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Assessing literacies

3 min read

This week I'm writing about an assessment topic that's closer to my heart. Because my assessment class is doing the assessment of multiliteracies this week, I thought it's the right time to write a little overview.

First, what are multiliteracies? According to the New London Group (1996), we are ‘designers of meaning’. They identified 6 design elements in the meaning making process:

  1. Linguistic meaning
  2. Visual meaning
  3. Audio meaning
  4. Gestural meaning
  5. Spatial meaning
  6. Multimodal

In my own research, however, I am working more with related concepts:

New literacies (e.g. Lankshear & Knobel, 2006): new literacy practices, particularly those associated with ICT

New Literacy Studies (e.g. Street, 1984): a new, sociocultural perspective of literacies as socially situated practices rather than skills

21st Century skills/competencies/etc.: various models (see ‘Defining 21st C Skills’)

Digital literacies: many definitions, including 

  1. Attention literacy
  2. Crap detection (information literacy)
  3. Participation literacy
  4. Collaboration literacy
  5. Network smarts (building social capital and PLN)

Yes it's confusing (I'm still confused) and yes, there is considerable overlap in all this. 

So how are these literacies (broadly defined) assessed? There are transnational efforts:

There are also researchers like Kimber and Wyatt-Smith who focus on mostly multimodal literacy. 

Kalantzis and Cope (2011, pp. 81-82) name 6 core principles for assessing writing, and I think they are useful when thinking about assessing multiliteracies in general. They wrote that meaningful assessment should

  1. be situated in a knowledge-making practice
  2. draw explicitly on social cognition
  3. measure metacognition
  4. address multimodal texts
  5. be “for learning”, not just “of learning”
  6. be ubiquitous.

To me, the more promising holistic approaches include collaborative project work, ePortfolios and Learning Analytics (experimental). Too much of what I read is still preoccupied with tests; I think with tests you always end up with considerable construct underrepresentation. You can't possibly fully capture literacies with a test, even if it's multimodal and digital. Authenticity is critical, no matter how messy.

Promising assessment design approaches include indigenous assessment (assessment that relies on indigenous tasks and criteria; different social groups have their indigenous assessments for newcomers wishing to gain acceptance), social/peer assessment and self-assessment. A purely teacher or examiner led assessment isn't going to cut it.

Of course, one could argue that these alternative assessments are just as valid for assessing school-bound literacies. But while we're moving beyond traditional assessments, why not also redefine literacies and learning for school? There is no time like the present.