The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Uncontrolled Response

            Young people have become used to finding all that they are searching for literally at their fingertips. They no longer need to physically go to the library and search the stacks for the information they require, all they have to do is surf the net. Kress (2005) declares that “In particular, it seems evident to many commentators that writing is giving way, is being displaced by image in many instances of communication where previously it had held sway.” Kress (2005, p.5) expresses his belief that this change reflects social and political changes that are taking place and that he thinks that we as teachers cannot ignore. Young people are more passive in many ways than previous generations. They prefer the impact of the visual instead of interpreting print. Bolter (2001) also appears to see the visual finally usurping the role of print as he tells us that “the history of Western prose might be understood as a series of strategies for controlling the visual and the sensory” (p.48). Kress (2005) agrees that writing and images do not have the same purposes and that in his opinion “speech and writing are themselves composed of such diverse phenomena as to make it difficult to regard each as a unified, homogeneous resource” (p.12).

            This leads me to think that as educators we must be aware of the different ways in which print and visuals impact our students and that it is our responsibility to actively show students how to work with multimodal sites, rather than just allow students to passively accept information presented in this format. Reading is a skill which must be encouraged as it engages the reader in an active interpretation of what is presented. The reader reacts to the words whether to agree or to disagree with the author. Images do not require a specific training and yet they can be more invasive and if the viewer does not know how to interpret what he or she sees, then there is a danger that he or she will passively accept (consciously or unconsciously) whatever underlying idea is presented. Bolter (2001) warns of this change when he states that “The image therefore slips out of the control of the word and makes its own claim to presenting the authentic and the real. It becomes hard to imagine how traditional prose could successfully compete with the dynamic and heterogeneous visual experience.” (p.70) Students react to the visual impact and rarely question what they see, words require analysis, images evoke feelings.

            Another worrying aspect is that images can have hidden messages that young people are not aware of. Harmon (1995) explains that “Like all forms of media, subliminals are taking new shape in the digital age.” There have been many fears about the uses of subliminals in media advertising  and Harmon tells us that we now should be aware of how they are being used on computers today. This sounds alarmist, but as Kress (2005) explains “In spatially organized representation, the elements that are chosen for representation are simultaneously present, and it is their spatial arrangement that is used to make (one kind of) meaning” (p.13). These images and their physical arrangement can evoke unconscious responses.  Many of our biggest companies have long been aware of the power of the visual and employ top psychologists to help design images that will have a powerful impact of their audience. Evans and Hall (2004) explain that “The symbolic power of the image to signify is in no sense restricted to the conscious level and cannot always easily be expressed in words. In fact, this may be one of the ways in which the so called power of the image differs from that of the linguistic sign. What is often said about the ‘power of the image’ is indeed that its impact is immediate and powerful even when its precise meaning remains, as it were, vague, suspended – numinous.”(p.311) 

            It is now common for teachers to send students to investigate topics on the Internet as we are aware that students find it easier to access information online rather than to search for information in print form. My concern is when and how are students taught to filter and to critically examine the information they discover. Kress says that “Semiotics does not deal with learning; just as pedagogy or psychology do not deal with signs. However, the process described here is in my view a description of the processes of learning: transformative engagement in the world, transformation constantly of the self in that engagement, transformation of the resources for representation outwardly and inwardly “(P.20-21). Solitary and passive students are most at risk in my experience as they do not have the skills to critically examine what they discover nor do they have the social support to orient them.

            We are aware that they are drawn to sites which offer exciting images and colourful packaging, but how are we as educators responding to these changes? Many teachers incorporate the new changes in technology into their classes as they appear, but do we really change the way we think and teach or do we merely incorporate new technology into our existing classroom plans? I believe that we cannot ignore multimodality.  Kress (2005) exhorts us to accept that “Reading has to be rethought given that the commonsense of what reading is was developed in the era of the unquestioned dominance of writing, in constellation with the unquestioned dominance of the medium of the book.” (p.17). If our goal is to educate our students; then we as teachers must first educate ourselves. Senmali (2001) explains that “A reconceptualized vision of new literacies education would include an explicit effort to enable students to acquire the ability to understand how visual media work to produce meanings.” We must learn about the advantages and dangers inherent in multimodality and its uses and then design courses which will equip our students with the skills they need to handle critically what they see, rather than be manipulated by the information they discover. 



Bolter, J. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Mahwah, N.J. USA.


Evans, J. and Hall, S. (2004). Visual Culture – The Reader.  Sage Publications. New Delhi, India. Retrieved the 10th of November, 2009 from:


Harmon, A. (1995) Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, USA. Retrieved the 6th of November, 2009 from:


Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved the 4th of November, 2009 from


Semali, L. (2001). Defining new literacies in curricular practice. Reading Online, 5(4). Retrieved the 13th of November, 2009 from:


1 Kathleen Cavanagh { 11.13.09 at 7:06 pm }

Hi Clare,
Your comment “Students react to the visual impact and rarely question what they see, words require analysis, images evoke feelings” is a nice way to summarize the way these different media impact the reader/viewer. The power of images is encapsulated when one frequently hears ” I cant believe what I saw”. People do not analyze it but let the emotive aspect impact them without reflection. That suspended belief does not occur as much with reading since the text needs to be analyzed in order to internalize it.

2 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 9:16 am }

Hi Kathleen,
Thank you for your comment. I am concerned that students analyse a lot less now than twenty years ago.

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