In our contemporary daily life, we should be able to use and review not only verbal texts, but also visual and audio materials– let alone numeric and kinaesthetic symbol systems. There is much talk about deteriorating literacy, but what is the state of multiliteracy among Finns?

Be it for work, studies, or leisure, we need the mastery of multimedia and multimodal texts all the time. This need raises the question whether we learn such a mastery, i.e. multiliteracy, sufficiently at school and whether adult needs for multiliteracy receive adequate attention.

Associate Professor Sari Sulkunen from the Department of Language and Communication Studies, University of Jyväskylä, is engaged in literacy research and sees multiliteracy as a means for social participation. Multiliteracy has been discussed for a couple of decades already, and in recent years it has become an important theme.

– The importance of this theme is indicated, for example, by the significant position of multiliteracy research at the University of Jyväskylä. The University’s profiling area MultiLEAP (Multiliteracies for social participation and in learning across the lifespan) brings together cross-disciplinary expertise concerning the phenomenon of multiliteracy. While efforts and resources are thus invested in this theme area, there is much work to do, Sulkunen summarises.

Curricula are changing, but is teaching doing so?

Multiliteracy is mentioned in the framework curricula for basic and upper secondary education and for each school subject. In practice, however, changes in the content of teaching are slow.

– Teachers have a good understanding of what kind of textual skills are needed in their school subjects. While the text world employed by teachers may be highly diverse as such, textbooks still have a strong role in teaching, Sulkunen states.

Graduating and newly graduated subject teachers have topical knowledge about incorporating multiliteracy into other teaching, but in the school world there are still a large number of teachers used to a different type of pedagogic tradition. In fact, the so-called academic subjects are in transition from content-oriented toward more skills-oriented teaching.

– Teachers receive in-service training and resources are allocated for this theme area. Moreover, such a transition does not always require any external instructor, but the change can arise from the grassroots level as well.

Also international best can be but mediocre

It is generally known that Finnish results in the PISA reading literacy tests have been in decline: The proportion of weak readers among Finnish 15-year-old students has grown and the average test scores have declined – albeit that the downward curve has evened out in recent years. When it comes to the weakened results of Finnish students, Sulkunen wants to see a more positive overall picture as well.

– Despite the decline, Finns still perform on a good level. Our results are still competitive in international terms, but we cannot contend with it, of course. In a comparison, even best can be but mediocre on the proficiency scale.

From the multiliteracy point of view, assessments like PISA are rather limited, and for example text production skills are not tested in those at all. International comparative studies on multiliteracy are still scarce and include a smaller number of participating countries than in PISA, for instance.

Nonetheless, there is research pursued in this field: For example, the international ICILS study explores young people’s multiliteracy from the perspective of computer use. In these results, Finland is among the top countries in multiliteracy, but has also a considerable group of low performers with poor multiliteracy skills.

Literacy strategy to frame future literacy efforts

The significance of multiliteracy is also highlighted in the forthcoming literacy strategy, which defines literacy as multiliteracy. For the strategy work, the Finnish National Agency for Education has set up a multidisciplinary working group and Sulkunen is one of its members. The work started at the beginning of this year and should be completed still before the next year.

– The aim of this brief work period is to capture the diversity of multiliteracy efforts and present it as a comprehensive and compiled set. This is a good opportunity to make visible the various parties working on literacy. The strategy will also help planning how literacy efforts could be best supported by means of funding. Also the research work of MultiLEAP has contributed to the strategy work.

This strategy is exceptional, as it covers all age groups, whereas previous policies concentrated on children and youth only.

– Adults ought not to be left in the margin in literacy efforts, but due to the dominant visibility of certain studies this has been the case, although we know that also many adults have difficulties with everyday literacy activities.

The strategy in itself is concise, but it will be supplemented later with an action plan. Thus, literacy efforts will continue.

– The greatest aspect in this is to have people from various fields to work together on literacy issues. It broadens your own work and thinking, and at the same time you learn new things.

MultiLEAP is a multidisciplinary profiling area at the University of Jyväskylä. Read more.

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