School-age populations in many nations are becoming increasingly diverse (in terms of languages, ethnicity, faith traditions and so on) especially in low socio-economic communities.
In Australian classrooms it is not unusual for a single classroom to include children who speak many different languages. Their family trajectories to their current dwellings and lifeworlds may be very different from each other. At the same time what constitutes literacy continues to evolve as new technologies and communication media enable different forms of meaning-making. Yet simultaneously what counts as literacy is increasingly “fixed” by the normative demands of high-stakes, standardised tests.
Paper presented to the International Federation of Teachers of English (IFTE) Conference, University of Auckland, April 18-21. Comber Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places visitors increasing from countries in the Asia Pacific region, Africa and the Middle East. More than 10 per cent of permanent migrants in 2006-07 came from China, and since 1995, more than 200 000 people have come from Africa and the Middle East.
The 2006 Australian Census indicated that the most commonly spoken languages in Australia are English, Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic, Mandarin and Vietnamese. In the schools where I research, usually low socio-economic communities, these broad population and linguistic trends are evident in most classrooms, especially in the western and northern suburbs of Adelaide, where cheaper housing attracts a range of families, including long-term residents and people who have recently arrived in South Australia.
That place affects educational outcomes is a widespread phenomenon internationally as poverty impacts on schools and families (Lipman, 2004; Thrupp & Lupton, 2006). As a literacy educator, my interest is in the ways in which some teachers capitalise on the rich linguistic and cultural resources of their neighbourhood communities and design culturally responsive curriculums (Lee, 2008; McNaughton, 2011; Hall & Thomson, 2010) and critical pedagogies (Janks, 2010) that assist children to assemble complex meaning-making repertoires.
Making space for inclusive pedagogy and an enabling literacy curriculum is urgent in the face of sustained population change, shifts in the teacher workforce, transformations in communications technologies and practices, and the heightened prioritisation of standardised literacy assessment of school students’ literacy and numeracy. In terms of the latter, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reports are now ranking participating nations in terms of 15 year-old students’ reading and mathematics, amongst other domains.
Not surprisingly, these public international comparisons have coincided with federal and state governments giving increasing weight to standardised measurements of literacy performance throughout the compulsory years of schooling, with a subsequent repositioning of teachers within a global education industry (Codd, 2005; Lingard, 2010; Locke, 2004). In Australia, educational sectors are now grappling with the demands of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), the MySchool website and the introduction of the Australian Curriculum.
The paradox here is the desire to standardise and contain what is an increasingly shifting environment, characterised by mobility, diversity and ever-changing communication spheres (Comber, in press a; Lingard, 2010). The neo-liberal rationale for the preoccupation with competitive measurable standards as insurance for Australia’s prosperity in the global knowledge economy is understandable in the context of the financial crisis, yet its effects need continual scrutiny.
Before turning to my main theme of the risks and possibilities inherent in this environment, I briefly summarise my theoretical stance in approaching these problems. Broadly speaking, my research is informed by the New Literacy Studies (Barton & Hamilton, 1998; Barton, Hamilton, & Ivanic, 2000; Street, 1984, 1993, 2003), the New London Group’s theorisation of multiliteracies (1996) and several decades of work on critical literacy (Comber, 2001; Freire, 1972a, 1972b; Janks, 2010; Luke, 2000).
In addition both approaches assume:
- That places and texts are constructed and they could be made differently in the interests of different groups of people;
- That the ways in which people and places are represented are open to question;
- That communication, social and spatial relationships involve power relations.
My standpoint towards inquiry in schools and classrooms is further informed by feminist scholarship, which foregrounds the embodied work of teachers, parents and indeed children (Griffith & Smith, 2005; Smith, 2005) and also by Michel Foucault’s insistence that we are “freer than we feel” (1988, p. 0). The New Literacy Studies have evolved since the pioneering work of Brian Street in the Seventies, a British anthropologist who studied the ways in which people took up literacy in everyday life, especially in communities which had not been schooled. For example, in a mountain village in Iran, he discovered that the people had developed their own ways of recording that enabled their commercial transactions. Work in that tradition continues to grow (Barton & Hamilton, 1998; Prinsloo & Brier, 1996; Pahl & Rowsell, 2005; Rowsell & Pahl, 2007).
These researchers take literate practices to be socially and culturally located, designed to meet the purposes of particular people in particular places. Street distinguished between what he called the “autonomous” and “ideological” models of literacy – noting that literate practices always involve social, and therefore power, relations. An autonomous view of literacy (as a set of skills with supposedly predictable benefits) ignores the ways in which people go about reading and writing to accomplish specific social, religious and economic goals.
Some two decades after the ethnographies of Street and Heath, in the mid-Nineties a group of leading literacy scholars got together to celebrate Courtney Cazden’s important contribution to the field. During their meetings, they drew from linguistics, educational research, indigenous epistemologies, critical literacy and other domains, to develop a new blueprint for literacy education that took account of global media communication and digital technologies, multilingual and multicultural student populations, and the potential for young people to become designers, not simply consumers, of texts in various modalities.
The resulting multiliteracies framework (New London Group, 1996; Cope & Kalantzis, 2000) has been internationally significant in guiding the research of the following generation of literacy researchers, teachers and teacher educators (for example, Carrington & Robinson, 2009; Lam, 2006; Mills, 2011; Walsh, 2010). My research and teaching has been informed by these traditions and also by long-term and varied approaches to critical literacy – which foreground the fact the texts are never neutral, that discourse is constitutive, and that literate practices are inevitably concerned with power relations.
Literacy in and of itself is not necessarily empowering, but assembling particular ways with words, and other semiotic repertoires, has the potential to reposition people in relation to work, learning and everyday life. Comber Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places y South African educator and applied linguist, Hilary Janks (2010). Working in a highly multilingual context herself, Janks points out that students need to acces, and acquire mastery with, academic language; to learn how to deconstruct dominant discourses; to use the diversity of their language and life experiences as productive resources for learning; and to “harness the multiplicity of semiotic systems (Janks, 2010, p. 5) to produce their own multimodal texts in order to generate new meanings.
Hence, students need to be able to work with powerful discursive practices even as they go beyond in critiquing them and inventing new communicative modes and genres. Janks’ synthesis model is useful to apply to the contemporary policy moment, which I describe as characterised by rampant standardisation, where the emphasis is on measurable literacy based on an autonomous understanding of literacy.
In researching literacy education, largely in poor communities, I am conscious of my relationships with teachers, students and parents and the need to contest rather than contribute to the circulation of deficit discourses (Comber & Nixon, 1999; Comber & Kamler, 2004). As far as possible, I try to research with educators and students and where appropriate to involve parents. I have been guided by those advocating teacherresearch (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009) and collaborations with teachers in producing knowledge (Comber & Kamler, 2009).
In addition, the majority of educators I work with are women primary and middle-school teachers, who frequently perceive themselves as having relatively little influence in terms of theory, policy or research. In this respect, I have been guided by feminist researchers such as Smith (2005) who, starting from feminist standpoint theory, has developed what she calls a sociology for the people, where the aim is to conduct inquiries with people in order to understand how things are put together and how their work is coordinated.
So my project has been to work against deficit representations of poor youth, their families and their teachers (Comber & Kamler, 2004) and instead to capitalise on Foucault’s “spaces of freedom” (Gore, 1993) to document with critical optimism what is being accomplished through enabling literacy pedagogies in the so-called disadvantaged schools. Nevertheless, there remains a continuing need to scrutinise the unanticipated effects of policy and reform efforts in low socio-economic communities, as translocal managerial and audit cultures infuse more and more aspects of institutional and everyday life.
Foucault’s (1980) famous statement that “everything is dangerous” and his identification of the ways in which modern forms of power are exercised to manage populations gave progressive educators of the Eighties a new and troubling way to think about literacy (Comber, in press b). For example Carmen Luke (1989) argued that the use of institutional literacy could make students and teachers “identifiable ‘visible’ objects of knowledge through the written trace left by their own writings, and by the notations made of them by their supervisors and the surveillance experts of visitations” (Luke 1989, p. 26).
Schools can act as an apparatus for continual surveillance, examination and record-keeping of the population. Furthermore, whilst human capital ideologies promote literacy as an economic imperative and indeed as a ticket to a better life, international research has made it clear that standard English literacy in and of itself is a necessary but insufficient condition for working-class and ethnically diverse young people to achieve higher education or find employment. English Teaching: Practice and Critique? 8? B. Comber
Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places Now more than ever in Australia, we are witnessing the federal government’s insistence on measuring the individual in terms of traditional print literacies as tested in NAPLAN as a form of public accountability. Internationally, educators have long voiced concerns about the impact of high-stakes testing and its potential dangers – narrowing the curriculum, curtailing teachers’ discretionary judgement, and the possible negative effects of “labelling” on students’ educational trajectories and selfesteem.
In an ongoing ARC project3, we are investigating the ways in which mandated literacy assessment is reorganising teachers’ work in a range of primary and secondary schools (Comber & Cormack, 2011; Kostogriz &Doecke, 2011). Primary teachers have already reported that they have less time for work in subjects such as the Visual Arts, or even Studies of Society and Environment, as they need to prepare students for the kinds of reading and writing that are tested in NAPLAN.
I guess his role is to support the schools to get a database up and running so that there’s a wholeschool approach, and so the teachers, because they’re talking about teachers being able to access information and analyse information themselves, so they know what’s happening with each individual child in their class, so his role is, I think his role is… supporting schools to actually get that process up and running, and then supporting with the analysis of that data, and then I guess it’s up to us then, you know, analysing it and then working out what we do with it, yeah.
So he’s helping us work out the schedule of what data we collect, when, who from, what we do with it, and how that then informs our improvement plan. P: The sector’s goal is to electronically record information about every child and provides a “data-guy” in order to assist. On the positive side, such an approach is less likely to let children slip through without being identified when they need extra support (Kerin & Comber, 2008). Yet data is not neutral, no matter where, when and how it is collected, reported and stored.
One school leadership team told us about the significant work that is involved in withdrawing students from NAPLAN, such as recently arrived students who do not speak English. This process may involve home visits and telephone calls, and principals may need to enlist the aid of bilingual support officers to translate difficult conversations with parents, explaining why their child should be excluded from this assessment.
Partner investigators in Canada are Dorothy Smith (University of Victoria) and Alison Griffith (York University). English Teaching: Practice and Critique? 9? B. Comber Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places what it means to be “a little dot sitting below the line”, for students who fail to meet the NAPLAN benchmark. UPT: Yeah, which is pretty bad for some kids who worked really, really hard. I had a couple of kids who worked really, really hard and they came a long way, I think we were talking about this, their movement, and then they got up the test and they see this…
ESLT: In comparison, yeah. UPT: … little black dot sitting underneath the line and they just go sort of … I said, “Look, don’t worry about it, that’s not what it’s about. ” One risk is that students’ potential will be misjudged on the basis of these tests and that other data about their learning is ignored. As the upper-primary teacher puts it so poignantly, the results show the students where they sit in relation to their peers. The risk is that students may be discouraged by these results, which visually depict them as below standard, and see this as the truth about their abilities.
In terms of students who neither speak nor write standard Australian English, teachers need to be vigilant in ensuring that future educational trajectories do not rest upon one-off tests which make visible only some of what students understand and can do and not the dynamics of what they are learning. In addition to the risks for individual students, there is also the danger at a school level of the loss of reputation when poor results are reported on the MySchool website. Given the increased marketisation of schooling (Ball, 2009), this is not inconsequential, when parents can choose another school.
School principals need to assess the risks of particular students undertaking the test and they need to decide how much energy and resources should be put into increasing students’ measurable performance on these limited tests in relation to richer opportunities for learning. Despite the intensification of educators’ work around testing and school rhythms, and activities being adjusted to meet the demands of the testing cycle, some educators continue to offer students experience with genuinely enabling literacies.
From my perspective as an advocate for public education, it is more important than ever to document the complex work and learning that teachers and students accomplish in schools located in high poverty and culturally diverse locales (see also Paugh, Carey, King-Jackson & Russell, 2007). In what follows, I provide several illustrations of curriculum and pedagogies that allow students to do significant, positive identity work whilst simultaneously assembling new semiotic repertoires.
Using Janks’s synthesis model of critical literacy, introduced earlier, I offer some observations taken from a range of research projects that begin to show how different teachers work with students’ diverse linguistic, cultural and semiotic resources as ways to access academic literacies and sophisticated design work and make spaces for the contestation of dominant discourses. As Janks points out, these dimensions of critical literacy in practice overlap and intersect and this is true of the examples presented here.
In each case I have chosen to foreground one dimension, though usually teachers are working across all fronts simultaneously. English Teaching: Practice and Critique? 10? B. Comber Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places Access – narrative, identity and place Faced with the demand that students be able to write the narrative genre for the NAPLAN tests of 2009 and 2010, teachers at one highly multicultural school in the western suburbs of Adelaide started with the resources of students’ rich experiences of coming to Australia and and/or starting school.
Teachers helped students to use their memories of life in specific times and places as resources for narrative writing. Students who had come to Australia as refugees were positioned as having significant material to draw from in constructing their narratives. Through selected children’s literature (for example, Baker, 1991, 2004; Brian, 1996; Russell, 2001; Wheatley, 1988) and Indigenous studies, the teacher introduced students to notions of time, place and belonging and engaged them in reading maps as a way of tracking how they had come to be living in their current abode and to be going to that school.
Working from memories, interviews with parents and family artefacts, the young people began to reconstruct their lives so far. Autobiography was a bridge to narrative. The class set of autobiographical pieces give a sense of young people’s complex and changing relationship with places, which raise questions about identities and class. Here I refer to just one autobiography – that of Raphael (see Appendix 1), who spent his early childhood on the border of Uganda and Sudan, where he described his family as farmers.
Both his parents were well educated in their homeland, and his father was also a teacher. In South Australia, his family received school card, indicating a low household income. They also held refugee status. Raphael’s autobiography is lengthy and detailed; while it is clear that English is his second language, he is not restricted to simple sentences and he draws cleverly on his history of experience in particular times and places to develop this narrative.
From his own birth, told fleetingly in the third person, he quickly moves to narrate his story of family migration, of beginning life in one place, then dramatically moving to a very different place – from the farewell party, to the plane flight via Madagascar and Sydney, to the arrival in Adelaide. He incorporates memories of a life lived elsewhere, where the games were different and where there was a relationship between the village and the jungle, and where children could venture into dangerous games unseen.
Raphael clearly derives pleasure from explaining the chasey variant played in trees, the fruits, vegetables and the baboon which took them. We remain uncertain how much this young author has embellished actual experience. In this example of literacy pedagogy, in which the whole class participated as autobiographers, we see how a teacher, informed by concepts of place-based pedagogies and notions of belonging, is able to foster a sense of recognition for identity as embodied, changing and situated.
Raphael’s writing suggests a classroom that welcomes a dynamic approach to culture, identity and place, rather than tokenistic static responses where cultures are explored to satisfy curiosity about the exotic. Raphael’s account indicates a life lived in different places. In this classroom there is no normal early childhood experience of family, housing and parental employment.
The young people in this classroom have vastly different histories and by making their experiences and moves in different places a legitimate topic for writing, the teacher allows her students to explore the affordances of place and memory as resources for writing and representation. The classroom becomes a site for productive diversity when students compile their individually authored pieces into a class book. English Teaching: Practice and Critique? 11? B. Comber Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places
In terms of the demand for extended narrative required by NAPLAN, Raphael and his peers have learnt how to use their knowledge of people, time and place to construct autobiography, and in the process have learnt how to provide detail, how to describe different settings, how to select rich anecdotes to capture the ethos of a situation, and indeed, are developing a positive disposition towards producing extended texts. Accessing the authorised school genres which count is done without discounting students’ diverse cultural and linguistic resources.
Domination – critically reading texts with consequences Also in Adelaide’s western suburbs, “The Parks” area, now referred as Westwood, is the site of Australia’s largest urban renewal project4. Gradually, the post-World War 2 semi-detached houses are being demolished and replaced by new housing designed for first-home buyers. Many of the families who were attracted by cheap rentals may no longer be able to afford the area. Along with these wider developments, a decision was also made to close two nearby primary schools and combine them with a third into one large new school, originally called a “superschool”.
This necessitated the building of a new large school. Even though teachers and students at the site where the new school was being constructed had previously been involved in several placebased and design projects, no consultation was undertaken with the school community in the planning for the new school. However, there was the opportunity for staff at the school to review the plans not long before the internal construction was to be undertaken. One of the teachers shared the architects’ plans and designs with her students.
Together they discovered that there was no longer going to be a space devoted to or adaptable to the needs of drama and performance, a curriculum area highly valued by this teacher and her class for developing her largely ESL class’s confidence with public speaking in English and acting. This kind of critical reading is new in several ways. Firstly, for these children, the opportunity to read such documents is rare. Few live in households who can afford new dwellings or renovations. Hence, this particular form of spatial literacy required to understand plans is unlikely to be part of their repertoire of home literacies.
Secondly, this is not just an academic exercise designed to improve students’ literacy and numeracy (though there could well be such learning outcomes). These authorised texts control what will be built, the size of spaces and their functionality. The result will not only impact on this cohort of students and their teachers, but on those in the future. Having interpreted the text to mean that there will be no drama space, the teacher acts as an advocate for the students and checks with the current principal.
The children question the project manager on his fortnightly visits to report to them what is happening. Having established that they are correct, they then decide to write to the newly appointed principal of the new amalgamated school to see whether this can be changed. At first there is reluctance to consider altering the plans at such a late stage, but the teacher and the students persist and offer a solution by suggesting a change to some storage areas and spaces allocated for teachers’ planning.
The dominant discourses here are those associated with urban renewal more broadly and how education is positioned within that. From the authorised perspectives of urban planners (along with architects and designers) and senior bureaucrats in education, there is no warrant for consulting with children, and a tokenistic, almost too late, opportunity to review the plans was provided to teachers. In this example, we can see how one teacher making the time and space to become involved and to take her students seriously re-positioned them as people who can have a say.
Diversity – students set the angles In a range of projects we have witnessed the difference it makes when students take hold of the camera in representing themselves and their peers. Student film-makers and photographers use their linguistic and cultural diversity, along with appropriations and adaptations of popular culture, as potential resources for conveying complex meanings as they exploit the affordances of multiple modes (Jewitt & Kress, 2003). As children of an increasingly mediated age, they readily respond to opportunities to play with various media and digital equipment.
Here I focus on a group of primaryschool students recently arrived from Sudan and discuss just two texts to illustrate what they were able to accomplish. After working with their ESL teacher on Hilary Janks’ workbook activities on identity, students came to realise that they can simultaneously hold different positions and indeed identities. One activity students engaged in explored times when they felt Australian and times when they felt Sudanese. In the Powerpoint photographic images, one student visually represented his experience by depicting himself wearing different clothing and choosing different backdrops.
In the “I feel Australian” photo, he wore a sport-brand, embroidered beanie and a denim shirt, had a brick school building as a backdrop and faced left. In the portrayal of “I feel Sudanese”, he wore his Ugandan shirt, had an African material backdrop, wore no hat and faced right. The accompanying text for each image was: I feel Australian when I speak English, at school, watching TV and playing football and with my Australian friends, eating Australian food like pizza and sausages.
I feel Sudanese when I speak in my language, going to African festivals, wearing my Ugandan shirt, with my family, eating kissera, beans, fassoulia, dakhneea, chapati and when I go to the little shop on Henley Beach Road and in the market, when I visit my family and friends, when I phone Uganda and speak to my family, when I teach people about Africa, when I travel around the world, when I look at the map of Sudan and tell my story… The student here gives a sense of each identity being constituted by his choice of language, clothing, food, who he is with, where he goes and the roles he plays in different situations.
Clearly these representations are a snapshot only but provide an opportunity for young people to explore the complexity of their changing and multiple identities and to share them with peers at school. At this school, the ESL teacher also worksedwith recently arrived children to make films which positioned them as experts. English Teaching: Practice and Critique? 13? B. Comber Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places One such film was simply entitled Sudan.
The eleven-minute student and teachermade film opens with a series of questions written in white italics script scrolling on a black screen: What is the largest country in the continent of Africa? What African country has hundreds of languages? In what African country is Dinka, Nuer, Ma’di, Kuku, Bari and Arabic spoken? From which African country have hundreds of thousands of refugees escaped because of war and danger to their lives? Next “SUDAN” appears on the same black screen. Throughout this introduction, we hear African drumming (later it is revealed they are being played by the students).
The film is too long and complex to do justice to in the space available here, but it goes on from this point to show the drummers and a small group of children from the Sudan, now at school in Adelaide, dancing to the African music and presenting artefacts their families have brought with them, including their mothers’ embroidery, family photographs, as well as selected images gathered from the Internet. The film moves into its next stage and it becomes clear that it is a documentary. We see other school children, who are not from Sudan, asking questions of a female student who is from the Sudan.
There is an edge to this sequence, as the non-Sudanese children begin to reveal their ignorance about Sudan. The Sudanese students are positioned as filmmakers, experts and researchers. The film then shows a number of students, teachers and the school principal answering this same question: What do you know about Sudan? This move is critical, as it is refugees who are typically positioned as needing to learn about Australia. Here the tables are turned. The first four minutes of the film show takes of the Sudanese children filming in the school as they repeatedly ask staff and students this question.
The next shift is to students from Sudan showing their travels from their homeland across Africa with reference to a map. African music and Sudanese children with various levels of fluency in English then provide a voice-over for selected still images of Sudan and the Sudanese children in their school in urban Adelaide. Several students recount stories they recall hearing in Sudan. All the Sudanese students at school that day introduce themselves in a scene reminiscent of the wonderful World of Disney introductions, just stating their names – Ruth, Samuel, Francis, Mohammed, Aisha, Kuet, and so on.
There is a pan to the Sudanese student film-makers. The film concludes with more images of the Sudanese student dancers with African music in the background. There is a translation in sub-titles of several Sudanese sayings and a line from the background song. In Janks’ terms, this work with the Sudanese students is a fine example of the way diversity becomes a resource for critical literacy. The Sudanese students of a range of ages and different experiences with speaking English work together to make a documentary that educates even as it takes a critical position on other students’ lack of knowledge about Sudan.
Changing literacies, changing populations, changing places film-making undertaken by a multicultural group of New South Wales secondary school students during a university-based summer school. Design – imagining other worlds The students in Years 9 and 10 were from priority schools in and around Sydney. These schools were so categorised due to the low SES status of the students who attend them. Students were invited to come to a summer school – Make it reel – at a city university during the holidays in order to learn film-making.
The goal of the project was to provide extra opportunities for learning for students who may be struggling academically at school and who may not have ever had a chance to visit a university campus, let alone think about themselves as potential students there. So the twin aims were to improve students’ literacy in English through film-making and to help them to imagine themselves as university students. Recruitment was done through the schools and attracted a range of students from different linguistic and cultural heritages and with different educational records and aspirations (see Comber, Make it reel in Sellar et al. 2010 for the full case study). Students received money for travel to the summer school and a small allowance to offset what they might have earned through casual work during the holidays. Details of the full program of learning are beyond what can be summarised here. However it is important to know that students were expected to work in groups with university-student mentors and teachers to design, script, film and edit a complete film for launching at the completion of the summer school. Few students had more than rudimentary experience of making films.
Students needed to commit to attending every day from January 6 to 22 from 9. 15 am to 3. 30 pm unless prevented by illness. Thirty students began and completed the program. Students were assigned to one of three teams and many were no longer with peers from the same school. Each team was supported by a university, film undergraduate who acted as mentor and guide throughout the three weeks, and as the “producer” of the students’ films. The summer school program was based on a series of workshops, where young people were explicitly taught the various complex skills of film-making.
Topics included: writing a synopsis, editing with iMovie, production design, writing the screenplay, camera operation, revising the screenplay, filming protocols, sound design, location reconnaissance and safety checks. At the end of the summer school, the students and their families were invited to a launch and “graduation” ceremony, where they were presented with certificates by the ViceChancellor. When invited to reflect on their experience of Make it Reel, several students reported that they had made films at school and at home, which they described as “amateur”, and contrasted these with the university experience as “professional”.
One student from an inner-city high school was quite articulate about what he had learned: The most I learnt was about continuity. I really didn’t think about that much when we were like filming our amateur films, but then I saw the difference, like what goes wrong when you don’t use, like when you don’t think about continuity and linking all the parts of the film together. It is important to note that this summer school program did not offer the typical “remedial” approach to young people’s literacy skills.
Students, whose families had left Cambodia, Vietnam, and Iraq as a consequence of war, interviewed family members about their experiences on camera. Stills of photographic images of war were accompanied by sound effects of war and excerpts from interviews. English subtitles were provided when it was hard to hear what informants had to say. The film had strong emotional impact on viewers and showed knowledge of a range of techniques. Students reported significant learning about film-making, working together, refining their language for the range of tasks involved (interviewing, voiceover, writing subtitles and credits, negotiating and so on).
The point here is that students used their collective existing linguistic and cultural resources along with the new repertoires of explicitly taught techniques to represent complex understandings in powerful ways. Access, diversity, design and domination – Janks’ dimensions of critical literacy – are brought together in a highly complex way, with important and authentic texts produced to share with the wider community.
In reviewing developments in applied linguistics, Allan Luke (2002, p. 07) argues that critical researchers “must have the courage to say what is to be done with texts and discourse” – to go beyond critique. This work remains as important as ever with “increased global and local disparities between children of rich and poor” (Albright & Luke, 2008, p. 3). Educators need to develop understandings of positive and productive discursive practices across new sites and in various modes and media. For example, Lam has shown how immigrant adolescents’ use of technoliteracy practices allow them to “develop and maintain social relationships and affiliations across countries” (2009, p. 77).
Such work attests to the multiplicity of linguistic and multimedia resources deployed by young people in order to communicate across the time, space and language constraints that often limit what teachers and students accomplish in schools, and may provide a prototype for the kinds of research and pedagogies that are needed.
The work I have discussed above indicates that some teachers are already exploiting the affordances of various modes and media, as well as students’ own experiences, linguistic and cultural capital as bridges to academic literacies. Critical approaches to multiliteracies will need to invent new frames, vocabularies and pedagogies for changing population, communication and pedagogical environments.