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Multimodality

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English

Have you ever wondered how to analyse communication in different ways to understand its meaning? This is where the term ‘multimodality’ comes in handy. As a key concept in linguistics, multimodality is often considered when analysing discourse (written/spoken text or images) as a way to understand not only the written meaning of discourse but also other elements that contribute to the meaning.

This article will explore the definition of multimodality and look at the different semiotic modes and mediums (semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and how they are used to create meaning). We will look at an example of a multimodal text and consider the effect of different modes. Finally, we will also look at the use of multimodal teaching and how it can affect learning.

Multimodality: Meaning

Multimodality refers to the use of more than one mode of communication in a text to create meaning. Although communication has always been multimodal, multimodality in discourse analysis is a relatively recent approach; linguists began to consider a multimodal approach around the 1960s.

Discourse analysis refers to the in-depth analysis of spoken, written or sign language.

One person who took an interest in multimodality was Gunther Kress. Alongside linguist Theo van Leeuwen, he contributed to the study of multimodality and was well known for writing books on the topic that were instrumental to the understanding and development of multimodal analysis. Because of this, his work set the foundation for the study of multimodality and influenced the works of future linguists. Perhaps his work may influence you too!

When we look at multimodality, we take into account:

  • Modes
  • Mediums

Multimodality: What are modes?

Modes refer to the different ways that we can create meaning. Gunther Kress1 defines a mode as:

'[...] a socially and culturally shaped resource for making meaning. Image, writing, layout, speech, moving images are examples of different modes'.

Multimodality, Questions written on the wall, StudySmarterDifferent modes create meaning (Pixabay)

People communicate in different ways, so it is important to be aware of the different modes used in communication to fully understand the meanings that are being conveyed. These can be broken down into five categories:

  1. Linguistic

  2. Visual

  3. Aural

  4. Gestural

  5. Spatial

It is important to note that a text does not need to contain all of the above modes to be considered multimodal; it can contain two or more.

Let’s explore these in more detail.

Linguistic mode

The linguistic mode focuses on the meaning of written or spoken language in communication. For example, this includes: choice of words, vocabulary, grammar, structure etc.

The linguistic mode is the most commonly used and most recognised mode of communication.

Visual mode

The visual mode focuses on the meaning of what can be seen by a viewer. This includes: images, symbols, videos, signs, etc. It also includes aspects of visual design, such as colour, layout, font type and size, etc.

Aural mode

The aural mode focuses on the meaning of what can be heard by a listener. This includes: sound effects, music, voice. This can be realised through tone, pitch, speed, volume, rhythm etc.

Gestural mode

The gestural mode focuses on the meaning of communication through movement. This includes: facial expressions, gestures, body language, interactions between people. These are all examples of non-verbal communication, as meaning is conveyed without the use of speech.

Spatial mode

The spatial mode focuses on the meaning of communication through physical layout. This includes: position, spacing, the distance between elements in a text, proximity between people/objects, etc.

Multimodality: What are mediums?

Mediums are the forms in which the different modes are carried, i.e. the ways that modes can be accessed by people. Modes are influenced by the type of medium they are carried by. The medium of a text can determine the purpose of a text and its target audience. Different types of mediums include, but are not limited to:

  • Books

  • Newspapers

  • Radio

  • Television/Film

  • Billboards

  • Theatre

  • Websites

  • Social media posts

There are so many different mediums… can you think of any more?

It is also important to note that there can be more than one medium for a text. For example, an online newspaper combines the form of a newspaper with the layout/features of a website for easy, global access. Also, online newspapers have the advantage of being updated with news in real-time, so news can be reported quickly.

Example of a multimodal text and analysis

When analysing a multimodal text, you should identify the medium the text is in. For example, is it a book? A sign? A film? This will give you an idea of the function of the text and who it is aimed at.

You should then identify the different modes that make up the text and what each mode communicates. The modes convey a message that can be interpreted by looking at each mode individually and also together; as communication doesn’t only depend on a single mode.

For example:

Multimodality, A road sign, StudySmarterA sign is multimodal. Each mode conveys different meanings. (Pixabay)

What can this text tell us?

  • The medium of this text is a sign; particularly a road sign. This tells us that it is aimed at drivers, and has the purpose of giving instruction to them.

  • The linguistic mode - the words ’slow down’ let us know of the action to be taken by the driver. They deliver a clear message in an imperative manner (ordering the driver to do something).

  • The visual mode - the font of the text is large, bold and evenly spaced out, making it easy to read for passing drivers. This stands in contrast to the orange background of the sign, which is bright and will grab the attention of the driver. Orange could also be associated with a warning, to signify caution.

  • The spatial mode - in terms of where the sign is in relation to other objects, it is situated right by the road, so will be visible to drivers and will be able to caution them as to avoid speeding or accidents on the road.

It is also important to note that there can be a difference between the denotation and connotation of certain signs. Denotation refers to the literal definition of something, whereas connotation refers to the secondary cultural meanings we apply to something. Taking a look at the sign above, we can gather the following:

Denotative meaning: Road sign.

Connotative meaning: Signals us to slow down.

Another example is the use of orange:

Denotative meaning: A colour.

Connotative meaning: Signifies warning/caution.

Multimodality is not just considered when analysing texts… It is also used as a teaching method.

Multimodal teaching methods

Multimodal teaching methods refer to different ways of teaching that use different sensory modes. This is an important way of teaching as it allows students to discover their preferred way of learning and focuses on adapting learning to fit their individual styles.

Multimodal teaching methods focus on these four modes:

  • Visual

  • Auditory

  • Kinaesthetic

  • Reading/Writing

The visual way of learning refers to people who retain information through seeing things. For example, they may prefer to use graphs, pictures, charts flashcards, etc. to be able to visualise the information and remember it.

The auditory way of learning refers to people who retain information through hearing. Those types of learners may prefer to participate in listening exercises in which they hear information and repeat it.

The kinaesthetic way of learning is suitable for people who retain information through physical activity. For example, they may prefer to show someone how to do something instead of simply explaining it through writing.

The reading/writing way or learning refers to people who retain information through reading texts and writing things down. Learners with this style of learning may prefer to answer questions from a textbook or eBook.

It is possible to prefer using more than one of these modes when learning; it depends on what works for you!

Why is multimodal teaching important?

The ability to convey information in more than one way enables creativity and flexibility for teachers, as they can combine different learning styles and adapt them to better suit their students. This encourages students to explore the different ways of learning and find the style that allows them to retain information the most effectively.

Multimodality - Key takeaways

  • Multimodality refers to the use of more than one mode of communication in a text to create meaning.
  • Modes refer to the different ways that we can create meaning.
  • Linguistic mode = the meaning of written/spoken language, visual mode = the meaning of what can be seen by a viewer, aural mode = the meaning of what can be heard by a listener, gestural mode = the meaning of communication through movement, spatial mode = the meaning of communication through physical layout.
  • Mediums are the forms in which the different modes are carried.
  • Multimodal teaching methods refer to different ways of teaching that use different sensory modes. These are: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and reading/writing.

1 Kress, G, Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication, 2010

Multimodality

Multimodality refers to the use of more than one mode of communication in a text to create meaning. 

The multimodal analysis considers multiple aspects of a text (as opposed to only the written aspects) to understand better how multiple modes combine to create meaning.

It enables creativity and flexibility for teachers, which helps students to find the learning style that best suits them.

The different modes of multimodality are: linguistic, visual, aural, gestural, spatial.

Multimodal communication refers to using a variety of modes when communicating (e.g. we use a mixture of language, gestures, and posture when communicating). All communication is multimodal!

Final Multimodality Quiz

Question

What is multimodality?

Show answer

Answer

The use of more than one mode of communication in a text to create meaning. 

Show question

Question

What are modes?

Show answer

Answer

Different ways in which we can create meaning.

Show question

Question

What are the different types of modes?

Show answer

Answer

The different types of modes include: linguistic, visual, aural, gestural, and spatial.

Show question

Question

Which of the following is not a type of mode?


A. Aural

B. Digital

C. Visual


Show answer

Answer

B. Digital

Show question

Question

Multimodal texts always contain all five modes of communication.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


A multimodal text can contain two or more modes. It does not need to have all five.

Show question

Question

What does the linguistic mode refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The meaning of spoken or written language.

Show question

Question

Which mode is the most commonly used?

Show answer

Answer

Linguistic mode.

Show question

Question

What does the visual mode refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The meaning of what can be seen by a viewer.

Show question

Question

What does the aural mode refer to?

Show answer

Answer

The meaning of what can be heard by a listener.

Show question

Question

What is the focus of the gestural mode?

Show answer

Answer

The meaning of communication through movement.

Show question

Question

What is the focus of the spatial mode?

Show answer

Answer

The meaning of communication through physical layout.

Show question

Question

What are mediums?

Show answer

Answer

The forms in which the different modes are carried; the ways modes can be accessed.

Show question

Question

Texts can only have one medium.


True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False.


Texts can have more than one medium (e.g. online newspapers).

Show question

Question

What do multimodal teaching methods refer to?

Show answer

Answer

 Different ways of teaching that use different sensory modes.

Show question

Question

What are the four modes of multimodal learning?

Show answer

Answer

Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading/writing

Show question

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