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Multimodal Mondays: Combining Words and Visuals to Analyze a Text

posted: 9.23.13 by Andrea Lunsford

Arguments that combine words and images are ubiquitous, but students often absorb these multimedia messages unconsciously. Assigning an activity that asks students to interpret an image and complement it with words will give them practice in analyzing and creating visual texts.


Learn about analyzing visual texts by creating captions that alter an audience’s impression of an image.

Background reading before class

Prepare students to discuss analyzing visuals by reading relevant content from your handbook or rhetoric:

  • Everything’s an Argument, Chapter 14, “Visual and Multimedia Arguments”
  • The St. Martin’s Handbook, section 7d, “Analyzing a Text”
  • The Everyday Writer, section 12d, “Analyze the Text”
  • EasyWriter, section 3b, “Thinking Critically about Visuals”

In Class

As a class or in small groups, ask students to draw from their own experiences to generate a list of captioned visuals.  Some obvious examples might be advertisements, newspapers, or cartoons, but encourage students to think about less expected sources such as academic essays and textbooks, art museums, or old family photo albums with handwritten captions.

Bring in some examples from different sources to display for the class—or, if students’ examples are available online, search for and project the images at the front of the classroom. One option is the famous New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest where you can view the week’s finalists for different captions of the same cartoon.

As a class, talk about how a caption changes the impact of an image to create an effective visual text. Consider discussing the following:

  • How does the context of an image (where it appears—online, in a newspaper, in a textbook) change what you write in a caption?
  • Should the caption refer directly to the photo (e.g., “this [subject] shows…”) or should it let the image speak for itself and present new information? What are some instances where direct or indirect captions are appropriate?
  • How important is the sentence style of the caption? Should it be short or long? Should you use active voice or passive voice? Are some words more effective than others? (Have students look at sentence style strategies in the relevant sections of their handbook or rhetoric to come up with their answers.)


For homework, ask students to choose an image that they find compelling or that relates to a writing topic or class theme. Students might bring in family portraits, photos from newspapers or magazines (captions removed), photos they’ve shared on social media sites, and more. Have them write two captions for the image that will create two different impressions. For instance, students might create captions that are sad and funny, accusatory and sympathetic, overly sentimental and logical, etc. Ask students to submit their final visual texts to you. They should be able to explain what impressions they intended to make with their captions and how the words they wrote achieved that purpose. You might decide to have students submit these explanations in writing or orally in a presentation to the class.

Reflection on the activity

Ask students to reflect on the captioning activity, using questions like these as prompts for discussion and writing:

  • How and why did you choose your image? What details about the image (its subject matter, its colors, its composition, etc.) made you think it would benefit from having a caption?
  • Was it difficult to write a caption without any context for the image you selected? Or, did you have a context in mind when you were writing the caption? Where would your captioned image appear if it were published?
  • How did the impression you wanted to make determine which kinds of words or style (word choice, syntax, etc.) you used in your captions? How did you revise your captions?
  • Imagine that you needed to use one of your images and captions in an assignment for class. What kind of paper, presentation, or other project would feature this visual text?


Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment? Send ideas to for possible inclusion in a future post.

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