Macken-Horarik, M R. (2016). Building a metalanguage for interpreting multimodal literature: Insights from systemic functional semiotics in two case study classrooms. English in Australia,51(2), 85-99. Australia: AATE.
English is an already crowded curriculum and the incursion of multimodal literature puts it under increased pressure. How do teachers and students learn to understand and deploy tools of analysis that shed light on verbiage and images without becoming entangled in a complex and crowded analytical language? Is it possible to develop a metalanguage that relates meanings made in one mode to those in another – to enrich literary interpretation without overwhelming students’ appreciation of literary texts? An adequate response to this question calls for an epistemological stance and metalanguage that accepts polysemy (multiple meanings); that reads choices as motivated by higher order concerns; and that is relational in its approach to analysis. This paper explores the potential of systemic functional semiotics (SFS) for addressing such requirements. Drawing on data collected in the final year of an Australian Research Council project (DP110104309), it considers three principles of SFS informing the metalanguages used by two secondary teachers in their work with students on literary picture books and fiction films. Halliday’s principle of metafunctions (three major kinds of meaning) enabled the teachers to explore different meaning frames in interpreting images and language; the principle of system (contrasting options for meaning in a given semiotic environment) allowed them to open up the idea of choice for students in analysing texts; and the principle of stratification made relations between meaning, function and form easier to unpack in classroom discourse. The affordances of such intellectual tools in SFS are observed in students’ oral and written responses to literary picture books and in teachers’ accounts of what they taught and what they learned from their classroom interventions. The paper interleaves reflections on each aspect of SFS with interview accounts of how the metalanguage was used to enhance literary interpretation of selected students. The final section of the paper highlights implications of this case study work and possibilities for future research into the relationship between metalanguage and processes of metasemiosis in literary interpretation. It turns on the question of whether the analogic power of concepts like metafunctions, system and stratification gives students portals to literary meaning that enrich (without crowding) interpretive work on multimodal texts.
Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education
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