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  5. SIOE Seminar: The Emergence of Symbolic Principles: What Children under 3 Know about Writing

SIOE Seminar: The Emergence of Symbolic Principles: What Children under 3 Know about Writing

Date: Wednesday 12 October 2016
Time: 04.00 PM to 05.30 PM
Venue: Charles Street 12.2.19

Lesley Lancaster, Reader Emeritus

Education and Social Research Institute (ESRI), Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Tea and coffee will be served from 16:00 and the seminar will start from 16:15

This paper examines how children under the age of three learn about notational systems, including writing systems, and considers parallels with the evolution of written, and other graphic systems (Harris, 1986). Much research into the cognition of infants and young children has been driven by psychological thinking supporting a view of cognition as a solitary, mental process with learning involving the individual accumulation of knowledge over time (Hutchins, 1995, Pea 1993). This paper presents evidence to the contrary, suggesting that the early learning of inscriptional systems is associated with social and cultural cognition that is dispersed across minds, bodies, tools, and material environments. Early signs are multimodal, with children acknowledging no boundaries in their construction, drawing significantly on bodily resources, and resources from the lived environment. Much pedagogical practice runs counter to such evidence.

The paper presents video and graphic data from studies of the sign-making of children under the age of three that indicate that they already use notations purposefully in the construction of graphic signs that are intentional, multimodal, and unbounded. Such signs, whilst not yet conventional in relation to systems such as writing, drawing, and mathematics, use graphic marks systematically and creatively in relation to meaning and reference. I argue that this evidence has resulted in useful and original insights into the ways that children of this age engage with the principles of symbolic reference (Deacon, 1997) that underlie the representational systems used by human cultures. I shall present examples of the kinds of framing principles that children use, focusing particularly on three features of early graphic sign making: the use of ‘generic’ structures derived from social, bodily, and material experience; the role of synonymy; and the isomorphic nature of their signs, whereby reference is made to the means of reference itself, as well as to things in the real world.


Deacon, T.W. (1997) The Symbolic Species. New York: Norton.

Harris, R. (1986) The Origin of Writing. London: Duckworth.

Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press.

Pea, R.D. (1993) Distributed intelligence and designs for learning. In Salomon, G.               (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational    Considerations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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