Composing Multimodal, Multigenre Texts

By Mary Ann Cappiello and Erika Thulin Dawes

Associate Professors, Lesley University

Think back over your day or take a look around at your current surroundings. What kinds of texts have you read, have you written, have you used, or do you see around you? Most likely, if you are reading this, you are on your computer.  You’re reading this blog, but you might also be listening to music via a streaming radio station; photographs from your latest vacation may also be open on your screen. Your local newspaper might be on your desk, and you might be using your smart phone to check the weather. In today’s world we are immersed in texts of all kinds and formats. Traditional text genres are now accompanied by digital and multimedia text genres of all varieties, including tweets, trailers, podcasts, blog postings, and other forms evolving even as we write this. This diversity of texts presents exciting opportunities for students to compose their own multimodal, multigenre texts to express their content learning.

So what is a multimodal, multigenre text? When we refer to multimodal texts, we refer to texts that activate more than one modality. For example, a webpage that offers text, photographs, and an audio recording is multimodal. An app for a tablet computer that includes video, music, and written text is also multimodal. A multigenre text is one that pulls from a variety of traditional and nontraditional genres. For instance, a picture book that contains poems and nonfiction prose is multigenre. So is a historical novel that contains elements of fantasy, such as time travel or magic, or fake primary sources.

Providing children with the opportunity to create original multimodal, multigenre texts allows them to mirror their real-world reading experiences, experiment with different formats and modalities, and decide what modality and genre is the best fit for demonstrating their content learning. Students are often much more engaged in their work when they understand that it is purposeful and for a specific intended audience.

When we think about the kind of writing students might do to demonstrate their learning, we keep several guiding principles in mind. Foremost, we want the writing products to offer students an opportunity to demonstrate how they are grappling with a diversity of perspectives in content and how they are synthesizing information across texts they have been reading. We also hope student responses will allow us to see their increasingly sophisticated use of content literacies. Student products should be multigenre and multimodal whenever possible, reflecting the variety in the texts they have been reading and that they encounter in their everyday lives.

We strive to provide students with as many assessment options as possible. Sometimes students are all writing in the same genre; sometimes they have a limited number of choices to choose from to show what they know; sometimes, they are the sole designers of the assessment products. Finally, whenever possible, we try to find authentic audiences for student writing, presentations, or performances, instead of limiting response to a private set of comments between teacher and student.

For example, student-composed texts within units of study might be:

  • Within a study of the solar system, to demonstrate their understandings of the moon phases, fifth grade students painted images of the moon in its various phases, using paintings as mentor texts. Students further demonstrated their content knowledge by creating museum display cards in order to explain through prose the science behind the phases of the moon.
  • When studying trees and their role in an ecosystem both globally and locally, third grade students created a local tree guide in e-book format using the Audubon Guide to North American Trees digital app as a mentor text. Their guide book included photographs, statistics, and descriptions of the tree type characteristic.
  • Throughout a study of immigration focusing on historic and contemporary immigration to the United States, second grade students added writing products to an “Immigration Trunk” that served as a portfolio shared with families on a visiting day. Items in the trunk included an image and written text about an artifact they would bring with them if they were moving to another country, a letter written from the point-of-view of an immigrant from the early 20th century, describing his/her experiences during an Ellis Island simulation, and personal reflections on texts read in small or whole group settings.

We suggest the following steps as you plan for student composed multimodal, multigenre texts within a unit of study.

1. Revisit your unit goals and the content standards to determine what content standards need to be addressed within the assessment. Consider how you might balance student interests and questions with the content standards.

2. Identify the content literacies that you hope students have acquired in the unit of study. Revisit the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts and Content Literacy and consider how disciplinary literacy will be important component of the reading, writing, speaking, and listening that students will do while composing texts. Think of the standards as a tool that can be used to access and process content information.

3.  Think about authentic products that are logically connected with the area of content study and whether the unit suggests a genre study. Are there particular stand out texts you have read that you want to use as mentor texts for student writing, visual art, or media production?

4. Think about what balance you want to strike within the unit between how many assessments you will use that demonstrate formative and summative collective understanding of content and how many assessments you will use to demonstrate individual understanding of content or genre.

What is the advantage of providing your students with a wide variety of text types to compose in response to their learning? Students have an opportunity to better understand the elements of genre when they write in a variety of genres within a single text and over the course of the year. They also have the chance to consider the range of modalities available to them to make the best match between content and form, in order to share the important content knowledge learned within the unit. This necessitates an attunement to audience, which is vital for any writer. Such choices mirror real-world reading, writing, listening, and viewing that matter deeply to students. By allowing them to create the very types of multimodal, multigenre texts that they confront every day in their personal and school-based reading, you allow them to become ever-more critical readers of texts.

Mary Ann and Erika will both be presenting a day-long session at this year’s Summer Intermediate/Middle Literacy Institute at Lesley University. Their session, “Reading and Writing Multigenre Texts” will discuss how to lead students toward a reflective stance in their reading and writing as they grapple with diverse perspectives and synthesize information across texts. This year’s Summer Literacy Institute takes place July 9–12, 2012 in Cambridge, MA.

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