Multiliteracy is here to stay!


The traditional meaning of literacy has undergone a massive change. No more can the term literacy be confined only to books and structured language. The talk now is of ‘multiliteracies’, an art which the Millennials seem to have mastered. Can the rest of us afford to be far behind? asks Vinitha Ramchandani.

IIn a country of over 1.2 billion people, when a book sells 5,000 copies (0.007% of the population) and we call it a bestselling book, we ought to wonder if we are a population (and this is a global phenomenon) that is gradually becoming illiterate.

Fact 1: Today’s generation is not picking up a book to read as much as their parents (and their parents’ parents) did.
Fact 2: There is a whole set of people who will not be able to understand this image:

The irony is that the generation that will NOT under- stand the above cartoons are also the generation who can and probably do, read tomes. Yet, they are the same generation that will contact an agent to get an appointment at the passport office, and pay ₹700 to the agent, who is a young kid who has downloaded the form online, free, and is making a tidy income from this very set of people who are no longer able to steer themselves in today’s tech-savvy world.
Just to make this point clear, here is another example. For instance, a text message sent that said: “…my friend and I whatsapped last night and talked about a video that had gone viral on youtube and then shared it on FB”, may not be understood by a whole generation of people. To under- stand this simple line that many of do comprehend, (and many may not) one would need to cognize:
1). new technology, especially the social media
2). the role of these new technologies in our society
3). the language used to talk about these new technologies and;
4). to come to terms with the fact that some nouns are now used/transformed as verbs. (I ‘googled it’, stop ‘whatsapping’ me! and — I ‘xeroxed’ all the notes, etc.)

Has the definition of literacy changed?

There was a time, when literacy meant the ability to read, write and tell time. Today, the meaning of literacy has evolved to mean linguistic diversity and multi-modal forms of linguistic expression in response to globalised environments. Translate that to mean new ways of communicating in an era of internet and technology. Fact is, that while the English language is gradually becoming the global language of communication, different cultures use English differently, thus giving rise to new English words that are being contextualised and used in accordance. Thus, words like ‘mother promise’, a ‘bhelpuri/kichadi’ of something, bungalow, cushy, juggernaut, prepone, pukka, pundit, dinghy, verandah so on and so forth — are words we may use in India regularly, but if we use these words elsewhere, in another country, chances are they won’t know what you are saying.

Multiliteracy also includes the use of text combined with sounds and images; images being combined into
billboards and movies and almost any site in the Internet and on TV. All these ways of communication require us to under- stand the multi-media world, and has resulted in the formulation of the pedagogy of new vocabulary that one needs to understand this world. In one word, this is what we call, multiliteracy. Literacy now is the use of socially, historically, and culturally situated practices of creating and interpreting meaning through texts. It entails at least a tacit awareness of the relationship between textual conventions and their contexts of use, and ideally the ability to reflect critically on these relationships. Because it is purpose-sensitive, literacy is dynamic — not static – and variable across and within communities and cultures. It draws on a wide range of cogni- tive abilities, on knowledge of written and spoken language, on knowledge of genres, and on cultural knowledge. (Kern, Richard, 2000)

Multiliteracy is about the way technology and multimedia is changing the way we communicate. So while a whole generation of people have immaculate prowess in a language of their choice and have impeccable grammar and spellings, they will not necessarily ‘get’ the humour in the above cartoons. (For that they will need to understand technology, the politics of each of the references made, as well as the contexts within which they are made). On the other hand, a whole generation of young people—who will spell love as ‘luv’, and don’t know the difference between lose and loose, and are annoying about emojis, and have created a universe of SMS abbreviations (LOL and IKR, so on and so forth) — are the same set of young people who will be totally clued in on how to hire a cab, do their banking and invest- ment online, and be successful entrepreneurs at the age of 14!

So, who is literate? What does literacy mean in today’s time? How have our ways of communication, expressing and living changed?

The drawbacks of traditional literacy

The problem with the traditional definition of literacy is that it views the end product of instruction, rather than seeing literacy as an ongoing complex process. It is text-centric rather than reader-writer-centric. It makes literature the emperor, while looking down upon other genres of communication.

Literacy, or rather multiliteracy, today, is about understanding the multiple discourses and forms of representation in public and professional domains. It includes oral and vernacular genres, transforming the definition of literacy to also include not just reading and writing, but communicating, by collaborating and making connections.

Those who can steer through social emotional literacy, financial literacy, digital literacy, environmental literacy, visual literacy, media literacy, cultural literacy; the people who understand “purpose, point of view and persua- sion”, are those who will survive in this bewildering world. Because being literate in a language is no longer as simple as it used to be. Literacy now requires ability and knowledge, and the capacity to situate that knowledge in a particular context. It is linguistic, cognitive, and socio-cultural. Which also means we have to be careful how we use words; how politically correct and people-sensitive our preferred use of words need to be. After all, at no other time in the world has so much content been produced.

Changes in digital communication technologies have impacted society so rapidly that educational research- ers, policy makers and teachers are challenged by the application of these changes for curriculum design, pedagogy and assessment. The multimedia facilities of digital technologies, particularly mobile hand-held devices and touch pads, have brought about a culture and set of people who process several modes of communication, simultaneously. Gaming and social networks have added to this. Thus the traditional concept of literacy as reading and writing has changed as these rarely occur in isolation within digital communication. Many students are engaged in more sophisticated use of technologies outside school, than they experience at school. Which is perhaps why more and more schools have adapted to the times and introduced laptops, iPads, or students’ own devices in the classroom. Moreover, participation in gaming and social networking has created significant social and cultural change. Multiliteracy is the reality of today. The game is on!


Vinitha Ramchandani

Vinitha Ramchandani is an editor and published author of more than 20 books for children. Four of her stories are part of the English school curriculum in both the CBSE and ICSE Boards. She is associated with children’s content and writes a fortnightly column, ‘Mumbai for Kids’ where she reviews children’s spaces in the city. A content strategist, an advocate of children’s right to play, she is working on an Empathy Project with schools and publishing houses and looking for empowered ways to re-introduce empathy into children’s learning and interaction.