Sunday, October 20, 2019

Gunther Kress

It is hard to think of what literacy studies would be like without the concept of multimodality - and for this we have Gunther Kress to thank. His death in June, 2019 came as a shock to many of us. Throughout his academic career and particularly from the mid-nineties he was a prime force in re-defining literacy. Although he always collaborated closely and generously with others, it is his thinking on social semiotics that has been influential in research, policy and practice. Two of his books 'Literacy in the New Media Age' (2003)and 'Multimodality' (2010) stand out as landmarks and contain those key ideas that he refined over a number of years. In these you find social semiotics, design, affordances, media and, of course, modality – all carefully explained and exemplified. Because of the significance and wide reach of his work on multimodality it is easy to overlook the breadth of Kress’s academic achievement. For instance, his work with Bob Hodge was particularly fruitful. Their book 'Language as Ideology' (1979) is still worth reading. And then in 'Learning to Write' (1982) Kress turned his attention to children’s writing - a topic which was then still seen as the poor relation to reading development. This is an important book for anyone interested in early writing, but it is the preface and additional chapter that he wrote for that book in 1994 that signals such an important shift of emphasis. ‘My own thinking’ he writes ‘has moved from a nearly exclusive interest in language to an interest in all those forms which are important in public communication, and in particular the visual.’ (p.xvi). That interest in the visual was expressed through his collaboration with Theo van Leeuwen in Reading Images (1996) and continued long after that. Kress’s impact on ideas about early literacy is as influential as his work on visual communication.  The project launched in 'Learning to Write' was followed with 'Before Writing' (1997) which took widely-accepted ideas about emergent literacy and expanded them in directions that still preoccupy the leading lights of literacy research. That book suggested that literacy begins with children’s earliest attempts to make meaning – intentional acts of representation that often involved objects, drawings, and what might otherwise be called play. The border between literacy as lettered representation and other forms of meaning making has been under dispute ever since this publication. All of these ideas played into his collaboration with the New London Group and into the expanded framework for multiliteracies (Cope and Kalantzis, 2000) which gained popularity with policy-makers and curriculum designers in many parts of the world and is still hugely influential. The part he played in this is clear for all to see, but it sits alongside an impressive catalogue of other achievements. This is a formidable contribution by any standard and yet it is the memory of Gunther Kress’s rigorous and generous intellect that we should treasure above all else - there is no doubt that his academic outputs will continue to draw a wide readership.