Multimodality for Multilinguals: It’s Not Only Multimodal Composing

Sample student Project
Multilingual International Students Create Multimodal Projects

This semester I’m teaching one section of first-year composition for multilingual students. The first-year composition curriculum at Miami University includes five inquiry projects, the fourth of which is a multimodal project in which students remediate their public argument inquiry essay (the third inquiry) into a text in a different media. As I was planning for this class, I was concerned about introducing the multimodal project to my students. I wondered if my multilingual students would readily accept multimodality as an equally important form of writing, and if they would value multimodal projects as much as print essays. From my previous experience teaching international multilingual students, they tend to resist this form of writing.

I decided to incorporate multimodal texts in all class inquiries instead of waiting until the fourth inquiry to introduce multimodality. I thought that multimodality should be so integral in the course materials and activities that students not only get used to other forms of writing, but appreciate the value of multimodal texts as well. In the first inquiry, I used Facebook posts to introduce students to the rhetorical situation, namely audience and purpose. This was students’ first encounter with multimodal texts: to realize that their Facebook activity is basically “writing” but in a different form. I encouraged students to use images in their first – third inquiry projects to illustrate or describe the situations they discussed in their essays. The image below is a screen shots from one student’s essay, where he incorporates memes into his discussion of social media.

Sample from students' multimodal projects
Sample from students’ multimodal projects

When we moved to the second inquiry, multimodality was present in almost every class activity. For example, I used Marsalis’ video to teach about rhetorical appeals. Students were so engaged with the video and were able to define the three rhetorical appeals and name some rhetorical strategies from watching the video twice. After discussing the appeals thoroughly in class, it was time for students to identify those appeals in a variety of texts in different media. I started with an episode of Dr. Oz’s show. Students were in awe when being told to watch a pop culture show, realizing that the rhetorical appeals can be found in multimedia texts and not necessarily in written “academic” texts. Later, I introduced students to visual and web rhetoric to challenge their pre-formed concepts of rhetoric and limiting it to print texts. Luckily, it was the week iPhone 6 was introduced to the public, and the New York Times had just published an analysis article about it. Through discussing this article, students became more accepting of the role of visual rhetoric in writing and understood that visuals are not supplemental elements in writing, but rather contribute to the effectiveness of any discussion.

As the class moved closer to the multimodal inquiry project, it was crucial that argumentative multimodal texts/videos be introduced to students. Once more, I used an argumentative video from The New York Times and students were asked to analyze the argument presented in the video: position, claims, and various types of supporting evidence. Students’ insights into that documentary were fascinating. They didn’t even question the validity of visual argument as they engaged in analyzing the video and the effectiveness of the argument. Moreover, students were required to use a visual source in their public argument inquiry. They used videos from TED, YouTube, and news websites to build their argument and support their positions.

This extensive integration of multimodal texts was inspired by Shin and Cimasko’s (2008) conclusion that students’ tendency to neglect non-linguistic modes in designing their multimodal projects was due to the heavy emphasis on and use of linguistic texts in previous projects in class. Encouraging students is essential, but leading by model and infusing multimodal texts in all stages of writing and in different projects prior to asking students to compose multimodal texts is more important. Multilingual students need to see how multimodality is integral in all texts they deal with, especially in what they perceive as highly academic contexts.

When multilingual students find themselves in a U.S. college writing classroom in which the teacher introduces multimodality, they feel shockingly overwhelmed. Not only haven’t they heard this term before, but they may not have been exposed to other modes/media of expression in academic contexts throughout their former education. Students’ apprehension grows as they are required to compose a multimodal text to argue a position or share a narrative. So? Should teachers just eliminate multimodal composing from their writing classes, especially those dedicated to multilingual writers? Absolutely not. I agree with Shin and Cimasko’s (2008) argument that multilingual students should be able to learn about multimodal composing as they learn to write in English. The question is: HOW?

Before hitting the How question, I figured that identifying the challenges international multilingual students may face with multimodal composing is a more logical step. Unfortunately, there is not much scholarship published in this budding area despite the phenomenal increase of international students in US universities and the parallel growing interest in and attention to multimodal composing in our writing classes.

Shin and Cimasko (2008) found that multilingual students showed preference for the linguistic mode over other modes of expression in designing their multimodal projects. This finding is contrary to their assumption that multilingual students may find other modes of expression more appealing as a means of overcoming their linguistic limitations. This choice of linguistic mode may reflect students’ cultural and academic background that perceives English writing as alphabetical texts that have to follow strict academic conventions. It may also have to do with their own writing practices in their native languages that may cast supremacy on alphabetical texts and the linguistic mode of expression.

Another explanation could be that students mostly interact with multimodal texts in non-academic contexts, which may blur their views of multimodal texts as an academic genre that carries equal value to linguistic texts. So what now?

How can writing teachers handle multilingual students’ negative attitudes towards multimodal composing?

How can they ease multilingual students into multimodal composing process and multimodality?

The answer is never easy.

Adsanatham et al.’s (2013) recommendation that digital composing requires “unique pedagogical scaffolding and modeling process” is incredibly valid in writing classes dedicated to multilingual students. When I thought about this scaffolding and modeling process, I found myself reflecting on my own approach to multimodality with my multilingual students. After a number of semesters teaching multilingual writers, and as a multimodal composing teacher-scholar, I realized that I oftentimes confined multimodal pedagogy to multimodal composing. I also realized that multimodality is much more inclusive than multimodal composing, or the production phase of multimodality. While my realization could be a given to many instructors, I assume I’m not the only one who thought narrowly of multimodal pedagogy. I now understand that it’s time I changed my approach to incorporating multimodality in my writing classes for multilingual students.

Extensive and consistent exposure to multimodal texts implicitly sends the message that other less-conventional modes of communication are equally important in academic contexts and helps students develop appreciation for these modes. This modeling process complements Dubisar and Palmeri’s (2010) suggestions to prepare students for multimodal composing. Dubisar and Palmeri recommended offering workshops on using software to produce their videos (political remixes in their case). Although offering technical support and training is crucial in a class that adopts multimodal pedagogy, students need substantial rhetorical training in order to feel comfortable composing multimodal texts.

My students started their multimodal composing projects during the last week of October. Without even mentioning the magic word “multimodality,” students have developed much appreciation of other modes and media of communicating and composing. Multimodality became integral in students’ thinking about writing, essay composing, analysis, and argument. I assume that students are ready to understand what multimodal composing means and why it is important or makes sense. They’ve seen it for themselves in every class activity and in the previous three inquiry projects they have completed. Whether or not my assumption is correct, the study I’m starting by the end of the semester will tell. The study aims to unpack multilingual students’ attitudes towards multimodal composing and to explore if a semester-long multimodal pedagogy may have helped ease them into multimodality. For now I’m pleased to have realized that multilingual students need more than a one-shot multimodal composing project in their writing classes.


Leave A Reply