Teaching Multiliteracies in Scientific Discourse: Implications from Symbolic Construction of Chemistry*

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent research on science education has increasingly focused on the literacy challenges posed by multimodality. While students are required by government mandated syllabi to make a successful translation between different semiotic resources, there still remains a lack of research on the grammars and functionality of the specialized modalities to develop explicit instructions to improve literacy practices. This paper analyses the semiotic resource of chemical symbolism in secondary school chemistry textbooks with a Systemic Functional Multimodal Discourse Analysis approach (SF-MDA). It is argued that chemical symbolism is far from a jargon or mere shorthand for language. Instead, it develops unique grammatical devices to realize sub-microscopic meaning and topological meaning, which outstrips the meaning potential of language. The current study also discusses how the SF-MDA approach could develop a visible pedagogy and improve chemistry education.

Key words: Multimodality, systemic-functional theory, chemical symbolism

Science education is characterized by multimodal communication (Gilbert, 2005). Teaching and learning chemistry, for example, are implemented through the co-deployment of diverse semiotic resources including language, images, three-dimensional models, gestures, mathematical symbols as well as a unique system of chemical symbols while the complexity of chemical representations is being intensified with the introduction of innovative teaching and learning resources aided by new information and communication technologies (ICT) such as the use of web-based courseware (e.g. http://www.creative-chemistry.org.uk).

The multimodal construction of scientific knowledge poses a challenge to literacy practices, which are differentiated not only on the basis of channel and medium of communication (e.g. print, image, screen) but also according to subject areas (e.g. biology, physics, chemistry) (Unsworth, 2001, p. 10). In fact, the traditional singular notion of literacy as being able to read and write has been broadened to embrace a pluralized set of 'multiliteracies' (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), which have been specified as essential assessment objectives when students are required to use verbal, graphic, numerical and symbolic forms of presentation to translate one form into another (Singapore Chemistry GCE Ordinary Level (Syllabus 5067) revised for 2010, n.d., p. 2).

However, as Jones (2007, pp. 103-104) points out, current research on multimodality in science education pays scant attention to how to help students develop the diversified literacies to meet the government mandated syllabus requirements while there exists an unwarranted assumption that students already have a good command of multiliteracies. But the opposite seems to be true. Recent research (e.g. Chittleborough, 2004) reveals that even college students and secondary school science teachers have a limited understanding of chemical diagrams and symbolism, which necessitates explicit instructions on multiliteracies in science education.

This paper aims to make a modest step towards a useful pedagogy to improve literacy practices in teaching and learning chemistry at secondary schools with the approach derived from systemic-functional grammar (hereafter SFG, see Halliday, 1978, 1994), which has inspired much productive research on science and mathematics education (e.g. Halliday & Martin, 1993; Halliday, 1998; Lemke, 1998; O'Halloran, 2000). Despite the multi-semiotic nature of chemistry education, only chemical symbolism is highlighted in this discussion, for it is far removed from young learners' sensory experience and thus might constitute the most challenging mode of representations in chemistry education. The present study concentrates on functional specialization of chemical symbolism and is interested in how SFG can be extended to support the pedagogy for multiliteracies.

In what follows, the main tenets of SFG are introduced to justify the theory as an appropriate approach to explore the meaning making potential of chemical symbolism. …