Introduction

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Digital genres have unique features deriving from the multimodal and hypertextual affordances of the Internet. Many studies on such genres have focused on analysing the degree to which they have taken advantage of Web functionalities and have evolved to become significantly different from genres existing in other media (e.g. Shepherd and Watters, 1998; Crowston and Williams 1998; Dillon and Gushrowski, 2000; Askehave and Nielsen, 2005). These studies are based on the assumption that functionality, i.e. the capabilities afforded by the new medium (Shepherd and Watters, 1998), is as important as form and content, and suggest that the analysis of digital genres should take account of the unique properties that the medium adds to the web genre “in terms of production, function and reception” (Askehave and Nielsen, 2005: 3). Kress’ (2003: 35-36) proposal that it is necessary to move from a theory that accounts for language alone to “a theory that can account equally well for gesture, speech, image, writing, 3D object, colour, music and others” (i.e. a semiotic theory) seems to be relevant here. In addition, since hypertextual technology has multiplied text and image capabilities, it is also necessary to analyse the effect of hypertext on how meaning is constructed. Finnemann (1999) proposes that hypertext can activate at least two modal shifts in the reading process: the reading mode (the “reading-as-such”) and the navigation mode or linking mode. The guiding principle in the reading mode is sequential reading. In the navigating mode the reader actively constructs his/her own reading path by traversing sites. The possibility of traversing sites allows questions such as: “what are the possible options, what does the system provide, what are my present purposes?” (Finnemann, 1999: 30).

Askehave and Nielsen (2005) draw on Finnemann`s (1999) idea of “modal shifts” in the reading process of digital document to propose a model of analysis of digital genres. They (2005: 98a) consider that we need to extend the traditional model of genre analysis “to account for the fact that a web text also functions in the navigating mode where the text, due to its media constraints, becomes an interactive medium, used actively to navigate the website.” They propose a two-dimensional perspective on genre, where genre is characterised both as a text, in the reading mode (in terms of its communicative purpose, moves, and rhetorical strategies), and as a medium, in the hypertextual or navigating mode (in terms of its communicative purpose, links, and rhetorical strategies). We consider that a full-fledged model of analysis should consider attributes such as the design of a site (how the site is conceived and produced), its contents and the relation between these contents and with the structure of the site, its interactive elements, the types of links in the site and their function, and the way readers use all these attributes to establish semantic relations between elements within and across texts, perform actions, and participate in communicative acts. In this sense, Lemke (2003) claims that genres are becoming “raw material for transgeneric constructions” and that when we move from one website to another, we make these traversals meaningful: meaning is made across and between genres, as we juxtapose, catenate and traverse websites. In fact, hypertextual technology affords writers the possibility of constructing rhizome-based texts and providing users/readers multiple choice points and multiple pathways not only through one single text (i.e., a website) but also among different ones (i.e., websites). Thus, a key question that is largely unexplored is how readers/users make sense and construct meaning throughout their trajectories across hypertexts, i.e. how the reader of hypertext becomes a “wreader”.

The work reported in the present paper is part of a project aiming at answering the questions raised above. The three main objectives of the project are as follows: (i) to analyse and describe web pages devoted to popular science topics in English, French, German and Spanish in order to identify the echoes of recognisable genres which may become a meeting point between writers and readers as common/shared frame for constructing meaning; (ii) to define mediation strategies concerning new literacies and foreign language acquisition from a socioconstructivist point of view; (iii) to integrate results from objectives (i) and (ii) within a pedagogical framework aiming at a long-life learning process, which should imply both fostering learning autonomy and developing new literacy competences.

The specific aim of this webtext is to present a model of analysis of digital genres that, by taking into account the different elements that converge in the production, reception and interpretation of such genres (i.e., content, form, Web functionalities), can provide insights into how the readers/users construct meaning throughout their trajectories across hypertext. This analysis will allow us to propose new pedagogical criteria that should be considered when designing reading and writing tasks based on hypermedia texts in the FL context.

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