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Literacy Learning in E-Learning Contexts


This article is an abridged, edited version of the authors' paper Literacy and e-learning: mining the action research data, published by and funded through the Teachers Learning Research Initiative (TRLI)

A group of New Zealand researchers and teachers, covering early childhood education (ECE), primary and secondary sectors, have been analysing unpublished data from a range of action research inquiries on e-learning, to articulate, investigate and build theory about the literacy learning that takes place in e-learning contexts. The teachers all possessed expertise with ICT and a 'futures-focused' approach to education, as well as sound disciplinary knowledge in the areas of their research. However, there were considerable differences in the availability, accessibility and reliability of the ICTs at these teachers' disposal. The article provides an overview of the group's cross-project analysis.

The participants in the study examined archives of student work, learning stories, video footage, action researcher journals, transcripts or audio archives of teacher and student interviews, observation schedules, and appendices from the teachers' original action research reports. Lead researchers and teachers collaborated in sector teams to analyse the data. The group as a whole then engaged in collective data analysis and discussion of emerging themes.

The participants used an adapted version of the 'four resources' model (Freebody & Luke, 1990; Luke & Freebody, 1999) as the main framework for analysing data. The four resources model separates the repertoire of literacy practices into four main roles – code breaker, meaning maker, text user and text analyst – and emphasises that each is necessary but not sufficient in any act of meaning-making. The code breaker role involves practices required to crack the codes and systems of language; the meaning-maker role is to construct cultural meanings of text; the text user role, to use texts effectively in everyday, face-to-face situations; and the text analyst role, to analyse, critique and second-guess texts. It is important to note that this repertoire of literacy practices were not taught or applied in isolation: all of the activities studied involved all of the roles, with each to a lesser or greater degree being brought to bear on the learning activity.

Key findings

There was evidence of students in all sectors encoding and decoding, making meaning with, using, and thinking critically about texts in visual, audio, gestural, spatial, print, and multimodal modes. In the primary context, for example, students learnt how to take on the role of presenters by smiling before reading their text, varying their voice to engage the audience, and smiling again at the conclusion of their recording. They posted their presentations on the class wiki and sought the feedback of students from other schools. Other primary students created podcasts of reviews of New Zealand books and received feedback from peers around the world. In the secondary context, students were required to shape texts in ways appropriate to the genre in which they were working.

There was less evidence of students developing critical literacy; that is, of students learning to analyse or 'second-guess' texts. However, students in all sectors had opportunities to present, explore and challenge multiple perspectives. In one primary school class, for example, the teacher provided students with different versions of a historical event in several different modes so as to build their capacity to analyse the different ways stories can be told and the effects of these different versions. In the secondary context there was some evidence that students were beginning to understand the concept of representation and how the text can position the reader.

Teachers used information and communication technologies (ICTs) to provide students with opportunities to engage in multiple modes, with multiple texts, through multiple technologies, all in the one activity. These opportunities were found to improve students' engagement and achievement in reading and writing with electronic texts, and there was evidence that these benefits extended to print texts, especially in the case of students with a history of underachievement in these areas.

Teachers used ICTs to scaffold students' literacy learning, enabling students to engage with texts and tasks at a range of levels, including levels beyond what might be expected in more traditional print-based classrooms.

In general, the complexity of the texts and tasks with which students engaged increased across the sectors. However, there was much variation within as well as between sectors. Students in one of the ECE centres, for example, worked successfully (scaffolded by their teachers) with the works of adult artists, and a year 7/8 class made extensive and sophisticated use of a picture book version of Shackleton's Antarctic journey alongside documentaries aimed at an adult audience. Teacher decisions about texts were determined as much by their usefulness for purpose as for their 'match' with the meaning-making abilities of the students concerned. Teachers then altered the level of scaffolding provided (assisted by the use of ICTs) to ensure that texts provided the right amount of challenge. The ECE teachers made use of the widest range of text type in their teaching and in their research analysis.

Teachers used ICTs to provide the types of learning conditions which, according to the futures-focused research literature, are likely to enable the learning needed for living in the twenty-first century; for example, to personalise learning, build community partnerships, establish decentralised models of learning, collaborate, build learning capacity, and build a systems-level understanding of meaning-making.

Use of ICTs to create a futures-focused literacy learning environment

The findings of this research suggest that teachers with a futures-focused approach to education can use ICTs to amplify opportunities for the types of literacy learning needed for living in the twenty-first century. The study revealed examples of ICTs being used across ECE, primary and secondary school settings to:

  • personalise literacy learning and cater for diversity by providing students with a range of modes in which to interpret and construct text (ICTs gave students greater choice about how to make meaning of and with texts, and opportunities to specialise according to their strengths and interests)
  • build community partnerships to support literacy learning (ICTs gave students new opportunities to share their texts with, and elicit feedback from, people at times and places that would otherwise be unavailable to them)
  • establish decentralised models of learning (teachers used ICTs such as class wikis to establish decentralised systems which encouraged talk between students rather than through the teacher, resulting in a change of the traditional teacher-student roles and relationships)
  • collaborate (there was some evidence to suggest that students were more likely to: contribute to group discussion; engage in more balanced discussions; look at and discuss each others' work; elicit and respond to feedback from peers; take greater risks in what they were prepared to ask or say; and engage in more thoughtful and extended discussions)
  • build learning capacity (there was evidence to suggest that the use of ICTs contributed to an increase in the complexity of student meaning-making by making it easy for students to record, replicate, circulate and revisit their texts, and those of their peers. Students revisited the texts they created many times, often through different modes and there were opportunities for new interpretations to emerge in the spaces between the re-reading of a text over time. The artefacts produced from this interpretive work generated further discussion, setting up a positive feedback loop of increasingly rich meaning-making)
  • build a systems-level understanding of meaning-making (the use of ICTs provided students with many more textual choices than available in a more traditional print-dominated environment, providing opportunities to compare the ways in which meaning can be made in different modalities, the textual choices available when making meaning for different social purposes, and the relationship between textual choices and social purposes).


The increased resourcing of ICTs in schools and early childhood centres and the introduction of ultra-fast broadband will ensure a more equitable ICT landscape across new Zealand schools and centres and will greatly support teachers, such as those involved in this study, to provide opportunities for the types of literacy learning needed for living in the twenty-first century.

The risk is that, because of the predominance of traditional notions of literacy (as the capacity to read and write standard English) at all levels of the education system, and the structural and systemic barriers to future-focused approaches to literacy teaching and learning, the potential of increased ICT resourcing will only be realised in the classrooms and early childhood centres of future-focused teachers such as the ones involved in this study.

If our goal is to provide e-learning contexts with the purpose of giving students opportunities to engage in the types of literacy learning needed for living and learning in the twenty-first century, and not just to provide novel ways of meeting twentieth century literacy learning goals, then we need to replace the traditional notion of literacy as the capacity to read and write standard English with a definition that encompasses all modes of meaning-making and within different cultural contexts.

We need to act on the implications of such a definition in the development of policy, curriculum support materials, assessment tools, teacher training, professional learning (for policy makers, professional development providers, school leaders, and teachers), and resource development.

We also need to ensure that school and ECE structures and systems (such as the nature of buildings and learning spaces, timetables, the groupings of students, and the role and organisation of teachers) support a futures-focused approach to literacy teaching and learning, and are open enough for teachers and students to make full use of the various ICTs available.

An extended reference list appears with the original paper.

Freebody, P., & Luke, A. (1990). Literacies programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect: Australian Journal of TESOL, 5(7), 7–16.

Luke, A., & Freebody, P. (1999). A map of possible practices: Further notes on the four resources model. Practically Primary, 4(2). Retrieved from http://www.alea.edu.au/freebody.htm

The Literacy Learning in E-Learning Contexts project

The The Literacy Learning in E-Learning Contexts project was funded by the Teachers Learning Research Initiative. 

The individual teacher researchers' projects and analysis can be viewed at http://elearning.tki.org.nz/Teaching/Literacy-in-e-learning.


Project team

Claire Amos (Epsom Girls' Grammar); Chris Bradbeer (Stonefields Primary School); Dorothy Burt (Point England School); Ronnie Davey (University of Canterbury); Vince Ham (CORE Education); Ann Hatherly (CORE Education); Marion Lumley (Otaki College); Carol Marks (Selwyn Kindergarten); Sue Mcdowall (NZCER); Margie Meleisea and Lynne Paul (Nayland Kindergarten); Mere Ngapo (te Rau oriwa); Helen Rennie-Younger (Sunnybrae Primary School).

Project contact:
Dr Vince Ham
Director Research
tel:  +64 3 379 6627
Mob:  +21 999 147
email:  vince.ham@core-ed.org


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Educational evaluation
New Zealand