Code and convention 

What it is

The basic elements of speech, writing and visual language convey meaning when they combine in commonly understood arrangements or patterns. These patterns are formed by the interplay of

  • codes (eg sounds, spelling and grammar)

  • agreed systems for communicating (eg names of things and of actions, logos, camera angles, tone of voice etc),

  • conventions, shared and habitual ways of using these systems (eg. paragraph structure, genre, framing of images, dramatic gestures etc).

In such processes individual letters and morphemes come together in spelling patterns to form words. Verbal, visual, spoken, social and digital signs are arranged for more extended units of meaning such as sentences or pictures and these are in turn structured into paragraphs, conversations, films, web pages and many other types of texts.

A type of text is often identifiable from its arrangement of codes and conventions and this connects one text to a wider set of texts.  These sets can be connected by form (sometimes identified through layout), purpose, medium, authorship and context. Furthermore, we may find a recurrence or echo of an idea, a symbol or a word or phrase which may be unique to the individual text and make it stand out.  Innovation occurs when the composer uses the understanding of written, spoken and visual patterns to generate original texts by experimenting with language and form.

The terms code and convention suggest rigidity and yet they are flexible and adapt to different audiences, purposes and new technologies. Codes are signs which have the potential for different meanings and conventions are arrangements that become habitual and accepted. For example, codes or signs such as table, a particular colour, a ringing bell, change according to context and conventions used in letter writing have adapted to contemporary forms of communication such as email, texting and social media.

Why it is important

Understanding codes and conventions facilitates reading and writing. At the most basic level this involves knowing the patterns in spelling and connecting these patterns to sounds as well as more advanced reading approaches such as skimming (for example understanding the use of subheadings and topic sentences as guides to passages) and finding reading pathways through digital and extended texts. At a more critical level, knowledge of codes and conventions invites prediction, sets up expectations and allows ways of navigating complex texts.

The patterns provided by codes and conventions in a text are cues for our understanding. Familiarity with patterns is essential for effective communication. The wider and deeper this familiarity, the more complex will be students’ thought processes and interpretations and the more precise will be their communication. Students need to be acquainted with word families and grammatical and generic forms which are conventionally applied in written, spoken and visual modes. Understanding of and skill in using these codes and conventions lead to an appreciation of how they may be varied and played with for effect and originality. 

Stage 6

Students understand that codes and conventions are constantly evolving in response to new forms of communication and cultural change.

They learn that:

  • deliberate manipulation of and experimentation with codes and conventions can stimulate and express complex thinking
  • codes and conventions are used to promote, reflect or subvert value systems
  • combinations of codes and conventions in various modes and media lead to hybrid genres and emerging textual forms
  • control of codes and conventions offers different ways of responding to and composing texts
  • codes and conventions reveal the constructedness of texts and the potential for destabilisation of meaning*.

*Advanced and Extension courses

Stage 5

Students recognise that codes and conventions reflect and shape power relationships and culture.

Students learn that:

  • Some codes and conventions are valued more than others and that this can depend on context

  • Understanding and using these conventions is potentially a source of power

Stage 4

Students recognise that codes and conventions are social practices and are adapted in response to different purposes, effects, audiences, contexts and media. 

Students learn that

  • Social practices, technology and mode determine appropriate codes and conventions

  • Groups use codes and conventions differently and this may become a marker of identity

Stage 3

Students understand that codes and conventions of each mode provide the foundation for innovation.

They learn that

  • knowledge of codes and conventions helps finding meaning in and through texts

  • codes and conventions vary for different audiences and purposes

  • choices of language and design have subtle differences and effects

  • opportunities for innovation occur at all levels eg word, sentence, paragraph and whole text levels

Stage 2

Students appreciate that codes of communication are rules which provide access to information and ideas as well as opportunities for expression.

Students learn that

  • there are choices of language and structure for  expressing information and ideas

  • codes and conventions vary according to mode, medium and type of text.

  • all texts go through stages of refinement of language and structure for accuracy and effectiveness

Stage 1

Students understand that codes and conventions provide structures for making meaning.

They learn that

  • Words fall into categories that make communication easier

  • Words are arranged in patterns which may make some meanings predictable

  • Patterns of words and images that are  effective for making meaning become conventions.


Students understand that communication works through agreed codes and conventions.

They learn that

  • Each of the modes: listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing and representing communicates using its own codes.

  • Particular letters, forms and combinations of words are used to achieve particular meanings.