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Making meaning and expressing ideas (emergent literacy)

​Making meaning is central to emergent literacy development. Children gradually develop the ability to comprehend texts and express ideas using various media.


This learning focus page explores:

  • how most texts are multimodal:
    • allowing children to use multiple literacies to make meaning
    • for example visual, musical, kinaesthetic, digital, as well as emergent reading and writing:
  • children’s emergent reading comprehension
  • emergent written expression and how these can be developed and supported by educators

They become aware of the relationships between oral and visual representations, and recognise patterns and relationships… Young children begin to explore written communication by scribbling, drawing and producing approximations of writing.

Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (2016) Outcome 5

This learning focus concerns the process of meaning making within the four resources model (Freebody and Luke, 1990), where children engage in making meaning from texts, and create meaning within their own texts.

This learning focus differs from exploring and creating texts, which is concerned with the functions and purposes of texts; that is how they are used (as per the four resources model: Freebody and Luke, 1990).

The importance of making meaning and expressing ideas in texts

Emergent reading comprehension and written expression are dependent on children’s developing capacities (Fellowes and Oakley, 2014):

  • first and foremost, children’s meaning making of images and other symbol systems (art, music, dance, and play/drama) (Wright, 2012)
  • various oral language skills including concept development and vocabulary, grammar, and narrative comprehension
  • emergent literacy skills (scaffolded by adults) like concepts of print, early phonological awareness, early letter-sound awareness (phonics), and knowledge of text types (genres)

The first and second of the above capacities are considered to be more innate to children (Piaget, 1923, 2009):

The human child is endowed with ingenuity and symbol-making propensities to go beyond reality as immediate experience. By using the symbol systems of art, music, dance, and play/drama, children manipulate images and concepts, thus joining with others who share a culture…Wright (2012, p. 2)

In contrast, emergent literacy development requires a combination of child-led, guided, and adult-led learning to build these important capacities (VEYLDF Practice principle: integrated teaching and learning approaches).

Making meaning and expressing ideas through texts is an important learning focus because of the crucial role that educators play to bring the texts to life. Educators can achieve this during reading and writing experiences, by scaffolding children’s emergent reading comprehension (making meaning from texts) and emergent written expression (expressing ideas through texts).

Multimodal literacy

Meaning can be conveyed in multiple modes (written language, spoken language, visual, audio, gestural, and tactile and spatial systems of meaning) (Kalantzis, Cope, Chan, and Dalley-Trim, 2016). Multimodal texts are those that combine two or more of these modes to create meaning, for example picture books, films, posters, web pages and oral storytelling.

As small children, we lived in a multimodal world. We discovered that art was a language with as much communication power as speech. Later we learned, like oral language, that the arts could act as a bridge to reading and writing and that music and movement had the same potential for contributing to our expression of meaning and self. Crafton, Silvers and Brennan (2017, p. 68)

Some argue that as informational communication technologies develop and change communication, literacy can no longer be thought of as just a language-based phenomenon (Jewitt, 2008, p.241).

Therefore, children’s engagement with multimodal texts is valued and fundamental to meaning making even without the reading comprehension or written expression of “traditional literacy” (reading and writing).

The engagement with and creation of multimodal texts is critical to children’s development in and of itself, but also as important precursors to their reading and writing development (Saracho, 2017; Puranik and Lonigan, 2011).

Symbols, signs, and texts

Researchers interested in how meaning making systems work discuss how all texts (be they visual, musical, written, verbal or otherwise) contain signs and symbols that can be interpreted to make meaning. Children become attuned to these symbols, as they:

…recognise the function and value of visual elements and use them to symbolise meaning, for example using colour in painting to express emotions. VEYLDF (2016) Outcome 5

Visual literacy is the capacity to make meaning from still and moving image texts, including picture books, art, non-fiction books, posters, comic strips, animations, film clips, web pages, advertisements, graphic novels, and more (Callow, 2013).

Some examples of signs/symbols in texts are:

  • artwork that conveys different emotions through the use of colour, darkness
  • music that uses volume and a combination of instruments to express a sense of power
  • video footage that uses slow motion at a crucial point in the story, to convey a sense of importance or anticipation
  • body language and movement that communicates (for example, a sense of feeling proud and excited)
  • descriptive language in a story that represents a character as scary

By paying attention to and highlighting the linguistic, visual (and multimodal) aspects of texts during emergent literacy experiences, educators can support children to engage with texts using multiple modes of communication.

Archie and the Bear is fictional picture storybook with much of the meaning of the story communicated through illustrations. The author uses size, perspective, colour, and texture to communicate the emotions and relationship between the characters.

Meaning making and reading comprehension

A useful definition of comprehension for early childhood purposes is provided by Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 297):

…we define comprehension as a complex, dynamic and strategic process that involves the reader using prior knowledge about the world, about language and about texts to construct and extract meaning from texts.

Through reading experiences with adults, children begin to independently make meaning, tuning into symbolic systems. Using book reading as an example, these systems develop from:

  • the tactile (touch and feel, interactive books)
  • auditory (bells, whistles, crackles on books)
  • and visual (illustrations, photos)
  • to the verbal (reader telling story) and written (interpreting letters and beginning to recognise words)

This use of the “signs” within texts to make meaning is acknowledged in the VEYLDF, as children:

…learn to recognise how sounds are represented alphabetically and identify some letter sounds, symbols, characters and signs. As children continue to build their skills in reading printed text from left to right and top to bottom (in English language households), they use information in context from pictures and other sources to assist in making meaning. VEYLDF (2016) Outcome 5

Here the developmental milestones for emergent reading comprehension are provided, along with an explanation of the types of comprehension, and ways of facilitating comprehension while reading with children.

Emergent reading comprehension - key developmental milestones

The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but does not limit the expectations for every child (refer to VEYLDF practice principle: high expectations for every child). It's always important to understand children’s learning and development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

Adapted from Owens (2015).

Early communicators (birth - 18 months):

  • enjoy shared book reading
  • enjoy nursery rhymes and songs
  • may attempt to sing or chant rhymes/songs
  • may pretend to read while others are reading

Early language users (12 - 36 months):

  • learn to recognise name in print
  • recognising environmental print and its meaning
  • enjoy reading with adults
  • may engage (independently) in “reading-like behaviours” with familiar books/texts, using memory of the print, and recognition of concepts using pictures
  • make meaning from texts with scaffolding by adults

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):

  • make meaning from texts with adult support, and independently by using context of illustrations and other media
  • towards age five, start to recognise certain high frequency words in context (i.e. with picture, or as part of a rhyme), and use these to help make meaning along with other contextual information

Types of comprehension

In early childhood, three kinds of comprehension are discussed (literal, inferential and evaluative), with the literal being the primary type of comprehension for young children.

Literal comprehension

Literal comprehension is understanding what is being communicated directly in a text (i.e. the who, what, when, where, how, why). Children use their emergent literacy skills (as well as other symbol systems) to make literal meanings from what is being communicated in the text by the author.

Some question stems that educators can use to check for literal comprehension include:

  • what can you see on this page?
  • tell me about what is happening here........?
  • show me the …
  • who........?
  • when.......?
  • where........?
  • what is........?
  • which..........?
  • what happened.........?
  • how did.........?
  • how far.........?
  • how many.........?

Inferential comprehension

Inferential comprehension involves children finding clues and hints within the text. It requires children to use their prior knowledge and the available information in the text to make an inference (informed guess) about what is being communicated by the author.

Some question stems that educators can use to facilitate and scaffold inferential comprehension include:

  • what do you think happened?
  • what do you think will happen next?
  • why did........?
  • why is........?
  • why do you think that.......?
  • can you explain........?
  • what caused........?
  • what do you think ........ means?
  • why is ........ important?

Evaluative comprehension

Evaluative comprehension involves children thinking outside of the text and considering the bigger picture. It asks children what they think of the features, characters, actions, situations, endings of a text; what their favourite, or least favourite parts/characters/features are, and why.

Some question stems that educators can use to facilitate and scaffold inferential comprehension include:

  • do you think.......?
  • do you like.......?
  • why do you think........?
  • what would happen if.........?
  • how do you feel about.........?
  • why do you like/not like........?
  • if you were........what would you do?

Facilitating comprehension

Because emergent reading comprehension (and meaning making in general) is complex, it relies on the development of multiple sets of skills. Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 295) remind us of the importance of the:

… knowledge of the syntax [grammar] and vocabulary of the language (in this case, English), which children initially gain through oral language experiences…

Facilitating comprehension of texts is therefore supported by engaging children in rich learning experiences to develop their oral language. In line with Freebody and Luke’s (1990) Four Resources model, code-related emergent literacy skills are also important to develop.

Finally, the discussions that educators engage children in before, during, and after reading/viewing texts are also important:

It is extremely beneficial to talk about the meanings of the texts read aloud and to help children notice and think about features of the language used.

Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 295)

The main pedagogical strategies for talking about texts with children in early childhood settings include:

  • activating and using prior knowledge
  • predicting
  • visualising
  • asking and answering questions
  • summarising and synthesising

See the teaching practice reading with children (emergent literacy for explanations of these pedagogical strategies.

Drawing as written expression

Writing is a complex form of communication. A key developmental transition is when children realise that speech/language can be written down, and that marks on a page, or strokes on a keyboard communicate a message (Mackenzie, 2014).

The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF, 2016) takes a broad view of the ways that children engage in emergent written expression:

Children are effective communicators. Their communication and self-expression take many forms including sharing stories and symbols from their own culture, re-enacting well-known stories and using creative arts, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, drama, dance, movement and music to communicate with others. VEYLDF (2016) Outcome 5

In this toolkit, children’s drawing is a primary form of written expression that precedes and encourages the development of conventional writing at the commencement of formal schooling. This view is supported by numerous early childhood literacy researchers:

Dyson (1986), for example, recognised that children’s drawing was an integral piece to children’s emergent literacy practice, one of many symbol systems afforded to young children in their efforts to become textual meaning-makers. Dyson’s work is encompassed by a more refined view of literacy that … consider[s] how children come to use different symbol systems, or modalities, as a way of communicating meaning. Sunday (2017, p. 87)

Australian research by Mackenzie (2011) has also highlighted the importance of drawing as written expression.

Facilitating children’s drawing experiences are opportunities to engage in the earliest forms of written expression, as well as learning about the artform of drawing:

If teachers encourage and value drawing they can build a bridge between children’s prior-to-school experiences, a current system of meaning making and the new system of writing. Mackenzie (2011, p. 338)

This research shows that as well as facilitating oral language, drawings can act as an anchor for children’s ideas as they begin to experiment with letters and engage in emergent writing activities (Mackenzie, 2011).

Drawing is an important facilitator of written/visual expression that enhances and encourages the emergence of later (more traditional) forms of writing, towards the commencement of formal schooling.

In this way writing becomes a parallel means of meaning making rather than a replacement for the drawing and talking they already do so well when they arrive at school. Mackenzie (2011, p. 338)

Taking this view of drawing as a central way of scaffolding children’s written expression, the following key developmental milestones for written expression are provided, as well as links to relevant teaching practices (writing with children, fine arts – emergent literacy).

Emergent written expression

Key developmental milestones

The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but does not limit the expectations for every child. It is always important to understand children’s learning and development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.

The following is adapted from Mackenzie (2014) and Mackenzie and Scull (2015). It should be noted that determining a “sequence” of emergent writing skills is not always possible (Mackenzie, 2011), and that these milestones vary considerably between children and depend significantly on the writing opportunities that children have been provided.

Early communicators (birth–18 months):

  • notice others’ writing
  • start to engage in mark marking

Early language users (12- 36 months):

  • engage in mark marking with various tools(pens, pencils, textas, crayons, paints, and electronic devices)
  • engage in mark making in an intentional, exploratory way, which often resembles scribbling
  • learning that marks and print have meaning, and carry messages

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months):

  • start to show awareness that writing is different to drawing
  • start to create drawings that are meaningful to them
  • begin to show signs of mark making in a straight line (linearity), and right-to-left (orientation) patterns
  • start to produce drawings with separate letter-like characters included
  • in ages 3-4, beginning to:
    • produce clearer letter forms
    • write random letters
    • use invented spelling to annotate drawings or write messages
  • towards school commencement, beginning to:
    • write own name
    • use some conventional spelling and writing forms

Children increasingly use conventional … writing, and simple punctuation. Over time, children learn to use and create simple texts about familiar topics and choose the content, form and vocabulary within their writing. As their skills advance, they accurately spell words that are frequently used and make use of known spelling patterns to make plausible attempts at spelling unfamiliar words. VEYLDF (2016) Outcome 5.

Facilitating drawing and incorporating elements of print

Based on research by Mackenzie (2011, 2014), Puranik and Lonigan (2011), and Sunday (2017), the following methods for facilitating children’s emergent written expression are provided.

These include facilitating fine arts experiences including drawing, painting, sculpture, or multimedia text creation, and encouraging children to experiment with elements of printing their work. Fine arts – emergent literacy offers more detailed information.

Other methods, covered in detail in the writing with children teaching practice page include:

  • setting up drawing as written expression experiences
  • educator annotation of drawings, paintings
  • facilitating children’s letter-sound experimentation during drawing and writing
  • scaffolding children’s mark making, scribbling, drawing and emergent writing to “write their own name”

Refer to Writing with children.

Theory to practice

In early childhood, the line between literacy and art is deliberately blurred, as Wright (2012) explains:

The arts allow us to create a symbolic world and to ‘shape and reshape, revise and revision’ our own ‘hidden and subjective’ lives… They are a vehicle by which we can express our growing awareness of ourselves and the worlds in which we live. Wright (2012, p. 2), citing Abbs (2003, p. 13)

McArdle and Wright (2014) see the arts as children’s first literacies/languages: “their primary way of seeing and knowing the self in the world” (p. 22). This justifies why it is important to understand texts as multimodal.

Within the Four Resources model, emergent literacy is said to arise through a combination of different practices and resources that allow learners to make meaning and express ideas through texts (Freebody and Luke, 1990).

For reading comprehension, these are the ability to:

  • break the code of texts: Text decoder
  • participate in the meanings of text: text participant
  • use texts functionally: Text user
  • critically analyse and transform texts: text analyst

Similarly, Harris, McKenzie, Fitzsimmons and Turbill (2003) built upon this model to map out four sets of writing practices to parallel the four reading practices.

Written expression abilities are to:

  • encode communication into written and visual language: Text encoder
  • compose meaning into texts: Text participant
  • create texts for social purposes: Text user
  • construct underlying values, beliefs and views into texts: text analyst

Fellowes and Oakley (2014) recommend that these various roles of readers and writers can be taken on by even young children, when they are heavily scaffolded by educators. They also recommend creating a “dialogic environment” for the open discussion of texts and their meanings:

… A setting in which there is sustained and meaningful dialogue among children and educators to allow co-construction of meaning. It is very important that educators not only talk but listen to young children’s talk about the meaning they make. Fellowes and Oakley (2014, p. 298)

Similarly, Mackenzie (2011) argues that drawing is an ideal scaffold and outlet for facilitating rich engagement and construction of texts. Drawing (as another form of communication) can provide an effective, and important connection between the kinds of expression that children use in early childhood settings (meaning making using multiple media), and those expected in the early years of school (emergence of formal writing).

Mackenzie (2011, p. 324) asserts that:

For many children drawing is both child’s play (Norris, et al., 1998) and a substantive mental activity (Sheridan, 2002); a socially meaningful activity and a constructive process of thinking in action (Cox, 2005) which allows access to real and imaginary worlds (DuCharme, 1991). Drawing is ‘spontaneous, aesthetic, expressional, and graphic’ (Neu and Berglund, 1991) and holds the potential for rich expression and complex learning (Oken Wright, 1998).

Evidence base

Research evidence has shown that when engaging with texts, children in early childhood use very similar comprehension processes as older children (van den Brock, Kindeou, Kremer, Lynch, Butler, White and Pugzles Lorch, 2005). This supports the view that educators should engage children in meaningful discussions about texts to support their literal, figurative, and evaluative comprehension.

For written expression, when children as young as three years old are provided with drawing and writing materials, and engaged in writing experiences, their interest and skills in emergent writing will develop (Puranik and Lonigan, 2011). The researchers suggest that educators encourage children to make marks, scribble, and engage in free drawing/writing, and that scaffolding children to make a mark; to begin to write their own name; to highlight the letter-sound patterns in their name are useful strategies for older children.

Mackenzie’s (2011) work shows the important role of drawing in developing this emergent written expression (discussed above).

Concerning reading comprehension, in line with the four resources model (Freebody and Luke, 1990), research has shown that oral language and code-related skills (phonological awareness and phonics) are key skills underlying success in children’s emergent and later reading comprehension (see Hjetland et al., 2017, for review).

Similarly, research evidence shows the importance or oral language and code-related skills for emergent and later writing success (Mackenzie and Hemmings, 2014). See the other learning foci in interacting with others, and emergent literacy for more information.

Outcome 2: community

Children become aware of fairness:

  • begin to understand and evaluate ways in which texts construct identities and create stereotypes.

Outcome 3: wellbeing

Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing:

  • respond through movement to traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling of their own and others’ cultures
  • engage in increasingly complex sensory-motor skills and movement patterns
  • combine gross and fine motor movement and balance to achieve increasingly complex patterns of activity, including dance, creative movement and drama

Outcome 5: communication

Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts:

  • view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
  • sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
  • take on roles of literacy and numeracy users in their play
  • begin to understand key literacy and numeracy concepts and processes, such as the sounds of language, letter–sound relationships, concepts of print and the ways that texts are structured
  • explore texts from a range of different perspectives and begin to analyse the meanings
  • actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
  • recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts

Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media:

  • use language and engage in symbolic play to imagine and create roles, scripts and ideas
  • share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
  • use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning
  • experiment with ways of expressing ideas and meaning using a range of media
  • begin to use images and approximations of letters and words to convey meaning

Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work:

  • use symbols in play to represent and make meaning
  • begin to make connections between, and see patterns in, their feelings, ideas, words and actions, and those of others
  • develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
  • begin to be aware of the relationships between oral, written and visual representations
  • begin to recognise patterns and relationships and the connections between them
  • listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme
  • draw on their experiences in constructing meaning using symbols

Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking:

  • identify the uses of technologies in everyday life and use real or imaginary technologies as props in their play
  • use information and communication technologies to access images and information, explore diverse perspectives and make sense of their world
  • use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
  • engage with technology for fun and to make meaning

Experience plans and videos

Early communicators (birth - 18 months)

Early language users (12 - 36 months)

Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)

Learning foci and teaching practices