Education Multiliteracies in Early Childhood Education
Claire McLachlan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0268


The term multiliteracies was first used to encapsulate a wider view of literacy, taking into account the impact of the increase in communication channels and the prominence of cultural and linguistic diversity in the world. Some researchers argue that the traditional view of literacy is focused on a linear view of text, as something that can be read from left to right. In contrast, the term multiliteracies takes into account how literacy has been influenced by social, cultural, and technological change. A pedagogy of multiliteracies has been proposed as a way of explaining a broader view of literacy teaching and learning, which integrates multimodal “text,” including audio, images, sound, graphics, and film through technology. This approach enables teachers to be creative in the literacy classroom by integrating movies, the Internet, music, art, photos, and a range of other digital resources as part of literacy learning. Although much of the research in this field has been undertaken in primary and secondary classrooms, there is also a body of research in the early years, which is discussed here. As argued elsewhere, there is a case to be made for the term “early multiliteracies,” as children learn about the different forms of literacy prior to school entry and have often gained considerable skill in navigating literacy in a digital world. In many ways, young children exemplify the notion of “digital natives,” who simply grow up knowing that literacy encompasses a wide range of modalities. The topics explored in this chapter include the ways in which this concept has developed within the extant research literature. Although not a complete summary of available literature, the following sections highlight some of the key areas of research on this topic. These include the theorizing of multiliteracies for early childhood, as well as research on multiliteracies in early childhood classrooms, research on children and multiliteracies, multiliteracies in homes and community settings, and finally the assessment of multiliteracies.

Theorizing Multiliteracies

According to Kalantzis, et al. 2016, the term multiliteracies refers to two major aspects of language use. The first is the variability of meaning-making in different cultural, social, or domain-specific contexts. The differences are the consequence of any number of factors, such as culture, gender, life experience, subject matter, or social or subject domain. The second aspect of language use arises in part from the characteristics of the new information and communications media. Meaning is made in ways that are increasingly multimodal—in which written-linguistic modes of meaning interface with oral, visual, audio, gestural, tactile, and spatial patterns of meaning. Kalantzis, et al. 2016 argues this means that teachers need to extend the range of literacy pedagogy so that it does not unduly privilege alphabetical representations, but brings into the classroom multimodal representations, particularly those typical of digital media, and enables mode switching. The work in this field is influenced by Halliday 1978, which argued for language as a social semiotic, which explains how social reality is encoded in language, both in terms of how language is a means of reflecting on things and how it is a means of acting (symbolically) on people. Kress 2010 offers a modern perspective on this notion, exploring how social semiotics are part of learning in contemporary learning environments. This understanding of how children bring together multimodal resources is explained in Bearne 2009, which argues that teachers need to broaden their understandings of how children demonstrate literacy abilities and recognize that children will make meaning using a range of literacy modes. In a similar vein, the seminal Gee 2004 explains how children’s learning is situated within the activities they engage in. Gee argues that even young children are engaged with digital literacies and learn the language and skills associated with this engagement, which may not be recognized as valid learning in classrooms and, by extension, early childhood centers. Within the same theme, Healy 2008 proposes that using multiliteracies pedagogy enables greater cross-curricular learning within classrooms, drawing on a range of multimodal resources. A recent New Media Consortium report (Freeman, et al. 2017) proposes that engagement with digital technologies will not on its own overcome the enduring challenges of children living in disadvantage, but effective pedagogies that help children to develop deep understandings of multimodal learning have potential to support children overcoming disadvantage and fully engaging in a multimodal society.

  • Bearne, E. 2009. Multimodality, literacy and texts: Developing a discourse. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 9.2: 156–187.

    Bearne argues for a framework through which one can describe children’s multimodal texts. This framework includes different modes and media and the ways in which children integrate and combine them for their own meaning-making purposes. She acknowledges that multimodal texts are not always screen-based. In addition, it is argued that current definitions of literacy do not readily answer to the variety of semiotic resources deployed in the design of multimodal texts.

  • Freeman, A., S. Adams Becker, M. Cummins, A. Davis, and C. Hall Giesinger. 2017. NMC/CoSN Horizon Report: 2017 K–12 Edition. Austin, TX: New Media Consortium.

    This New Media Consortium report identifies trends, challenges, and developments in educational technology that will impact teaching, learning, and creative inquiry in K–12 education. Technology is seen as an enabler but does compensate for gaps in student performance attributable to socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, and gender. Learning must go beyond gaining isolated technology skills toward deep understandings of digital environments, enabling adaptation to new contexts and co-creation with others.

  • Gee, J. P. 2004. Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. London: Routledge.

    Gee argues that specific language learning associated with subject disciplines, such as math and science, is given insufficient attention in classrooms. He explores the processes of learning as a child interacts with others and with technology to learn and play. In doing so, Gee examines what video games suggest about how to improve learning in schools and engages with current debates on subjects such as “communities of practice” and “digital literacies.”

  • Halliday, M. 1978. Language as a social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

    Best known for developing systemic functional linguistics (SFL), Halliday transformed views about language, arguing that choice in the language system is between meanings rather than structures. He coined the expression language as social semiotic in the early 1970s. This is unique because it means language must be explained as expressing meanings that are created within a social system, which is of relevance to children learning within multimodal environments.

  • Healy, A., ed. 2008. Multiliteracies and diversity in education: New pedagogies for expanding landscapes. Melbourne, Australia: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book combines analyses of the changes to communication and pedagogic practice that are required to enable multiliteracies classroom projects. Healy explores the range of approaches that are required to enhance student learning. She argues that a multiliteracies pedagogic model breaks down the unnatural divides between disciplines, and provides an alternative view of effective education.

  • Kalantzis, M., B. Cope, E. Chan, and L. Dalley-Trim. 2016. Literacies. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Kalantzis, et al. explore literacy pedagogy within today’s new media environment. They focus not only on reading and writing, but also on other modes of communication, including oral, visual, audio, gestural, and spatial. They map a range of methods that teachers can use to help their students develop their capacities to read, write, and communicate. They critique the range of literacies used within home, workplace, and community settings.

  • Kress, G. 2010. Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London: Routledge.

    Kress presents a contemporary, distinctive, and widely applicable approach to communication, drawing on notions of social semiotics. He provides a framework for understanding the attempt to bring all modes of meaning-making together under one unified theoretical roof. This analysis bridges the fields of English language and applied linguistics, media and communication studies, and education.

  • Larson, J., and J. Marsh, eds. 2013. The SAGE handbook of early childhood literacy. 2d ed. London: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446247518

    This handbook reflects a particular view of early childhood literacy, which suggests it is a global, social, historical, cultural, and political construct. Many chapters suggest literacy is a social practice that is linked to cultural and linguistic practices and power relationships in specific contexts. As a social practice, literacy learning is mediated by language in contexts in which social actors are positioned in verbal, nonverbal, and textual interaction.

  • New London Group. 1996. A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review 66.1: 60–92.

    This seminal article presents a theoretical explanation for “multiliteracies” as a pedagogy designed to negotiate communication channels and cultural and linguistic diversity. Multiliteracies overcomes the difficulties presented by traditional approaches, enabling students to navigate complexities of working, civic, and private lives. The authors present twin goals: creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community; and the achievement of critical engagement necessary for designing social futures and employment.

  • Winch, G., R. Johnston, P. March, L. Ljungdahl, and M. Holliday. 2010. Literacy: Reading, writing and children’s literature. 4th ed. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Winch, et al. provide a comprehensive introduction to the principle literacy theories and show how they may be applied to everyday teaching. Although not explicitly focused on early multiliteracies, this book provides useful background to the issues.

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