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TILE-SIG Feature: Research on Writing, Writing Instruction, and Multimodal Composition

 | May 17, 2013

by Dr. Richard E. Ferdig & Dr. Kristine E. Pytash

richard e ferdig
Richard E. Ferdig

kristine e pytash
Kristine E. Pytash

Technology continues to change almost every aspect of our lives. As we adopt these new tools, we also adapt the development and delivery of future innovations. This great recursive relationship plays out like a well-timed dance. Take writing for example. The use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter have shaped how and when people write. These new writing practices, in turn, beg new questions about what it means to be literate; they also drive questions about how people will use and need new tools in their writing. Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, and Henry (2013) summarize:

Thus, to have been literate yesterday, in a world defined primarily by relatively static book technologies, does not ensure that one is fully literate today where we encounter new technologies such as Google docs, Skype, iMovie, Contribute, Basecamp, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, foursquare, Chrome, educational video games, or thousands of mobile apps. To be literate tomorrow will be defined by even newer technologies that have yet to appear and even newer discourses and social practices that will be created to meet future needs. (p. 1150).

These changes obviously brings a multitude of new questions. In late summer of 2012, we put out a call for a research book on the relationship between technology and writing. Research articles on technology and literacy obviously existed, but most of the work focused on reading rather than writing. We thought we might receive five proposals; we received well over 105. After a thorough peer review process, selected chapters will soon appear in one of two volumes 1) Exploring Technology for Writing and Writing Instruction; and 2) Exploring Multimodal Composition and Digital Writing

The chapters, written by well-respected researchers across the globe, highlight topics ranging from writing practices in and out of school to online writing communities. They feature quantitative and qualitative research on technologies like collaborative writing tools and on concepts like disciplinary writing. And, they discuss the writing practices of various audiences, from young children to in-service teachers. Given this breadth and depth, there is no way we can easily summarize the findings of the books; each author masterfully constructed their own conclusions and implications. We celebrate their research and invite readers to do the same. However, we are often asked what we learned from working with the authors and collecting research on writing and technology. There are five "meta-outcomes" that we believe will influence research, policy, and practice on writing, writing instruction, and multimodal composition.

  1. We need to spend time carefully constructing and sharing our definitions of words like writing and multimodal composition. Changes in technology not only impact how we write and how we teach writing, but also how we define such terms. To assume we begin with a shared understanding can be dangerous to building a strong research base.
  2. New technologies will require new plans for design, implementation, and assessment of writing, writing instruction, and multimodal composition. Design here refers to a deep understanding of how various audiences use, create, and compose with such tools. It also refers to how we develop instruction, considering the audience as both consumer and producer. Finally, these new technologies bring both the need to reconsider assessment and the opportunity to assess in new ways given the capabilities of the innovations. 
  3. Digital writing and multimodal composition can be successful in achieving desired outcomes when implemented properlyMuch of the research across both books highlights important growth outcomes across multiple age groups. This did not happen simply by dropping the technology into the existing situation. These chapters detail a strong pedagogical foundation, followed by the training of students and the professional development of teachers, and ending with an innovative and solid assessment plan.
  4. Students and teachers need practice in digital writing and multimodal compositionA person who has grown up with technology has been referred to as a "digital native." One of the most confusing aspects of this term is the assumption that because the person knows the technology, they then know how to use the technology for pedagogical purposes. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Audiences need practice and articulate direction in the use and intended and unintended consequences of multimodal and digital writing tools.
  5. In addition to redefining our terms, the field needs to draw more deeply across multiple domains to consider the technologies used in digital writing and multimodal composition. Digital writing and multimodal composition are not just about a word processor or a desktop publishing application. It includes writing platforms like blogs and wikis and soapbox delivery tools like Facebook posts and tweets. And, it includes technologies we might not typically consider but are ubiquitous in the lives of our students (e.g. video games, photo creation and sharing, and film-making).

Technology is changing how we write. Changes in how we write force us to reconsider our shared definitions, how we teach writing, how we assess writing, the theories that have driven our work thus far, and the technologies we use and we need for future writing and composition. Providing answers to these questions will not only change practice but will also guide conversations about curriculum and assessment.  The most positive outcome from this work is the recognition that there are scholars answering these important questions as well as inviting others to join in these critical efforts.


Ferdig, R.E. & Pytash, K.E. (Eds.). (2014). Exploring multimodal composition and digital writing.  Information Science Reference; Hershey, PA.

Leu, D.J., Kinzer, C.K., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L.A. (2013). New literacies: A dual-level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction, and assessment. In D.E. Alvermann, N.J. Unrau, & R.B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (6th ed., pp. 1150-1181). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Pytash, K.E. & Ferdig, R.E. (Eds.). (2014). Exploring technology for writing and writing instruction. Information Science Reference; Hershey, PA.

Dr. Richard E. Ferdig
is the Summit Professor of Learning Technologies and Professor of Instructional Technology at the Research Center for Educational Technology, Kent State University, Dr. Kristine E. Pytash is an Assistant Professor of Adolescent Literacy Education, Kent State University,

This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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