Symbolic literacy: Young children’s developing understanding of the relation between symbol and referent in the graphic domain

Project: Research

Project participants

  • Deiglmayr, Anne (Project manager, academic)
  • Kachel, Gregor (Project manager, academic)
  • Bohn, Manuel (Partner)


Funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft

The acquisition of language and – much later – literacy are without doubt two of the most important achievements in cultural learning that young children attain in the first years of life. But even prior to literacy, children are permanently surrounded by symbolic artefacts in the form of iconic signs, pictures and writing. The research proposal presented here comprises three thematically related sets of studies aiming at investigating the process of enculturation that results from this exposure. A first line of work will investigate children’s comprehension of deictic symbols, namely arrows and markers. A second set of studies will test when children can spontaneously find meaning in novel signs whose symbol-referent relationship is based in iconicity, pars-pro-toto, and analogies in shape, number and spatial relationships. A third line of work aims at creating an adaptive test battery investigating preschoolers’ knowledge of conventional signs such as iconic signs, Latin script and Arabic numerals. These tests will in turn be combined with a selection of tasks from study sets A and B and result in a comprehensive within-subjects-investigation on the relations between symbolic experience and children’s ability to spontaneously find meaning in novel signs. All studies will be presented as symbolic object-choice tasks and implemented as computer-based games on touchscreen devices.The project goes beyond previous work on symbolic development by connecting children’s symbolic experience with their ability to interpret signs on an individual level. For the first time in this line of research, subjects’ age will not be elicited in tightly defined groups but in a gradual range from the second to the sixth birthday and, thereby, allow a continuous modelling of development. Whereas previous work has focused almost exclusively on iconicity as a way of creating meaning, the studies outlined above investigate a wide variety of mapping relationships. The computer-based testing will not only facilitate data collection and analysis thoroughly, but also enable international replication and the development of novel variants easily. Taken together, the studies contributing to this project will provide one of the most comprehensive and methodologically coherent investigations of young children’s understanding of symbols in the graphic domain to date.