have in our multiliteracies publications been promising for some time.


The cover images for the two volumes tell stories of how meanings come to be transposed. The chair is an oil painting of a photo taken in Greece by Cope and repainted by a Chinese artist whose regular job is to make copies of famous paintings. These plastic chairs are everywhere in Greece, so much so that they have become a modern symbol of the country. They are sold by Roma (gypsies) from the backs of trucks—hence the title “Gypsy China Chairs.” The image frame is made of some old plaster moldings found in a junk store in Champaign. This is a multimodal, transcultural story that speaks to the work Cope and Kalantzis have done in their research on Roma education in Greece.

he second cover image is from an indigenous community in the far north of Australia, where they have worked on several literacy projects, Yirrkala. It is painted by Yolŋu artist Rerrkirrwaŋa Munuŋgurr. The center of the image is a ceremonial ground, a place where people meet to make sense of life and death. The crosshatching encloses what would be, without it, a barely comprehensible black space. Among the many references of the image: the shimmering surfaces of the freshwater lagoons that surround the ceremonial site, providing food and life. And less abstractly, the spears with which fish are caught, and in the crosshatching, the patterns of the fish nets. Then more abstractly, multimodal meanings where a person is a sacred place, is a totem, and where a place is a song is a ceremonial dance and now also a bark painting.

[i] [i] Bateman, John A., "Book Review: Making Sense: Reference, Agency, and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning Making, Bill Cope, Mary Kalantzis,” Journal of Pragmatics 172:164-66, 2021, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2020.10.008.

Lim, Fei Victor, "Review of Cope and Kalantzis, Making Sense and Adding Sense,” Multimodality & Society 1(1):119-23, 2021, doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/2634979521992025.

Zollo, Sole Alba, "Review of Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, Making Sense: Reference, Agency, and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning,” Language and Dialogue 10(3):443–46, 2020, doi: https://doi.org/10.1075/ld.00078.zol.