UKLA member blog

Conference Report - Multimodal Approaches to Literacy Teaching

On Friday 15th April 2013, the UKLA held their annual conference at Chancellor’s Conference Centre in Manchester. The conference was entitled ‘Multimodal Approaches to Literacy Teaching’ and brought together a range of practitioners and academics interested in new ways of learning involving literacy. There was an impressive array of experiences and ideas shared in key note speeches and workshops throughout the day giving those attending plenty of inspiration and justification for using technologies in new and exciting ways. This report summarises some of the key themes and ideas from the conference.

Contextualising technology
There was a clear message from the conference that technology and digital literacy reflects and is part of today’s children’s worlds before they even start school. Both Guy Merchant and Jackie Marsh noted that the prevalence of the technology in lives of children from birth is perhaps best characterised by the recent availability of the ‘iPotty’ on the market to help potty-train digital age toddlers! However, internet access is not yet universal amongst all children. Jackie Marsh revealed that while the majority (83%) of children do have the internet at home and a further 8% have the opportunity to go online outside of the home, a notable 9% remain without any online access. These statistics are not without socioeconomic context and warnings of a ‘digital divide’ or an ‘app gap’ were supported by data presented by Marsh: 47% of children from higher socio-economic backgrounds have access to apps compared just 14% of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Common Sense Media, 2011). Suggestions as to how to reduce this disparity included providing children with their own digital devices for use at home and school, and giving children designated times at school to use technology unavailable to them at home in the form of before/after-school or lunchtime clubs.

The overriding theme of the conference was multimodality, which Jane Bednall succinctly defined as ‘communicating in different forms.’ In her workshop, Bednall emphasised that multimodality is not a new concept and has been part of literacy across the ages in forms including storytelling, song, poetry, gesture, costume, art and sculpture. Multimodality was integral to all of the projects and research presented at the conference, and took a wide range of forms. For Althea Samuels, multimodality was encapsulated in the form of cinema. She found that by deconstructing the cinema form into its component parts of experience, stills, movement and sound, different literacy skills could be developed. She exemplified a way of doing so by using the ‘Baboon on the Moon’ short film, beginning by playing the soundtrack without any visual to encourage us to use our imaginations to envisage the action and setting which may accompany it. We then watched the film and explored how our initial impressions changed and how different elements and images from the film affected our emotions and interpretations of the story. Samuels recommends using short films, such as ‘Baboon on the Moon’ which is less than seven minutes long, or extracts from longer films to allow several viewings of the film during which different foci can be developed. A wide range of appropriate clips are available from the BFI website, and YouTube.

Cross-curricular links
As well as highlighting the different components of film, Samuels also stressed how multimodal literacy can enhance learning across the curriculum. By building a ‘cinema’ in a Reception classroom, she helped a teacher to incorporate the cinema theme into other areas, including numeracy skills in the formation of pricelists, art and literacy in the creation of cinema posters, and PSCHE in determining the roles necessary for the daily running of the cinema. Samuel’s rich case studies show how film can provide both a short and long-term impetus for the development of skills and learning in the classroom. This notion of cross-curricular multimodal learning was also promoted by Kate Cosgrove who presented alongside Marsh to reveal how her primary school in Sheffield used iPads to create artwork worthy of public display. Cosgrove set iPads up on easels around a collection of plants in a specially designated quiet room. The children then used the ‘Brushes’ app to create their own still life drawings of flowers inspired by artwork which David Hockney had created using an iPad. The children’s artwork was then uploaded and printed to create a ‘meadow’ of digital flowers and displayed in Sheffield’s Winter Garden. By giving the children space, time, purpose and an audience, this project was successful in creating a stunning multimodal experience for all involved.

Global interaction
Most contributors highlighted that today’s use of technology relies on an audience. As David Mitchell explained, while the internet was previously characterised by passive consumption, today’s so-called ‘Web 2.0’ form of internet and technology usage centres on interaction. He recounted the role of the audience in the development of the blogging project he established with Upper Key Stage 2 children in Bolton. The blog was initially set up to inform parents/carers of the class’ day-to-day activities. His class’ blog included a globe which would instantaneously pinpoint and display anyone accessing the blog at any time. He found that as people from around the world started logging on to the blog and the worldwide audience grew, so did the children’s interest in contributing to the blog. As children began to receive personal responses to their blog posts they were encouraged to write more often and some even began their own blogs. Mitchell credits the project with significantly improving the school’s SATs scores as children increased the amount and frequency of their writing. He told us of one reluctant writer’s transformation as she independently began her own blog which she used to write her first novel which she disseminated chapter by chapter with an audience voting system determining the action of the next instalment. Mitchell –and all of the conference audience- were astounded to hear that this former reluctant writer used a notebook to draft multiple chapters for all of the possible outcomes her audience could vote for to ensure she was ready to post the next instalment promptly online for her awaiting audience. Such impressive reports make a strong case for technology in literacy that cannot be disregarded. Mitchell recommends ‘quad-blogging’ whereby four schools form a blogging partnership to rapidly increase the audiences that encourage children to become involved in such projects.

Involve the community
As well as a global audience, multimodal literacy can also capture the attention of more local onlookers. Blogs with updates sent to mobiles can provide parents and carers with immediate insights into their children’s learning and encourage a greater sense of integration between home and school. Guy Merchant is also a keen proponent of involving the wider local community in school literacy work. His project in Heathlands Park in Sheffield involved using QR codes which children from a local primary school placed around the park and then linked information to. The QR codes could then be scanned by anyone with a mobile device connected to the internet to read and respond to the children’s information.  This approach could be taken to any community context to encourage school links with the local community.

This report was written by Jennifer Brown and Rachel McGinnety, trainee teachers at Manchester University, and is designed to give an insight into some of the key messages from the conference. Some of the projects mentioned are part of the ‘Digital Futures in Teacher Education’ project based at the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University with many more examples of digital literacy in action available to view on their website:

 Conference speeches referred to in this report:
Bednall, Jane (Education Consultant)  Painting with Words: Developing Children’s Oracy and Writing using Multimodal Texts and Teaching and Learning Strategies
Marsh, Jackie (University of Sheffield) and Kate, Cosgrove (Teacher, Mundella Primary School, Sheffield)  Digital Futures in Teacher Education
Merchant, Guy (Sheffield Hallam University)  Moving with the Times Mobile Devices and New Literacies
Mitchell, David (Deputy Head Teacher, Caton Primary, Bolton)  Sprogs with Blogs: Linking Audience to Learning
Samuels, Althea (Literacy Consultant)  Cinema in the Classroom


Conference speakers and those in attendance were hugely enthusiastic about new, innovative and engaging ways of teaching literacy: this has engendered even more enthusiasm in myself to implement exciting and effective literacy teaching in the future. The day left me inspired and ready to use twitter, blogging and other multimodal forms in the future in order to enthuse my students and improve their results!

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

The UKLA conference was an excellent and well coordinated event which I would definitely recommend to other trainees and teachers. The keynote speakers and workshop leaders were brilliant and presented evidence based research or practices which work within mainstream primary education which is invaluable, as not only are they proven but they inspire you to want to try them out and make them work for your own individual class.

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

I’d like to echo the words of the UKLA President when she said “I feel dizzy”. There were so many exciting ideas and aspirational practices spoken of. It served as a reminder of how to connect with today’s children through teaching. The new literacies are here to stay and a teacher’s job is to prepare children for the world. Embrace the positive aspects of the digital culture and make it work for you and them, then watch them grow! Amazing! I’m on-board!!

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

Following the conference, I feel better able to make good use of blogging as part of primary education and I am even more eager to employ pictures or photographs to spark writing. I would highly recommend future conferences to trainees and teachers alike.

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

The conference was extremely insightful and explored how ICT can be used and linked with teaching literacy as a multimodal subject. Whilst I am aware of the potential benefits of integrating ICT into the classroom, my eyes were opened even further by attending today's conference. It made me realise that, actually, ICT is here to stay and gets increasingly powerful and influential by the day.

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

I would certainly recommend UKLA’s conferences to educationalists as it has provided me with an abundance of teaching ideas and I am inspired to test them out in the classroom in the near future.

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

All in all I would urge you to think about using digital literacy in your classrooms to provide motivation, inspiration and to really help children progress. Today has been a fantastic example of outstanding teaching and has given me many fantastic ideas which I hope to carry forward in the future.


1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

I found the UK Literacy Association Conference a really valuable and enjoyable experience, and came away from it with so many ideas and thoughts that I wanted to pursue. What was particularly impressive was the amount of practical techniques shared by the varying speakers, many of which I'm hoping to trial during my final teaching practice and during my teaching career. The conference really impressed upon me the importance of digital literacy to children's futures, and how it can enhance their learning in English and other subjects too. My philosophy of teaching has always involved a cross-curricular approach, but I am all the more convinced of this now. I would recommend future UKLA conferences to all trainees and teachers wholeheartedly, and I definitely think they will come away from it inspired (as I did).

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

In my opinion the UKLA conference was invaluable, demonstrating the importance of linking literacy with I.C.T. The UKLA conference made me feel as if I could teach literacy well and in interesting ways and has made me extremely excited about getting into a school and putting the ideas into action. I would recommend similar or future conferences.
Thank you!


1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

The UKLA Literacy conference was inspiring. At one point I wanted to find the nearest classroom and start blogging and tweeting people in Guatemala about monkeys! It was eye opening to see ICT and Literacy fit so comfortably and naturally together in practice and to see the results that can be achieved when we let go of our own cynicism and begin embedding digital literacies in to the classroom. The engagement in tweeting and blogging by pupils was fantastic and really prepares children for becoming literate in the 21st century; at no cost to basic literacy skills. The speakers were so enthusiastic, showed working examples and gave real thought provoking ideas which I cannot wait to put to use in my own classroom.

1 : Web Team, Mon 29th April 2013

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