Mutimodality: More Than Just Gains

written by Danny Borges

The transition to digital text is resulting in many changes, including to paper based text itself.  In Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning, Gunther Kress (2005) looks at this transition of moving from a mostly textual to mostly visual representation and how it is related to various factors, such as improved technology.  Kress argues that multimodal texts provide greater clarity and freedom, but his bias towards multimodality diminishes the effectiveness of his paper.

Kress explains that areas previously dominated by text are now co-existing with images (Kress, 2005).   These multimodal texts can even, at times, communicate more effectively with images.  The resulting tension between text and visual has brought about “a variety of responses, mostly negative, ranging from outright despair, anger and nostalgia to some still utopian voices on the other end of the spectrum” (Kress, 2005, p.5).  However, detractors fail to realize that “representation and communication are motivated by the social; its effects are outcomes of the economic and the political” (Kress, 2005, p.6).  Kress believes that the increasing use of multimodal texts will change the definition of ‘reading’ to be “taking meaning and making meaning from many sources of information” (Kress, 2005, p.17).

There are many benefits to using images.  For example, words are finite but images are infinite (Kress, 2005).  Also, Kress explains that, unlike text dominated books that require readers to follow a preset sequence in order to receive information, mediums such as websites allow readers to create their own knowledge and choose the path they take (Kress, 2005).  The screen’s potential, combined with advances in printing, have significantly influenced multimodality, including in the form of printed text.  In fact, the reader may even be afforded the opportunity of becoming the writer.  As a result, the views on writing are changing and authors must now consider medium, interactivity, and visual design, in addition to content and audience.

Despite some strong points supporting the importance of images, Kress weakens his paper with vague and inaccurate statements.  He states “only that which is worded can enter into communication; or else, that which is to be represented gets squeezed into the ill-fitting semantic shape of the existing word” (Kress, 2005, p.15).  By downplaying the ability of language to reword or describe something, Kress neglects one of languages’ greatest assets.  Instead, I believe the key question should be regarding the ability of images to display something abstract.  He goes on to pronounce that “speech and writing tell the world; depiction shows the world. In the one, the order of the world is that given by the author; in the other, the order of the world is yet to be designed (fully and/or definitively) by the viewer” (Kress, 2005, p.16).  However, Kress over-simplifies the dichotomy between text and image (Prior, 2005).  He also ignores the fact that the selection, manipulation, and arrangement of images can influence readers as much as written text.

Although Kress’ goal may have been to identify the ‘gains and losses’ of transitioning to “representation primarily through image” (Kress, 2005, p.5), he fails to balance his arguments in favour of multimodality with an acknowledgement of the advantages of text or disadvantages of increased image use.  Kress ignores the value of prose or the potential of the written word.  There are times when the voice, such as that in text, is the ‘primary experience’(Bolter, p.61) and others when images are avoided because of their unwanted associations.  As well, images can hinder imagination and improperly convey abstract ideas such as love, God, or freedom.  Furthermore, there are numerous pedagogical advantages to articulating knowledge over displaying it.

Kress chooses his examples selectively when he champions multimodal mediums, such as websites, and argues that text, such as books, forces the reader to follow a strict linear fashion.  However, he ignores a large list of important genres, such as newspapers, dictionaries, and magazines that are designed specifically for such a task.  He also fails to consider that digital multimedia provides not only an opportunity for students to create a richer multimodal text, but also produce “text with less semiotic work than before” (Skaar, p.40, 2009).  Although the use of images can provide more freedom, copying images can mean compromising with an image that isn’t an ‘exact fit’ (Skaar, 2009).  As well, there is no mention of different types of learners or gender differences.  He doesn’t consider that, at times, girls may prefer written text over images (Skaar, 2009, p.38).  Gains and Losses further loses credibility when Kress includes statements such as “the elites will continue to use writing as their preferred mode, and hence, the page in its traditional form” (Kress, 2009, p.18).  This ‘ideological thinking’ of connecting writing with power appears in several of Kress’ earlier works and detracts from his arguments supporting multimodality (Skaar, 2009).  He also seems to miss the fact that anyone with access to these new multimodal mediums may also be considered ‘elite’ to people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

In Gains and Losses, Kress successfully brings attention to the growth of multimodaltiy and provides several reasons for why this is a positive development.  The co-existence of text and images can result in improved clarity, precision, and communication.  It also provides the reader with greater control over their learning.  Unfortunately, his paper fails to follow through on its title and provides only the gains of mutlimodality.  There are times when the replacement of text for images is a step backwards, such as when web designers try to avoid text at all costs, or students add images without much consideration.  Also, images may bring along many associations, some of which may be unknown to the author.  The increase of multimodality is a positive progression, but one that must be approached thoughtfully in order to limit the negative impacts on learning.


Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kress, Gunter. (2005).  Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved, August 15, 2009, from

Prior, P. ( 2005).  Moving multimodality beyond the binaries: a response to Gunther Kress’ “Gains and Losses.” Computer and Composition, 22(3), 23-30.  Retrieved from:

Skaar, H. (2009). In defense of writing: a social semiotic perspective on digital media, literacy and learning. Literacy, 43(1), 36-42. Retrieved from:

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