Memes and multimodal texts

01 APRIL 2015
The Australian Curriculum places an emphasis on students analysing and producing multimodal texts. Ellen Rees explores how memes can be used to compel and appeal to their intended audience.

This article was originally featured in the February 2015 issue of EduTATE.

Our discipline has begun to value an analysis of the connections between images and words that are used to create and communicate meaning. We guide our students to analyse visual images, deconstruct representations and interrogate the ways in which images are used to communicate ideas. In requiring students to both analyse and produce multimodal texts, we are starting to acknowledge and value the high levels of visual literacy skills students already have. We also provide students with the language to articulate their insights. When analysing multimodal texts, students consider the interaction between the modes and the impact this has on the messages communicated.

As teachers of language, we can draw upon the visual and linguistic knowledge students have gained through their use of the internet and mobile phones and use this to engage students in language analysis and the crucial notion of context. An awareness of the ways language is used in speech, writing and visual language and the effect of combining modes can assist students to use different modes appropriate to different contexts. Our students have years of experience with written language and using written language as spoken language. They use writing in the place of speech when they text or chat online. When we begin to analyse multimodal texts, we are engaging in what Kalantzis and Cope (2000) coin the “cultural universe” of our students, making the study of language and of texts engaging, relevant and useful.

The use of the still image with the text caption is an example of a meme. ‘Meme’ is a term that was developed by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary theorist, who coined the term in an attempt to explain the transmission of culture. According to Dawkins, evolution can be understood through genes, the building blocks of life, and he used the analogy of memes to describe the sharing of culture. In the context of internet culture, meme has become the noun used for the short form of communication created by combining an image and lines of text. This mode of communication has taken the place of Dawkins’ original definitions of the term, in which he included jingles, catchphrases and earworms (tunes that get lodged in the brain). The most popular online memes have a stem caption, a top line that is always repeated.


In the example of Fry from Futurama, ‘Not Sure If...’ is the traditional beginning of the line. By examining memes with students, we have an accessible example of intertextuality. The images used for memes draw on the responder's prior knowledge. A meme works on the familiarity that the responder has to the character and the combination of the image of that character with the same line of text. Being able to identify The Lord of the Rings’ Boromir and Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark (both characters played by actor Sean Bean), Morpheus from The Matrix, Fry, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, etc. – along with a range of stock photographs including Success Kid, Grumpy Cat and Condescending Literary Huskie – means that the responder brings an expectation to the text (meme). This expectation is reinforced by the repetition of the top line of text. When responding to Fry from Futurama, for example, knowledge of this character as the ‘not-that-intelligent everyman’, who is an outsider (or a human transported into the future) gives context for and engagement with the uncertainty expressed in the Fry meme. His statement, ‘Not Sure If...’ articulates an insecurity and a recognition that we have the potential to be manipulated.


This example of Morpheus is a screen capture from the film The Matrix. He always poses the question, ‘What if I told you?’ The character in the film acts as an oracle. He provides wisdom and a new way of seeing the world. I use this image when introducing criterion based assessment to students new to college.

Memes are compelling and appealing for their intended audience. They are also egalitarian, as meme generators allow anyone to create one. Memes are user generated content, meaning anyone can create and broadcast their message worldwide. Beyond telling jokes, memes can be used to critique and to communicate political or ideological messages in a way that is easily understood and appreciated. In an article, "Explainer: What are memes?" which appeared on ‘The Conversation’ on the 13th of January 2014, Sean Rintel wrote: “Importantly memes tell us about new literacies, how people understand crises and how they attempt to effect social change.” Memes are excellent examples of multimodal texts, as the text and the image are two separate modes, which work together to reinforce each other’s meaning. If one mode was removed, the meaning of the text would change.

There are many tasks which we currently set for students that can be reimagined or re-branded as tasks which create multimodal texts. An activity such as designing a new cover for a novel can be presented as creating a multimodal text, particularly when students are asked to reflect upon and justify their use of a range of modes and identify the ways in which images and text work together to create meaning and communicate ideas. There are a number of tasks that I have used in Senior Secondary English courses which could be modified and adapted for other year levels. During 2014, ABC Splash ran a #ShakespeareSaid competition. To enter, students were asked to select a line from a Shakespearean play and create a meme or take a photo that expressed the ideas contained in the line. Many of these entries were playful and reflected students’ genuine enjoyment of the task and the text. Although the competition has now closed, the idea of asking students to create a meme to demonstrate their understanding of significant lines from the text they are studying remains an excellent and engaging one.

Another task that can provide an opportunity to create multimodal texts is a book review. Instead of summarising the plot, outlining characters and providing an evaluation, students can produce a list of reasons advocating for the reading of a particular text. These reasons are supported by images. This type of text (a list with numbered points, short paragraphs and images) is one that is familiar as it is used on BuzzFeed. When establishing the requirements of the review, discuss with students the way in which the text will be read (scrolling down a screen, the interaction between the images and the text). The selection of images must be carefully considered to support the ideas being written about. What makes this task different from a traditional book review is the consideration of the interaction between the two modes: image and text. Students can be asked to reflect, in writing, on their choice of images.

By asking students to create multimodal texts, we are engaging them in genuine text creation. They are creating the types of texts with which they interact and see used in “the real world”, online! Texts such as short videos, podcasts, blogs, wikis, memes and BuzzFeeds are all text types that can be user generated and that allow for customisation. Students can create and customise these texts according to their interests and learning styles. This is genuine independent and inquiry based learning. Setting learning activities that draw on students’ expert knowledge of the interaction between the print and the visual do not necessarily mean that as teachers we need to develop new skills; rather, we need to engage with and value the creativity, playfulness and richness of multimodal texts.


Kalantzis, M and Cope, B. (2000) Literacies Cambridge University Press, Sydney, NSW

Rintel, S. (2014) ‘Explainer: What are memes?’ https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-are-memes-20789 Date accessed: April 7th 2014


About the author

Ellen Rees has taught English for twelve years, teaching mostly at senior secondary level. She is dedicated to finding engaging ways for students to read and respond to texts, allowing students the freedom to draw on their own experiences, expertise and imagination. She teaches English Literature and English Writing at Hobart College. She has most recently written a unit for the Reading Australia project for Richard Flanagan's novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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Nelle - 02/08/2015
Had Yr8 use memes in Geography to describe Global Warming. We had a great time, and they got the message.
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