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Multimodal Mondays: Composing Visually-Making Meaning through Text and Image

posted: 12.1.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Today’s guest blogger is Professor Kim Haimes-Korn.

We are all well aware that visual rhetoric has the power to communicate meaning on its own or in concert with text.  We interact with so many images every day that influence us, shape our perspectives and move our emotions. As teachers, we are usually comfortable engaging students in visual analysis where they participate in acts of interpretation. Multimodal composition offers students ways to extend those efforts and compose through visuals as well.

Generally, when students start composing visually they think primarily about the aesthetic appeal.  Although this is an important layer of visual impact, I encourage them to go beyond aesthetics and think about the ways composing with images is another rhetorical act in which we make choices about our purposes, audiences, subjects and contexts.  Our lessons about issues such as style. persuasion, voice, are still front and center in our writing instruction.

We learn that the bringing together the textual and the visual promotes more opportunities for meaning making. This is particularly true when we have our students composing in visual mediums because of the need to compose context and identity online. Digital and visual projects call for students to go beyond just drawing from context and allows them to create it as well.  Images have the potential to act on both literal and figurative levels and express meaning on their own or in conjunction with text.  I explain the ways students can go beyond the literal and compose representative images.  For example, if students are writing about travel experiences, they can take a picture of an actual place they visited or they can compose an image that represents their sense of place. Of course, once we put these compositions into the larger, public conversation, interpretation is communally constructed; but teaching visual composition and textual contextualization is part of writing in digital contexts.

Mobile technologies allow for us to easily compose visuals with built-in still and video cameras with good enough resolution to use in documents and on the web.  This technology (along with other photo-editing tools) offers us a variety of ways to easily integrate visual components into our assignments.   It is important to also remember that we need to teach ethical citation practices for visuals and to introduce students to copyright free image searching tools such as Creative Commons.  We can instruct students to introduce, reference, and situate their images and to compose purposeful captions that connect back to their texts.


  • To increase student awareness and engagement with visual rhetoric and composition.
  • To understand the relationship between the textual and the visual.
  • To emphasize parts of the writing processes such as invention, drafting, revision and editing.
  • To introduce document design.

Background Reading for Students and Instructors

  • §  The St. Martin’s Handbook: Exploring a Topic (3a), Design for Writing (23a-b)
  • The Everyday Writer and Writer’s Help E-Book: Exploring Ideas (6a-f), Making Design Decisions (9a-b) 
  • Writing in Action: Explore and Narrow a Topic (5a), Making Design Decisions (8a-b)                    
  • EasyWriter: Exploring a Topic (2a), Designing Texts (2f), Planning Assignments (4a)
  • Creative Commons and other public domain sites.
  • Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) resource: Visual Rhetoric Overview – Background and Presentations
  • University of Houston’s informational site on Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling

4 Assignment Ideas for Composing Visually
Invention:  I often ask students to brainstorm through image search engines that allow them to search by topics or keywords.  They can highlight and pull the keywords from their written documents or from outside readings to increase their visual knowledge on a subject or follow a concept visually. This exercise can also introduce them the difference between literal and representative images.  For example, they might conduct image searches on keywords such as procrastination and time-management if they are researching this topic. Students can also generate words that get them to reflect back on experiences in their life with terms like high school or explore abstract terms such as change.  Google has a strong image searching tool but they can use other search engines as well.

Drafting:  You can pair writing and visual assignments. For each writing assignment have students compose six representative images that speak to the purposes and ideas in their written texts. A variation is to have them include them as visual sources within their papers. Eventually they have to thoughtfully incorporate them into their drafts and contextualize them with purposeful captions and citation information (if they are using images that are not their own). Teach document design and have them carefully consider and practice design issues such as color, size, font, pull quotes, and images. Introduce design principles such as contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity (See Purdue OWL resources on Visual Rhetoric).


A snippet from student Randy Brown, Jr. Click here to see his full project.

Digital Stories:  Have students take a series of images that tell a story in a sequence. This is a good time to reinforce ideas about narrative structure, arrangement and transitions. Sometimes I guide them with a prompt or just have them go on a photo journey in which they compose in ways that connect one activity or scene to the next. I ask them to tie these images together in presentations that can integrate text, narration and audio or stand on their own. Students can use digital storytelling tools and edit their stories or present them as a slideshow with presentation software.

Blogging:  Blogging is a good way to get students to understand the relationship between text and image. The form itself calls for students to represent themselves visually through connecting pictures to posts, shaping a profile, and composing their online identity. On my students’ exploratory blog assignments I have them insert an image along with a post. They design categories for their image gallery and create a place for future academic projects. Obviously, this is a great place for them to showcase the multimodal assignments they create in our classes.  Rhetorical issues such as audience, purpose, and context become very important in this format as students are shaping their e-dentity by communicating with audiences outside of the classroom.

Reflections on the Activities

I find that students are very comfortable working with visual composition as they are familiar with visual culture and communication. At first they see this as the job of professional writers, but they soon realize that the multimodal tools today allow for all writers to communicate visually. I also notice a stronger sense of ownership when they transform their work from the look and feel of an academic paper to something that has visual depth. It gives them a stronger sense of audience and helps them to understand the larger rhetorical situation and the complexities involved with communicating meaning. Visual composition opens their eyes to the possibilities for multiple acts of composition.  Any of the activities described above can extend existing print-based assignments through the multimodal lens of the visual.

I have linked to some of my students’ work in which they compose visually.  I included some of their  blogs-in-progress and some visual documents that demonstrate rhetorical uses of images and document design. Check them out at my Acts of Composition website.

Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor in the Digital Writing and Media Arts (DWMA) Department at Southern Polytechnic State University.  Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things.  She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. This week, Kim shares visual composition assignments and some of her students’ blogs and visual compositions.  You can reach Kim at or at

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

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Categories: Andrea Lunsford, Guest Bloggers, Multimodal Mondays, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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