We draw upon two fields of related inquiry:

  • dialogic theory in English Education, and
  • multiliteracies pedagogy.

Dialogic Instruction

Dialogic instructional practices are curricular and instructional designs that structure interactions in order to foreground the responsive interweaving of voices in the classroom (Juzwik, Nystrand, Kelly, & Sherry, 2008). Dialogic discourse, as a fundamental principle of language-in-use, recognizes the multiplicity of social voices at play within any exchange of utterances, or indeed, within utterances themselves (Bakhtin, 1981).

Although no discourse is ever truly monologic (bereft of the voices and echoes of others) (Bakhtin, 1981), certain traditions of schooling pull toward the monologic (Nystrand, Gamoran, Kachur, & Prendergast, 1997), for example, the pervasive monologue of teacher lecture (although lectures can be more and less dialogic, depending on the extent to which they incorporate diverse social voices). Dialogic instructional practices attempt to promote, take up, and build on a multiplicity of student voices during classroom talk and curriculum. The relative rarity of such practices is illustrated by a finding from a nationwide study of secondary English language arts classrooms, which found that open discussion, in which three or more students converse freely for at least 30 seconds, occurred on the average of 1.7 minutes per every 60 minutes of class time (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003).

Dialogic instruction supports the collaborative exploration of a multiplicity of perspectives, and—as we conceptualize it—dialogic instruction is not always synonymous with classroom discussion. Discourse is inherently dialogic, that is, containing both authoritative and internally persuasive discourses (Bakhtin, 1981). However, in schools, discourse is often designed by the teacher to be more monologic; to support airing of the authoritative perspective alone. A teacher can design a discussion that is monologic: that is, even though students’ voices may be heard, the only views they are authorized to express are those of the teacher or those expected by the teacher. By contrast, a recitation can be designed that is highly dialogic. While the teacher alone may be speaking, she may be restating the contributions the students have made, elaborating on them, and affording them authoritative status.

Teachers who engage in dialogic practices convey to students through a variety of pedagogical choices that they are curious about students' words and ideas. The paradigmatic example of dialogic instruction within the research literature on classroom discourse in English language arts is open discussion, defined as at least 30 seconds of open-ended talk, not controlled by the teacher, among at least three people (Nystrand et al., 1997). Other practices that would fit within our broad framework of dialogic instruction include question/answer sessions, in which student ideas are probed and elaborated through devices such as authentic teacher and student questions; responsive narrative genres (Juzwik et al., 2008); and certain organizations of group collaboration, for example, peer response groups in writing classrooms. Distinguishing dialogic from monologic classroom practices involves evaluating the extent to which multiple voices are included as part of a teacher's instructional repertoire.

The documented scarcity of dialogic instructional practices in US schools is unfortunate, because large-scale research has indicated that a dialogic instructional approach in a context of high academic demands is significantly related with student achievement in English language arts (Applebee et al., 2003; Nystrand et al., 1997). This scarcity is not surprising, however, because dialogic instruction does not always strike busy teachers as the most efficient way to prepare students for tests and other accountability measures.
Our project seeks creative solutions that address the challenges of fostering dialogic approaches in English teacher preparation. The challenges are many: Scholars note that even experienced teachers have difficulty appropriating dialogic methods in the classroom (e.g., Alvermann & Hayes, 1989; Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner, 2001). Beginning teachers tend to rely on the traditional practices they observed during their apprenticeship of observation as secondary students, which makes taking up new practices even more challenging (Lortie, 1975/2002; Wideen, Mayer-Smith, & Moon, 1998). This tendency underscores the importance of disrupting counterproductive teaching practices before they become habitual; opportunities to repeatedly attempt new practices with adequate support are rare (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Ronfeldt & Grossman, 2008).

Because dialogic instruction is challenging, teacher educators need to consider resources that may help teacher interns to critically observe and analyze their attempts over time in collaboration with others. Hence, our teacher education team prepared a learning sequence incorporating technologies designed to support dialogic interactions and reflective practices.

Multiliteracies Pedagogy

With close theoretical ties to New Literacy Studies (Brandt, 2001; Gee, 2008; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; Street, 1995), multiliteracies theory emphasizes the complex, multisemiotic, multivocal nature of digital media texts and practices, as well as the literacy practices associated with those texts, particularly highlighting how various social and other affinity groups manipulate cultural symbol systems to make meaning (Cope, Kalantzis, & New London Group, 2000). Multiliteracies pedagogy emphasizes expanded notions of literacy beyond the genres, texts, and technologies traditionally associated with schooling (e.g., basal readers, textbooks, essays, pencils, and so on) to foreground educational experiences that enable students actively to design, critique, and engage in social and situated literacy practices.

From this stance, technologies are most effectively integrated not for their own sake but when situated in authentic literacy practices (Hicks, 2006; Myers, 2006; Swenson, Rozema, Young, McGrail, & Whitin, 2005). From the beginning planning stages of this project, our theoretical focus—dialogic instruction—for the expected work of the teacher interns has guided the adoption and use of new technologies. Within our project, particular technologies supported interns as they engaged in critical collaboration to inquire into their own dialogic efforts.

Our curriculum created spaces and provided resources for teacher interns to engage dialogic instructional practices in their placement classrooms. Therefore, our decisions regarding technologies, our presentation of technologies to intern teachers, and our crafting of assignments requiring technologies were all designed to support this key element of teaching practice.

We adapted the New London Group’s (1996) multiliteracies pedagogy to guide our incorporation of online and Web 2.0 technologies in support of improving interns’ understanding and facility with dialogic instruction. Rather than simply using multimodal texts and digital technologies, we took advantage of them to create communicative environments where our interns could interact, share, reflect, and collaborate on their shared goal of improving their teaching practice.

Four general processes characterize multiliteracies pedagogy as we appropriated it in our teacher education work:
  • Through modeling and overt instruction, interns understand what dialogic instructional practices look like.
  • Through situated practice, interns develop the know-how and practical knowledge to enact these practices in different ways according to the particularities of their own present and future classroom contexts.
  • By engaging in critical collaborative study of practices, interns receive ongoing feedback from peers.
  • This feedback, in turn, allows interns to refine and revise their dialogic instruction beyond initial efforts, thus transforming practice over time.
These processes were used recursively, not in the top-down ordering their placement on the page may imply.