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Review of Foundations of Multiliteracies: Reading, Writing and Talking in the 21st Century (2018), by Anstey and Bull

Reviewed by James Hamby


Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  ROLE Reviews
 Author(s):  ​James Hamby
 Original Publication Date:  15 March 2020
 Permalink:

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Publication Note

This review was originally published in Research in Online Literacy, vol. 3, no. 1 (2020).

Resource Contents

Review of Foundations of Multiliteracies  

In our lifetimes, literacy will not just expand, it will multiply. In their book, Foundations of Multiliteracies: Reading, Writing and Talking in the 21st Century, Michéle Anstey and Geoff Bull explore the ways in which literacy educators need to expand their curriculum to include not just digital mediums, but to consider cultural practices in reading and writing, interpersonal communication skills, and the types of texts that may be utilized in teaching literacy. Anstey and Bull’s work offers valuable insights to literacy educators and challenges them to reevaluate their pedagogical practices to prepare their students for twenty-first century classrooms and workplaces.

This work argues that literacy is dynamic, multifaceted, and continuously evolving. Anstey and Bull begin by contrasting contemporary and traditional paradigms of literacy. In the middle of the twentieth century, literacy was defined by acquisition of a narrow set of skills and was static in nature. Today, however, this view of literacy is no longer adequate and we must consider multiple cultural contexts, ever-evolving digital communication mediums, and the demands of the contemporary workplace. In order to challenge educators to think about the ways they teach literacy, Anstey and Bull base their text on five semiotic systems “that are required to deal with the diversity of texts that have now become an important part of everyday life” (p. 59). These semiotic systems include: “linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, and spatial” (p. 59-60). According to Anstey and Bull, the linguistic system was once thought to be primary, but it is now just one major component of literacy. While it is still very important, teachers of literacy must be sensitive to cultural differences in this system. The visual, audio, and spatial systems of this list are no doubt familiar to any teacher of literacy, as they include concepts of literacy common to both written texts and to electronic mass media. The gestural system, however, expands literacy to include communication that may either be taken for granted or dismissed as not a part of literacy education. Gestural literacy, which includes body language and facial expressions, is an important part of twenty-first century work culture. Because it is also influenced by cultural considerations and because technology allows people to see and interact with one another in ways that were not possible in the past, the gestural system should also be considered an important component of literacy.

Once Anstey and Bull establish their ideas of literacy, they offer educators many different pedagogical strategies for incorporating multiliteracy practices into their classrooms. Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of this work is the broad range of research they incorporate, such as studies conducted in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and the United Kingdom. This wide scope gives depth to the issues they tackle, and it further underlines the need to think of literacy in a global context. While most of the text is geared towards primary and secondary school teachers, instructors in higher education will no doubt find much to benefit from this study as well.

One of the most important concepts Anstey and Bull stress is that “literacy is practiced in many different ways, in many different contexts, for many different purposes” (p. 129). As such, teaching literacy is deeply intertwined with social and political realities. Anstey and Bull argue that literacy educators should take into consideration their students’ home literacies when in the class room. They write that “tensions can arise in schools and classrooms when parental or societal expectations about content and methodology do not match those of the school” (p. 133). They cite studies of how minority students in Australia often have cultural attitudes, traditions, and experiences that are ignored in hegemonic classrooms that are shaped by the norms of the dominant culture. To address this shortcoming, the authors recommend “dialogic pedagogies” that “are based on a mutually determined construction between teacher and learner and rely on a shared responsibility for learning” (p. 160). They argue that this may be accomplished by teachers recognizing meaning is created “by individuals constructing a personal view of the world, so it must be learnt by students as well as taught explicitly by the teacher” (p. 161). Such a view of literacy is student-centered and allows students to grow intellectually rather than have arbitrary expectations thrust upon them.

Anstey and Bull also challenge instructors to look at more traditional forms of literacy in new ways. For example, they argue that the linguistic semiotic system may be taught using postmodern picture books. They point out the self-reflexivity of postmodern texts and the ways that they play with audience expectations and the “blurring of distinctions among author, narrator and reader” (p. 174). This gives educators and students much to discuss in terms of multiple potential meanings of texts. Furthermore, the visual aspect of these books challenge students to consider visual and spatial semiotics and how these systems relate to the linguistic aspect. Anstey and Bull argue that the more semiotic systems that can be taught in conjunction with one another, the richer the students’ educational experiences will become.

​This study provides a valuable look at the ways instructors may incorporate multiple literacies into their courses. The exigencies of globalization and technology have changed the landscape for how literacy needs to be taught, and thinking of literacy as a multi-layered, interconnected phenomenon rather than a static set of skills will benefit all educators who wish to prepare their students for the challenges they will face in a changing world. Foundations of Multiliteracy provides instructors firm pedagogical theories and practices to be competent literacy educators in the twenty-first century.


Image of book's coverFoundations of Multiliteracies: Reading, Writing and Talking in the 21st Century

Michéle Anstey and Geoff Bull. 2018. New York: Routledge. [ISBN: 978-1-138-07990-8, 246 pages, $USD 35.95].

About the Reviewer

James Hamby is the Associate Director of the University Writing Center at Middle Tennessee State University, where he also teaches courses in composition and literature.

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