One Thousand Words, Plus a Few More, Is Just Right: A Picture May Be Worth 1,000 Words, but Just a Few of the Right Words in the Right Places Can Add Clarity and Meaning to Students' Technically Focused Multimedia Presentations

By Goldberg, Gail Lynn | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014 | Go to article overview

One Thousand Words, Plus a Few More, Is Just Right: A Picture May Be Worth 1,000 Words, but Just a Few of the Right Words in the Right Places Can Add Clarity and Meaning to Students' Technically Focused Multimedia Presentations


Goldberg, Gail Lynn, Phi Delta Kappan


Students have many occasions to read and create text that is not linear and discursive but that can provide a rich mix of words and images that help readers navigate to make meaning. The adage that "one picture is worth a thousand words" may lead students and teachers alike to believe that pictures alone can do the talking. That clearly is not the case.

The Common Core State Standards call for students to attend to the norms and conventions of the discipline and context in which they are writing. In scientific and technical writing, this includes using graphics to aid comprehension. While many students can use technology with ease to capture and incorporate original and existing images in written documents, their ability to include such text features has outpaced instruction on basic principles and practices for doing so. Pictures are certainly valuable, but they often need at least a few words of captions, legends, titles, and labels to make them meaningful. By sharing with students even a few examples of faulty practices of incorporating graphic features in texts and identifying ways of remedying them, we can bring this lesson home.

A useful window into the current state of writing in STEM disciplines, including students' use of graphics (drawings, schematics, photographs, and data displays for example), can be found on the Innovation Portal (www.innovationportal.org). This free and publicly available site allows students to create engineering design project e-portfolios to document their work and to share it for instructional purposes and in the pursuit of scholarships, content prizes, college entrance, or course placement. Sample portfolio entries available on the site as instructional resources highlight common problems and pitfalls students encounter when including graphics in scientific and technical writing, such as missing or inadequate captions, labels, and source information.

Text doesn't explain images

Design process portfolios, like science logbooks, are the "biography" of a project that can be shared with anyone. Readers--particularly those outside the classroom--typically seek "connective tissue" that clarifies the intended function of a graphic attached to text. When a student simply drops in illustrations without explaining how they relate to the body of the text, as in the case of the excerpt from one portfolio entry (see Figure 1), readers can be confused.

The intent of this project was to solve the problem of unsafe storage and transportation of fishing lures. The entry attempts to address one element of the engineering design process: documentation of prior solution attempts. The several images accompanying the text evidently represent some previously designed and patented devices, but the images do not clearly correlate spatially with the brief patent descriptions and, as a result, fail to aid comprehension. A label or brief caption beneath each of the figures obtained from one of the patents mentioned would solve this problem and make clear that not every patent description is accompanied by a corresponding illustration.

Which drawing? Which idea?

When documenting another element of the engineering design process--design concept generation, analysis, and selection--students included a decision matrix and detailed drawings based on ideas that they deemed successful. Their portfolio entry for this element includes an array of drawings (see Figure 2, below), all devoid of text connections. This omission actually led an engineering educator reviewing this portfolio to remark, "Which drawing, which idea?"

Insufficient documentation of sources

Today's technology makes it exceptionally easy to locate, copy, and insert images. Students often take this route to enhance their writing with photographs, diagrams, and illustrations. Without documentation, however, cutting and pasting pictorial features, similar to appropriating words and ideas from another source, is tantamount to theft. …

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One Thousand Words, Plus a Few More, Is Just Right: A Picture May Be Worth 1,000 Words, but Just a Few of the Right Words in the Right Places Can Add Clarity and Meaning to Students' Technically Focused Multimedia Presentations
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