Is text-only enough for today’s students?

a simulpost with TechLearning

After an amazing trip to CNN this week, I have been thinking about how we tell stories as educators and how we teach students to tell stories. So, I'm going to give you a little quiz.

1. Which tells the story the most clearly?

“This past spring we lost 11,000 pecan trees in a terrible tornado that ripped right through the grove.”


2. Which tells the story more clearly?

A little girl was playing a game and a face jumped out at her.


A little girl was playing this game and was very scared. (Warning: If you have a heart condition, don't play this game.)

3. Which tells the story more clearly?

Parodies of Harry Potter Films are cropping up all over the Internet.


4. Which tells the story more clearly?

St. Charles avenue was ready for the parade.


This panorama (click on the photo).

5. Which tells the story more clearly?

The United States is excitedly showing school spirit this fall.


This slideshow.

6. Which tells the story more clearly?

We kicked off the flat classroom project today with an interesting discussion about communications.


7. Which is more effective in a Math class.

Geometric Formulas are used in everyday life.


Any of the photos at (be sure to blow them up and look at the clickable areas.) I particularly like this one from Darren Kuropatwa‘s Math class.

Dan Pink in his landmark book, A Whole New Mind, lists “Story” as one of the six senses of the Conceptual Age. He says:

“When our lives are brimming with information and data, it's not enough to marshal an effective argument. Someone will inevitably track down a counterpoint to rebut your point. The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative.” (Pink 65-66)

And those narratives aren't always using text — but rather, video, audio, pictures, and other formats.

Do we need more than text to tell the stories?

Here is the point. There are so many new ways to tell stories. Are we as teachers teaching kids ONLY to read and write and is that enough?

Succinct, appropriate, effective communication is the hallmark of the successful. Will the successful CEO of the future record a video to be released to his employees? Will screen captures and chats and backchannels and panoramas and — NONLINEAR forms of communication take over (like the Flickr pictures– mouseovers and clicks drive into the presentation rather than following the sequence of a presenter.)

As I listened to an executive producer of, Lila King, this week, she said

“We look at what we're trying to say and then we decide the best medium to tell the story.”

Text was only one of 12 choices.

So, I ask, is text enough?

I believe we should encourage students to select the best mode of communicating their topic. And that students should be familiar with as many modes as possible. Sure, someone has to put these in their “toolbox” but once the tools are there, they should be using them in all classes.

I think we're too hung up on the technology and not realizing that we are experiencing an evolution in how humans communicate.

Text is still important and synchronous communication is too — but asychronous, non-text based communication is increasing in importance in our society without a correlating increase in the classroom.

Their voice, their graphics, their face, and their typed text all play a role in their future as a communicator in this electronic world.

So, what do we do about it?

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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diane September 29, 2007 - 12:05 am


This post is a perfect complement to Clay Burell’s post re. the Multiple Intelligences!

Your examples would certainly enhance his “Visual-spatial” page.


Karyn Romeis September 29, 2007 - 3:03 pm

You make your point brilliantly, Vicki, and I was moved to tears by the sight of the devastation to your trees.

However, I would like to argue that “text only” has never been enough, but in the absence of any alternatives, past generations have had to just make do. Our learners have become much more aware of their options today, and they’ve gained the voice to speak their minds.

Kelly Christopherson September 30, 2007 - 12:30 am

Right on the mark! We limit ourselves when we limit ourselves to any one way of communication. We know that there are so many ways to communicate and yet we defer to using the text. As I’ve found out for myself, the text is great when you can read but it isn’t so hot when you can’t. We need to see that using multiple ways of communication isn’t an add-on but the natural way of learning. Right now my students in Communication Production Technology are creating voice recordings of children’s books to which pre-readers can listen. I’ve also found that students who struggle with text are just as capable of understanding when another form of communication is used and students who struggle with reading benefit from hearing themselves read and self-correcting. One of our greatest difficulties is finding the technology to have students access these different avenues – so we rely on the one that, in initial terms, costs less $. Once again, much of the decision lies in the $, not in what is best for the students.

Eva September 30, 2007 - 5:04 am

There is a lot to think about in your post! My instinct tells me I want students to be fully proficient in a palette of way to tell stories, but my voice of worry says that we have to work hard to keep text alive against the onslaught of (often easier) media.

Melanie Holtsman September 30, 2007 - 12:10 pm

I think anyone who reads that would agree. I frequently show similar things to my colleagues. The challenge is getting them to use them!!! Thanks for helping continue to spread the message.
:) Melanie

ariane termini September 30, 2007 - 6:44 pm

This is a great point for today’s educators and the educators of tomorrow, such as myself. Although I’ve grown up during a time of increased technology, I have no doubt that my future students will be more technologically savvy than I was at their age. While my classes utilized mostly textbooks, today’s classrooms have more tools at hand that can give students more opportunities to become interested in the lessons. Also, by letting students choose their mode of communication, we are able to let them use their imagination. I’m incredibly excited to use these tools in my future classroom!

Lisa Parisi September 30, 2007 - 11:25 pm

I would agree with Eva. By all means, teach alternative forms of communication. A picture has always been worth a thousand words, afterall. And what a boone to differentiated instruction. But let’s not lose the power of words in the process. Children need to learn how to communicate in a variety of ways, including text.

Jeremy G. October 1, 2007 - 6:08 pm

This also begets the argument: do these technologies make us more productive or ultimately lazier? Our consumption of knowledge depends on a variety of factors, and different learners absorb material in different ways. I think thorough text explanation accompanied by some sort of visual stimulation is a great way to help learners fully understand information.

profv October 5, 2007 - 11:34 pm

Here’s something to consider, however. Our traditional writing instruction (and even language arts) has been aimed at the linear writer who is good in organizing words and ideas in a linear fashion.

However, the “best” student writers may not have the innate skills necessary to incorporate the spatiality that visuals and hypertext requires. I found this out this summer when teaching a class on writing across the curriculum with technology. The English and Social Studies teachers that traditionally were successful in writing had a very difficult time adding visuals and even more so in writing hypertext. However, the Elementary, Math and Science teachers seemed to have a new appreciation for writing once they were allowed to include hypertext and visuals in their writing.

So my question is, should we be changing how we teach writing? Will students that traditionally excelled at writing have difficulties if we change the genre? What skills should our students need to develop to write effectively in the digital world?
Finally I am curious, Vicki if you teach “digital” composition and writing? If so, how?

Anonymous October 7, 2007 - 2:32 am

I think the point here is times are a changin’. Society is constantly evolving and changing, that includes our students, as well as technology. With all of the outside influences affecting the students that we teach, I feel we need to keep up with the times. We don’t teach to the same population we used to therefore the same curriculum and teaching techniques are no longer enough. Change may not always be welcome but it occurs all the same. As teachers we need to be aware of how are students are changing and adjust what we do to help them be successful in the future.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 4:20 am

This post is remarkably facile. You set up a series of strawmen to support the idea that images are rich. Is the Pope a catholic?
One sentence up against a video? Give me ten pages and we can talk;: words (not text, words) are rich and more liberating than images. Images impose one truth, words can be assimilated incorporated, in words your pecan trees become the lemons I lost to hail three years ago, I relate faster, in video, they are your pecan trees, and though I remember my lemons, I can only see your pecans.

I think we need images, though I think we are Neanderthal in our use of the moving image. How many films you ever saw get close to the book (yes you say it is a different medium, but how many of the books did you read first?) Humans use words, and when we watch those videos we will use words to talk about them, we will codify the world we experience, always. The problem is that our vocabulary with regard to video right now i8s a series of grunts. Not teaching the use of words is to deprive the learner. Crippling.
It isnt text, I repeat, it is words.
And these words. Just words. No face no picture. Words.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 4:25 am

I am curious abouot the idea that writing is linear. This seems simplistic, as you read do the words create a linear sequential world in your head? I think not. Text imposes a linearity that the words themselves defy. They rearrange themselves in the mind, echoing and resonating. Literacy is a bell.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 4:39 am

There are only two genres: words and image.
Then way beyond our ken, there is music.
Communication is difficult enough with text, with video, the only way you have to find out whether your message arrived is words.
True sometimes we get so out of time words take the place of meaning, but they are all we have, and used with grace they are the pinnacle of human achievement.

If you dont agreet, record a video, put it on Youtube and post the link here.

I reserve the right to anonymity. The words are me.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 5:05 am

I wouldnt base your vision of “non-linear” on work at CNN. Reread Orwell first:)

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 5:13 am

With regard to your comments Vicki, I think it would be useful to get away from the idea of text. The real fundamental difference is between words and images.
We agree on the importance of multiple channels, it is really a question of degrees of emphasis.

Think of the two sectors that need TV like they neeed oxygen, the commercial sector and the politicians. how many of their messages are wordless?

LIteracy (and literacy means autonomy in our society) continues to mean words.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 5:27 am

Orwells concept of Newspeak (1984) illustrates how easy it is for words to take the place of meanings.
CNN is a broadcasting corporation, they understand communication as the broadcasting of a message. Communication theory however places a lot of emphasis on the extent to which the message is understood or even accepted by the receiver.
Broadcast networks judge this rather obtusely, what matters is to what extent their “news” (a different question) attracts their advertisers demographic. In this context linearity or nonlinearity are reduced to cosmetics. Relative novelty is all that matters.
CNN and sincere education are worlds apart.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 5:37 am

Ask your sister how mnay times she sodl a design without explaining it.
Without translating it into words for the client, usually to eensure that every one was one the same wavelength.
You and I are actually saying the same thing from different directions:
you say words matter but there are other languages we should not ignore
I say words matter, though there are other languages, we have a responsibility to teach words. I havent seen a law expressed in images yet.

And to clarify, there are two modalities

text and audio are words

video, mostly, is images and words

life is rarely images, we receive images and words , but when we interpret our lives in conversation with others, which is where life acquires meaning, we use, mostly words

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 5:44 am

My comments dont seem to be arriving, but one thing you say cuts to the quick..
You ask if literacy is relevant. It is absolutely germane to this discussion. You are proposing a redefiniton of literacy. I welcome that, but lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 5:57 am

To clarify, audio and text are diiferent by degrees. We remain at two removes from experience. There ar eimportant differences but in comparison to the difference between words and images they are minor. Images are at one remove from subjective raw experience, and the choice of perspective is a language. Its triumph and it tragedy is that it is utterly subjective, the director chooses the view, and to add insult to injury, there is no choice. Empsons ambiguities dissolve to one, which is none. We attempt to deal with this of course, through conversation, interpretation. Through words.
How many of your sisters clients buy her work before talking about what it means, about what she is saying?

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 6:01 am

One thing is clear, we are testing the limits of blog comments in real time!! We should be chatting!

Anonymous October 8, 2007 - 6:54 am

It is late for me too
I am in Mexico City, and I have to go to bed too, you, me and my multiple personalities!
I appreciate the respect for anonymity. Debate is freer without baggage.
Good to talk.
Does anyone read down past the 15th comment?

Vicki A. Davis October 8, 2007 - 4:44 am

In response to the two anonymous comments at the end —

No where do I state that text isn’t important. Text is so important — do you neglect that my argument was put together in words? Would I not video post everything if I thought text to be a waste.

I love books and words. However, to neglect that an additional layer of communication now exists which incorporates the richness of human expression would be a disservice to students.

Again, my question is “Is text-only enough?” not “Should text be replaced?”

Text is an important part of our society. However, it is not the only thing. I believe people who think text is all there is are missing the point of what is happening in society.

And with businesses like CNN pointing out the many methods of communication that they use, only one of which is text — it is important to consider.

In college, we were taught writing and public speaking specifically so that we would be well rounded for business. Should we not add writing, public speaking, audio presentations (podcasts), and digital storytelling (video) as so many people are including those in their repertoire of business communications?

Text is not the only thing but it is certainly still very important. And we will all have our preferences of our favorite mode of communications, just as we all have a preference in ice cream.

Vicki A. Davis October 8, 2007 - 4:46 am

Last anonymous commenter —

While at CNN, I learned this term. This is not my own. They talked about “non linear” and “linear” modes of communication. Non linear include interactive graphs and pictures that change depending upon interaction with the user.

This is something I learned there and am still considering. I’m not sure if it is primarily discussed news media circles or is getting past that, however non linear communications is something I’m looking to integrate into my classes after my trip there.

Vicki A. Davis October 8, 2007 - 5:12 am

anonymous —

We can learn from anyone. I would consider the executive producer of as someone who understands something about communication. While it may not be “textbook” or the correct semantics– her information was valid and showed me some great insights into how communication is evolving.

And when you say Orwell — which book? What did he say that contradicts these things? Be specific so that I may also learn from you.

Vicki A. Davis October 8, 2007 - 5:18 am


I’m talking mode here — audio, video, written word (text) — and you’re pulling the discussion in a whole different direction — there are many of us who would disagree with your thoughts of literacy, but is such a discussion important or relevant to the point.

The point is that students need multiple modes of delivering communication and yes the common denominator is often words. However, my sister is a graphic designer can communication and not use words (visual.) All modes of communication are important and there are new modes that we need to consider — I’m trying to understand if you’re disagreeing with that or just my word choice?

Vicki A. Davis October 8, 2007 - 5:55 am

No anonymous — I don’t ask if literacy is relevant, I ask if debating the definition of literacy is relevant. Literacy is always relevant!

Words are always relevant!

If you just teach students to put words on a page and that is it — you are missing something!

If you don’t teach students words, you cannot call yourself an educator.

Words remain vitally crucially important — so does introducing additional methods of delivering those words.

Vicki A. Davis October 8, 2007 - 6:12 am

Actually it looks like we have two anonymous commenters going at once.

Anon #1 – It is obvious with your grasp of words that you appreciate words, however, not all brains are wired in such a way. Where do the sense fit into your paradigm — the sense of touch for example. And the effective use of words in tandem with graphics is powerful — just look at visuwords for example.

It is obvious that words and graphics are both important. Communication has changed.

I still stand by my initial thesis that only teaching text (or writing on a page) is not enough for today’s students who must communicate with WORDS and visuals in a variety of ways.

And Anon #2 – Yes, we are stretching the limits of commenting — I’m sitting here awaiting the upload of a mega file for k12 online and am so tired — I wouldn’t say I’m at my best at this time of the night — however, it could be mid day for you, could it not?

Best wishes, I think I shall turn in.

And for the record, anonymous commenters are always welcome here. It is important to model that which we teach students… the idea that one person doesn’t know it all and that we can always learn from another in reasoned, well thought out debate and a respect of other’s opinions and perspective.

Thank you (both?) for coming by tonight at 2 am.

profv October 9, 2007 - 11:54 am

I read past the 15th post and am glad to do so. I think the discussion missed the point in which “literacy” comes in. Words and visuals are ways in which we create shared meaning. The process we use to create that shared meaning in communication. How we organize our ideas to communicate and negotiate meaning can be linear or non-linear. Looking at my post, I build on the previous idea to make my point, as this is the rhetorical style used in English.

However, other languages and now because of the new technologies we have at hand, we are able to create non-linear or spatial organization (I liked the description of linear and non-linear communication provided by your boss). So I pose my question again, how do we change our current writing instruction to include some of these non-linear modes of communication and rhetorical styles? Shouldn’t we be changing writing across the curriculum to address these digital modes of writing and “visual rhetoric”? There has been a lot of research lately on visual rhetoric which is what your sister does Vicki. However, it seems that most educators look at this as something in the domain of art education rather than across the curriculum. At the university level, visual rhetoric is a vital piece to communication courses, and in most of the more recent business communication texts I have seen, visuals and how to create them to communicate more effectively is vital. I include a section in my public speaking class.

Karyn Romeis October 12, 2007 - 11:49 am

I also read past the 15th comment! Interesting debate, although there were times when I felt you were arguing past each other. Good to see that it was amicably resolved :-)

Comments are closed.

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