Multimodal Mondays: Building Comfort with Multimodal Composing In Class

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Dockter+Jason_Thumbnail.jpgToday’s guest blogger is   (see end of post for bio).

When I teach the first semester of first-year composition, I include a few larger multimodal writing projects (one project was the subject of another post: ). In the four years that I’ve been teaching these projects, one of the constants from year to year is the uncertainty that students have for thinking about writing as anything other than words on the page. When we begin to consider what it means to compose with an abundance of media, tools, and genres, students’ uncertainty becomes more apparent. They struggle with the idea that it is okay to include other images or other elements in their writing, let alone develop an entirely different sort of text in a composition class. This, of course, is one of the reasons why teaching multimodal projects is important. This in-class activity aims to help increase comfort and rhetorical thinking.


To give students in-class, guided experience in using modalities beyond the linguistic to communicate an idea(s), helping students to gain comfort with multimodal composition.

Background Reading

The selected readings below span a range of topics, including rhetorical thinking and choice, composing multimodally and with other media, and design. This activity encourages students to think beyond satisfying the teacher’s expectations and instead, considering a specific audience and how to better communicate the message to  that audience.

  • The St. Martin's Handbook - Ch. 16: Design for Print and Digital Writing; Ch. 18: Communicating in Other Media
  • The Everyday Writer - Ch. 22: Making Design Decisions; Ch.24: Communicating in Other Media; Student Research Essay (pages 509-18)
  • Writing in Action - Ch. 8: Making Design Decisions; Ch. 6: Multimodal Assignments
  • EasyWriter - Ch. 4: Multimodal Writing
  • Student Research Essay (from your own class or the student essay from David Craig in The St. Martin's Handbook pp. 441-9; Everyday Writer pp. 508-518; or Writing in Action pp. 444-53)

Class Activity

Bring an argumentative text to class that someone has published, and ask students to find supportive materials in other modalities to enhance the argument. For this activity, using a sample student text, such as David Craig’s research essay “Messaging: The Language of Youth Literacy” can work well, as it communicates through a single media and emphasizes the linguistic mode (found in Lunsford’s Everyday Writer on page 509). You could also decide to use a student-written text from another class, or create your own. Divide class into groups, giving each group a specific supporting point of the argument to work with. Ideally, this activity would take place within a computer-classroom, where students have access to the Internet so students can find online resources to complete the activities. I envision students working in small groups so they can easily discuss the rhetorical choices inherent in the class activities discussed below, helping each other consider how a different compositional choice may result in a different experience for the audience.

How this is actually done can vary quite a bit. But here are some possibilities for adapting the assignment to your course goals:

  • Limit the types of media or the specific modalities that students should locate/use to support the written argument. You might choose to limit them to images, audio materials, or video segments. What can students locate that can help to support specific ideas that the author has developed?
  • Take the same argument in the activity above and recreate it using different modalities. Discuss the advantages/disadvantages of the multiple modalities used.
    • For instance, how would this argument change if the author emphasized the aural mode and relied heavily on sound?
    • Or if the author used the spatial mode to design the text differently, how would the argument change? What aspects might be improved? Would any be weakened?
  • This text is written to a general audience, but what if the audience was specifically concerned parents, or school administrators, or local politicians? Consider this argument (or different aspects of it) aimed at one of these specific groups. What multimodal elements can students find to enhance the argument to that audience? How do these elements add to the argument? Why this modality/these elements for this specific audience?

While these are just a few possibilities of how a teacher might frame this sort of activity, the hope for this activity  is that students can focus on the work of communicating a specific message without the usual pressure of developing the message. By inserting students into an existing argument, aimed at a specific audience, students can focus on the choices of how alternate materials and modalities can help a reader to make meaning from the text and how different compositional choices can result in different readings of a text. In that way, this classroom activity serves as an excellent scaffolding exercise, leading to a full multimodal assignment that allows students to focus on their own message and rhetorical delivery.

Jason Dockter teaches first-year composition at Lincoln Land Community College. He completed his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University. His research focus is primarily on rhetoric/composition, with specific interests in online writing instruction and multimodal composition.

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.