Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Emoji in Literacy Training and Healthcare Communications

Omonpee W. Petcoff, Janice C. Palaganas, Marcel Danesi

Since emoji gained global diffusion in the early 2010s, emoji characters have coalesced into a self-contained language that people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds use on a daily basis, in remarkably similar ways. This visual language has evolved into a cross-cultural literacy, migrating to many areas of social interaction, including in education and in healthcare communications. The emoji code, however, has yet to become institutionalized within such areas. The studies conducted by the authors of this post, included in a book published by Cambridge University Press, point directly to the viability and feasibility of systematic institutionalization, so as to make instruction and written interactions inclusive and comprehensible no matter the backgrounds of the interlocutors. As a result of our research, we found the incorporation of emoji literacy into educational contexts enhances the acquisition of academic literacy itself. The results of applying emoji theories discussed in our book have also had several implications for the theories themselves.

Given that emoji are understandable to virtually everyone, without any formal training, by integrating them in classroom pedagogy to allow students to carry out specific learning tasks, we found that the learners display a shift from the emoji system to the formal literacy system with facility and motivation. Needless to say, the use of emoji in such contexts must always bear in mind the many culture-based and subjective nuances of meaning that are assigned to emoji themselves—a possibility that we took into account directly in our research projects, discussed throughout the book. One of our main findings has been that emoji literacy can be incorporated constructively in teaching contexts to aid the realization of learning tasks at all levels; another finding has been that the use of emoji can greatly facilitate communications between health professionals and the general public. Especially critical is the fact that emoji, by their very nature, are inclusive of everyone, bearing within them no historically derived and potentially biased distinctions or judgments as to what literacy is, thus fostering congeniality that favors and promotes meaningful interactions.

One of the research projects discussed in our book, conducted by Dr. Janice Palaganas, a behavioral scientist and health practitioner herself, involved a training course for health practitioners at the Massachusetts General Hospital; another was an experiment in literacy remediation in a college in Texas, using emoji as a semioliteracy-based teaching tool to improve developmental students’ reading and writing skills, conducted by Dr. Omonpee Petcoff, a literacy instructor at Tarrant County College; a third research area was a critical literature review of emoji use by Dr. Marcel Danesi, which helped shed some theoretical light on our education and healthcare findings. The projects described in the book also allowed us to refine the theories and models of emoji use. For example, we found that even the use of a smiley emoji in response to some statement has what we call “annotative function,” in the sense that it encapsulates visually what the interlocutor is thinking or feeling, rather than just fulfilling a communicative function. This function is especially critical in the healthcare world, especially when medical doctors explain foreboding symptoms to patients. It constitutes a way to establish a common ground of unstated empathy.

Another finding was the fact that emoji have what can be called an episodic structure, which is different from verbal syntax in the fact that the placement of emoji signs in a message is not governed by rules of grammar, but rather by unconscious rules of emotivity; that is, emoji are placed in strategic locations among the episodes of a text to inform interlocutors of the emotions or moods injected into a message. These must be gleaned by the reader in a way that is akin to extracting aesthetic meanings from pictorial art. For instance, if the intended sentiment is “sadness,” then a facial emoji with a frown and closed, downcast eyes, simulating sorrow or pain (😔), used in places where this sentiment is evoked, becomes part of the semiotic subtext of the entire message, leaving its emotive traces episodically.

In sum, the overall aim of an “applied empirical emojistics,” as our approach can be called, is to assess how emoji can contribute to activating learning mechanisms in students of all backgrounds and to investigate what qualities make them effective tools in healthcare communications. Among the key questions that this approach raises are the following two: Can empirical knowledge about emoji functions be harnessed to enhance learning and communications among people of all backgrounds? Can functions such as the annotative and episodic ones be used to enhance formal interactions? Our goal in the book was to initiate research and an academic discourse to address such questions further.

Emoji in Higher Education by Omonpee W. Petcoff , Janice C. Palaganas , Marcel Danesi

About The Authors

Omonpee W. Petcoff

Omonpee W. Petcoff, Tarrant County College Omonpee W. Petcoff is Assistant Professor of Integrated Reading and Writing at Tarrant County College. Her work promotes semioliterate a...

View profile >

Janice C. Palaganas

Janice C. Palaganas, Harvard Medical School Janice C. Palaganas is Professor of Health Professions Education at MGH Institute of Health Professions. She is an award-winning author...

View profile >

Marcel Danesi

Marcel Danesi, University of Toronto Marcel Danesi is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. His notable publications include The Semiotics o...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!