A Call to Communicate

Make multi-modal writing an essential part of learning

image of four students sharing ideas in conversation

Forbes magazine has defined communication as one of the most important skills in today’s world. Communication today goes way beyond the ability to write text. While writing will always remain an essential skill, modern devices and a global audience means communication can and should be visual and auditory as well.

“We can’t really know anything that we can’t communicate.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Providing students with opportunities to communicate in different forms prepares them to contribute to today’s connected world. Communication that involves all three cueing systems not only helps us share information more quickly and effectively, research shows that it also helps us retain and comprehend curricular understandings.

Communicating through text

Most of us have heard the saying … Choose your words wisely. While essential for social success, being mindful about our words has academic value too. According to research from Marzano’s team, when students take notes and summarize, they “learn to eliminate unnecessary information, substitute some information, keep important information, write/rewrite, and analyze information.”

This does not mean writing down oral ideas verbatim, or copying and pasting text from a digital source, it means putting information into their own words. My son’s recent homework assignment put this idea into action. As students created their own “Road to the Renaissance,” they had to summarize important concepts in one sentence!

image of student sample project summarizing Renaissance ideas

Not only did the students have to choose their words wisely, they had to actually place them in a small enough space to create a timeline-like display. So, they really had to think about the “essence” of each topic and make sure they communicated it in as few words and pictures as possible.

Communicating through voice

A friend of mine has a rule that text messaging should be limited to four back and forth exchanges before you have to pick up the phone and talk. Hearing someone’s voice, how they use their words, their intonation, and their rhythm is so much more telling than using text or images alone; not to mention, most times it is a faster, more effective, and more personal way of communicating.

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” Maya Angelou

Capturing a student’s voice is one of the most powerful ways to share a student’s learning. If students can record themselves within the context of creating a curriculum project that represents their learning, even better. Krashen suggests that acquisition is, “an unconscious process when language is used for real communication purposes.” Have students communicate their learning in the classroom by recording their voice to:

Digital tools, like Wixie, make it easy for learners to record their voice, listen to it, and then re-record if necessary or desired. According to linguist, Stephen Krashen, it is especially critical with our second language learners, whose “affective filters” may up and thus require a more private and non-threatening space to practice their language development.

Incorporating learning activities that integrate recording the student’s voice is not only motivating for students, but it models for them that their voice is important and matters.

Communicating through images

Although the early days of cave paintings, smoke signals, and carrier pigeons have been largely replaced by digital images, text, and voice, the most basic form of communication these days is actually what we started with; symbols. We rely on them so much that phones have built in symbols (emojis) to help us communicate with rapid speed.

You are most likely familiar with the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but did you know that our brains can identify an image shown for a little as 13 milliseconds? And while our short-term memory is the part of our brain that processes words, images are processed by our long-term memory where they get etched in and make a lasting impression.

It’s easy to integrate visuals into your instruction. For example, display an interesting image and ask students to make inferences about it. You could also share two images connected to a topic you are studying and ask students to argue which one would make a better image to represent the concept during a news broadcast.

image of green jungle foliage to represent meaning of verdant

Be sure to ask students to communicate their ideas and learning with images too. This can be as simple as drawing or pechakucha (more show, less talk) presentation.

Wrapping text, voice, and images together

Learning sticks better when we can combine these ways of communicating together. As researcher, R, Lehrer (1993,) states, “The process of building a multimedia project, requires learners to transform information into dimensional representations, determine what is important and what is not, segment information into nodes, link the information segments by semantic relationships, and decide how to represent ideas.

Again, digital tools make this process accessible to the classroom. As they work to build comprehension around new ideas, information, and data, ask students to:

One of the greatest gifts we can give our students is the opportunity for them to share their unique learning with others in ways that matter. So, whether you are having them communicate their learning with their parents, a local business, or with other students at school, make sure to emphasize the importance of their communication. Your student’s words, images, and unique voices are begging to be celebrated!


Krashen, S. (1985). The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. New York: Longman.

Lehrer, R. (1993). Authors of knowledge: Patterns of hypermedia design. In S. P. Lajoie & S. J. Derry (Eds.), Computers as Cognitive Tools (pp. 197-227). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D. J., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Satell, G. “Why Communication Is Today's Most Important Skill.” Forbes. Feb 6, 2015.

Carolyn Keeney

by Carolyn Daly

Carolyn Daly (@carolynkdaly) has conducted hundreds of presentations on literacy and digital tools at education conferences and has published articles on supporting English Language Acquisition and social-emotional learning with technology. Carolyn taught for 4 years as a bilingual educator in California, in addition to 2 years in International schools in Costa Rica and Guatemala. She holds a Master’s of Education in Literacy from California State San Marcos, CA where she conducted her final thesis project on the impact of constructivist technology tools on second language learner’s writing.

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