Transmodal/Translingual Projects: A Case Study


As compositionists, particularly as instructors interested in digital rhetorics, many of us agree multimodal composition should be present in the classroom. We seek to design assignments that explicitly call students to use a variety of modes. Of course, composition is multimodal—and like Horner, Lockridge, and Selfe argue, language itself is multimodal—but the principle is to expose to students to consider ways in which modes can combine to be rhetorically effective. For me, this is so important because it is likely what they will compose outside of the bubble of a composition classroom.

The same goes for translingualism: it allows us to think about how our linguistic repertoires work together and it represents how most people communicate in the world. Like Horner and Lu, Matsuda, and Pennycook (among others) have argued, communicators are translingual: we use all of our linguistic knowledge to create meaning. It’s not a concept that only applies to English language learners. If all students are in fact translingual (and have been forever – this is not a new phenomenon), translingualism, then, is not just some buzzword. It’s something that we should be calling for students to actively and consciously engage with so that we can teach students to employ all their meaning-making skills strategically.

The ideas of translingualism and transmodality should be thought of as concepts that go together. Translingualism and transmodality push us, and therefore our students, to think about how meaning is created fluidly, “shuttling” across meanings (hence the use of “trans” in “transmodality”), using all the semiotic resources available to us. For this reason, it’s especially useful to develop assignments that encourage students to employ translingual/transmodal composition strategies.

Given this theoretical framing, I created an assignment that explicitly called students to create a translingual/transmodal project and to reflect about their choices.

Figure 1: Kate's Rap
Figure 1: Kate’s Rap

For the assignment, I asked students to create a multimodal annotated bibliography and a Heads Up statement, which is basically an abbreviated version of Shipka’s Statement of Goal’s and Choices (SOGC). Shipka (2011) explains the SOGC as a document that “requires that students assume responsibility for describing, evaluating, and sharing with others the purposes for describing, evaluating, and sharing with others the purposes and potentials of their work” (112). The assignment (full text here) asked students to compose a text that did the following: accomplish the tasks of an annotated bibliography (summarizing their sources, analyzing how their sources might help their argument, creating connections between their sources to support their claim) in whatever way made sense to them.  Then, students wrote a 1-2 page description of how and why they made their choices. Or, in other words, they made an argument about why their work was rhetorically effective given their audience (themselves) and purpose (accomplishing the goals of an annotated bibliography). Forty-six students completed this assignment, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll focus on three of the students: Isabelle, Sarah, and Kate (of course, those are pseudonyms). Kate created a rap song (an excerpt shown in Figure 1); Sarah created a lucid chart diagram that utilized color coding, short phrases, and the imagery of the puzzle pieces to represent her own thought process about the sources (a visualization of this is represented in Figure 2); and Isabelle created a series of emails written from the perspectives of sources’ authors to document the conversation she imagined them having (one such email is captured in Figure 3). All three students explained their rhetorical choices in Heads Up Statements and interviews with me during office hours.

Figure 2: Sarah's Lucid Chart Diagram
Figure 2: Sarah’s Lucid Chart Diagram

You might be thinking: wait, why are you assigning a transmodal project as a scaffolding assignment instead of as a final project?  Doesn’t a transmodal assignment warrant a final project?  Like Shipka (2011) argues, we should push for transmodal projects to be just as rigorous as traditional, monomodal projects. I agree. However, I also think that transmodal projects can also be used to scaffold for more traditional writing projects, which is why this assignment was created.

Now, I do have to warn you that students begin this assignment by thinking their teacher is crazy. You will need to spend some time talking about transmodality/translingualism so that they recognize how they do this in their everyday lives, and therefore how they can do this work metacognitively in this assignment. But, I will say that this assignment does bring about fruitful results: students not only practice the skills of an annotated bibliography, but also practice metacognition and transfer.

Figure 3: Isabelle's Emails
Figure 3: Isabelle’s Emails

So what did students learn from completing this writing prompt?  And what can we therefore learn about translingual/transmodal assignments?  Let’s hear from the students themselves (with their permission of course).

Through students’ heads up statements and interviews during office hours, I learned the following:

1. Translingual/transmodal projects allow students to utilize their incomes

  • Like Sarah explains, “So if you look at my class or reading notes, they’re all color coded.  I will read the textbook and each heading will have a different color or formulas have a different color or different ideas in a lecture have different colors… I switch the color of my pen when I write notes… It’s easier for me to organize it that way.  So that’s why you see the color coding in my project” (Sarah, Interview).
  • According to Kate, she is “a combination [of visual, audio, and kinesthetic learner], but primarily kinesthetic,” so it is no surprise, in her opinion, that she chose rap because she “has always liked the performance aspect of it” (Kate, Interview).

2. Translingual/transmodal projects allows students to use the affordances of different modes to their advantage

  • Kate’s genre knowledge allowed her to see texts and intertextuality in new ways: writing a rap allowed her to “truly understand the content [of her sources]by dissecting them.  I could not just reiterate what the text was originally saying because it would not fit with the rhyme or rhythm of the piece” (Kate, Heads Up Statement).
  • Isabelle comments that “the more conversational tone” allowed her to make “connections” between her texts and “simplify” her texts in ways that she thinks were more conducive for intertextuality (Isabelle, Interview).

3. Translingual/transmodal projects allow students to practice transfer to other genres/future situations

  • Isabelle explains that next time she creates an annotated bibliography she will “focus more on the intertextuality” (Isabelle, Interview).
  • Kate explains, “I think creating this rap allowed me to see annotated bibliographies through a new perspective in how each source (the verses) can make individual statements and claims while the entire picture as a whole of complying all of the sources together can get at a collective claim such as the chorus of this rap. Before annotated bibliographies to me meant just slapping down sources and regurgitating what they say in different words, now through the process of this rap I see the value and connections that annotated bibliographies can provide” (Kate, Interview).

So what does this all mean for us?  Well, so far, these quotes affirm translingualism and transmodality are intrinsically related. We can also see that transmodal/translingual projects successfully target skills that we hope students will learn in composition classes: using their incomes, navigating genres, and transferring knowledge. And so that brings to questions for further study:

When is it important to create assignments like this?

How should we go about designing these projects?

What else can transmodal/translingual assignments teach us?


  • Jacki Fiscus

    Jacki is a graduate student at the University of Washington. She is primarily interested in multimodal composition, translingualism, and discourse analysis.

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