Want to Improve Adolescent Literacy Rates? Consider Implementing a Multimodal Approach to Learning.
Many modern-day teachers and education researchers are focused on an important topic: how to improve adolescent literacy rates. One framework that might make sense involves thinking in terms of adolescent literacies, not literacy. Much like many adults, today's adolescents are dealing with multiple ways to be literate, from academic or workplace expectations to more casual forms of online communication. Helping students boost their skills and succeed in various situations may call for what is known as a “multimodal” approach to literacy instruction.
In a simplistic sense, multimodal theory means that a message is sent—or, more broadly, information is delivered—in more than one way. For instance, texts that students read in school often contain pictures as well, and in today’s visual world, this may be seen as a multimodal way to communicate important ideas. A 2016 piece by Dickinson College education professor Elizabeth C. Lewis focused on current approaches to adolescent literacy and instruction and offered insight into what multimodal literacies mean and why they are important. “We live in a multimodal world," Lewis noted, "one in which individuals must have the skills to identify, interpret, analyze, and communicate through a range of modes, media, and symbols.”
Literacy is no longer simply about reading and writing, Lewis pointed out, but also developing an ability to successfully adapt to continuous “advancements” in communication. Clearly, “adolescents use digital tools” such as cellphones, and they exist in a world of constant, multifaceted streams of information and entertainment. An emerging field in adolescent literacy is to further integrate traditional (print, academic) literacies with students’ dynamic out-of-class experiences (texting, videos, music, and so on). In Lewis’s experience, embracing multimodal literacy could “enhance teachers’ abilities to better 1) address diverse learning needs and styles, and 2) prepare adolescents for social, academic and professional success.”
Susan Goldman, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also touched on this topic in an article for the academic journal Future of Children. First, Goldman introduced the urgency surrounding adolescent literacy rates, writing that “high school students’ reading performance shows no improvement from 1971, with only 38 percent of high school seniors scoring at or above proficient” on nationally normed tests. According to Goldman, this is a problem because too many students are turning into adults who lack the skills needed to thrive. “To be literate today means being able to use reading and writing to acquire knowledge, solve problems, and make decisions in academic, personal, and professional arenas,” she asserted.
The demand for multimodal literacy has been amplified by the current emphasis on increasing rigor at the secondary level, with many students being asked or expected to participate in more advanced academic work, such as Advanced Placement courses. Still, Goldman argued, not enough students receive the reading instruction necessary to help them access such advanced course material. In her article, she outlined one way to remedy this: situating lessons in students’ out-of-class experiences, which falls into a category called “Discussion-Based Instruction: Building Content Knowledge and Literacy Practices.”
To illustrate this concept, Goldman described a multimodal way of connecting students to more abstract literary terms. More specifically, she highlighted the work of education researcher Carol Lee, who has advocated for a method called cultural modeling; this holds that the things students do should employ satire and irony as “part of their everyday repertoire.” The trick is to weave together how students use rhetorical devices naturally with a broader understanding of the role these devices play in literature and analysis. One idea described in Goldman’s article is to have students study symbolism through the lyrics of a song by a popular artist. This engages students in a form of literacy—musical expression—with which they are likely to be familiar and asks them to then apply their knowledge to more traditional, text-based literature.
Goldman went on to present many other examples of how teachers can help students “make their thinking visible,” especially in interdisciplinary courses, and thereby get more practice in understanding multimodal literacies. This also taps into another important aspect of boosting adolescent literacy rates by focusing on student engagement. Students often see school as “purposeless,” which may impact their motivation to improve their own literacy skills, but providing them with opportunities to engage in multiple forms of literacy in the world beyond school may make school seem more relevant and centered on their experiences.
Writing in Improving Literacy and Communication Language magazine in 2017, Lina Sun advocated for using graphic novels when working with English language learners. Because their format combines language and images, graphic novels can help students “access the text in various ways beyond what the traditional linear format of print text can offer.” Sun also argued that using graphic novels in the classroom can spur adolescents toward understanding a story from multiple—even global—perspectives, which is an important task in today’s increasingly borderless world.
Indeed, today's students live in a world that demands multimodal literacy skills. In “Multimodal Literacies: An Introduction,” researchers Jennifer Sanders and Peggy Albers made this point: “Children and adults alike are using visual, audio, and technology media to capture, develop, produce, and publicly publish all types of products, and these uses have certainly spilled over into the literacy and English language arts (ELA) classes.” Rather than focusing on the holes in students' literacy skills, Sanders and Albers said that they are “continually enthralled with the intensity with which young people immerse themselves in arts, multimodality, and 21st-century literacies.”
The authors went on to assert that teachers would do well to immerse their own lessons in these multiple literacies, although they acknowledged that it is not always easy to be on the frontlines of such rapid change. Still, to increase student literacy and academic success rates, Sanders and Albers implored teachers to bring two central questions to their work: What are the everyday literacies that learners bring into the classroom? and How can I value and integrate these literacies into my own practice?”
There is no doubt that 21st-century adolescent learners engage with text and communcations differently from previous generations, which is why educators should consider how a multimodal approach to literacy instruction can help prepare their students' for success in college, careers, and beyond.
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