An Intellectual Journey

An Intellectual Journey

0.00 BILL: First, some background about how we have got to where we are now, to tell you the story of our intellectual journey, if you like.

We started worrying about grammar when we were working in schools in Sydney, Australia, in poorer neighborhoods with many migrant children, and working on literacy in indigenous communities throughout Australia. Traditional literacy was not working very well, part of which was the dull task of learning grammar, and with it the rules for correct writing. Always have a verb in a sentence! Never split an infinitive! (Of course, rules like these are begging to be broken.)

But, we argued, it is handy to be able to generalize about patterns of meaning. Rather than to throw out grammar entirely, perhaps some of the most useful patterns are bigger than the sentence. In school and perhaps also later in life, you do need to learn how to read and write information reports, and stories, and to argue a case. These were different kinds of texts for different kinds of purposes. So, we thought it would be useful to learners to describe the grammar of whole texts – we and our colleagues in Sydney called this genre.

  • Reference: Kalantzis, Mary and Bill Cope, 2020, Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning, Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 181-83.

2.04 MARY: But then we started to reflect on the fact that texts were more varied and complex than a handful of genres. And there was more to contemporary communication than text, particularly in the emerging digital media where text, image, sound, speech and embodied movement were so profoundly overlaid. Meanwhile, the gap in learner performance was not shrinking, despite our best efforts to date.

So we decided to bring together some of colleagues who had been involved in the genre work, or interested in it. We met in New London, New Hampshire, and this came to be called the New London Group: Marin Nakata, James Paul Gee, Mary Kalantzis, Sarah Michaels, Carmen Luke, Norman Fairclough, Courtney Cazden, Gunther Kress, Allan Luke, Bill Cope (left to right in the picture in the video).

To sum up our week’s deliberations, we came up with the word “Multiliteracies” to describe our era of meaning making. We are agreed there were three critical things that needed to be addressed if we were to make a difference for students: 1) learner diversity; 2) the multimodality of contemporary communications; and 3) appropriate pedagogies.

4.18 MARY: The term “Multiliteracies” highlighted two aspects of contemporary meaning making: the resources which we use to make meaning, and the meanings themselves. Things have changed radically in both these areas, and this is why we need to develop a new and more expansive idea of grammar.

In today’s digital media we find that different forms of media are profoundly overlaid. This is a phenomenon we call multimodality. The old sentence-bound grammar does not tell us enough about how today’s communications environments work. This is the first of our two “multis” of “multiliteracies.”

5.00 MARY: But then, a second issue was that the old idea that grammar with its one set of rules, repeating the same rules and getting them right, no longer works, because we are constantly encountering new meaning patterns according to material conditions (such as social class, locale and family); corporeal attributes (age, “race,” sex and sexuality, physical and mental abilities); and cultural expressions (language, ethnos, and communities of commitment).

One of the great paradoxes of a world where we are more interconnected than ever is how poignant our differences are becoming, insistent even. We are constantly encountering new and different situations where we need to be able to make sense of meanings and to communicate. Rather than to learn just one set of rules, now we need to be able to make sense of the differences in the patterns of meaning according to the situation, the context, and the purposes of the participants in meaning making.

6.15 MARY: We wrote up this case in an article published in the Harvard Educational Review in 1996, then expanded it in a book, then updated the issues in the journal, “Pedagogies” in 2009. This book, “Literacies” is the most recent version of the Multiliteracies argument. It is also now available in Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese editions. This has been an evolving agenda for us – understanding our changing world of meaning making and preparing learners to meet their aspirations and to succeed.


  • New London Group, 1996, "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures," Harvard Educational Review 66(1):60-92.
  • Cope, Bill and Mary Kalantzis, 2009, "‘Multiliteracies’: New Literacies, New Learning," Pedagogies: An International Journal 4:164-95.
  • Kalantzis, Mary, Bill Cope, Eveline Chan and Leanne Dalley-Trim, 2016, Literacies (Edn 2), Cambridge UK, Cambridge University Press.

7.02 BILL: Now we want to add the idea that the patterns are constantly on the move, and the meanings are as much in the patterns of movement as the places that we might freeze momentarily. A meaning that has been written can also be imaged. A gesture of the body can be made in speech. A space can be drawn. The meaning is in what is the same and what is different when we move from one form of meaning to another, and why we might need to make such moves.

8.02 BILL: In the spirit of multimodality, we’ve made our case in the videos you are now watching, and two books, the first titled “Making Sense”, where we look at “reference,” “agency,” and “structure” in a grammar of multimodal meaning, and a second volume, “Adding Sense,” looking “Context” and “Interest”. These are things that surround a meaning but are essential to making sense of it. For practical purposes, these books are just text.

8.41 BILL: We also have a website, where we have put hundreds of images, videos and other media objects. There were too many even to put in two books. But we have written the books in such a way that you can read them without referring to the supporting media - rather like the way you can read a novel and make sense if it without also having to watch the movie. So, you can get into these ideas in several different ways, but also hopefully also you will use one way to supplement the other. That’s what we mean by multimodality, practically speaking.

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