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International Literacy Day on 8 September 2023 highlights the importance of multiliteracy

Published on 8.9.2023
Tampere University
Photo: Jonne Renvall / Tampere University
On the Internet – and especially on social media – communication is becoming increasingly visual. Images can be used to appeal to the reader's emotions and to persuade or even manipulate opinions. According to Reijo Kupiainen, University Lecturer in Media Education at Tampere University, multiliteracy is a valuable universal skill. He has conducted research on the ways upper secondary school students who have succeeded in their studies evaluate the reliability of social media messages. The results show that visual communication on the Internet and social media is not viewed as critically as written text.

This year, the International Literacy Day is celebrated on Friday 8 September. The purpose of the day is to highlight the importance of literacy and its effect on human rights, education, and sustainable development.

The National literacy strategy 2030 emphasises promoting multiliteracy. Multiliteracy means the ability to read, understand, interpret, assess and produce multimodal texts in different environments by using different tools and media. Such texts comprise, for example, images and various visual signs and symbols.

Reijo Kupiainen, University Lecturer in Media Education, says that everyone needs multiliteracy.

“As the national literacy strategy shows, multiliteracy includes the idea that all types of literacy are necessary in addition to the traditional reading and writing skills. Such abilities include, among other things, media literacy and visual literacy. These aspects are all included in multiliteracy,” Kupiainen says.

He emphasises that people need more tools for the critical evaluation of images and other texts that include visual elements.

“It is important to learn to see how written texts, images, videos, emojis and visual symbols work together and how they can be used to influence individual opinions and beliefs,” Kupiainen points out.

Visual messages are often analysed superficially

Kupiainen has conducted research where students who excel in their studies evaluate the reliability of Instagram messages. The results showed that a written text is examined more deeply than images.

“The students analysed written text more closely. Among other things, they evaluated the writer’s motives or the publisher’s professional skills. When they paid attention to the images and the visuality of the messages, their evaluation was more superficial. The students just mainly looked at the general visual appearance of the messages,” Kupiainen says.

The participants comprised 15 upper secondary school students who analysed the messages using the think aloud method. The students read 10 Instagram messages while thinking aloud.

The method produces in-depth information on the processing that happens while reading the messages and it is particularly useful when trying to understand new phenomena.

“Our data does not enable fully generalisable conclusions, but as regards education, the clear message is that more learning about images should be included in the teaching of multiliteracy,” Kupiainen points out.

The observations made in Kupiainen’s study may be related to the fact that understanding and producing written texts and practising argumentation have traditionally played a central role in education. When the reliability of texts has been researched, the studies have also focused more on written expression.

“You must also be able to examine images systematically to be able to distinguish, for example, AI-produced images from authentic images. Images are often used to influence emotions, and modern technology can be used to reinforce messages more credibly. This can be utilised, for example, in information influencing,” Kupiainen points out.

The study was conducted as part of the CRITICAL project funded by the Strategic Research Council. The aim of the project is to support the critical literacy of children and young people. The research has been presented at two international conferences.