Ten Things to Know about Multimodal Composing

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As I grade multimodal projects, I’m always frustrated when I find errors that demonstrate that a concept didn’t stick with students. I ultimately spend about half my grading time wondering if the errors I find are my fault. Even though everything is explained repeatedly in assignments, course blog posts, and in the classroom, I fail to communicate some ideas to every student.


As an example, consider the multimodal course that I teach, Writing and Digital Media. Most of the students in course are English majors or minors. They enjoy writing and are usually fairly good at it, as the screenshot on the right from one student's final project shows. When I begin talking about multimodal composing however, they can struggle to follow the concepts, even though they are well explained in the textbook that we use, Writer/Designer, and we go over them repeatedly in class.


As I am planning the course for the fall term, I am thinking of directly addressing these ten issues that I hear students ask questions about most often:


  1. Multimodal does not mean digital technology. Multimodal texts engage multiple modes of communication. You don’t need digital technology to do that. An illuminated medieval manuscript is just as much a multimodal text as a YouTube video is.
  2. It doesn’t mean multimedia either. A multimodal text may use multimedia (multiple media, like photos, animation, words, sounds), but it doesn’t have to.
  3. Everything in the composition classroom is multimodal composing. It’s impossible to write a text that engages only one mode. Take a traditional essay, printed out and stapled in the upper left corner. That text includes the linguistic, spatial, and visual modes of communication at a minimum.
  4. People have been learning about multimodal composition for centuries. Since everything in the writing classroom is multimodal composing, it’s not surprising that teachers have always taught about more than one mode of communication. When you learn how to use layout and design to make the words stand out on a page, for example, you’re learning multimodal composing techniques.
  5. What’s important isn’t how, but when and why. How to use multiple modes of communication when you compose is the easy part. What’s important is learning when to engage the different modes of communication and why they bring meaning to the text.
  6. Using every mode doesn’t necessarily make a text better. Use all five modes if they help you communicate your message, but don’t add modes just because you can. Make sure that they add to the meaning of the text.
  7. Communicating with the visual mode isn’t limited to using photos. Sure photos can be part of it, but you’re also using the visual mode when you add bold text or change the size and color of a font.
  8. The gestural mode includes both body language and movement. The word gestural does make you think of gesture, but gestural mode isn’t limited to things that people can do, like smile or wave their arms about. Any kind of movement that communicates with a reader uses the gestural mode.
  9. It’s easy to compose a multimodal text. It’s actually impossible not to create a multimodal text. When we add words to a word processing document, for example, we may not think about the multimodal communication we are using. We add visual elements when we choose specific fonts, when we add emphasis by changing a font to bold or increasing its size, and when we indent the words to signal the start of a paragraph or a blocked quotation.
  10. It can be challenging, however, to compose a rhetorically effective multimodal text. It is easy to compose a text that uses multiple modes of communication, but it takes work to make sure that the different modes contribute the intended meaning to the text. As you compose multimodal texts, think constantly about your intentions and make sure that the different elements that you add to the text help you say what you intend to.


I am thinking of sharing the list itself, creating an accompanying infographic, or maybe making some memes and posters. If I can convince students of those ten concepts during the first weeks of class, I think they will have an easier time as they work on their projects. I hope so anyway.


What are the ten things that you most wish students knew about the topics you teach? How do you communicate those issues to the class? Share a strategy with me by commenting below or connect with me on Facebook and share your experience.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.