The Five Modes

Learning Objective

  • Describe the five modes of communication

The way we communicate is not simply through text or reading material but also through many different modes. What are the differences between a classroom lecture by your professor and his or her lecture notes? What about the differences between a group chat with your classmates and a group project meeting in the library? These situations involve different modes. The first step to learning how to negotiate a multimodal world is to understand what multimodality is.

A mode, quite simply, is a means of communicating. According to the New London Group, there are five modes of communication: visual, linguistic, spatial, aural, and gestural.[1]

A mode is different from a medium, which is the substance through which communication is conveyed. Examples of a visual medium, for instance, would be photography, painting, or film.

When a given text makes use of more than one mode, the text can be characterized as multimodal. Most texts are multimodal – we make sense out of their messages through decoding the different modes of communication that they employ.

The five modes of communication: visual. aural, gestural, spatial,. linguistic

Figure 1. A multimodal world includes visual, linguistic, aural, spatial, and gestural communication.

What is the Relationship Between Modes and Media?

A mode is a means of communicating. A medium is the channel or system through which communications are conveyed. The plural form of medium is media. So, for example, if we want to communicate in the linguistic mode, we might choose the medium of print. If we want to communicate in the aural mode, we might choose the medium of a podcast. Both print and podcasts are forms of media.

When analyzing or producing multimodal compositions, it is important to recognize the operation of multiple modes within artifacts (or what we might call multimedia texts). But it is also useful to think about which mode generally predominates in any given medium. Both photographs and films, for instance, employ the visual mode. Films differ from photographs, however, in that they involve movement of bodies and objects through space (spatial mode). We might say, then, that the visual mode dominates in photographs, while the spatial mode dominates in film (although obviously some photographs employ the spatial mode powerfully in how objects are arranged in relation to each other). Being aware of dominant modes within a medium will prove helpful later when choosing powerful claims and persuasive evidence for composing your own multimodal argument.

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The visual mode refers to the images and characters that people see.

Appropriate alternative text for this image can be found in the caption and/or surrounding text.

Figure 2. A “no guns” symbol.

It is sometimes possible to find compositions that almost, if not completely, rely on a single mode. For instance, the “No Guns” symbol has no alphabetic text and no sound. Like many signs, it relies for its meaning on visual information. However, we might be able to say that the sign uses the spatial mode as well, since the gun appears behind the red bar that signals “no” or “not allowed.” So while the visual dominates in signs, even this composition is not “purely” visual.


The aural mode is focused on sound including, but not limited to, music, sound effects, ambient noises, silence, tone of voice in spoken language, volume of sound, emphasis, and accent. [2]

An example of an aural mode— one that depends almost exclusively on sound—might be the recording of a public speech that is delivered orally to a live audience, a radio address, or a podcast.


The gestural mode refers to the way movement is interpreted. Facial expressions, hand gestures, body language, and interaction between people are all gestural modes. This has always been important in face-to-face conversations and in theater, but it has become more apparent on the web lately with the wide use of YouTube and other video players. The gestural mode works with linguistic, visual, aural, and sometimes even spatial modes in order to create more detail and communicate better to the reader or consumer of the gestural text.

Linguistic (or Alphabetic)

The linguistic mode refers to written or spoken words. The mode includes word choice, the delivery of written or spoken text, the organization of words into sentences and paragraphs, and the development and coherence of words and ideas. Linguistic is not always the most important mode; this depends on the other modes at play in the text, the type of text, and other factors. Linguistic is probably the most widely used mode because it can be both read and heard on both paper or audio. The linguistic mode is the best way to express details and lists.

Appropriate alternative text for this image can be found in the caption.

Figure 3. A traditional classroom setting with orderly class rows.


The spatial mode, as the name implies, refers to the arrangement of elements in space. It involves the organization of items and the physical closeness between people and objects.

A good example of the spatial mode might be the different ways in which chairs and desks are arranged in a classroom.

Here is a “traditional” classroom: Individual desks are arranged in orderly rows, facing the front of the room to make the teacher who would stand before the chalkboard the center of attention. The teacher also stands at a distance from the students; the students who sit in the back could hardly even see the board!

By contrast, in this advertisement for “collaborative classrooms,” we see the chairs and desks clustered in small groups so that students can work together on projects. The classroom is also de-centered, which suggests that the teacher and students are working together as partners rather than in a hierarchical manner. All of the people are in close proximity to one another.

Think about how a teacher communicates her ideas about learning through the way in which she arranges her classroom. In that sense, the arrangement of desks and chairs can be “read” as a message about teaching and learning.

Appropriate alternative text for this image can be found in the caption.

Figure 4. A classroom where students interact with each other in different groups.


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  1. Kristin L. Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball. Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. Bedford/St. Martin's. 2014.
  2. Kristin L. Arola, Jennifer Sheppard, and Cheryl E. Ball. Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. Bedford/St. Martin's. 2014.