College Writing and Multi-Modality – 2012 Workshop

Presenter: Elizabeth Tasker-Davis

In 2011, a survey of 1,500 high school graduates of the Class of 2010 found that

  • “47% totally or mainly feel that they wish they had worked harder in high school
  • “66% think high school did a good job of getting them ready for college and preparing them for college-level work, but 33% say their high school should have done a better job of this” (Hart Research Associates).

In 2007, the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington D.C. stated 65% of college teachers surveyed think high school standards do not prepare students for college.  The reasons given:

  • High school curriculum is not aligned to college requirements
  • High school learning practices are focused more on too wide of a coverage of topics
  • High school courses need to include more rigorous development of critical thinking on big ideas in key content areas, as well as better training in academic behavior and general college preparation skills.

In 2011, as reported on in Huffington Post, the book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses presents a study of over 2,300 students from 6 colleges nationwide in which:

  • The longitudinal results of standardized testing of students as incoming freshman, second semester sophomores, and then again as seniors showed very low percentage of improvement (45% of sophomores and 36% of seniors did not improve significantly).
  • Survey data in responses from these same students indicate their college experiences had- low writing requirements (half were not required to write 20 pages for any class) and low reading requirements (one third were not required to read more than 40 pages per week for any class)

Do we accept the statements above?

Ground truth in the writing classroom is what we actually see and experience with our students.  It may or may not confirm what we read and hear from research and assessment reports. This symposium is not about college readiness statistics and theories; it is about ground truth in the writing classroom and what we can do, practically and feasibly, to improve student writing.

In 2012, our second annual Teaching Writing summer symposium continues the mission of improving college-writing readiness in the East Texas community.  This year, we have chosen the theme of multi-modal and mixed media instruction in order to help teachers visualize and design a composition curriculum that

1) accommodates different learning styles,

2) increases student engagement, and

3) connects student writing to the everyday demands of technology and communication.

What is multimodality?  Is it the same thing as multimedia?

From a digital perspective, a good answer to these questions appears in a 2009 article in Computers and Composition, which explains:

  • Modes are “ways of representing information… Examples of modes include words, sounds, still and moving images, animation and color.
  • Media are “the ‘tools and material resources’ used to produce and disseminate texts … Examples of media include books, radio, television, computers, paint brush and canvas, and human voices
  • A group of scholars known as the New London Group defines multimodal as a screen-based form of communication in which “the medium of the screen is …the primary site where multiple modes can be composed to make meaning in dynamic ways. …Multimodal texts are characterized by …combination of modes (such as images, text, color, etc.)” (Lauer 227)

While digital modes and media are essential to today’s writers, they are not the entire picture.  In defining multimodality in relation to composition pedagogy, we might consider the meaning and relationships of these three separate concepts as they pertain to higher education:

  1. Modes of Learning
  2. Modes of Discourse
  3. Literacy


Modes of Learning

Modes of learning relate not just to comprehension of written or spoken texts but to all the cognitive processes by which we perceive and process information.

Modes of Learning

What we Read
What we Hear
What we See
What we both See and Hear
What we Discuss with others
What we Experience
What we Teach someone else


Modes of Discourse

For many veteran teachers in the field of composition studies, the term “the modes” refers to the four main categories of composition that dominated in the late 19th and early 20th century: Narration, Description, Exposition, and Argument.   But in the past fifty years, the trend in the college writing classroom has been to de-emphasize the modes and rather focus on writing process, audience, and/or social engagement.  With the advent of globalization, digital technology, and widespread social media usage, the emphasis in composition pedagogy is changing yet again, but even as trends change each one adds some lasting effects to composition studies and practices.

So, while “the modes” of discourse have not been a focal point of composition in many years, they have never really disappeared either.  In practicality, “the modes” are a natural part of writing.  Many textbooks now combine the modes with what were formerly called the methods of explication or paragraph development so that the combined list includes not only narration, description, exposition, and argument but also definition, cause and effect, compare and contrast, process, example, and analogy, among other common patterns of discourse.

Twenty-first Century Literacies

Literacy consists of proficiency in the accepted communication practices of a culture. As society and technology change, so does literacy.  As the NCTE explains, in a 2008 Policy Brief:

The twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable.

From the NCTE Executive Committee:

In 2008, the committee issued a new definition of literacy, stating that 21st century readers and writers need to:

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • 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 multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments



The modes of learning + the modes of discourse + multiple literacies


the scope of multimodality
(as it pertains to teaching writing).

 Thus, we can say “Multi-modal Mixed Methods” in composition pedagogy are teaching practices that

1) engage students in multiple learning modes,

2) require students to work with a variety of materials and media, often combining language with images or performance, and/or

3) often require group interactivity or collaboration.

Guidelines for Teaching Writing

(Sept. 2008 NCTE Policy Research Brief)

The guiding principles for this symposium are found in the NCTE 2008 Policy Brief on writing, which call for composition pedagogy to be holistic, authentic, varied, collaborative, and transferable: 

Holistic implies that writing involves many integrated skills performed in a context. 

Authentic implies that:

1) writing assignments should involve not only form but context (setting, audience and discipline)

2) collaboration is reality

3) feedback should occur formatively during various stages in composition (See Appendix B: NCTE Guidelines on Formative Assessment.)

4) writing practices should involve new media

5) students see a relevant connection between themselves and their writing assignments. 

Varied implies that students need exposure to and practice with different genres, contexts, requirements, audiences, purposes, and environments. 

Collaborative implies that students need to work together in cooperation on writing projects. 

Transferable implies that students recognize how they will be able to use writing skills from composition classrooms in future academic and professional settings and projects.


Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Connors, Robert J. “The Rise and Fall of the Modes of Discourse.” College Composition and Communication, 32.4 (Dec. 1981). 444-455

Hart Research Associates, “One Year Out: Findings from a National Survey Among Members of the High School Graduating Class of 2010, Submitted To: The College Board.” August 2011. Web. Accessed July 24, 2012.

“High School Teaching for the Twenty-First Century: Preparing Students for College.”  IssueBrief.  Washington: Alliance for Excellent Education, Sept. 2007.

NCTE Policy Briefs.

Lauer, Claire. “Contending with Terms: ‘Multimodal’ and “Multimedia” in the Academic and Public Spheres.” Computers and Composition 26 (2009). 225-239. Web.