Text-related roles of the digitally ‘at home’1

Colin Lankshear + Michele Knobel

Paper presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Meeting, San Diego, April 15, 2004.


This paper provides a brief preliminary account of larger work in progress. Our study began from a very specific interest: to examine within the context of new social practices involving the production, distribution, and exchange of digital-electronic texts – including multimodal texts – a model of effective literacy conceived as four ‘reader roles’ (Freebody and Luke 1990; Freebody 1992; Freebody and Luke 2003). This focus, however, quickly became absorbed into a more general critique of contemporary school-based literacy education. From this wider perspective the ‘four reader roles model’ becomes a specific case of a theoretically informed construct that seeks to be a helpful guide to planning and evaluating classroom literacy programs, but that is subject to elements of the larger critique we envisage.

The paper has three parts. All are in the early stages of development. In the first part we draw briefly on some ideas advanced more than 30 years ago by Ivan Illich (1969) to indicate concerns we have about School Literacy Education as a contemporary phenomenon in Anglo-American education. The second part focuses on the model of four reader roles. We briefly introduce the four roles and suggest two kinds of critique we think can be applied to the model. The first involves identifying points at which we think the reader roles model may become implicated in the kinds of processes and consequences we identify as concerns in the first part of the paper. The second line of critique centres on what we see as problems posed for the reader roles model as writing increasingly undergoes a transition from ‘page’ or ‘book’ to ‘screen’ (Snyder 1996; Kress 2003). In the final part we suggest some kinds of ‘roles’ we think might usefully be associated with contemporary/digital-electronic text-mediated social practices. We try to indicate the distance we discern between ‘the four reader (and writer) roles’ operating in the condition of alphabetic print within school education, on the one hand, and typical ‘roles’ played by digitally proficient communicators in out-of-school settings, on the other. On this basis we question the extent to which the reader roles model can properly be applied to reading and writing multimodal texts and, indeed, to reading and writing as dimensions of a broad range of contemporary social practices involving the use of digital-electronic information and communications technologies.

I. Some general concerns about Literacy Education

While we cannot develop the argument in any depth here we think it would prove illuminating and worthwhile to apply a full-blown deschooling critique along the lines originally developed by Illich and others to School Literacy Education specifically.

We use the upper case ‘S’, ‘L’ and ‘E’ in ‘School Literacy Education’ to refer to two related phenomena driven by contemporary education policy directions and emphases. These are: (1) the emergence of ‘learning to read and write’ as a self-standing ‘master subject’ within the school curriculum; and (2) the trend for literacy to constitute more and more of the ‘stuff’ of school education. The most we can do here is to try and suggest the potential fruitfulness of such a critique by reference to just two characteristic lines of argument from Illich’s chapters on ‘institutional spectrum’ and ‘irrational consistencies’ respectively. Any number of other selections could have been used to indicate with equal effect where a fully developed critique along such lines might lead.

(a) The professionalization of modern warfare

Modern warfare has become a highly professional enterprise whose business is killing. It has reached the point where its efficiency is measured in body counts. … Modern bullets and chemicals are so effective that a few cents’ worth, properly delivered to the intended ‘client’, unfailingly kill or main. But delivery costs rise vertiginously; the cost of a dead Vietnamese went from $360,000 in 1967 to $450,000 in 1969. Only economies on a scale approaching race suicide would render modern warfare economically efficient (Illich 1969: 58).

If we ‘translate’ this to Literacy Education we might arrive at a paraphrasing along the following lines.

The School Literacy Education industry has become a highly professional enterprise whose business is to make people ‘text proficient’ or ‘effectively literate’. It has reached the point where its efficiency is measured in counts of learning standards outcomes. The capabilities involved in being proficient are such that making them available in appropriate ways would unfailingly generate text proficient persons at very low cost. Yet delivery costs rise vertiginously. The cost of rendering working-class English learners text proficient went from X pence/pounds sterling in equivalent real terms in the 1820s – 1850s (the period of monitorial schools, Chartist Halls of Knowledge, etc.) to XX pounds sterling in the period 1870 to 1910 (the first decades of compulsory mass schooling) to XXX pounds sterling in 19XX (the time of the Plowden Report) to almost infinity in 2004 (since vast numbers of people never make it). Only economies on a scale approaching the compulsory stupidification of 90% of our population would render modern Literacy Education economically efficient.

(b) Some questionable tenets

Illich (1969: 71) identifies some highly questionable but largely unchallenged tenets underlying social commitment to compulsory school education that can be related to School Literacy Education more specifically. These tenets entail acceptance of the right on the part of some persons ‘to set, specify and evaluate the personal goals of others’ (71). Illich appeals to a taxonomy fabricated by Jorge Luis Borges to suggest ‘the kind of giddiness’ the enactment of such rights or duties ‘must produce’. Borges tells us that in an imaginary kingdom

… animals are divided into the following classes: ‘(a) those belonging to the emperor, (b) those that are embalmed, (c) those that are domesticated, (d) the suckling pigs, (e) the sirens, (f) fabulous ones, (g) the roaming dogs … Now, such a taxonomy does not come into being unless somebody feels it can serve [their] purpose; in this case, I suppose, that somebody was a tax collector. For him, at least, this taxonomy of beasts must have made sense, the same way in which the taxonomy of educational objectives makes sense to scientific authors’ (Illich 1969: 71).

In place of ‘the taxonomy of educational objectives’ we might nowadays include taxonomies of learning outcomes, competencies, educational standards, levels statements, rich tasks, etc. These are presumed to make sense to teachers, since teachers are required to assess and report on such matters. We might also include various kinds of artifacts – syllabus statements, curriculum guidelines, support materials, and so on – that are intended to assist School Literacy Educators to exercise their pedagogical rights and discharge their pedagogical duties. Here again, the presumption is that such artifacts make sense to teachers and not only to those who devise them. But in both cases the presumption is often questionable.

School Literacy Education is replete with examples of constructs and artifacts we think rival Borges’ taxonomy for sheer ‘giddiness’, and where it seems highly doubtful that they make the same sense to individual teachers as they do to their inventors and, in many cases, where it is questionable whether they make sufficient sense for many teachers to be able to use them effectively. The following example, which implicates the four reader roles, is a typical but by no means uncommon example.

Source: Harris et al. (2003: 110).

This figure is intended to capture in a synthetic theoretical model the things proficient ‘text participants’ – one of the four reader roles – are able to ‘do’ with texts. The model is intended to help Literacy Educators know how to go about helping to enable learners become successful text participants. If we look at what is ‘in’ the model, however, we can get giddy very quickly. At the very least it is a complex top-shelf cocktail that would pose a worthy challenge to any experienced drinks mixer. It mixes sociology of the Bourdieu variety (cultural capital, habitus, and possibly social capital – although that could have come from Putnam or James Coleman working out of other sociological perspectives) with systemic functional linguistics derived from Michael Halliday. Some of the Hallidayan linguistics have been squeezed through an Australian genre theory filter (e.g., ‘context of situation’, ‘context of culture’). Psycholinguistic conceptions developed by Kenneth Goodman and pormoted within whole language approaches to teaching reading and concerning the textual resources effective readers draw on when reading (i.e., the graphophonic, syntactic and semantic cuing systems) are also included. To all this is added a generous measure of sociocultural and sociocognitive theory in the form of ‘funds of knowledge’ courtesy of Luis Moll. To complete the cocktail a ‘shot’ of traditional psychology-based literacy theory (text encoder practices) is added, along with two shots of cultural heritage literacy theory (text participant and text user practices), followed by a shot of critical social theory (text analyst practices).

With all due respect to teachers and teacher educators, one wonders how they would stay on their feet after a dram or two. It is one thing for social, cultural, cognitive, linguistic, etc. theorists to lay theory over human behaviour in an attempt to understand and explain it. And when they do so the debates are usually protracted and inconclusive, and there is always a new ‘contender’ coming along. It is another thing altogether, however, to turn this ‘logic’ on its head and use the theory as a driver and guide for pedagogical practice. This involves trying to get teachers to act on the theoretical abstractions within settings (classrooms) in which those very social practices that underpin the theoretical constructs are thoroughly decontextualised. In our view this comes close to a kind of madness masquerading as cocktail abuse.

For those who can’t get too much of a good thing, there is nothing better than a good chaser to follow that first cocktail.




Text participants compose meanings in texts:

  • What is my text saying?
  • What are its possible meanings?
  • What do I know about this topic, idea or theme?
  • What do I need to do to research and prepare to write this text?

Knowledge about text topic

Knowledge about text genre

  • How is it organized?

Composing literal meanings in text

Leaving space for inferences in text

Providing signals to guide or create possibilities for interpretation

Composing figurative meanings in text

Making links to prior knowledge and experiences

Working with intertextual influences

Working with situational enablers and constraints

Working with sociocultural awareness

Table 1: Overview of a writer as text participant (Harris et al. 2003: 111).

The price of literacy cocktail abuse is high. Literacy is made into something that is practically ungettable. Where it cannot be got this fact is often used as evidence that what is needed is either more (complex) theory or alternative theory, plus more professional development, better support materials, and so on. In other instances Literacy Education failure is taken as evidence that what is needed is a more basic approach that strips learning back to drill and skill, sounding out the letters, or looking long and hard at a computer screen that shows the ‘print’ while the sound card delivers the spoken words. Whichever of these approaches is taken incurs opposition from some professional sector or another. Learners get caught in the crossfire. And constructs like the model of four reader roles get co-opted in ways that make them a part of a very big problem.

School Literacy Education turns the getting of things that are present ‘wholely’ and ‘organically’ when embedded in bona fide forms of human practice into the getting of decontextualised fragments of practice within artificial settings. Rather than looking for better ways to bring words and world together, School Literacy Education makes a virtue of deepening abstractions and reifying artificial distinctions in the futile hope of engendering mastery of context-related practice within decontextualised and artificial settings.

Just as a School Literacy Education regime renders literacy increasingly ungettable – especially when educationists want learners to acquire a ‘full’ (critical social) literacy rather than just a one dimensional encoding-decoding variety – so it renders numerous bona fide literacies ‘illegitimate’. Only if learners do the ‘right’ school-type things can they be acknowledged as literate. Pace Harris et al., learners’ funds of knowledge very often have no place in the classroom, and cannot have – since this would jeopardize professional expertise and challenge sectional interests that are served by schools legitimating and delegitimating the things they do.

II. Four ‘reader roles’: A brief description and critique

(a) Description of the reader roles

In 1990 Peter Freebody and Allan Luke identified and described four roles they believed readers need to adopt and perform competently in order to deal successfully with written texts under the cultural conditions operating within countries like our own. The roles were described as ‘necessary components of success’ in engaging with texts ‘based on our perceptions of what our culture expects, here and now, from people in their management of text’ (Freebody and Luke 1990: 39). Freebody and Luke identified these roles as follows:

Dealing effectively with texts was seen primarily in terms of meeting ‘one’s social role as a reader’ (Freebody 1992: 49, our emphasis), although Freebody and Luke (1990: 39) said they ‘would argue that many of [their] observations would apply at least indirectly to writing as well’.

In early statements the four roles model was presented explicitly in relation to students learning particular literacy roles in the classroom. The authors said they developed the four roles after a close study of existing literacy programs operating in classrooms and used the categories defined by the four roles ‘as a heuristic guide for literacy educators to consider what "literacies" are offered in various instructional programs’ (ibid.). In other words, the four roles respectively reflect elements of ‘basic skills’, ‘communicative’ and ‘critical’ approaches to literacy instruction. All four roles are necessary, but no one approach covers them all. Freebody and luke recommend that rather than getting caught up in disputes about which approach is the most appropriate or necessary, literacy educators should ensure that overall literacy programs draw on the respective approaches appropriately to ensure that all the bases (learner capacity to adopt all four roles competently and as appropriate) are covered.

Since 1992 there has been little change to the formal designations of the four roles. These have stayed close to the names they were originally given: namely, code breaker, text participant, text user, and text analyst. On the other hand, however, the ‘world of texts’ and cultural expectations of people in their management of texts within countries like our own have changed very significantly since 1990. We think the four reader roles have in turn been expanded – stretched – to try and make the model cover these changes. Hence, the original emphasis on the roles as reader roles – albeit with at least indirect application of some aspects to writing as well – has been greatly expanded to the point where it is not only presumed to apply with equal force to writing, but where it is also presumed to deal with multimedia as well as print texts. By 2003, the basic proposition of the four roles was that ‘effective literacy in complex print and multi-mediated societies requires a broad and flexible repertoire of practices’ (Freebody and Luke 2003: 56). This repertoire is described in terms of the four roles.

Each role is briefly described below. We try to give a sense of the changing terminology and scope involved in the evolving (and expanding) accounts of the model during the period 1990-2003, since much of our critique implies that it is inappropriate to stretch the model in the ways we think it has.

Code breaker role: Breaking the code of texts

This role describes the way in which successfully literate students are able to ‘crack’ the ‘code’ of written texts. That is, an effective code breaker is someone who understands the ‘fundamental features’ of written texts (Freebody and Luke 2003: 56). This includes alphabetic knowledge, recognizing sounds in words, spelling, punctuation, page layout, directionality when reading and writing, and other ‘structural conventions and patterns’ (Luke and Freebody 1999: 4; Freebody and Luke 2003: 56).

Text participant role: Participating in the meanings of text

Initially the text participant role concerned developing the ability to ‘engage the technology of the text itself’ (Freebody 1992: 52) and to pay attention to a text’s structure and meaning. It was essentially concerned with reading comprehension and the general knowledge and textual resources required for making sense of a text. According to Freebody (1992), the processes of comprehension ‘implicate’ the reader in inferring connections between textual elements (e.g., narrative features) and any additional material (e.g., knowledge of the topic of the text) that is not necessarily included in the text but which is required in order for the text to make sense. Freebody (1992) shows how traditional shared reading events in early primary classrooms encourage novice readers to make connections between the text and their own personal, lived experiences, to identify character feelings and motivations, and to predict at various points in the reading what might happen next in order to better comprehend – a or how to work out the meaning of – the story. From this perspective, shared reading done in classrooms provides children with content and text structure knowledge and involves the teacher in modelling for students what ‘counts’ as successful comprehension of text.

In more recent accounts this role has been cast in terms of ‘participating in the meanings of texts’ (Freebody and Luke 2003: 56) and elaborated to include both reading and composition across ‘the various text- and discourse-based events that characterise contemporary semiotic societies and economies’ (Freebody and Luke 2003: 53), and which involve ‘unprecedented hybrid multimedia texts’ (Luke and Freebody 1999: 4). Freebody and Luke most recently describe the text participant role in terms of ‘understanding and composing meaningful written, visual and spoken texts in ways that connect and/or construct texts’ meaning systems to [or for] people’s available knowledges and experiences of other cultural discourses, texts and meaning systems’ (2003: 56-57; see also Luke and Freebody 1999). Effective text participation also includes being able to make inferences about these connections.

Text user role: Using texts functionally

The text user role as originally presented in terms of being able to understand ‘what this text is for, here and now’ (Freebody 1992: 53). This involves understanding what are culturally and socially ‘acceptable’ uses of texts in a given context or literacy event. Social interactions instruct children in appropriate and adequate uses of texts (e.g., modelling how they ‘ought’ to have read something). Freebody argued that the resources needed for using texts effectively ‘are transmitted and developed in our society largely in instructional contexts, some of which may bear comparatively little direct relevance to the ways in which texts need to be used in out-of-school contexts’ (1992: 53). Literacy education for effective reading, then, must recognize that enabling learners to grasp ‘what counts as reading in the here and now’ of the classroom does not necessarily transfer well to reading tasks in other contexts. If literacy educators are to promote learning how to use texts in the world beyond the classroom it will be important to employ ‘communicative’ approaches which aim to ‘replicate actual contexts of use’ and which ‘foreground interaction around text’ (Freebody and Luke 1990: 44).

More recent accounts of the text user role emphasise using texts functionally by ‘traversing and negotiating the social relations around texts and by knowing about and acting on the different cultural and social functions that various texts perform inside and outside school, and understanding that these functions shape the way texts are structured, their tone, their degree of formality, and their sequence of components’ (Luke and Freebody 1999: 5). Conducting oneself as a competent text user within this conception of the role means that one is well aware of what kinds of ‘social action’ can be accomplished by using this text rather than that text and so on (cf., Freebody and Luke 2003: 57).

Text analyst role: Critically analysing and transforming texts

The text analyst role is based on recognition that texts are always ‘crafted objects’ (Freebody 1992: 56), and are not ‘ideologically natural or neutral’ (Luke and Freebody 1999: 5). A successful text analyst can interrogate and critique texts beyond the level of content or mechanics in order (1) to identify the manner in which texts ‘represent particular points of view while silencing others’ (Luke and Freebody 1999: 5); and (2) to understand how the text itself – by means of the author’s assumptions about the world and about what the reader knows – ‘constructs a version of you, the reader’ (Freebody 1992: 57). This ‘version’ of the reader covertly positions and shapes the sense to be made of the text (Freebody 1992: 57).

(b) Elements of a critique of the reader roles model

For the purposes of the present context (an AERA Symposium on Multimodality, Technology and Literacy Across Learning Contexts) we distinguish two kinds of critique of the reader roles model (and similar models from School Literacy Education discourse; such as the three cuing systems—graphophonic, syntactic and semantic—mentioned earlier). One kind refers to lines of critique that apply to the model generally, and to which the model would properly have been subject since its inception. The second kind, which we will emphasise here, involves lines of critique predicated on changes associated with the explosion of digital electronic computing, information and communications technologies since the late 1980s. Some of these changes pertain specifically to the increasing insistence of digital multimodality within the universe of texts. Others apply to significant changes in social practices and in ways of thinking about the world and orienting ourselves to the world that impact on human communication, information transfer and so on.

In what follows we briefly identify and comment on the main lines of critique we have developed to date. These will be further developed and elaborated in continuing work on the project as a whole.

Lines of critique applying to the four roles model generally

(i) Status of the text analyst role

We think the claim that adopting the role of text analyst is a component of successful reading ‘as our culture currently requires it’ is suspect. To paraphrase Kevin Harris (1979), it seems to us that any School Literacy Education that enabled entire cohorts (or even significant minorities of them) to become successful text analysts in the sense defined in the four roles model would be a genuine menace to the society whose educational institutions purveyed it. It seems to us more accurate to say that from the standpoint of critical educational theorists it is important and desirable to resource people so they can adopt the role of text analyst proficiently. To present the ideal of text analyst as a cultural expectation seems to us to turn a political position (and one we certainly endorse) into a sociological fact. To do so helps fuel a false assumption that if literacy theorists and School Literacy Educators can just develop and master some concepts and techniques of text analysis for pedagogical transfer there should be no significant institutional, political, or logistical barriers to implementing effective literacy education for text analysis in the classroom. We would suggest that all the current evidence points in the opposite direction.

(ii) Assumptions about the relationship between ‘classroom’ and ‘world’

The ideal for classroom learning to replicate out-of-school contexts of social practice, and that ‘communicative’ approaches can enhance this, is likewise suspect. Classrooms are consciously contrived modernist spaces of enclosure intended, precisely, to create artificial learning environments. These days all manner of impediments exist to the possibility of anything approaching ‘authentic replications of contexts’: e.g., ‘duty of care’ requirements that greatly constrict physical movement into community spaces and any potentially non-safe environment that might otherwise enhance ‘replication’. It is now widely recognized that school discourses of learning are widely removed from mature versions of social practices in the world beyond the school to which classroom learning is presumed to relate (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: Ch 1).

This has an important corollary. To work from the assumption that classrooms can in principle replicate, or get close to replicating, wider world contexts encourages the belief that the four roles ‘apply’ in the same ways and to the same extent to ‘school literacy’ and ‘literacy/literacies’ beyond the classroom. This has the further implication that if we resource the four roles within classrooms, in the kinds of ways that they can be resourced within classrooms, we will be doing the kind of thing that goes on when text-related learning occurs in wider world settings: that classroom literacy events can be ontologically of a kind with home and community literacy events. We seriously doubt this, simply because it is not possible to ‘house’ or ‘embed’ literacy events in larger social practices and ways of being within the artificial environment of a classroom in the manner in which literacy events are ‘housed’ in situated practices outside the classroom. For a start, literacy events in the home may have very little to do with literacy/texts per se, and more to do with using texts as a medium for expressing human love, building an intergenerational relationship, getting tasks done for the benefit of everyone in the home, and so on. We conflate or overstate the ontologies of ‘text practices’ at the risk of mystification and ‘whistling in the dark’.

(iii) Where do the roles ‘really’ come from?

In line with the ideas suggested immediately above, we would query whether the four roles are ‘expectations of our culture’ that (would) somehow exist independently of classrooms and pedagogy. They look to us more like the kinds of abstractions that get imposed on a social practice when people think about a practice from the standpoint of how it can be tackled as a classroom learning challenge/as an object of school pedagogy. In other words, we doubt that the four roles reflect anything in the way of cultural expectations other than the commitment (which is certainly cultural and social) to conceiving literacy acquisition as primarily and fundamentally a task for classroom instruction. We do not think these roles flow from the way things are, or are even viewed, in the world at large. Rather, they express how the world at large needs to be conceived if we intend to cast ‘literacy acquisition’ and ‘literacy proficiency’ in the mould of classroom-based pedagogical activity.

(iv) The roles put texts rather than practices in the saddle

The reader roles model is about successful management of texts. In later statements (Luke and Freebody 1999) the concept of practice is given greater prominence. But this elides the extent to which classroom teaching and learning simply cannot honour the larger immersions in practice that successful management of texts presupposes. While it is true that successful management of texts presupposes a larger familiarity and competence with their associated practices, the facts are that classrooms (are thought to be able to) ‘handle’ or ‘accommodate’ a range of texts and text types whose associated larger practices they cannot ‘handle’. In other words, classrooms are spaces that successfully masquerade as spaces where all manner of texts and text types can be accommodated, but that cannot seriously pretend to accommodate the practices within which many such texts and types find their ‘natural’ homes. To this extent, it is appropriate for the roles to put the weight on texts, since is what classrooms do and the model is designed to enhance classroom literacy education. But it is not what happens in the world beyond classrooms, where texts are accorded their due place. And it does not follow from the appropriate emphasis on texts within the model that the goal of the model – i.e., successful management of texts – is realizable under foreseeable classroom conditions. There is, then, the risk here that the model could be counterproductive. It might serve to help keep us believing that what cannot in all likelihood be done without foreseeable school-classroom arrangements can be done (cf. Gee 2003).

Lines of critique predicated on contemporary technological, social and cultural change

(i) The challenge of multimodality

We have reservations about the usefulness of the four roles for informing successful management of multimodal texts. We will draw briefly and in a preliminary way only on some ideas advanced by Gunther Kress (2003) to indicate our main concerns here; particularly, to indicate why we think recent statements of the four roles gloss changes that entail new theoretical perspectives and, to a large extent, new ontologies and epistemologies.

Kress argues that within contexts of multimodal forms of communication and information exchange – that are becoming increasingly prominent by the day – representation and meaning-making undergo important changes from how things are under conditions of print. Writing and image/display are organized by different logics. As a form of speech written down, written language is necessarily governed by the logics of time and chronological sequence. The sequenced form, features, and events of a narrative exemplify this quality of written modes. Images, by contrast, are governed by a logic of space and function that attributes meaning to the placement of images, the spatial relations between an image and space or other images and text, to size, to colour and shape, and so on. For Kress, the genre of display neatly captures this quality of images as a mode of communication and representation. He summarizes this distinction by proposing that the world described or told is vastly different to the world that is shown.

These ideas have two important implications for understanding the strengths and limits of the four roles as a model for managing texts successfully. The first is that the universe of texts to be managed on a day to day basis is now much wider and more complex than the one presumed in the original promulgation of the four roles. Since the four roles were predicated on writing as the primary mode of representation and meaning making we cannot simply presume that the model will extend to image and display as readily as it might to written language. (Indeed, such issues are never addressed.) The second is that when writing is incorporated into multimodal texts as an element of a ‘display’ it falls under the organizing logic of the image rather than the organizing logic of sequence/syntax (Kress 2003: 19-20). To be successfully managed as part of a multimodal text, then, writing has to be understood and approached quite differently from when it participates in print text (including illustrated print texts; For the argument see Kress 2003: 35).

Kress (2003: 35) advocates ‘a need for new thinking’ about making meaning in reading and in writing under conditions of burgeoning digitality. Multimodal texts – texts composed by way of multiple modes of expression and representation (e.g., image, sound, writing; texture spatiality, form) – require an entirely different theory of meaning from the mono-modality of writing (including illustrated books as ‘written’ artifacts rather than as ‘displays’). This includes rethinking the definition of ‘text’ in ways that take into account the ‘sites and media of the appearance of text’ and which includes page and screen locations and media types (2003: 36; original emphasis). Within this new theory of meaning and text, Kress argues that literacy researchers and educators need to focus on semiotic, rather than on linguistic theory. He explains,

The theoretical change is from linguistics to semiotics – from a theory that accounted for language alone to a theory that can account equally well for gesture, speech, image, writing, 3D objects, colour, music, and no doubt others (Kress 2003: 35-6).

Thus, for Kress and others, communication actually comprises a multiplicity of modes ‘which are always and simultaneously in use’ and that ‘meaning resides in all of them and that each contributes to the overall meaning of the multimodal ensemble in quite specific ways’ (Kress et al. 2001: 1). This approach towards defining and analysing communication does not privilege language over other modes of communication, but necessarily highlights the importance of the representational and affordance work carried out by these modes to meet a given social purpose. That is,

Making a representation now goes well beyond simple encoding. It has become a matter of active, deliberate design, and meaning making becomes a matter of the individual’s active shaping and reshaping of the resources that he or she has available, in the wish to make representations match intentions as closely as possible (Kress et al. 2001: 2).

Thus within this new way of thinking, language becomes just one mode among many that people can draw on to communicate with others to represent meanings and that now need to be ‘dealt with’ semiotically rather than linguistically (Kress 2003: 36).

It seems to us that the only way the four roles model, or any similar model, can deal with this degree of change – which is quantum, since new theories are entailed – is by making the role descriptions so elastic that they provide little helpful guidance within educational theory or practice alike. For this reason, in the third part of this paper we try to develop some indicative statements of ‘roles’ that are much more specific and concrete, but that make no claims to being readily transferable to classrooms under prevailing classroom conditions.

(ii) The challenge presented by changes in social practices and orientations to social practice associated with technological change

We believe that constructions like the model of the four roles have been overtaken by the contemporary emphasis on creative innovation and active rule breaking and bending that so permeates the cyberian and physical worlds alike (cf. Lankshear and Knobel 2001, 2003a). In Jeff Bezos’s words (founder of Amazon.com), the current technological revolution invites and encourages practices that are not simply about doing old things in new ways but, rather, that are about creating entirely new things to do (Spector 2000). As Richard Smith (in conversation) said some years ago, ‘new literacies are being invented on the streets’. This does not sit well with a conception of assuming roles within predetermined and normalized literacy routines, and submitting to socially recognized standards of proficiency and effective dealing with texts. Rather than ‘enacting’ the kind of passivity written into the four roles model, those who are most obviously effective and proficient under the sign of the Now are consciously – willfully – active, inventive, and non-submissive.

(iii) When the distinctions between roles break down

Finally, and which is immanent in what we have just said, the kind of distinction intended by differentiating text participant and text user makes little sense in contexts where it is not simply acceptable but positively appropriate – the only thing to do – to create and amend rules as one goes along. In such cases texts themselves are up for grabs on a moment by moment basis, as indeed are the parameters of practices themselves. Imagine, for example, trying to apply the distinction between text participant and text user at a given moment in the playing of an i-mode enabled game like ‘Where is Uncle Roy?’, or a bot fighting game (cf., Rheingold 2002). There simply is no distance between the author and the practice. Indeed, the distinction has little place within much less complex examples, such as an adolescent arranging a meeting with a friend on the fly using her mobile phone.

The point here is that such distinctions between participating in texts and using texts arise from artificial contexts of practice like many of those in classrooms where learners are required to ‘pretend’ their way into ‘authentic’ practices and, moreover, where for many learners these practices are so alien that they cannot bring any degree of authorship to them from their past experiences and present identities. Texts and practices are radically disjoined in such learning contexts in ways that they often, if not typically, are not within the kinds of learning contexts amply described by James Gee in his recent work on video games, cognition and affinity spaces (2003, forthcoming). There is little purpose for distinguishing between ‘participant’ and ‘user’ where learners learn in situ and participants participate ‘wholly and organically’. The more that non-schooled literacy learning is acknowledged and validated, and the more that learning principles such as those identified by Gee are recognized as ‘proper’ and ‘desirable’, the less sense a ‘text participant-text user’ distinction makes. It belongs in schools, as we know them, and it would be risky to try to extend them beyond such ‘unnatural’ settings to the extent that it might marginalize attainments and ways of being that do not conform to logics of induction into domains of already-existing propriety.

III. Some indicative roles of the digitally ‘at home’

The kinds of arguments we have advanced above lead us to a different conception of ‘roles’ in relation to successfully dealing with texts, as well as to envisaging very different kinds of roles from the four reader/writer roles. Our concept of the ‘digitally "at home" ’ is intended to provide a rough equivalent for the digital-electronic-multimodal now of the effectively literate person in the context of the late 1980s and early 1990s in which the four roles model is grounded.

It is important, however, to recognize that our conception of roles that are related to texts is not a conception of roles that are ‘internal’ to texts in the way that the four reader/writer roles are. The latter are roles conceived in terms of being able to deal with texts as the focal end point of the exercise. The four roles tell us nothing about their readers or writers as social practitioners. All we know about them is what they can do with texts as a result of successful induction to ‘doing things with texts’ within classroom contexts. Our conception of roles turns this priority upside down. We are more interested in what the digitally ‘at home’ do in their practices which involve the production, distribution and exchange of texts. Hence, our roles are not of texts, although they are inseparably linked to producing, distributing and exchanging texts.

Moreover, the kinds of roles that coalesce around practices involving characteristically ‘now’ forms of text production, distribution and exchange are often quite unfamiliar – so much so that they do not even have established names and, to a great extent, are not even formally recognized as roles by people at large. This, of course, is not the case for all roles of kinds that would fit with our overall perspective here. But we think the points about the present and foreseeable future are best made by targeting roles that are more rather than less unfamiliar in contexts of talking about literacy. In thinking of some typical roles we would associate with being digitally ‘at home’ we have arrived at concepts like being a ‘designer’ of texts, a ‘mediator’ or ‘broker’ of texts, a text ‘bricoleur’, and a text ‘jammer’, among others.

(a) A ‘designer’ of texts

The increasing shift away from syntactically sequenced modes of representation and meaning-making toward modes of display has heightened the importance of design for successful communication of meaning and social purpose (cf., Johnson 1997). Thus, the recent explosion in weblogging has been accompanied by a proliferation of diverse user-developed weblog interfaces that can be imported into weblogs, instantly changing their ‘look’ and ‘layout’. Bloggers have abundant options from which to make appropriate design selections in light of their purposes and means.

A concrete example will help to clarify some of the things that are at stake around design. In 2001, a 22 year old Londoner named Chris Raettig came to international attention with his online collection of corporate national anthems. These are "rousing songs created and recorded by large businesses … for reasons best known to themselves" that are "so bad, they [are] good" (Raettig 2001: 1). The collection attracted instant widespread attention and was reported in local, national and international media. Other people sent in additional anthem files, swelling the archives of sound files. Before the site had to be taken offline due to the volume of traffic Raettig received an email from the ‘senior manager of global brand and regulatory compliance’ at a financial advice company called KPMG. The manager, Frank Dunne, complained about the link on Raettig’s website to KPMG’s online corporate anthem. Dunne asked Raettig to remove the link because he did not have a formal ‘webpage link policy’ with KPMG. Raettig replied that his own website did not require a web link policy and pointed out that if such policies were enforced it would mean the end of the internet as an open and useful space.

Raettig posted the email exchange to his site. Media attention intensified (Manjoo 2001), and the page where Raettig had posted his exchange with Dunne received more than 120,000 ‘hits’ inside 36 hours (Raettig 2001: 1). Countless comments on discussion boards ensued (e.g., Metafilter 2001). Many of these made fun of the design of KPMG’s website. One poster derided the ‘cheesy intro’ on the KPMG website (posted on Metafilter 2001: 1). Another tested the browser compatibility of the KPMG website after finding a claim there that the company wanted to show its familiarity with new media and internet technologies. She found the site did not work at all in one browser and would not load in another after cookies were declined (posted on Metafilter 2001: 1).

Such responses to the KMPG website and its discursive self-positioning as a company ‘up with the play’ where digital technologies are concerned highlight the centrality and significance design has for the digitally literate. To reduce these understandings and practices to an amalgam of ‘code breaker’, ‘text participant’, ‘text user’ and ‘text analyst’ is to artificially fragment the practice of constructing effective and accessible websites. The social role of being a designer of texts is fleshed out by the example of the second discussion board poster referred to in the previous paragraph. She very clearly understood the function and purpose of company websites in terms of the website’s design and content meeting claims the company makes about its online and offline presence and goals, as well as in terms of usability and knowing how to ‘test’ or critique key features of website design. This moves beyond ‘reading’ what’s on the screen to include programming dimensions, as well as software preference (e.g., Netscape Navigator browserware versus Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browserware) and user aptitude with updating or managing software versions (e.g., Internet Explorer 3.1 cannot ‘read’ some of the new website programming languages that can be read by, say, Microsoft Explorer 5.2).

(b) Being a text ‘mediator’ or ‘broker’

Text mediator roles include being a discussion board moderator, where the purpose of the role is to ensure that discussants stick more or less to the topic that is the designated focus of the board or chat space, to ‘moderate’ fiery exchanges between discussants and to remind participants of acceptable (and unacceptable) modes of conduct and expression within the discussion board space; to encourage a sense of community among participants; and so on (cf. netgrrrl (12) and chicoboy26 (32) 2002).

A good example of this role occurred on the eBay feedback discussion board following some acrimonious exchanges concerning one poster’s bitter and disparaging complaint that he had unjustly received negative feedback from a buyer and other posters’ analyses of this same posters’ negative feedback he himself had left for others on eBay (which strongly suggested he was a ‘difficult’ person to do business with). The exchange became heated and at this point Daphne, one of eBay’s community support people, intervened in a way that restated eBay’s hopes that its ratings and feedback system would contribute to developing a self-regulating, trustworthy and intelligent community (of participants). Her intervention was designed to ‘cool down’ the exchanges.

Hello folks,

Thanks for the discussion. Let me offer you eBay’s perspective on Feedback for consideration:

The real value in Feedback is in the trends that it reveals. While it is an admirable goal to work towards a perfect rating, it is IMPOSSIBLE to always please everyone all the time anywhere in life, right? An occasional isolated negative will not impact the VAST majority of users when they are deciding whether or not to bid or accept a bid. (I would say "ANY" users, but then someone would post to prove me wrong, hehehe).

We hope you will use the Feedback forum faithfully, despite the risk of receiving a negative that you feel you don’t deserve, because in this way our whole community is served best. The purpose of Feedback is to help keep the site safe. If we use it appropriately, the good guys are always going to have FAR more positive comments than the less-scrupulous users who will quickly earn track records that show their true colors for all to see, as well.

Daphne will step down from her soapbox now. :)

Daphne, eBay Community Support, (eBay feedback discussion board, 10/03/2000).

A second example, from a new style of news delivery service called Plastic.com, illustrates a ‘moderator’ form of the text mediator or broker role. Plastic began in January 2001, with the aim of being a ‘new model’ of news delivery: ‘anarchy vs. hierarchy, and so on and so forth’ (Joey 2001: 1), and promising ‘the best content from all over the Web for discussion’ (Schroedinger’s Cat 2002: 1). This new model of news delivery puts ‘the audience in charge of the news cycle as much as possible without devolving into the kind of ear-splitting echo chamber that’s turned "community" into such a dirty word’ (Joey 2001: 1). Plasticians tend to be self-styled members of an erudite, ironic and humorous ‘plugged in’ crowd, interested in quirky takes on anything newsworthy-particularly anything connected with popular culture-as well as in serious and informed discussion of current events. Estimates place the number of regular Plastic users at around 15,000 (McKinnon 2001: 1). And anything that will provoke discussion is regarded as post-worthy (Carl, in an interview with Mathew Honan 2001:1).

Plastic turns ‘push media’ like email-posted newspaper headlines and news websites on their head by having members propose content and comment publicly upon it. ‘Plastic’s original contribution is a forum to discuss the diverse news pieces it promotes. At Plastic, readers’ comments are what it’s all about’ (Barrett 2001: 1). Items are written up by users and can be posted to 8 topic categories: Etcetera, Film&TV, Games, Media, Music, Politics, Tech and Work. Those whose news items are accepted for posting and/or who post comments on the website are awarded ratings on two dimensions. One of these is ‘karma’, which is used to rate a participant as an active member of the community relative to the number of newsworthy postings – both in terms of submitting stories and posting comments on stories – she or he has made to the site overall. A karma rating of 50 or over generally elevates the poster to (volunteer) submissions editor status.

The other rating system-which is linked directly to karma-is peer moderation that operates on a scale of -1 to +5 for a posting overall. Non-registered posters are allocated a default initial rating of ‘0’ when they first post a comment, while the rating baseline for registered users is +1. Moderation points are awarded by Plastic’s editors and by a changing group of registered Plastic members who have been randomly assigned the role by Plastic’s editors; or, as the message alerting members to their new moderator status puts it: ‘Congratulations! You’ve wasted so much time on Plastic that for the next 4 days we’re making you a moderator’ (Plastic 2002a: 1). Each moderator gets 10 moderating points to award to posted comments on a Plastic news item, and the possible ratings each moderator can allocate are:

Whatever 0 Irrelevant -1 Incoherent -1 Obnoxious -1 Astute+1 Clever +1 Informative +1 Funny +1

Genius +1

Over-rated +1 Under-rated +1

The moderation points awarded to each post are tallied and the final score is automatically updated and posted in the subject line of the message for readers to see. In other words, ‘if four or five moderators think a comment is brilliant, it may end up with a +5; useless comments are moderated down to a -1’ (Plastic 2002b: 2).

This ranking practice is based on formal recognition by the site that users cannot read everything that is posted on a topic. With a peer ranking system in place, users can set filters to screen out postings that fall outside a ranking range of their choice. For example, setting the filter threshold at +3 means only those comments that have been moderated and score at or above +3 will be displayed. Conversely, setting the filter threshold at -1 means every comment posted will be displayed. Plastic offers this ranking and filtering function as a means for helping users practise selective reading and to help enhance the quality of postings to the site.

(c) Being a text bricoleur

This role reflects Michel de Certeau’s concept of bricolage as ‘poetic ways of "making do" ’ and the ‘artisan-like inventiveness’ of ordinary people’s everyday practices whereby they use whatever comes to hand to participate in these practices (1984: xv, 66).

For example, the growth of personal webpages in the mid-1990s spawned an explosion of bricolaging online. People not necessarily well-versed in HTML code needed for producing webpages cobbled pages together out of materials – or representational affordances to use Kress’ terms – available online. They ‘borrowed’ or poached decorative icons and images from other webpages, inserted into their pages animated images made freely available by others (who had spent hours coding them simply for the pleasure of doing so), copied layouts and ‘wallpaper’ or webpage backgrounds, and used colour schemes and font styles they saw on others’ webpages etc. This circumvented the need for extensive training in HTML and other web-related coding and generated online communities populated by ‘everyday’ users rather than specialists alone – as had previously been the norm.

The emergence of open source operating systems like Linux in many ways represents a worldwide collaborative bricolage. In the early 1990s, Linus Torvalds created Linux using a ‘free’ (i.e., not copyright by a corporation) unix-type programming language, and made the operating system he developed available online for other platform developers and coders to tinker with and add to. Linux has subsequently become a powerful, accessible and effective alternative to expensive operating systems like Microsoft’s Windows or Apple’s Mac systems. Cuba, for example, has embraced Linux as its national platform of choice. Cuban programmers develop Linux-compatible software to meet the country’s needs without having to outlay millions of dollars in buying pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all programs from foreign corporations.

To a large extent bricoleur roles are the very heart of insider practices within digital affinity spaces and communities. Online bricolages generally expand the possibilities of the internet and the opportunities people have for participating in online and related offline practices.

Programming new add-on elements for an open-source operating system, or coding new software to run on a new platform of this kind, involves much more than tying the code to people’s existing ‘available knowledges’ (Freebody and Luke 2003: 57) in a ‘text participant’ sense, or using texts functionally in a ‘text user’ sense. It involves, for example, being able to identify a real need for a new component (e.g., being able to manage files from within a variety of software applications) within an operating system or for a new software application (e.g., developing instant-messaging or database software for Linux) based on formal and informal analyses of what users do with their computers or say they would like to be able to do. Working on distributed projects like the Linux operating system is a political act and means that critical analysis comes built into the project by dint of programmers and users deliberately thumbing their noses at intellectual property rules, commercial ownership and patent regulations and finding creative ways for addressing economies of scale and managing a massive project by making it a distributed one, and so on.

(d) Being a text ‘jammer’

A key role found among the digitally ‘at home’ consists in being able to effectively ‘jam’ (think: mangle and subvert) texts for purposes that ‘add value’ to the jammer’s reading of the original text or their thinking about an issue or event. Jammers’ purposes range over overt political critique and commentary, poking fun at social conventions, spoofing significant world events in order to critique institutions, challenging long-established social icons in order to convey social messages, and so on.

Text jamming involves more than simply recognising and acting on the fact that texts are not ‘ideologically neutral’ (Luke and Freebody 2003: 57). In addition it involves understanding that texts are located within a range of social practices that shape how these texts are construed and interpreted, and that breaking rules concerning what may and may not be said can be productively inventive and subversive. The Adbusters Culture Jamming Campaign is a good example of text jamming that targets ‘mainstream’ media events and advertising, cultural practices, and overbloated corporate globalization with knife-sharp critiques in the form of parodies that act as exposés of corporate wheelings and dealings, and/or provides online information tours focussing on social issues. By turning media images in upon themselves, or by writing texts that critique the effects of transnational companies, the Adbusters’ culture jamming campaigns model ways of drawing on a range of modes to convey keen-edged and well-informed commentaries about a range of institutional practices.

An early image from a critique of claims of an ‘equality’ and ‘ethnically international and caring’ ethic in the fashion world shows how combining familiar images and tweaking texts can produce bitingly honest social commentaries that everyone everywhere is able to read (see Figure 1). The overt message sent by conventional advertisements for the Italian fashion house, Benetton, shows a range of young and old people from different ethnicities wearing Benetton clothing. These images suggest the company aims at contributing directly to a loving and peaceful ‘global village’ by producing clothing that is not culturally situated, but which appeals to all (young) people everywhere.

Figure 1: The True Colors of Benetton.

Source: www.adbusters.org

The Adbuster image strips away the allusions to a global village and lays bare the profit-directed business culture that drives the label’s push into multiple economic markets around the world and that shows up the one-world/one-culture ethos of the Benetton ads as simply yet another marketing ploy.

Visual memes often provide good examples of text jamming. A meme is a ‘contagious idea that replicates like a virus, [and is] passed on from mind to mind’ usually via email and websites (Bennahum, no date). Spoofs of political processes and events often become hugely popular memes by dint of their sharp critiques shot through with sardonic humour. Recent examples include real media footage of President Bush and President Blair spliced together and lipsynched to the song, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", with the overall effect of producing a soppy, albeit hilarious, love letter between the two men and designed to be a critical commentary on the war in Iraq (see: http://www.atmo.se).

End note

This paper reflects work at a very early stage of development. Even at this early stage, however, we think our arguments help to suggest the depth of the mire that School Literacy Education is in. The four roles model is an example of leading edge work in its area. Yet, we believe, it has serious flaws so far as conceptualizing literacy in the new media age is concerned. Moreover, we believe it does not provide an adequate conception of the relationship between literacy activity in school and the substantive literacy roles that increasing numbers of people from all walks of life are taking up within robust everyday social and cultural practices.

There are no simple recipes for what to do, but we believe two points are worth considering. Both involve rejecting the suffocating focus on School Literacy Education as an increasingly pervasive focus within the curriculum that locks learners into ever diminishing educational circles. The first suggestion is to move away from a specific focus on literacy in and of itself and, instead, to embed literacy acquisition as far as possible in participation in purposeful practices that transcend classrooms and, indeed, school sites. Elsewhere (Knobel and Lankshear 2004; Lankshear and Knobel 2003a: Chapter 4) we have described an initiative known as Knowledge Producing Schools. These schools approach new technologies as relationship technologies: as ways of bridging the gap between school and community, and building curriculum around knowledge producing projects that respond to genuine demands for a product or outcome, typically from a community source. School learners have access to the kind of expertise from within and outside the school that will enable them to produce the kinds of products that are acceptable to the clients. They master the more specifically literate aspects of the practice in their organic relationship to the practice as a whole. This seems to us the best way for students to learn how to move appropriately between the complementary representational logics of writing and image/display and, in the process, to obtain a grounded understanding and proficiency with design.

The second suggestion is that we actively seek ways to make space rather than take space in curriculum with respect to substantive text-related roles of the digitally at home. This means looking for principled ways of appropriating roles, ways, tools, and uses that young digitally at home learners already have into grounded, academically and scholastically sound practices that articulate well to the world beyond the school (Lankshear and Knobel 2003c).

Neither of these suggestions is particularly difficult to conceive and implement. It mostly calls for educational will. We believe the current state of School Literacy Education should provide more than enough incentive to find the will.

1. Note

In his recent book, Literacy in the New Media Age, Gunther Kress argues cogently against using the term ‘literacy’ in constructions like ‘visual literacy’, ‘computer literacy’, and so on. We think his arguments apply to the idea of being ‘digitally literate’ that we had in mind when we submitted our paper proposal to AERA under the title ‘Text roles of the digitally literate’. This was a concept of people who realise their meanings and purposes successfully through the texts they produce as participants in everyday social practices using digital technologies as the means of communication. Alternative terms like ‘the digitally proficient’ or ‘the digitally adept’ do not quite capture what we are after, since they suggest being proficient with the particular type of technology rather than with communicating meanings successfully using these technologies as resources. Since this is always a matter of being on the inside of practices as well as knowing how to use some kind of communications ‘technology’, we think Nicholas Negroponte’s (1995) idea of people who are ‘digitally at home’ captures our intention as well as any other alternative we can think of.


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