From Frames to Framing

Guest Post from Richard Andrews, Dean of Faculty and Professor of English at the Institute of Education, University of London. Richard Andrews is also co-author of our newly released Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age.

In Developing Writers, we use Richard Andrews’ concept of framing from his book Re-framing Literacy: Teaching and Learning in English and in the Language Arts to characterize aspects of writing in the digital age. In celebration of the release of our co-authored book, I asked Richard to introduce us to the concept of framing as applied to writing.

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I’ve long been interested not only in the verbal arts, but also in the visual arts and how the two interrelate. So book illustration, art with words (the work of Kurt Schwitters, Roy Lichtenstein, Barbara Kruger and others), and the complementarity and tension between word and image have all been areas of intellectual interest as well as enjoyment.

Channeling Barbara Kruger by Flickr user alexloyal (CC licensed)

A step back from immersion in those two modes suggests that framing is a concept that is worth exploring in terms of communication.

‘Frames’ Gone Wrong

By framing, as opposed to ‘frames’, I suggest a move away from genres and genre theory, especially where they are taken to refer to ‘text-types’. That useful tradition, looking back to the 1980s and 1990s, established that frames were a helpful scaffold in helping young writers to learn the art of composing. However, in reifying the act of framing into ‘frames’, a rigidity was introduced, seen as its worst in worksheets for particular genres where the structures of the genre were laid out—all the emergent writer had to do was fill in boxes or sections of the text-type template. Another self-defeating rigidity has been seen in fossilization of the processes of written composition.

In Re-framing Literacy (New York: Routledge, 2011) I put the accent on the act of framing. That is to say, although there might be some off-the-shelf frames which emergent writers would find helpful, the more purposeful act is to create the frame yourself. Framing is therefore a rhetorical act, considering who you are communicating with, what you want to say, how to do it and why. You have to negotiate and understand the frame in order for the communication to be successful.

So, stepping back into the visual world for a moment, many lessons from the way artworks are framed can apply to the act of writing.

First, visual artists identify frames in a number of different ways:

  • in heavy wood or metal, designed as much to protect the work physically as to frame it from the rest of the world;
  • by framing the work internally (e.g. in the combination of word and image on a page, in cartoons, comics, and medieval illustrated manuscripts);
  • by deliberately blurring the frame;
  • by using polyptical devices (mostly commonly seen in diptychs and triptychs, but often in multi-panelled works too);
  • and by letting the work frame itself.
CC licensed by Flickr user dancetechnet

Second, by the way that a stage is separated from the audience, thus bringing together the visual, tactile and physical properties of movement in order to create a play, a dance work or some other performance.

Third, by transgressing the frame: for example by a visual artist projecting his or her work beyond the frame; or by a performance artist crossing the invisible boundary between stage and audience.

These are just some of the ways that the framing analogy can be used to think about and practise writing. In moving the act of composing in words from a pre-set activity, using existing frames, to a more creative activity in which the frames are negotiated, played with, transgressed, and broken, the writer is liberated to make meaning and to communicate with others in a more conscious, appropriate and meaningful way.

Communication is thus designed for purpose. It no longer has the feeling of empty ritual—or mis-communication, when the frame one person brings to a communicative moment is different from, and non-compatible with the frame that another brings.

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We’d love to hear from you:

  • In practice, how could you introduce and engage your students in framing?
  • What activities could be created for frame-playing: negotiatingtransgressing and breaking?
  • How can we facilitate students’ awareness of the rhetorical contingencies of framing?
  • How do you teach the existing frames (that teachers are often accountable to teach and students must learn) in a way that keeps the act of writing meaningful?
  • How do you address the frames required in high-stakes assessment?

7 thoughts on “From Frames to Framing

  1. The framing concept is helpful. Goes back to audience/purpose yet gives another lens for emerging writers to use-“create your own frame.” Here: “You have to negotiate and understand the frame in order for the communication to be successful.” Thanks for sharing…

  2. One of the way my school deals with frames (although, we don’t use that terminology and now I’m thinking we should) is in looking at “story.” When we talk about story, we are including the traditional fiction story, but also history-as-story and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who others are, etc. A repeated topic of conversation is about who is telling the story, what are they including/leaving out, and how might someone else tell the story.

    Taking a broader view of writing (more than story), framing enacts more of students’ agency, because they are asked to consider their audience and think about what should be included and why. As Richard says, students aren’t just filling in a framework, but thinking about which frameworks would be helpful—and creating new ones when existing ones aren’t sufficient. That’s the work of real writers, after all.

  3. In moving past the five-paragraph-essay in middle school, I’ve been thinking in terms of “story” as timfredrick mentions. As we read nonfiction, a science article, my students thought in terms of who is the main character? what is the problem? is there a solution? what plot is there in this information, and how might I explain it to others from the viewpoint of one of the “characters” (science terms). They wrote short paragraphs from the point of view of a science term; it helped them understand the concepts as they reframed the information into a fictional story that relayed the facts surrounding that set of terms. They were also fun to read and share!

  4. Glad I stumbled across this. I am developing a study of the short film, in contrast to the feature film, based on a closely related, perhaps same concept of “framing” to understand the ways that short films (and perhaps short fiction, etc.) imposes limits upon itself. I refer to haiku as an extremely delimited form, and as an example of how sometimes “less can be more.” Indeed the frame includes and organizes, and also excludes and delimits… I would be very interested in finding more sources related to this in visual, musical, time based arts as well as lit. Many thanks.

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