The Importance of Multimodality in 21st Literacies

Carrying on in my series on what it takes to create literate students in the 21st century (as introduced in this blog post), I’d like to take this post to discuss the way we as teachers and as a society think about multimodal texts.  A mode, in the words of Gunther Kress, “is a socially shaped and culturally given resource for making meaning.  Image, writing, layout, music, gesture, speech, moving image, sountrack are examples of modes used in presentation and communication” (54).  So, essentially, modes are systems we use to make and communicate meaning.  We can make and share meaning through pictures, graphics, gesticulation, and any of the modes Kress lists above.  A multimodal text is any composition that conveys meaning using multiple modes or nontraditional modes like the ones listed above.

When we engage in discussions about academic literacy and composition pedagogy, however, we are referring almost exclusively to the alphabetic, written mode. Generally, we view alphabetic texts as the most academic and rigorous forms of scholarship.  Multimodal texts, texts that exceed the alphabetic, incorporating still or moving images, sound, color etc., are commonly viewed as less intellectual, less academic, and less scholarly.

Here is where I’m going to bring us right back to the NCTE 2013 definition of 21st century literacies, which states…

“Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to…

    • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
    • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
    • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts

I’ve added the bolded words to make my point, which is essentially that our commonplace dismissal of all texts that are not alphabetic is, at the very least, up for questioning.  The NCTE statement above lists flexibility and fluency in multimodal texts and textual design as necessary skills when defining literacy in the modern age.  The NCTE actually has gone so far as to publish a statement specific to multimodal literacy; this statement gets into the complexities of meaning production in our current cultural climate, encouraging teachers to push students to read and write critically and skillfully in a wide variety of media.

As an aside, in order to head off any confusion, for the purposes of this blog post as well as any others that may follow in this series, I am using the terms “multimodal” and “multimedia” interchangeably.  Claire Lauer‘s article, “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres,” analyzes the difference between these two terms, coming to the conclusion that “rather than the use of these terms being driven by any difference in their definitions, their use is more contingent upon the context and the audience to whom a particular discussion is being directed” (225).  So, while I will stick mainly to the term “multimodal,” I am considering the term “multimedia” to be synonymous.

The NCTE is not the only voice challenging our culture’s dismissive view of the complexities and scholarship behind multimodal composition.  Kress feels that the reliance that mainstream culture and society has on alphabetic language and scholarship “is a consequence of histories of power and misrecognition due to power” (67).  Kress bases his point on sign-language; sign-language is a fully functioning, complex system for making meaning that does not use the alphabet in the least, but relies entirely on a system of symbolic gestures.  Kress argues that, since sign language developed out of the necessity of the disabled community, it is not held in the same esteem as alphabetic language.  Collin Gifford Brooke holds that “the composition classroom… with its slow and steady approach to writing, may not prepare students to seize upon” the impactful and trending potential that multimodal and digital writing has to offer (181).  In her recent research, Cynthia Shanahan makes a point of saying that, when she refers to texts, she is “referring to a rather broad conception of that word, in that I refer to graphical or pictorial representations of ideas and spoken discourses as texts.”  She clarifies that she does so because “often these representations may seem more accessible than written discourse but are deceptively abstruse” (143).

My general point here is merely that the casual disregard we have for texts that are composed in modes other than the alphabetic may be based more on cultural biases than on real reflections of scholarship, intellect, or complexity.  If my point has any validity, it would follow that, in a modern high school classroom, our exclusive focus on alphabetic texts is not only limiting, but insufficient in the goal of creating literate students in the 21st century.


Brooke, Collin Gifford. “New Media Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. 2nd ed. NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 177-193. Print.

Kress, Gunther. “What is mode?” The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. Ed. by Carey Jewitt. USA: Routledge, 2010. 54-67. Print.

Lauer, Claire. “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and ‘Multimedia’ in the Academic and Public Spheres.” Computers and Composition 26 (2006): 225-239. Web. 24 Feb 2015.

Shanahan, Cynthia. “Research in Multiple Texts and Text Support.” Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013. 143-162. Print.


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