Who Cares About Children’s Rights? Critical Multimodal Awareness and its Implications for the Design, Analysis and Use of Children’s Online Educational Materials

by Nicoletta Vasta, Piergiorgio Trevisan

The present paper focuses on strategies for making sense of image/text relations in a sub-corpus of institutional websites specifically designed by adults to sensitize primary and early secondary school children to the issue of human (viz. children’s) rights. The multimodal materials of this specific sub-corpus were tested, by means of questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, on 100 children from grade 3 to 8 in a local school where English is used as the main language of instruction. The research is informed by systemic functional linguistic theory in its social semiotic applications to other modes of communication. It draws on the notion of (here, children) empowerment as a multi-dimensional social process, investigated through the analysis of checklists focusing on the main verbal and nonverbal strategies children enact to make sense of the multimodal texts and on some basic problematic areas in adult-generated materials creating barriers to informing and eliciting the participation of young learners. More specifically, this paper discusses the main findings of children questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with particular reference to issues of usability, accessibility, critical awareness, and impact of message. The main focus is on the interface between children’s (often inadequate) website exploration strategies and adults’ (often defective) strategies of materials design. The two-fold implication of the research is: on the one hand, to provide young learners with remedial strategies for making sense of such materials while developing greater autonomy and critical multimodal awareness; and, on the other, to fine-tune checklists for analysis and offer guidelines and best practices for the multimodal construction of adult-generated materials, thus potentially configuring a critical linguistic pedagogy centrally concerned with the role of discourse in social practice.