Going Multimodal

This is a reblog of a post I wrote for Inside Teaching in December 2015.

No matter what courses you teach, you have probably found yourself in a situation where you are looking for better ways to express a complicated idea or complex phenomenon. Whether it be the theory of evolution, the inner-workings of a human mind, or how an internal combustion engine works, we have found ourselves in a position where we are thinking, “Hmm…how can I best explain this?” Out of many things we care about—when it comes to our students—one of the most critical challenges is to teach with clarity, without opening new doors for misconceptions, and without increasing their cognitive load.

There are several approaches one can take to solve this problem. You can spend more time discussing a topic, you can assess students on their understanding and address missteps, deconstruct it into simpler problems, or you could find better ways to explain these topics so you can convey the essential ideas with utmost clarity, without losing their inherent complexity. The last of the aforementioned approaches is the one I am interested in discussing more. This is the multimodal approach to texts. Or, simply put, using multimodal texts. In this post, I will explain what multimodal texts are and share an example of how we can integrate them with regular instruction.


The word multimodal means multiple modes of representation. In other words, using more than one mode of representation to convey the same idea. For example, written text or alphabetic text is one mode of representation. But, it is only one mode. There are obviously more. Some scholars have defined five modes of representation as important to teaching. These are written text, aural, visual, spatial, and gestural (Anstey & Bull, 2010). Each of these modes has its own affordances and constraints. Alphabetic texts are great at sending a message across, but they can also lead to multiple interpretations or ambiguity at times, and lead to further misconceptions. Visuals, which we all knowingly or unknowingly use in our instruction, are better at giving a sense of size, color, space, etc. When looking at a picture, you do not have to start from left to right or top to bottom. You are free to explore the space as you “read” the image. The rules are obviously different. What is even better is that using two or more of these modes of representation together can enrich our understanding of a topic as they can be designed to act as complementary to each other.

Simply Multimodal

Think of yourself trying to explain a complicated topic. For the sake of argument, let us use internal combustion engine as an example. According to Wikipedia, internal combustion engine is “an engine that generates motive power by the burning of gasoline, oil, or other fuel with air inside the engine.” A lot of you are not engineers, let alone mechanical engineers. Just by reading this definition may give you a sense of what it means, but most of that understanding is your prior experience or knowledge on the topic or engines in general. Now, let me add another mode to the mix. Here is an image of an internal combustion engine that I searched online and found at University of Tennessee’s website (Breinig, 2009)

Now, although this image adds more terms to the understanding, it gives us a better sense of what this engine looks like. We see what the definition meant when we look at the figure and find a cylinder or an exhaust valve. We add some meaning to our previous understanding by making links between the definition and the image. To make it even better, I found a GIF, with an easy Google search, from Wikipedia, by Zephyris. It shows how the engine looks when working:

This is a .gif image of a four-stroke engine in motion.Including the GIF adds motion. The image changes in time to give a better sense of how these parts interact with one another. Now, not only we know what the definition and key parts of an internal combustion engine are, we also know how they work. Overall, we can say that each modality has its affordances and constraints. The way we combine these modes together can enhance the overall learning experience, making the sum more than its parts.

Beginning Your Multimodal Journey

No matter how complex or simple-looking the concepts we teach, we need to look beyond the use of traditional alphabetic texts. We need to understand it is natural for students to ask for the look and feel of concepts, even especially when we are dealing with the more abstract. Students can use multimodal texts to get an overall understanding of the topic and create a picture of how things work in their heads. By limiting ourselves to alphabetic texts, we make it harder for students to fathom some of the topics we may take for granted. If you are interested in integrating multimodal texts in your classrooms, I recommend searching for copyright free content that is easily available online. For instance, for images, you can start with Creative Commons search, and for sounds, I recommend Incompetech. Using these, you also choose to make videos using YouTube’s free video editor. Giphy.com is also a fun resource to create GIFs from existing videos. If you wish to read more about multimodal texts, I recommend starting from Anstey and Bull’s website.

Let us start thinking beyond traditional texts, and find new ways to including multimodal texts in our instruction. As we wrap up this semester and begin to think about designing our curriculum for the next semester, I urge you to consider the following questions:

  • What are some of the most complicated topics to teach next semester?
  • How can I best explain these topics to my students?
  • What modes of representation would allow me to capture the essence of these topics and make them easier to understand without losing their complexity?
  • Out of the five modes of representation shared here, which ones will be the most essential?
  • Finally, can I spare 15 minutes to play with creating these multimodal texts for my class?


Anstey, M., & Bull, G. (2010, June 4). Helping teachers to explore multimodal texts. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.curriculum.edu.au/leader/helping_teachers_to_explore_multimodal_texts,31522.html?issueID=12141

Breinig, M. (2009). Car engines. Retrieved 10 December 2015, from http://electron6.phys.utk.edu/101/CH8/internal_combustion_engines.htm

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