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From a sociocultural perspective,, the nature of literacy shifts with societal changes. Our society is increasingly using visual and auditory modalities to communicate through such technologies as television and computers. In this paper, I coordinate sociocultural perspectives of literacy with semiotic theories of literacy. Using ethnographic methods, I examined the semiotic nature of literacy activities in a fourth-grade classroom in which the students had computers on their desks and five multimedia workstations in their classroom with internet access. The results indicate that the children's literacy activities had many similarities with the visual and auditory literacies prevalent in our society. The implications of these findings are significant because they do not simply call for new emphases in literacy education, or a new curriculum, but go to the level of redefining literacy education.

The nature of literacy is characterized by the theoretical lens that is used to examine it (Ruddell, Ruddell, & Singer, 1994). From a sociocultural perspective, literacy can be thought of as "the ability to think and reason like a literate person within a particular society" (Langer, 1986). For example, 151) years ago, literacy was defined as the ability to sign your name (Flood & Lapp, 1995); 100 years ago, literacy included the ability to retell literal information from a text (Resnick & Resnick, 1977); and in the late 1960's, literacy was expanded to include not only reading and writing, but also listening and speaking (Flood & Lapp, 1995). Today, our culture is becoming more technological as we spend more time watching television (e.g., Neuman, 1991) and using computers (Coley, Cradler, a, Engel, 1997). Both television and computers offer visual and auditory modalities for "thinking and reasoning."

If literacy is the ability to think and reason within a particular society, and our society is increasingly using visual and auditory modalities (see also Berghoff, 1993; Eisner, 1990; Gardner, 1993), then literacy is becoming semiotic (Buchler, 1955; Clarke, 1990; Deely, 1990; Pharies, 1985). Rowe (1994, 1998) uses theories of semiotics to mediate the dichotomous tension between theories which argue that literacy learning is constructed by each individual versus theories which argue that literacy learning is socially constructed (Goodman & Goodman, 1990). Rowe argues that the meaning of signs simultaneously involves individual invention and social convention. Rowe uses theories of semiotics to examine 3-5 year old children's literacy development. These young children commonly use drawings and scribbles which may sometimes incorporate bits and pieces of alphabetic text. Do theories of semiotics cease to inform literacy learning when children learn to use alphabetic text?

The purpose of this paper is to coordinate sociocultural perspectives of literacy with semiotic theories of literacy. This coordination occurs through reporting results from an ethnographic study which investigated the semiotic nature of literacy in a technology based fourth-grade classroom.


Setting and Participants

I gathered data in a fourth-grade elementary classroom located in the southeastern United States in a suburban public school which had the following equipment: 35 computers, 10 printers, 2 televisions, 2 CD-ROM drives, 1 cartridge drive (predominately used for capturing video), 1 VCR, 1 videocamera, 1 laser disc player, 1 modem, 1 telephone, and 1 scanner. Each student's desk had a personal computer. There were five multimedia work stations available in the classroom. Extra computers were used for tasks such as printing and editing a newspaper, and creating animations. In addition, the students could access materials found on CD-ROMs, laser discs, the World Wide Web, videotapes, as well as more conventional materials such as filmstrips (which often included narrated cassette tapes) as well as textbooks, trade books, and magazines. While this classroom was not typical, it was consistent with my research goals.

The class consisted of 13 boys and 13 girls. One boy and 3 girls were African American, and 1 girl was Hispanic. The remaining children were European American. Twenty students had been in a third-grade technology classroom. Most of these 20 students could type over 30 words per minute. The teacher described the class as average in ability citing that no student qualified for special, remedial, or gifted services. The students were assigned to the class by a group of faculty members who intended that the class be representative of the school population with regard to race, gender, and academic ability.

The classroom teacher, Ms. Jones, was as a seasoned teacher with over 20 years of classroom teaching experience. She had received various awards for her outstanding teaching. Interestingly, when I worked with Ms. Jones it was the first year that she had taught fourth-grade or taught in a technology based classroom. She became interested in teaching in such a classroom after attending a district workshop conducted by one of the teachers involved in one of these technology classrooms.

Ms. Jones based her curriculum on inquiry projects and process writing. The inquiry projects involved the following steps. First, Ms. Jones announced a unit from the District's 4th grade Social Studies, Science, Math, or Health curricula. Next, the children silently read from their Social Studies, Science, Math, or Health textbooks to identify topics within these units. Then the class convened and brainstormed what topics the unit might entail. The brainstormed topics were condensed into 7 topics, allowing the 26 students to split into 7 teams with 3-4 members. After teams were formed, the children went to the school library and gathered materials related to their respective topics. These materials included trade books, encyclopedias (hard copies and CD copies), magazines, videotapes, laserdiscs, filmstrips, CDs, learning kits, and information from on-line services. Similar materials were available in the classroom.

The children spent between 30 and 90 minutes a day for an average of 8 school days researching their topics and developing presentations with their inquiry teams, before sharing their findings with the class. The children and teacher developed several options for presenting their topics: Hyperstudio[C] stacks that had textual paragraphs and titles, Quick Time[C] movies and imported graphics, sound effects and narrations; video documentaries; computer generated animations and slide shows; dramatic plays; and demonstrations (which were word processed and copied on the printers for each team member). Throughout each day the children consistently used technology to get information or to make presentations about their topics. During the 18 week duration of this study, the students investigated 11 units. My observations revealed that 78% of the reading and writing activities in this classroom which incorporated technology for writing or research occurred while the students researched or reported their findings about inquiry topics.

Ms. Jones incorporated a process approach to writing within the inquiry projects. At the beginning of the year, she discussed how the writing process involved brainstorming, drafting, editing, revising, and publishing. She posted this process on a classroom wall and consistently announced which step of the process the students should be working. For example, during a poetry unit, the whole class analyzed poetry and then brainstormed topics for poetry. The students went to their seats and brainstormed their own topics. Ms. Jones circulated the room and discussed the topics with each student. If the students' topics were acceptable, Ms. Jones told them they could begin drafting. While Ms. Jones taught the students a linear writing process (i.e., after brainstorming you draft, after drafting you edit and revise), the students typically used a dynamic writing process (brainstormed, drafted, brainstormed again, revised and edited, published, revised and edited again, and so forth). Ms. Jones valued this dynamic process and did not hinder students from using it. For instructional purposes, she taught the writing process as linear.

Before the students were allowed to publish their compositions, they were expected to request feedback from two or three classmates. Ms. Jones discussed with the class that appropriate feedback included at least three positive comments before any suggestions should be made. Ms. Jones valued social interactions among the students, and she saw process writing as supporting an environment where students could interact and learn from each other.

The inquiry projects culminated in the students "teaching the class" what they learned about their topics. In order to teach the class, the students had to determine how to communicate their topics to their classmates. In other words, the inquiry projects required process writing aimed at publishing students' findings toward the goal of instructing their peers.

Data Collection and Analysis

To capture the events of the classroom, I was a participant-observer in the classroom for several hours each day from January to June. I took extensive observation notes that were expanded each day into more elaborate reflections while watching corresponding videotapes and reviewing collected artifacts. The expanded notes were coded as follows (Corsaro, 1985): descriptions of observed activities and social interactions (field notes), my interpretations of these activities and interactions (theoretical notes), and notes about intrusiveness, shifts in data collection methods, and emergent themes (methodological notes). I also conducted formal and informal interviews with the students and teacher, collected samples of the students' work (e.g., animations, multimedia slide shows, written reports) and sources used by the students (e.g., web pages, textbook and trade book passages, CD-ROM articles). After becoming familiar with the setting (weeks 1-6), I videotaped the classroom lessons and literacy activities (weeks 7-18). When segments were needed for data triangulation, I transcribed them for further analysis. Also the formal interviews with Ms. Jones were audio taped and transcribed.

Using the constant comparison method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), I analyzed the expanded observation notes to examine the semiotic nature of the literacy activities. As hypotheses emerged, I interviewed Ms. Jones and the students. These interviews allowed me to refine hypotheses. I then discussed these refined hypotheses with project debriefers who challenged me to consider alternate explanations and a new round of classroom observations, interviews, and analyses.

Several techniques suggested by Lincoln and Guba (1985) were used to increase the trustworthiness of my data collection and analysis. First, this inquiry occurred over an extended period of time involving more than 400 hours of observation during 5 months. Second, I triangulated my sources (i.e., teacher, students, participant- observer) and my data sets (i.e., observation notes, videotapes, audio tapes, students' work samples). Triangulation allowed me to confirm my findings in three or more data sources until redundancy was established. Third, during data collection and analysis, I purposely looked for disconfirming information. These data were used to discard or revise the emergent hypotheses. Fourth, I met with four debriefers (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) throughout data collection and analysis. The debriefers and the teacher read a final report about the project and offered further suggestions for revisions (e.g., theoretical perspectives and participants' backgrounds). These revisions were incorporated in all reports of the project. Last, by continually generating, refining, and in some cases refuting hypotheses, I developed a systematic way to analyze the corpus of data. Through this dynamic process, the emerging theoretical constructs were empirically grounded and used to examine the semiotic nature of literacy in a technology rich classroom.


Analysis of the literacy activities revealed that these students used many sign systems (e.g., alphabetic text, graphic images, animations, video, audio sound effects, audio narration) and modalities (e.g., visual and auditory). Findings revealed that these signs; and modalities were not isolated from one another as they typically are when students have an Art lesson one day, a Music lesson another day, and separate lessons in English, Handwriting, Reading, and Spelling. Instead, these students investigated such topics as Alaska, Aerospace, Oceans, Geometry, and Safety while perusing historical fiction, science fiction, poetry, autobiographies, non-fiction, and other genres. During these investigations, the students "read" textbooks, magazines;, and tradebooks as well as multimedia CD-ROM encyclopedia articles, laserdics, videotapes, filmstrips, and the World Wide Web. At the end of each project, the students presented their findings to classmates. Again, the students did not use traditional alphabetic text in isolation from other sign systems and modalities. They "wrote" reports (all writing, except for note-taking, was done with a computer) which were alphabetic as well as animations, multimedia slide shows (which incorporated video, animations, audio sound effects, and audio narration), books, magazines, skits, and bulletin boards.

The semiotic nature of the literacy activities in this classroom was evident from the beginning of the study. In order to illustrate the students' use of multiple sign systems, I describe how an inquiry team investigated the ocean. I begin my description after the team silently read their Science textbooks and decided they wanted to research ocean tides, tidal waves, and the topography of the ocean floor. They went to the school library and gathered sources about their topics (e.g., CD-ROM encyclopedia articles, laser discs, videotapes, filmstrips with accompanying audio tapes, books, and magazines). Next the team decided how they would present their information to the class.

Randy: OK, what do you think would be the best [way to present] for our topic?

Simon: OK, what would be good for my thing [the ocean floor] is like I could do, we could do a bulletin board.

Wally: I want to [do an] animation of 2 [continental] plates hitting ... and they are all shaking and everything.

Randy: OK, we could do two [presentation formats], OK?

Richard: Tides, would make a good animation ...

Randy: Well that would be a pretty good animation ... [Simonj could you do a deep sea diver [who explores the ocean floor]?

Simon: I could do a poster.

Wally: On a bulletin board.

Richard: Yeah ...

Randy: Naw, let's just do animation.

Each of the students offered suggestions for how he might communicate the research findings. For instance, Wally suggested that he could animate how continental plates shift to illustrate what causes an earthquake. Richard then made a second suggestion. He appeared to conceptualize how to animate the tides. Interestingly, by the end of the exchange, Randy had taken-up Richard's suggestion about doing an animation. As this example illustrates, the students talked about their ideas around particular research topics and attempted to determine which medium (e.g., animation or poster/bulletin board) best expressed the meanings they hoped to convey.

In the next dialog, Randy and Richard discussed how they could create an animation to show the class how tides and tidal waves occur.

Randy: What is your animation going to be about?

Richard: The tide.

Randy: Why don't you make it from low tide changing to high tide and make the sun changing, or the moon changing at the same time? Would that be a good idea?

Richard: Like the waves are smaller and then they get bigger? ...

Randy: See this is how it does somersaults [he pointed to an illustration in a book and seemed to silently read some alphabetic text].

Richard: See [he pointed to an illustration], this is how I am going to make two little waves then one little wave breaking and then like adding on to the end ...

In this episode, Randy and Richard looked at illustrations in trade books and discussed how to communicate similar ideas as an animation of waves, tides, and tidal waves. In other words, these students used alphabetic text and spatial(1) sign systems to access and discuss meaning.

Next, Randy and Richard went to a computer and designed the spatial context of their topics. Specifically, they used drawing tools and graphics to create a beach scene which included sand, water, beach umbrellas and sunbathers. Then, Randy and Richard animated waves rolling in during low and high tides. Last, they animated a tidal wave which washed away the beach umbrellas and sunbathers. This animation provided a spatial mode for expressing their findings. During their presentation to classmates, Randy and Richard explained their findings through orally stating summaries they typed (alphabetic representation), pointing to a bulletin board which included a commercially produced poster (spatial representation) and student generated illustrations with explanatory captions (alphabetic and spatial representation), and showing their classmates illustrations from books (spatial representation).

Analysis of Randy and Richards' ocean inquiry highlights two findings. First, the student in this class used many sign systems. During silent reading, Randy and Richard read their alphabetic text books which included illustrations. During their datasearch, they examined CD-ROM encyclopedia articles which included alphabetic text, illustrations, animations, narrations, video and sound effects. They also examined laser discs, videotapes, filmstrips, books, and magazines which also incorporated the sign systems available in the CD-ROM encyclopedia articles.

Second, Randy and Richards' ocean inquiry reveals what sign systems the students used in this technology classroom. During data analysis, I listed the sources the students used to learn about topics and the compositions they created which at some point involved technology (see Table 1). Using the constant comparison method (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), I coded the sources and compositions as alphabetic, spatial, and auditory. Subcategories were necessary to distinguish spatial sign systems as either static (e.g., illustrations, diagrams, graphs, photographs) or animated (e.g., animations and video). Subcategories were also necessary to distinguish auditory sign systems as either verbocentric (word-based, Leland & Harste, 1994; e.g., narrations) or nonverbocentic (e.g., music, sound effects).
Table 1:
Sign systems of sources and compositions during literacy activities

 Alphabetic Spatial
 (Visual) (Visual)
 S = static
 A = animated

 Videotapes * SA
 Laserdiscs * SA
 (including encyclopedias) * SA
 On-line services * S
 (with soundtracks) * SA
 Learning kits
 (with filmstrip,) * S
 (hard copies) * S
 Trade books *
 Textbooks * S

Sources & Compositions
 (commercial & student) * S
 (commercial & student) * S

 Hyperstudio[R] * SA
 KidPix[R] * SA
 Dramas * SA
 Bulletin boards * S
 Suiranaries & Outlines *
 Student- Published books * S


 V = verbocentric
 N = nonverbocentric

 Videotapes VN
 Laserdiscs VN
 (including encyclopedias) VN
 On-line services
 (with soundtracks) VN
 Learning kits
 (with filmstrip,) VN
 (hard copies)
 Trade books

Sources & Compositions
 (commercial & student)
 (commercial & student)

 Hyperstudio[R] VN
 KidPix[R] VN
 Dramas VN
 Bulletin boards
 Suiranaries & Outlines
 Student- Published books

Data analysis revealed that the students in this technological classroom consistently accessed and produced materials that involved alphabetic text in conjunction with spatial images and auditory information. Furthermore, these sign systems were commonly interdependent. In other words, the students used sources and created compositions which used alphabetic text, art, media, music, sound- effects, mathematical symbols, and other sign systems that were not isolated from one like they often are in traditional curricula. Instead, they were used as interdependent entities that fostered understanding and expression of a cohesive whole.


From a sociocultural perspective, these literacy activities are similar to what persons in our society do to "think and reason like a literate person within our society." Based on theories of semiotics, multiple sign systems and modalities help us examine not only young children's literacy development, but also older children's literacy development. One implication from this study is that elementary teachers may need to cease isolating literacy into separate content areas (e.g., spelling, handwriting, reading, English, art, music, drama, speech, math, social studies, science) because this is not how our society thinks and reasons in our increasingly technological environment. A second implication is that technology may provide a bridge between literacy which occurs in our society and literacy education which needs to occur in our schools. A third implication is that technology may allow teachers to provide instruction when and where it is needed instead of in a predetermined sequence that students may or may not need. As demonstrated in the project classroom, the students "naturally" integrated multiple sign systems and modalities. In turn, the teacher was able to circulate the room and provide instruction as the students attempted to "read" and "write" with each system and modality. A fourth implication is that standardized tests may need to be reconsidered. If literacy is semiotic, then tests which focus on labeling various aspects of the alphabetic sign system may not be valid measures of literacy.

The aforementioned implications drastically alter our current perceptions of literacy education. To mention a few alterations, these findings indicate that we need to change the literacy curriculum K-16, the role of the teacher, the role of the students, our standardized tests, and what we sanction within schools as literacy instruction and learning. Are we prepared to take such drastic alterations? Does the coordination of sociocultural theories and semiotic theories of literacy make such changes inevitable? Or does such a coordination exacerbate the already volatile field of literacy education (e.g., whole language versus phonics issue)? As the social context for education continues to change, it is important to reconsider the nature of literacy.

(1) While alphabetic text is spatial, I use this term to refer to two dimensional representations of three dimensional objects (e.g., illustrations, animated images, and video).


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Date:Sep 22, 2000

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