Literacy Theories for the Digital Age: Social, Critical, Multimodal, Spatial, Material and Sensory Lenses

Literacy Theories for the Digital Age: Social, Critical, Multimodal, Spatial, Material and Sensory Lenses

by Kathy A. Mills




Literacy Theories for the Digital Age insightfully brings together six essential approaches to literacy research and educational practice. The book provides powerful and accessible theories for readers, including Socio-cultural, Critical, Multimodal, Socio-spatial, Socio-material and Sensory Literacies. The brand new Sensory Literacies approach is an original and visionary contribution to the field, coupled with a provocative foreword from leading sensory anthropologist David Howes. This dynamic collection explores a legacy of literacy research while showing the relationships between each paradigm, highlighting their complementarity and distinctions. This highly relevant compendium will inspire researchers and teachers to explore new frontiers of thought and practice in times of diversity and technological change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783094622
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 12/03/2015
Series: New Perspectives on Language and Education Series , #45
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.05(w) x 8.55(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

Kathy A. Mills is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Kathy's research interests include literacy, digital media, education research paradigms, critical sociology, ethnography, classroom observation, discourse analysis, and multimodal analysis. She is Associate Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher and her previous works include The Multiliteracies Classroom (Multilingual Matters, 2011).

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Literacy Theories for the Digital Age

Social, Critical, Multimodal, Spatial, Material and Sensory Lenses

By Kathy A. Mills

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2016 Kathy A. Mills
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-464-6


Globalisation, Mobile Lives and Schooling in the Digital Turn

In an age of the 'global home,' literacy practices of the past are reduced in their power to determine the practices of the future.


Ways of thinking about literacy research arise in particular historical moments, and in relation to the social, economic, political and technological factors that set the stage and call for different ways of doing and theorising literacy. This book is an attempt to acknowledge the multiple and coexisting paradigms that are making a significant difference to the way we understand literacy in what I have called the 'digital turn' – the rapid digitalisation of literacy practices generated by human action, across a growing number of spheres of practice in the 21st century (Mills, 2010b: 246).


Children and youth today are growing up in a very different world than generations past: they can potentially use digital toys, tablets and mobile devices anywhere and anytime from much younger ages and earlier stages of language development than ever before. With the rise of the global home, a pun on McLuhan and Powers' (1989) book entitled The Global Village, the way young children are socialised in literacy practices is radically altered when compared with previous generations. For example, with the advent of touch-screen technologies, such as the iPad, babies and toddlers in many households can interact with an array of educational apps before they are able to correctly hold a pencil. At the same time, they are often surrounded at home and early childhood settings by an array of non-digital literacy materials, such as books, crayons, paper, craft, puzzles and alphabet blocks: the children switch between these and digital literacy practices with ease.

The elementary school age child can potentially interact with a broadened selection of screen-based entertainment, from handheld to full sized video game consoles, tablets, personal computers and laptops for multiplayer online games. They can view user-generated content from peers on YouTube about the latest crazes, from tutorials about loom bands to Minecraft parodies. Teenagers and adolescents use the internet for both social and non-social purposes, including support of their offline friendships with peers (Gross, 2004). In the context of continuing urbanisation and more blatant commercialisation through globalised media, children and youth are often surrounded by digital displays from small to large, from the handheld devices in the home to the electronic billboards on buildings, buses and almost any commercial object that has a vertical surface.

A walk through Times Square in New York provides an extreme example of the pervasiveness of the digital image by global corporations and economies. The large-scale distribution of mass media and popular culture that saturates urban life through globalisation and technological progress brings with it both new opportunities and new risks (Jones Diaz et al., 2007). Beck (1992: 22) foresees that, 'Along with the growing capacity of technical options grows the incalculability of their consequences'. These social and technological changes bring new security concerns for end-users, such as cyber bullying, identity theft, social engineering, piracy, malware and phishing, while events such as the 11 September attacks demonstrate the presence of an instant global audience for the transnational organisation of terrorist acts on a global scale (Giddens, 2002).

Literacy has become a process of commodification in which literate learning is entangled with commodities. It is similarly implicated by what Kinder (1991: 3) terms a 'transmedia intertextuality' – a conglomeration of interconnected texts across modes and media. In the context of capitalist accumulation, literacy learning throughout the life course involves interaction with multiple objects, video games, websites, toys, movies, books, figurines and licensed merchandise, as literacy is made and remade in networks of practice, and as material texts circulate and are adapted into diverse commodified forms. Within these discursive repertoires, which are often tied to global commercial corporations, children actively construct and reconstruct their sense of self and identity (Hughs & Macnaughton, 2001). This calls for a problematising of the ideological effects of the hybridised textual environment, and nuanced accounts of everyday and school-based literacy practices within the social conditions of globalisation (Makin & Whiteman, 2007).

The paradigms in this book are theorised in response to a series of social transformations known variously as the 'knowledge society' or the 'new economy' (Kalantzis & Cope, 2005: 16). For students to participate effectively in a globalised society they need new capabilities and knowledge assets that contribute value to organisations, communities, online networks and nations. One of the most significant and expanding areas in the new knowledge economy is what can be called technological knowledge – the technical content and process knowledge required for innovative digital media production. This includes knowledge of two areas: machines, such as handheld devices; and media applications, such as widgets, apps (applications) and other software. Elementary students enjoy using new technologies for digital media production, but we cannot assume that all students have the necessary skills for participation in the knowledge economy simply because they play video games for pleasure (Mills, 2010d).

The knowledge economy is heavily dependent on technologies that assist the flow of information – '... within enterprises, between enterprises and between enterprises and consumers' (Castells, 2000b: 16). Technological knowledge is a means of productivity gain and competitive advantage. Those who lack the newest technological knowledge may find themselves debilitated socially, economically and culturally, as others find information faster, work more efficiently and flexibly, and produce knowledge, media and commodities that have global influence. Castells (2000b: 17) observed more than a decade ago, 'Indeed, technology is now very much a relationship between tools and the knowledge of these tools in people's heads'. Clearly then, societal and technological changes require shifts in the way we think about knowledge in literacy practices (Mills, 2010d).

At the same time, there are risks associated with overproduction and over consumption of new technologies that may be incalculable or invisible into the future. We can liken this to Beck's (1992) discussion of the overproduction of food and the shift from the historical problem of hunger to the new problem of obesity in contemporary society. Texts and textual practices that are temporally and spatially dissimilar become drawn together in unanticipated ways in the lives of children and youths, and in homes, schools and other institutions, and require social responsibility.

When we consider the inclusion of responsible processes of digital media design in schools, students need textual knowledge, which includes both knowledge of the social and cultural context in which the text is produced and used, and the multimodal elements within the text. This includes the visual, audio, spatial, gestural and linguistic design elements that are combined in unique ways to synergistically represent meaning (Mills, 2009). By linguistic elements, I am referring to the phonological, lexical, grammatical and generic structures of language that typically form the substantial content of English curricula (Mills, 2010d).

Multimedia information and new communications technologies are tied to the hybridisation and expansion of new textual knowledge, which play with conventional notions of genre, and which apply modified vocabularies and new grammars. Digital technologies and the related convergence of the industries of computing, broadcasting and publishing have contributed to shifts in choices of modes, genres and linguistic structures (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000a). For example, instant messaging among English and Cantonese users draws on common grammatical errors and shortenings, unconventional verb forms and lexical choices, and creative orthographic representations (Lee, 2007). These patterns of spontaneous hybridisation of grammar, vocabulary and orthography are causing linguists and literacy educators to reconsider the shape of textual knowledge in a digital age (Mills, 2010b, 2010d).

In the process of digital media production learners also require content knowledge of the subject or field. Content knowledge refers to funds of facts, concepts and theories in the designer's head. Depending on the social purpose and audience of the multimedia text, this prior knowledge may include sources such as personal experiences, experts, authoritative sources, and less formally recognised knowledge texts. To engage in digital media production involves knowing certain information about the subject represented, including the ability to use particular discourses and domain-specific vocabulary for different communities of online users (Mills, 2010d).

Whether viewing or uploading podcasts, social networking, microblogging short posts of 140 characters or less, playing video games, instant messaging or engaging in any new hybrid textual and social practice, there is a need to understand what students are coming to know. Students need critical literacy skills and discernment to judge the appropriateness, morality, authenticity, truth, significance, relevance and substance of the texts they encounter online, and to counter hegemonic discourses with their own critique and socially responsible text production (Makin & Whiteman, 2007). The new knowledge assets for digital media production – technological, textual and content knowledge – describe in a coherent way the global supplies of knowledge that learners combine synergistically to create or remix meaning in a digital age.

The World Wide Web (WWW) is a significant feature of contemporary life, particularly for communication and social networking since the rise of the social web or Web 2.0 (O'Reilly, 2005). When contrasted with the earlier applications of the WWW, Web 2.0 has increased the ease and reduced the cost of online collaboration, such as polls, blogs, podcasts, micro-blogs, social networking sites, wikis and other more democratic forms of user-generated content. Also referred to as the 'read-write web', Web 2.0 provides a means for free, rapid dialogue and instant feedback from significant international audiences (Wheeler & Wheeler, 2009). The third generation of web developments, combined with the proliferation of mobile devices with enhanced functionality and user-interfaces, is likely to bring new potentials for creating, cloud storing, collaborating and sharing digital media, and its associated user identities.

Mobile Lives

Outside of schools, students live in an expanding, mobile world of mobile lives and textual practices. This is not just about the use of mobile digital devices to communicate, but the portability of literacies and 'portable personhood' (Elliotte & Urry, 2010: 103). Identity and textual practices are essentially recast in terms of capacities for movement, and the expanded use of 'miniaturised mobilities' – handheld digital devices such as iPod, smartphones and tablets (Elliotte & Urry, 2010: 5). People are becoming more dependent on the ability to traverse national borders through air travel and other transport systems. During the 1800s, people travelled approximately 50 meters per day, mostly by foot or by horse and carriage; today they travel approximately 50 kilometres per day, using road, rail or air travel (Buchanan, 2002).

The new mobilities and their associated textual practices have transformed family life, the economy, security, work, citizenship, consumer behaviour and pleasure. Yet the flow of people, technologies and texts is not as open and fluid as it may seem, with tightly networked systems of regulation, surveillance and scheduling governing the organisation and control of mobilities. There are also those who are immobilised against the background of the movement and consumption of others, such as children who may travel less frequently than parents to attend the local school, or the economically marginalised workers who provide goods and services for the mobile professionals (e.g. mobile phone factory workers, hotel cleaners) (Elliotte & Urry, 2010).

Arguably, our increasingly mobile lives, the mobility of consumer goods and texts themselves, and the accessibility and affordances of mobile technologies, have wrought far-reaching changes to everyday literacy practices. Digitally encoded meanings now travel across great distances, whether in written, audio or visual form, such as e-books, e-journals, blogs, online chat, email, social media, global news, instant messaging, Voice-Over Internet Protocol, online purchases, digital movies, videos, video games, music and other forms of digital entertainment. Such changes necessitate the consolidation and generation of emerging paradigms for research, and new ways of thinking about digital media practices, literacy and social life – the aim of this book.

Digital Challenge for Education Policy

Educational policy makers should be explicitly concerned with the adoption of contemporary digital tools in the educational system (Merchant & Schamroth Abrams, 2013). Schools are confronted with the digital challenge – the challenge of embedding the new within the institution of schooling, which historically privileges linguistic or alphabetic modes of meaning.

Research in predominantly English-speaking countries has demonstrated that mandated testing of writing and literacy, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (2001) which authorised accountability testing in the United States, frequently positions digitally-mediated writing somewhat peripherally to English curriculum content (Applebee & Langer, 2009; Mills & Exley, 2014b). For example, here in Australia, school students have been required to participate in national testing since 2008 within the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). NAPLAN is a program of national tests that includes writing and language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation), to give schools and systems the ability to compare student achievement against national standards. Writing skills testing has become discursively constructed as a race in which states and territories, schooling systems and categories of students are positioned in opposition to one another by the media and the Australian government via the My School website (ACARA, 2012; Mills & Exley, 2014b).

The re-regulation of schooling – when central governments reclaim control of education – is also critically important for understanding the educational research context in the digital turn (Helgøy et al., 2007; Mills & Exley, 2014b). For example, in Australia, there has also been a recent shift from state English curricula to a centralised Australian English Curriculum that includes multimodal text creation using software (ACARA, 2014). This has been a positive development, arising from input into the curriculum by academics in the field. However, the reclaiming of federal control over educational outcomes, where multimodality and digital change is under-acknowledged, may limit the sustainable integration of new technologies in classrooms and the English curriculum. A search for the term 'multimodal' in the version of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the United States at this present time, reveals no instances, providing an example of how the mandated literacy curriculum lags behind new literacy research (CCSSO & NGA, 2013). This sets up a potentially constraining context for teachers and researchers to embed new forms of digital textual practices (For an extended analysis of multimodality in the CCSS see Mills & Exley, 2014a).

Digital Challenge for Teachers of English – A Case Study

All social action involves a temporal and spatial dimension, and institutional ways of evaluating social performances, yet there are few studies of digital composition that simultaneously attend to these three dimensions. My classroom research with Beryl Exley demonstrated how multimodal and digital design involves changes to the delivery system of instruction, but more importantly, to the very nature of schooling (Mills & Exley, 2014b). We drew on Bernstein to theorise the symbolic and pedagogic struggles and resolutions observed as pedagogies for digital composition were introduced into an English curriculum in a low-socio-economic elementary school in Australia over several years. Specifically, the research examined changes to time, space and text in a digital composition program within three classrooms. Bernstein's theory of the pedagogic device explicitly addresses time, space and text to theorise social action in classrooms – a theory that has strong support in the discipline of sociology (see Bernstein, 2000).


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Table of Contents

IllustrationsAcknowledgementsForewordPrefaceRhizomatic Literacy TheoriesChapter 1: Globalisation, Mobile Lives and Schooling in the Digital TurnChapter 2: Socio-Cultural LiteraciesChapter 3: Critical LiteraciesChapter 4: Multimodal LiteraciesChapter 5: Socio-Spatial Literacies Chapter 6: Socio-Material Literacies Chapter 7: Sensory Literacies References

What People are Saying About This

James Paul Gee

Digital and social media, multimedia, multimodality, and massive social and cultural changes in our global world are transforming what literacy is and how we ought to study it. Kathy Mills’ book is, by far and away, the best guide yet to this new world. It is the New 'New Literacy Studies'.

Brian V. Street

Literacy studies is moving on and Kathy Mills is helping us move forward, through new approaches, such as socio-spatial literacies, socio-material literacies, and sensory literacies. Many may be wary of all that technical language, but Mills signals her ability to make it comprehensible and leaves the reader with some control to, as the author says, take their own lines of flight. Enjoy the flight!

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