The Joy of Multimodal Literacy

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This piece of work was produced by one of my year 5 boys this year, as part of our five day project on ‘The Red Tree’ by Shaun Tan. We explored metaphorical language and the power of description, then produced poems. Children selected their most potent lines, and then produced a piece of art, into which they placed cut outs from the dramatic tableau.

Chatting to Mathew Tobin (@Mat_at_Brookes) and Mary Roche (@marygtroche) I mentioned how much I love conducting our Multimodal Literacy projects, and in this post, I am simply going to explain why.

Every year, every literacy class in our school from Y2 upwards takes time away from our regular literacy lessons, which are informed by the Read Write Inc Literacy and Language scheme, and instead we spend between one and two weeks on a multimodal literacy project. The reason it is so well embedded in our school is through our long-standing partnership with Jane Bednall, an education consultant with a background in raising the achievement of Ethnic Minority pupils and in the teaching of multimodal literacy projects, as well as work with the UKLA.

Over time, we have managed to produce schemes of work around many simply glorious texts that really prompt children to think deeply, reading not only text but image and photography.

Key texts around which we have produced particularly coherent units include ‘Mirror’ by Jeannie Baker, ‘Wolves in the Wall’, ‘The Arrival’ and ‘The Red Tree’ by Shaun Tan and the Japanese anime film Princess Mononoke.

Our approach to multimodal literacy is one that emphasises the development of oracy, questioning and reflection; the units incorporate many opportunities for children to imbue these challenging texts with their own interpretations which they then share with each other. Very often, the ‘end product’ the children produce is visually arresting, and is an amalgamation of the child’s writing, drama and artistic work.

This piece produced in Year 4 was a combination of poetry, parent questionniare, drama and painting. The child in question often struggled in literacy and this was a piece of work he was enormously proud of.
This piece produced in Year 4 was a combination of poetry, parent questionniare, drama and painting. The child in question often struggled in literacy and this was a piece of work he was enormously proud of.

The unit that I personal have taught most frequently is about ‘Mirror’ by Jeannie Baker. The book itself is astounding, with each page meticulously put together by Baker by photographing her fabric collages of family life in Sydney, Australia and in Morocco. Our first activity involves the children learning to read multimodally, by filling the pages with questions and observations. The children often pick out links that we, as adults, overlook, noting the visual similarities that Baker cleverly hides in the two stories, which are read simultaneously. For us, as a multicultural school, children’s reflections are particularly salient, as they compare their lives with that of the Western family and the Moroccan Muslim family, and can see elements of their family in both scenes.

A really great element of this unit is the children’s writing, which draws heavily from a questionnaire that the children’s parents complete. The questionnaire is explained to parents and encourages them to reflect about their hopes and wishes for their family, about their culture and about the life inside their own home. The children then draw inspiration from the words of their parents and turn them into poems.

The children then act out scenes described by their parents, or re-enact scenes from their own family life, and they elicit the help of their friends to produce dramatic tableau of these scenes. These are then photographed and the children produce a piece of art which includes cut-outs from these photographs, alongside their poem.

Jane Bednall working her magic in Year 4, as part of our Mirror project. Jane is recreating an episode from the family life of one of my pupils.
Jane Bednall working her magic in Year 4, as part of our Mirror project. Jane is recreating an episode from the family life of one of my pupils.

What was notable was that the project is simply very inclusive – it allowed all children to develop their ideas powerfully, but difficulties in the core skills of literacy did not prevent children from engaging fully with the project. In fact, many of the children who responded most positively were those who find conventional literacy lessons more of a struggle due to problems with reading, decoding and comprehension.

Another project that I have recently completed with my Year 5s is ‘The Red Tree’ by Shaun Tan. The images are so incredibly detailed and open to interpretation, they could have been built for a multimodal project. The tone and the mood of the story is actually quite dark, which the children can handle, and in our work we attempted to ‘embody’ the mindset of the narrator, which is fairly bleak. The character ends up more optimistic, and hope is represented throughout the text by the leaves of The Red Tree that grows in her room.

With my pupils, we explored metaphor and imagery to produce our own pages for a ‘Red Tree’ like story, and spent time focused on drama, and how the body can be used to convey complex emotions. We looked for example, at different ways somebody can look happy, and different ways somebody can look frustrated.

The end products were fantastic, and considering the whole project, this time around, was squeezed into only 5 lessons, it was an enormous achievement and something the kids were very good at.

In short, I love multimodal literacy and want to see it gain more prominence in discussions about raising standards in literacy. It is inclusive, challenging and enormously rewarding. It introduces children to deep questions and incredible books in a variety of media. Long live MultiModal Literacy.

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