Composition and Rhetoric
Material Type:
Community College / Lower Division, College / Upper Division
Ohio Open Ed Collaborative
  • Design
  • Media
  • Multimodal
  • Tme0012
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial
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    Education Standards

    Media and Design: Course Map & Recommended Resources


    The media landscape our students inhabit is rich with multimodal texts. Instructors might assume that because students are constantly consuming multimodal texts, they are adept at reading and composing them. However, that is not necessarily the case. Just as students need to be taught to critically analyze printed texts, they also need to be taught to critically analyze multimodal texts and recognize the rhetorical moves in such texts. Providing students with tools to analyze and compose a variety of texts also helps prepare them to adjust to the literacy demands of an increasingly digital communications environment, in which they will have to filter information and make sense of, assess, learn from, and compose multimodal texts.

    This module recommends texts that align with learning objectives focused on analyzing and composing with multimodal resources. Many of the suggested readings and activities described in the other modules of this guide can be applied to multimodal texts (e.g., analyzing multimodal texts instead of or alongside of primarily alphabetic texts). Below are additional resources and suggestions.


    Basic Definitions, Concepts and Learning Objectives

    Throughout this module, the term multimodal is used to refer to any text that uses communication modes other than or in addition to written language to make meaning. Some other communication modes are images, gestures, space (of a screen, page, frame, stage), sounds, symbols, and language. There are many other terms used to refer to such texts, including digital, visual, multimedia, rich media, computer, technological, and electronic. But multimodal was chosen because of its inclusivity and adaptability. Multimodal texts are often digital or technologically mediated, but they need not be, and so instructors and students who don’t have means of accessing and composing digital texts in the classroom can still read and compose multimodal texts.

    The learning objectives for this unit align primarily with Ohio’s TAG Guidelines regarding Composing in Electronic Environments; however, they also reinforce many of the other TAG categories, in particular Rhetorical Knowledge; Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing; Knowledge of Composing Processes; and Knowledge of Conventions. The objectives for this module are separated into three categories, as follows:

    1. Reading and Analyzing Multimodal Texts

      1. Define terms associated with multimodal texts

      2. Analyze rhetorical elements of multimodal texts

      3. Compare rhetorical strategies of multimodal and traditional/alphabetic texts

      4. Assess rhetorical effectiveness of multimodal texts

      5. Describe common ways that multimodal texts can be manipulated

      6. Identify original contexts for multimodal elements in order to recognize source manipulation

    2. Composing and Designing Multimodal Texts

      1. Determine affordances and constraints of different composing media

      2. Apply rhetorical strategies to multimodal composing

      3. Utilize a recursive process for multimodal composing

      4. Understand and practice accessible design

    3. Understanding Source Integration, Copyright and Attribution in Multimodal Texts

      1. Understand basics of copyright and fair use

      2. Determine original context of source materials in order to determine copyright status

      3. Understand Creative Commons licensing

      4. Demonstrate ethical use of remixed materials

      5. Demonstrate appropriate citation/attribution practices in multimodal compositions

    Reading and Analyzing Multimodal Texts Objective 1.1 - Define terms associated with multimodal texts

    Students should be able to define terms associated with multimodal texts, such as mode, multimodality, remix, filter, channel, layer, foreground and background. Depending on which mode and medium instructors wish to focus on, students could also learn terms associated with that mode/medium. For instance, students working with sound might learn to define terms such as register, timbre, tone, noise (as it relates to audio editing), etc. Terms such as foreground and background are used to describe slightly different elements in different communication modes. However, the underlying concepts are often similar, and students can be encouraged to explore those similarities and differences, particularly in comparison to traditional alphabetic texts.

    The Language of Multimodal Texts, a publication from the Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan, provides a glossary of basic terms associated with multimodal texts and includes definitions of multimodal compositional and design elements as they are generally used in the field of writing studies. Therefore, this is a good resource to use as a general reference.

    Creating Multimodal Texts is another source that can supplement “The Language of Multimodal Texts.” It provides a discussion of the relationship between multimodality and literacy development and provides links to examples of student work.

    Learning Objectives 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4 - Analyze rhetorical elements of multimodal texts, Compare rhetorical strategies of multimodal and traditional/alphabetic texts, and Assess rhetorical effectiveness of multimodal texts

    Besides considering ways that design elements make meaning in texts, students can also explore the ways that rhetorical concepts, such as the appeals or tropes, apply to non-alphabetic texts and compare the ways that traditional and multimodal texts employ rhetorical concepts (sometimes similarly to alphabetic texts, sometimes differently). Furthermore, students can assess the effectiveness of multimodal texts from a rhetorical perspective. A starting point for including multimodal rhetorical analysis in a writing class is by choosing multimodal texts to analyze side-by-side with printed texts on the same or a similar topic. Any of the suggested readings and activities described in the “Reading in Academia,” “Critical Thinking,” and “Understanding Rhetorical Situations” modules of this guide can be applied to multimodal texts. Another good printable resource for rhetorical terminology that includes questions for discussion is Rhetorical Analysis from Miami University.

    Additionally, the sources listed in the previous section about defining terminology can be used along with the sources listed in this section to create heuristics for analyzing multimodal texts, exploring the ways that multimodal elements are rhetorical and considering the ways that various elements interact to create complex meanings in multimodal texts. The resources listed below also reinforce outcome 1a by introducing additional terminology particular to different modes of communication.

    Multimodal Discourse Analysis is a slideshow that provides a theoretical background for this type of analysis and examples of applying different semiotic lenses to multimodal texts. It explains complex semiotic theory in an accessible way and provides illustrative examples.

    A good source about typography as a rhetorical device is Kai Damian Matthiesen on the Rhetoric of Typography. This article is written primarily for “typophiles,” but it is accessible for students and professionals, and presents typefaces in the context of rhetorical choices about communication.

    A text that provides an entry-level discussion of how colors work together to create meaning is The Purdue OWL’s Color Theory Presentation. This presentation helps students begin to think about color choices as rhetorical, rather than merely decorative, and provides students with vocabulary to discuss and analyze the communicative dimension of colors.

    Because many multimodal texts contain video, film analysis concepts such as composition and editing can be helpful tools for analysis. Channel Criswell on YouTube has three videos about color, composition, and editing that introduce students to the ways that these elements are used to make meaning. How to Read Cinematography and Rhetorical Analysis of Super Bowl 2016 Coke Commercial are two shorter videos providing examples of analyzing video texts, the former with a focus on cinema and the latter with a strong rhetorical focus.

    Learning Objective 1.5 - Describe common ways that multimodal texts can be manipulated

    Image and sound manipulation did not arise with digital technologies, but digital media make manipulations of images and sound easier to create and harder to detect. Instructors can introduce students to the forms of manipulation as another lens for critical/analytical reading of multimodal texts.

    These two texts demonstrate manipulation techniques for still images, one focusing on media distortion through airbrushing and one focusing on the creation of completely fabricated photos:

    These two texts demonstrate manipulation techniques for audio and video, one focused on manipulation and one focused on fabrication:

    Learning Objective 1.6 - Identify original contexts for multimodal elements in order to recognize source manipulation

    After discussing the texts from the previous section, students might begin to lose trust in documentary media; however, there are critical thinking tools they can use to determine whether a multimodal text has been manipulated or created from scratch for deliberate deception.

    Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Mike Caulfield provides a rhetorical process that includes specific techniques for determining whether information, including images, found on the internet is accurate and reliable. Part III, in particular, demonstrates ways to track an image to its original source.

    These two articles each provide a good explanation of common ways that images can be digitally manipulated with many examples:

    There are also many resources for helping students think about “fake news” from a variety of perspectives, including how the term “fake news” works rhetorically in public discourse:

    • Distinguishing Fact from Opinion explores the difference between fact and opinion, and demonstrates the ways that evidence can make some opinions more informed than others.

    • BrainPOP UK's Fact and Opinion explains, with multiple examples, the difference between fact and opinion, and introduces the concept of bias in journalism.

    • Opinion vs. Analysis is an editorial blog post by CBCNews (a Canadian news outlet) Editor Jennifer McGuire that distinguishes opinion and analysis and explores the question of objectivity in journalism.

    • Mistakes, Misinformation and Media Accuracy and Balance is a lesson from the Washington Post’s Newspaper in Education Classroom Resource that helps students understand the difference between a mistake and a lie in journalism.

    • Ads masquerading as journalism, the slippery slope of branded content from Canada’s public broadcast network exposes the pervasive use of “branded content,” a kind of advertising that is designed to look like news, in American journalism.

    • What does the term ‘fake news’ really mean? is an episode of Al Jazeera’s The Stream in which several media literacy specialists discuss the term “fake news,” how it is used, what it means, whether it is a slur, and how useful it really is as a concept.

    • How and why to avoid sharing fake news from ConnectSafely, a non-profit media literacy organization, focuses on privacy and safety on the internet, provides a list of “things to look for” to spot “fake news,” particularly on social media.

    Additionally, there are reliable sources online that students can use to fact check information:

    • Politifact focuses on fact-checking journalism about politics. They have an “About Us” section that explains their process, their funding, and their ethics. also focuses on politics, and includes other genres besides journalism (e.g., speeches, debates, advertisements). The site has an “About Us” section that details the organization’s mission, ethics, funding, etc.

    Composing and Designing Multimodal Texts

    Learning Objectives 2.1 and 2.2 - Determine affordances and constraints of different composing media and Apply rhetorical strategies to multimodal composing

    Beyond Black and White: Document Design and Formatting in the Writing Classroom (PDF) by Michael J. Klein and Kristi L. Shackelford demonstrates ways to apply design principles to textual display in printed documents. It also presents MLA formatting as a form of textual/document design.

    Creating Multimodal Texts provides links to student-created multimodal texts and production guides, which can be helpful for discussing the various reasons for choosing a particular mode or medium for a message.

    Writing Spaces: Web Writing Style Guide 1.0, edited by Matt Barton, James Kalmbach, and Charles Lowe, provides a rhetorically-focused guide to writing for different online media, including web sites, Tumblr, Twitter, and others. It is an engaging, easy to read resource for exploring the ways that different media are suited to different kinds of messages, and it also provides practical composing suggestions and links to free programs (although some of these are outdated; see the teacher’s supplement for this module for additional software suggestions).

    Learning Objective 2.3 - Utilize a recursive process for multimodal composing

    Multimodal composing is a recursive process, as is composing a traditional academic paper. Because of the extraordinary amount of time involved in using digital composing tools (particularly audio or video), much more time is often spent in the “pre-writing” stages, and formative feedback from instructors and peers is especially important in the prewriting stage. For instance, students composing a video project might create a script and later a storyboard that both get workshopped and/or receive instructor feedback before the students even begin recording video. See the teacher’s supplement for specific scaffolding strategies for several kinds of assignments, as well as additional resources, both technical and pedagogical.

    Multimodal composing can also support idea generation and the drafting process for more traditional assignments. For instance, students can generate word cloud visualizations of their topics to help in the research process (see Building Word Clouds to Generate Search Terms and Wordle as a Tool for Research and Invention), spatially outline/map their arguments (see Using Prezi for Outlining Papers and Sticky Note Discussion), practice distributed peer review through electronic networks (see Distributed Peer Review), color code their papers to help with revision (see Color-coding Revision – Visualizing the Process and Essay Revision with Automated Textual Analysis); there are a variety of options.

    Learning Objective 2.4 - Understand and practice accessible design

    Accessible design, as it applies to writing, means to create texts that are accessible to as many people as possible, using as many modalities as needed. It is often thought of as a technical problem or an issue of accommodation for people with disabilities (i.e., providing alternative text descriptions of images on a website for people with impaired sight). But accessible design is also rhetorical. Captions and other ways of making multimodal texts more universally accessible involve complex decision making about the purpose, context, and audience of a text. Encouraging students to think about accessibility can help them think about rhetorical concerns.

    The OER Accessibility Toolkit provides explanations and examples of best practices in accessible design for several modalities. It is designed for creators and is a good resource for students creating multimodal texts. But it is also useful to spark discussions about accessibility and provide terminology for students to use when discussing the accessibility of texts.

    Composing Captions: A Starter Kit for Accessible Media by Chad Iwertz and Ruth Osorio provides an activity focusing on the rhetorical nature of captioning, asking students to consider the audience, purpose, and context for captions and then write their own transcript of a short movie clip. This activity could work in any writing class with almost any set of video clips to illustrate the concepts and to serve as a captionable text. Iwertz and Osorio’s article also provides some examples to help students understand the nature of the activity.

    Understand Source Integration, Copyright and Attribution in Multimodal Texts

    Learning Objective 3.1 - Understand basics of copyright and fair use

    If students are creating multimodal texts for class assignments that “remix” found objects (e.g., incorporate images, video, and sounds created by others into a new text), they need to know how to do so in a way that respects the intellectual property and copyright of the original authors.

    Bound By Law? is a comic book that explains and illustrates issues of copyright and fair use, particularly as they relate to filmmaking. It is engaging and accessible in its presentation of complex legal issues. For more conventionally styled readings on copyright and fair use, see The Ohio State University Libraries’ publications Copyright Basics (PDF version, iBooks version) and Fair Use (PDF version, iBooks version), which both have quizzes and links to videos that supplement the explanations of concepts.

    Follow the Four Factors of Fair Use (a video linked from OSU Libraries’ publication on fair use) presents a case study of using a fair use checklist to determine whether a use of copyrighted materials is fair use. It is helpful as an example because it presents a case that has arguments for and against fair use, and it leads viewers through the reasoning process of weighing different factors to come to a conclusion.

    Learning Objective 3.2 - Determine original context of source materials in order to determine copyright status

    Student productions created for class assignments are likely to fall into the fair use category much of the time. However, if students decide to publish their work outside of class confines (such as on their own YouTube channel), the fair use status of their work could change. Therefore, they should know how to determine the copyright holder of any works they have incorporated or built upon in their own work. How to Find a Copyright Owner describes several ways to find a copyright holder for a work. Part III of Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, which explains how to trace an internet image back to its original context, can also be applied to help find copyright holders.

    There are also a variety of resources for finding Creative Commons licensed materials. CCSearch is a search engine on the Creative Commons website that allows searches of a variety of types of media for various purposes (non-commercial, commercial, etc.). When using Google Image Search, clicking on Tools will bring up several menus, including one called “Usage rights,” which can filter results by license type. See the teacher supplement for this module for more resources for finding Creative Commons licensed and public domain media elements.

    Learning Objective 3.3 - Understand Creative Commons licensing

    Creative Commons arose as a way for creators to assign user rights to their creations and thus facilitate particular uses of their works. The video Creative Commons – Get Creative explains the origins of Creative Commons and demonstrates how it works. Licensing considerations, a section on the Creative Commons website, explains the different types of licenses.

    Learning Objective 3.4 - Demonstrate ethical use of remixed materials and Demonstrate appropriate citation/attribution practices in multimodal compositions

    Because students’ multimodal assignments are more likely than traditional assignments to find an audience outside of the classroom, it is important for students to understand intellectual property, copyright, licensing, and fair use so that they can use other’s works in an ethically sound manner in their own creative work and so they can manage the copyrights to their own work. This includes abiding by copyright/fair use guidelines or using Creative Commons licensed materials according to their licenses, as well as using the method of citation/attribution most appropriate for the genre and medium in which they are working. For instance, while research papers have a works cited or footnotes, a film/video has credits, which appear in a different form depending on the particular genre (i.e., feature film versus music video). Analyzing the citation/attribution practices of the genres in which students are creating is one way to determine those conventions.

    Class Activities & Additional Resources

    Analyzing Multimodal Texts

    For first-year students, who might be encountering rhetorical and design terminology for the first time, guided practice recognizing the elements in a variety of different kinds of texts can help them explore the rhetorical nature of multimodal composing.

    Almost any multimodal text can be an object of analysis, but this anti-bullying PSA and the Tommy Hilfiger “Freedom” ad shown at the right lend themselves particularly well to basic rhetorical analysis for first-year writing students.

    Design-focused questions, such as the following, can be combined with basic rhetorically-focused questions to guide students in analyzing the ways that rhetoric and design work together to create meaning in multimodal texts (Learning Objectives 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4).

    1. What is the primary mode of communication of this text (e.g., linguistic, visual, etc.)? What other modes are used? Why do you think the designer(s) of this text chose those particular modes?

    2. How is this text like others of the same kind? (This question can be used to build a genre analysis and determine generic conventions).

    3. To what conversation or situation is this text responding? In other words, what is the rhetorical situation of this text?

    4. Who is the ideal or intended audience for this text? How is that audience implied in the text?

    5. How is the language of design used in this text to communicate meaning? What is emphasized and how is that significant? How is repetition used? Describe the way the image is balanced and what the balance signifies.

    6. How are typefaces and colors used to create meaning for readers/viewers of this text?

    Thinking About Media Manipulation Rhetorically

    Students can consider the texts that deal with media manipulation from a rhetorical standpoint (Learning Objective 1.5), responding to questions such as the following:

    1. Who is/are the audience(s) for airbrushed photos (particularly of women)?

    2. Rhetorically, how does airbrushing affect the reception of images?

    3. What are some of the contexts in which audio and video manipulation occurs?

    4. What are some good or creative (i.e., not necessarily deceptive) uses of such technologies (i.e., movie special effects, parody, etc.)?

    Media Literacy

    To practice the tools and techniques from the readings about recognizing and tracing source manipulation (Learning Objective 1.6), students could be given several articles and photographs (some false and some real) and asked to determine which have been altered or fabricated. Below is a list of several images that would work well for this kind of analysis:

    • Various images showing a shark swimming down a street after a hurricane (Sandy, Harvey, Katrina) can be fairly easily debunked. This one even has a news ticker placed on it.

    • Top 5 Fake Hurricane Sandy Photos shows five composite photos that went viral after Hurricane Sandy.

    • This image of President Obama supposedly serving food to victims went viral after Hurricane Harvey but was actually taken at a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C., Thanksgiving of 2015., a media literacy education organization, has a variety of resources for educators focused on media literacy for K-12 students. Some of the resources in the News & Media Literacy: 9-12 section, particularly those on fake news, might be appropriate (or could be easily altered) for first-year writing students.

    Additional Resources

    Please see the Teacher’s Supplement for Reading, Analyzing, and Composing Multimodal/Electronic Texts for more in-depth informal and formal assignments and lesson plans.