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Early attachment of meanings to graphical marks

Meanings and syntax

Underpinned by Athey (2007), Kress (1997), Matthews (1999) and Machón (2013), and according

to Lancaster (e.g., 2007), young children's early drawings are intentional and purposeful, showing that - rather than interpreting them in terms of a stage theory - we should appreciate that very young children understand that marks and individual signs can be meaningful; they imbue them with their meanings, of objects, people and experiences. Kress warns that "we have to look at these childish productions with entirely new eyes" (1997, p. 36).


The following examples reveal evidence of 'grammaticisation' (e.g., Langacker, 2000), indicating some regularity in respect of the marks they chose, and the way in which they arranged their marks on a page. Lancaster's work suggests that the examples below show that "the children are starting to use some of the syntactic principles that underlie writing systems earlier than might have been thought" (p. 149). It is the social meanings (e.g., a cartoon watched on television; going to the swimming pool; a trip to the beach with mum and friends, playing ball), which Kress and van Leeuwen (2001), suggest "are the starting point and driving force behind the organizational structures of signs and texts of all kinds" (Lancaster, p. 142).


The ghosts go swimming

The first group of examples are from Max (2 years, 11 months). Max's marks denoting the ghosts and his home are non-iconic, indicatory of both. as he draws, his imagined 'story' unfolds. By drawing a circle (an iconic or pictographic sign), he signifies the pool around the ghosts, positioning them in the water. Max's marks signifying his home show he's considered the location of his home in relation to the pool. He then turned to considering how he walked with his mum to the pool from his house, using lines to indicate the direction and the route.



1.                                                     2.                                              3.

Max named the first marks he         Drawing a circle around his         Max then drew a long, looped line, 

drew as '"Ghosts".                             'ghosts', he explained that it        and laughing cheekily, said  it was

                                                            was a "swimming pool - the           "a smelly fart!"

                                                            ghosts are swimming."                                                                                     



4.                                                     5.                                                 6.

Next he drew a tiny mark in the        Max then drew a short line that    Finally he extended the short line

left-hand corner as "home",             crossed his earlier, horizontal        so that it clearly led from his home

covering it with looping                    looped line, saying,"to the                to the pool.

scribble-marks.                                  swimming pool."


Max lives just a few minutes walk to the swimming pool, so he's very familiar with the route from his house. Max's mum explained that his interest in ghosts seemed to have originated from an animated film called "Booba" he'd watched, one episode featuring a funny ghost.


The next set of drawings depended on Paige's recall of her visit the beach, and contrast to Max's imaginary story.


At the beach

Paige, was 2 years and 5 months at the time of these drawings. She sat at a small table where she likes to draw. Paige's marks and signs are suggestive on an inventory, as she named the people who were at the beach with her, and the ball they'd played with.



1.                                            2.                                                3.


Paige's mum had drawn two wavy lines to suggest the sea (figure 1.), but Paige was much more interested in the people who she'd been with at the beach - her mum, and two of her friends - her signs having an external reference to these people. Figure 2. shows her mum's hand, pointing to ask who this person was. Using the circular marks she enjoys drawing, Paige over-drew on her 'people' signs, differentiating them from her drawing of a large ball (figure 3.). Her drawing has the temporal context of Paige's remembered reality of their visit on the previous day.


*The circular scribble-marks in the foreground preceded her 'beach' marks and signs, and are unconnected.


Athey, C. (2007). Extending thought in young children, 2nd ed. Paul Chapman.


Kress, G. (1997). Before writing: Re-thinking the paths to literacy. Routledge.


Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse. Arnold.


Lancaster, L. (2007). Representing the ways of the world: How children under three start to use syntax in graphic signs. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 7(2), 123-154.


Langacker, R. (2008). Cognitive Grammar.: A basic introduction. Oxford University


Machón, A. (2013). Children's drawings: The genesis and nature of graphic representations. Fibulas.


Matthews, J. (1999).  The art of childhood and adolescence: The construction of meaning. Farmer.