Multimodal literacy narratives: weaving the threads of young children's identity through the arts.
Article Type:
Early childhood education (Research)
Narrative art (Visual arts) (Research)
Binder, Marni
Kotsopoulos, Sally
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Research in Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0256-8543
Date: Oct-Dec, 2011 Source Volume: 25 Source Issue: 4
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
The current study examines how children develop multimodal narratives through the construction of quilt squares and I Am poetry. Creating visual narratives through the use of personal artifacts lays the foundation for this artistic multiple literacy experience. The study focuses on the process and growth that a diverse group of kindergarten children underwent over the course of 9 weeks. How children reveal their identity texts through multimodal engagements reflects the significance of being able to understand, communicate, and think in alternative ways. Such opportunities offer children ways to represent the importance of being in the social world and document their personal narratives in nontraditional forms of literacy. The learning environment must engage children in experiences that empower them to make their thoughts public and to change how they think, view, and situate themselves in the world.

Keywords: early childhood, multimodalities, early literacy, early childhood curriculum, art education, narrative


Children are prodigious creators of art. Their pictorial representations have been interpreted developmentally (Golomb, 1992; Kellogg, 1970; Lowenfeld & Brittain, 1964), holistically and aesthetically (Eisner, 2002; Read, 1956), as iconicities (Kindler & Darras, 1997), and socioculturally (Wilson & Wilson, 1984). Although there is an understanding that art is more than a complement, or a backseat, to literacy learning (Binder, 2004; Dyson, 1993; Kind, 2005; Pahl, 2007; Steele, 1998), more exploration is needed in understanding the influence of multimodal experiences with young children.

The New London Group (1996) provided a compelling framework for redefining the traditional definition of literacy, embracing a "multiplicity of discourses" (p. 61). Multiple forms of literacy are defined as situational, instructional, critical, and transformative, whereby a "transfer in meaning-making practices ... puts the transformed meaning to work in other contexts or cultural sites" (p. 88). The New London Group and Eisner (1998) suggested these multiple forms of literacy reconceptualize the traditional notion of literacy and engage in what is defined as multiple literacies, whereby meaning-making and communication are represented not only through language, but also through other forms of nontextual modes. Jewitt and Kress (2003) pushed the discussion by examining multimodal literacies within semiotic and artistic constructs that acknowledge the myriad ways of communicating. Although the literature supports the use of multimodal approaches to define literacy in the lives of young children (Flewitt, 2008), there still appears to exist an approach toward using the arts as an alternative to text, or using experiences that are arts-based to support or enhance literacy. Narey (2009) advocated for using the arts as a process that develops and extends language, literacy, and meaning-making. Viewing the arts as literacy offers another lens on viewing young children's meaning-making and on how they make their graphic thought visible through visual narratives.

The current research study examined how children develop multimodal narratives through the construction of quilt squares that used personal artifacts, or "things of importance," to represent who they were and what was important in their world. The use of "I Am" poetry (Ada & Campoy, 2004) augmented the visual narratives or story quilts, empowering and validating children' s voice in this artistic multimodal experience. The study focused on the processes and growth that a group of diverse kindergarten children underwent over 9 weeks and explored the multimodal experiences through the arts and how they transformed young children's literacy understanding of identity texts. Revealing their identity texts (Cummins, 2004) through multimodal engagement reflects the significance of being able to understand, communicate, and think in alternative ways and illuminates how children navigate the relational landscape of their visual literacy narratives. The learning environment must be one that provides children with opportunities to engage in experiences that empower them to make their thoughts public and reveal how they think, view, and situate themselves in the world.


The current approach to literacy in North America is through a curriculum that is predominantly text-driven and standardized; consequently, a one-size-fits-all approach seems to be the pedagogical currency. Curriculum is often scripted and omits a sociocultural context (Genishi & Dyson, 2009), leaving little or no opportunity for children to bring their own experiences to the school environment, thus perpetuating a deficit approach to early learning. The importance of positive learning experiences and social practices that support the knowledge children bring from home (Gee, 2001; Goodman & Martens, 2007; Harste, 2010; Heath, 1996) is marginalized.

Although current research and teaching and learning evidence support a shift from this philosophy and method to early literacy practice, educators tend to still focus more on the readiness skills required, rather than on building culturally responsive classrooms (Purnell, Ali, Begum, & Carter, 2007). Ideally, one should not preclude the other. Both should be woven into the teaching and learning environment as quality practice. However, with the strong focus on standardized testing and outcome-based curriculums, young children are now being exposed to what could be described as a mono-literacy culture that stresses a linearity of skills.

Understanding the identity texts of children and their families not only provides a socially constructed lens of understanding, but also enables reflection and potential for transforming educational practices in the learning environment (Cummins, 2004). Educators and researchers are now being challenged to examine multiple literacies as alternative ways that inform and shape children's literacy acquisition and understanding. Sanders and Albers (2010) argued that knowledge of multimodal tools and implementation must be a part of current literacy discourse.

Multiple forms of literacy broaden, extend, and transform the traditional use of the term literacy to include any form that conveys meaning (Eisner, 1998; New London Group, 1996) and expands the understanding of Halliday's "learning how to mean" through and beyond semiotic spaces (cited in Bainbridge, Heydon, & Malicky, 2009, p. 45). The last decade showed an ongoing shift of using the arts as multimodal forms of expression within new contextual and meaningful interactions of communication (Albers & Harste, 2007; Lankshear & Knobel, 2007). This is exploring "communication in the widest sense, including gesture, oral performance, artistic, linguistic, electronic, graphic and artifact-related" (Pahl & Rowsell, 2006, p. 6) and is embedded in meaning-making in representations of social practice as well as constructions of discourse around identity (Gee, 2004).

Although the research literature supports and advocates for multimodal approaches to literacy, actual practice is not prevalent, nor explored, as a tangible method for understanding and deconstructing early literacy teaching and learning (Binder, 2004; Crafton, Silvers, & Brennan, 2009; Kendrick & McKay, 2004). Young children's conceptions of identity are rarely present in the literacy discourse (Cummins et al., 2005). Through multimodal forms of expression, young children find validation and empowerment through a redefining of self, which ultimately transforms their relationship to themselves, others, and the world around them.

Similar to Souto-Manning and James's (2008) discussion of a heightened awareness of the Reggio Emilia curriculum in the United States, early learning in Canada is experiencing a comparable situation. The Reggio Emilia approach to education offers an interconnected philosophy of education that recognizes the potential of all children by empowering learning through an emergent curriculum design that draws on children's interests. A project design approach (Katz & Chard, 2000) promotes relationships (between children, teachers, and parents), provides an environment that reflects the children's work, and views documentation of their work as a process critical to learning (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998; Hendrick, 1997; Seidel, 2001). The belief that children naturally represent in multiple symbolic languages is referred to as "The Hundred Languages" (Edwards et al., 1998) and has created a surge of interest in how young children can express themselves through multimodal forms of communication. Although the interest is primarily in the early childhood education movement (as opposed to the public education sector), there are those, such as Wien (2008), who are doing significant work with primary educators in public schools, demonstrating adaptations of the Reggio philosophy, and using the visual arts as a component of the one hundred languages of children (Edwards et al., 1998; Fraser, 2006). As teachers begin to hear and see the benefits of documentation, exploration, and a strongly thought-out environment on the process of learning (Hohmann, Banet, & Weikart, 1979), more attention will be given to children's ways of communicating and the importance of collaborative inquiry. However, the curricular emphasis still rests on literacy as print-driven, and the arts are still frequently slotted into a specific time or viewed as a frill in the learning day.

Although an understanding is present to expand children's opportunities for narrative construction, these experiences are often restricted to retell and response. For example, in our provincial new full-day early learning-kindergarten draft document, the expectations are to "use language in various contexts to connect to new experiences with what they already know (e.g., contribute ideas orally during shared or interactive writing; contribute to conversations at learning centres; respond to teacher prompts)" (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010-2011, p. 27). There are no statements or examples that offer explicit opportunities for depth, validating children's voices, or creating spaces for engaged discussion that really move beyond question-and-answer. Providing the spaces for voice, so that children are able to express themselves beyond a directed lesson, is critical for defining their realities and experiences (Ahn & Filipenko, 2007).

In our growing and diverse population, especially in urban settings in Ontario, the need to move beyond traditional forms of text in the social construction of life experiences is becoming more apparent. This view of language and literacy as socially constructed (Gee, 2004) emphasizes the necessity of authentic listening to children's lived experiences in the learning environment. Freire and Machedo (1987) called the "word universe" (p. 35) the place where the experiences expressed are not those of the teacher, but rather are those of the students, hence creating an authenticity in learning and the space to transform literacy understanding and action. Young children's word universe should include their visual universe, too.

Although pictorial representations can be viewed as complementary to language, Leland and Harste (1994) suggested that children's ways of knowing are constructed through "multiple sign systems--not just language" (p. 344). This view is supported by Eisner (2002), who suggested that though language is a main form of communication and expression, other valid forms of representation also should be considered. New views on knowing are supported by Kress's (1997) social semiotic theory, which examines all symbols as multimodal forms of communication when enacted with meaning, and by Wright (2010), who examined the layered complexity of meaningmaking from children's images. The generative possibilities (Siegel, 1995) offered through visual representation are significant, as are the transmediation capacities that are developed (Suhor, 1984). Providing opportunities for children to represent their visual universe through artistic representational experiences, such as drawing, painting, or quiltmaking, confirms Sullivan's (2006) claim that art-making is a form of inquiry that can occur before language and could support the idea of children's visual representations as being graphic thought (Binder, 2002).

The creation of story quilts offers young children the artistic and aesthetic opportunities to represent the importance of being in the social world (Ball, 2008) and provides documentation of their personal narratives in alternative ways. Using multiple sign systems (Comber, 2003) offers learning opportunities for young children that are not traditionally restricted to print. Multimodal forms of literacy expression are examined within new contextual and meaningful interactions (Lankshear & Knobel, 2007) and offer a discourse of process (Jewitt & Kress, 2003). This embodies the spaces for children to discover and resituate their understanding of identity within representational expression (Albers & Harste, 2007; Pahl, 2007).

Cummins (2004) discussed identity text as the way children take artifacts, use them, and begin to take ownership of them. The term is used to

This concept of identity text is adapted in this research to explore a visual arts-based, multimodal approach to examine how young children represent their understandings of identity.


This interpretative study used visual research methodology (Prosser, 1998; Prosser & Loxley, 2007; Rose, 2007; Thomson, 2008) and narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). The marriage of these two approaches provided an arts-informed exploratory and interpretative approach to understanding the process and experience of the participants and the researchers (McNiff, 2008). Of significance is the practice of incorporating the creative arts in the research (Sullivan, 2006) that provided the emergent design.

The nature of visual narrative required an innovative and contemporary approach for this research design, whereby the images the children created were recognized as valuable data to be interpreted and provided educators with a discourse of understanding. The use of images, be it drawings or other multimodal representations (such as quilt squares), enabled the researchers to view and interpret children's understandings of themselves in relation to others in dramatically different ways. Because young children aren't always able to express their thoughts through the printed word, visual representations became the text of meaning-making, or what Soto (2005) so aptly described as "the notion of visualizing voice" (p. 9).

Leavy (2009) made the case for the use of arts-based studies in identity research. As Kendrick and McKay (2004) stated: "Individuals see themselves reflected in images in ways they may not see themselves reflected in words" (p. 112). Ball (2008) discussed the use of quilts and their significance as constructions of social texts of complexity. This problematizes the question of the visual arts as transformative literacy practices in understanding the identity texts of young children.

The use of narrative methods allowed for the presence of researcher and teacher voice in the research. This afforded time for reflection and valuable observations in shaping the discourse on the process (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). It was a way to provide multiple lenses to the research and to potentially enact change (Chase, 2005). The reflexivity of the teaching and learning process empowers practitioners and researchers to "enact and document new stories of educational research" (Beattie, 2004).

Overview of the Study

We conducted the research in a culturally and linguistically diverse kindergarten classroom in an all-day early learning center in a Canadian university. There were three junior kindergarten children and nine senior kindergarten children (a total of five boys and seven girls). The majority of the children had been together since they were toddlers. Many of the children were from the university community (i.e., their parents were professors and students), but children from outside that group were represented as well. The room had one teacher and was also a site for placement of early childhood education students. The manager of the center was involved in the research as a co-investigator. Toward the end of the 9-week project, one child left and another moved up from the preschool setting. Although following the Ministry of Education document for kindergarten, the program's philosophy was designed collectively by the staff and drew on the Reggio Emilia approach of an emergent curriculum (Edwards et al., 1998).

For 9 weeks, the researcher worked with the children once a week for approximately 2 hours. The children were engaged in a process and progression of activities that deconstructed learning into sustainable sessions. Each encounter opened and closed with a quality picture book that reflected the use of imagination and artistic and aesthetic engagement and included various stories about quilts. The selected picture books segued into the activities and connected to the overall process. The children worked on the following concepts: why they were special, painting, artifacts of importance, a planning quilt square, the quilt square, and I Am poetry. To close, a soundscape installation of the community quilt was created through the laying of each quilt square and reading of each student's poetry. It is important to note that the creation of the images came before the writing of the poems. These artistic experiences were seen as the initial modalities of meaning-making, which then enhanced and complemented the poetic creations. Although poetry is textual, the making is viewed as a creative endeavor.

The Role of the Researchers

The role of the researcher was one of participant-observer. As participant, I (the first author) provided a curricular vision of what would transpire over the weeks and planned the sessions, selected the books, and provided the structure ahead of time to the teacher and to Sally Kotsopoulos, the co-investigator. Reflective discussions with Mrs. Kotsopoulos, also the manager of the early learning center, always followed the sessions to determine the direction of the project and identified areas that might need revision. Meetings were held with the teacher of the classroom several times during the project. She took on the role of observer during the time I was in the room, and her documented insights were valuable during debriefing at the end of the project. She also, with Mrs. Kotsopoulos, prepared materials and the classroom space prior to my weekly arrival.

I conducted the group sessions, read the stories, and provided direction for the children. In essence, I became the teacher for the time I was there. My role as observer occurred when the children were engaged in activities. As a researcher who was also a participant and observer, I needed to be mindful of the two hats I was wearing and of the subjectivity of my position in the room.

Data Collection and Analysis

Data collection occurred over a 3-month period and included children's paintings and drawings, quilt drawings, draft quilts, quilt squares, photographs, poetry writing, and videotaping of the ongoing process. This collection was augmented by recordings of discussions with children and children's oral reflections. Data collection also took the form of field notes, teacher journaling, and ongoing discussions with the teacher.

The data analysis adapted what Gillian Rose (2007) defined as "discourse analysis 1," "where the notion of discourse is articulated through various kinds of visual images and verbal texts" (p. 146). In this way, examining the images that children produced as visual narratives including intertexuality focuses on the totality of the pieces created, from the beginning to end, as becoming the discourse: drawings of important things, paintings, planning quilt square, quilt square, I Am poetry, to the final quilt installation itself. The discourse presented was situated within a specific socially constructed context of understanding identity and embedded in the discourse of the process. This was supported by Gee's (2005) premise that "people build identities and activities not just through but by using language together with other 'stuff' that isn't language" (p. 20).

We examined 16 hours of videotape; all the artwork; transcripts from the sessions at the activity tables; observations from the teacher, both researchers, and the research assistant; and notes from meetings between the researchers and teacher. Each child's identity journey was examined through the process and experiences that child engaged in during the project. The children and their artwork were examined individually as they moved through the 9 weeks of art and aesthetic engagement and the interaction with peers and adults during the activities. It became apparent that the individual pieces of artwork could not be experienced independently but needed to engage with the whole process as it unfolded, within the context of examining the visual arts as literacy and as the conduit for entering into the worlds of the children. Each piece of artwork was examined in relation to observations and conversations that occurred. Consequently, a holistic approach to the analysis provided the overall emergent frame for the multimodal narratives that became visible. The elements of group process and dynamics also were observed and analyzed, enabling the reading of the overall process through the image creations.

The construction of narratives developed over time through examining the sessions as an emergent piece from the children's restorying of what had transpired the previous week and building upon that teaching experience. Although a plan was developed each week, we were mindful of and open to the importance of what the children brought to each session. This negotiation between adults and children (Fraser, 2006) contributed to the overall analysis of how knowledge was constructed and the visual narratives created. Conversations that emerged around several of the children became recognized as something attributed to all. A continual revisiting of the data as it was collected enabled us to code the observations and emerging themes. After the installation session, during which the children collectively created the quilt and read their poems, thematic threads were pulled together and further analyzed.


This exploration of how children express literacy understanding of their identity texts through multimodal art experiences offers a contextural understanding that illuminates the private world of the children and makes possible the depth of interpretations and insights that emerged from the analysis. The totality of the experiences through a reflexive process provided the constructed spaces of visual representations of meaning in the early literacy learning and allowed for the emergence the themes to be discussed.


The concept of overall process was prominent and based on the researchers' experiences and educational philosophy. Introducing this concept was significant and allowed for the sustainability over the 9 weeks. Breaking the activities down into manageable steps enabled the children to make their thoughts public through the images, their talk, and their interactions. The notion of process was brought into class discussions early on, and soon many of the children were referring to things as "step by step" after one child used this term to describe what we were doing. Each week, the children were asked what they had done the week before. Most of the children were not only able to retell what had transpired the week before but also able to articulate a sequential description of what had occurred and reflect on the importance of what we had done from their perspective. An internalization of the idea of process became visible as they moved from one activity to another. There was a mindfulness in creating each session to reflect and build on previous meaning-making.

A project approach (Katz & Chard, 2000) was reflected such that each designed phase over time flowed and depended on what had transpired previously in the learning, allowing for a flexible framework. Key characteristics of this approach include developing an in-depth study that emerges and builds on children's strengths and interests, a deepening sense of purpose for learning, relational connections, working at one's own pace, and allowing children authorship over their learning. By breaking down the process, we observed the connections between experiences that offered the children opportunities to bring their learning into other places. For example, they began to visually represent their ideas more frequently between sessions. They talked of taking things step by step when creating art. More authentic engagement emerged between them at the activity tables as they collaborated more often in their interactions.

Concepts of symbolic representation, from simple to complex, were of an initial concern for some children. For example, questions of how to represent the doggie or mommie on the quilt shifted from the literal to the interpretative. The children came to understand that it was "the process of representation" they were trying to master, "not an adult conception of what constitutes an adequate symbol" (Hohmann et al., 1979, p. 171). Such observations also are supported by Edwards et al. (1998), Golomb (1992), and Kress (1997).

The validation of a philosophy that honored an emergence of learning that came from the children, individually and collectively, as they engaged in the process was significant (Edwards et al., 1998). It was where they could explore their cultural capital and consider what they brought of themselves to the project and how they represented it. Although the sessions occurred only once a week, the project reemerged throughout the week, taking on a life of its own through extended discussions that arose and from spontaneous activities stemming from the children. Anecdotes filtered back from the children's homes about how the quilt project was entering into their lived family space.

The use of a step-by-step process also allowed the adults in the room to support the children. As a result of recognizing each aspect as important and validating the children's engagement, the project carried deep meaning and understanding for all involved. The engagement and process they went through was empowering as they expressed themselves through different modalities (see Figures 1, 2, 3, & 4).

Situated in a discourse of process, the multimodal theory of Jewitt and Kress (2003) characterizes four components of symbolic meaning-making: materiality, framing, design, and production. Materiality refers to the actual resources used. Various materials were used throughout the project to provide the children with a range of tactile and aesthetic experiences, along with opportunities for choice and problem-solving. Framing relates to how the components work together: how the design interacts. Here is where the children presented the personal artifacts and represented the significance of them through drawing, their quilt square, and then through poetry. Design connects to the significant aspects of the representational expression. By allowing the children to be the designers in the process, they engaged in imaginative experiences that illustrated graphic thought (Binder, 2002). The concept of design had a strong presence in the planning quilt phase prior to the actual creation of their quilt square. Production is embodied in the soundscape installation, when the quilt was built collectively (see Figures 5 & 6).




Three key themes of "I to we," finding voice, and literacy beyond text emerged under the umbrella of process.

I to We

As the children moved through the process, a clear shift developed from the 'T' to "We." Although we acknowledge the different degrees and events that precipitated the shifts, we observed an overall shift of all the children throughout the 9 weeks. At the outset of the project, the children were focused on their things of importance: the personal artifacts they were going to represent on the quilt. As the children moved through the different activities, a shift occurred. The quilt became the important thing. The children were more focused and demonstrated their place in the learning community. We noticed more interaction among all of the children. It wasn't just friends sitting and working with friends, for example. A caring community became evident as the children recognized and engaged with each other while creating their drawings and quilt squares. We also observed how the children at some point in the project focused on the work of their peers and not just their work first. This reciprocity of caring (Noddings, 2002) redefined the relational qualities of the learning environment.


The shift was first evident during a painting session when the children were experimenting with color washes as a background to creating their three important things. Working on the floor provided a different kind of physicality than sitting at tables and offered a space for shared understandings (Pelo, 2007). The sharing of paint and sponge brushes enhanced their relationships, and they began to show a genuine interest in each other' s work as they delighted in the use of color. There were squeals of excitement as we heard, "Look, I made orange" and "Look at the colors I made," as they created an atmosphere of pure aesthetic joy. Although the activity was designed by adults, it was the children who took control of the experience and brought it to a new level of community building.

The "I to We" was not an expectation or intentionally framed. Although there was a conscious effort to include all children and cultivate a respectful learning environment, it was observed that the project allowed the dynamics of the group to change on their own. One child was always trying to find her place in the group. Family issues were reflected in her being perceived by some as difficult. Her social interactions were not easy and often self-isolating. A noticeable shift occurred during the session when the children were working on their rehearsal quilt squares (as part of the design process). This child was drawing her things of importance, her cat and dog. We witnessed her conversational engagement with others at the table, complimenting the work of others first, and then showing hers with pride. In return, the child offered to assist others when working. According to the teacher, this change continued after the project. It became evident how this child's sense of identity strengthened as a result of this experience, allowing her to build relationships through the art to communicate ideas and to view herself and others as collaborators (Pelo, 2007).


It is important to note that no particular person or event introduced the shift directly. It is believed that the foundation arose from several factors: most of the children had been together since they were toddlers; they had engaged in class projects before and so a collaborative learning environment of respect existed. The nature of the shift was significant. A depth of understanding was observed as the children engaged in discussion while they created their squares. Perhaps the stories selected for reading and discussed helped to nurture the ethos over time as there became a collective acknowledgment of the work and ideas of others. Although the objects were important as symbols of identity, the creative engagement became the collective shift.

We also viewed the children's acceptance of each other's efforts and interest in the way their items were represented. For example, one child had brought a special button as one of his artifacts. This tiny button had been made by his mother, and he wanted it on his quilt square. Another child wanted to represent her "blankie" on her quilt square. These were significant childhood artifacts for them, and no one responded negatively to what was brought in, nor did anyone make fun of their choices. Instead, the children showed true interest when we gathered together to show their important things and discuss them.

Seidel's (2001) research from Project Zero and Reggio Emilia supports the significance of collective experiences for children. The importance of learning with and from others extends children's capacity outside of self. Further research by Krechesvsky and Mardell (2001) substantiates our findings that learning is socially constructed and takes on another dimension when children are involved in experiences that are aesthetic and emotional. The importance of the children understanding themselves, connecting to others, and connecting to the community in which they lived was reinforced, and individual learning was redefined through the group experience as embodying "a collective body of knowledge" (Krechesvsky & Mardell, 2000, p. 286).


Halfway through the project, five of the children presented me with a paper quilt they had constructed (see Figure 7). This was done on their own volition and during a time when I wasn't in the room. The week before, I had read a book titled The Kindness Quilt (Wallace, 2006). A long discussion took place on defining kindness and acts of kindness. One could suggest that this was their act of kindness toward me.

Creating the quilt was a collective endeavor that built empathy and understanding of their peers. The process empowered the children to tell their stories and gave voice to their shared experiences. During the construction of the quilt and reading of their poems, the children listened intently to each other. This strengthened existing relationships between the children, with their teachers, and with the researcher.

The concept of the quilt became the metaphor for an ethos of community building. This was evident from the following reflective statements that two of the children made during the end-of-year celebration held for them and their parents. The children were asked what was important and what they liked about the quilt project.


Child: What I liked about the quilt was that we all made our own quilt projects and that we were all together.

Child: We liked the quilt together.

Although one must acknowledge that there were several children who focused on what they had liked as individuals, these reflections do suggest and provide an example of a shift in focus from I to We.

Finding Voice

Finding voice through visualizing voice was significant for most of the children. This manifested in self-confidence to represent ideas pictorially and to express verbally. Children who appeared more passive and often slipped into the background were observed finding strength through the aesthetic engagement. Also contributing to this developing sense of identity were weekly opportunities to tell their stories, respond to stories read, and listen to each other. We observed this change strongly with two children in particular, whom we called The Seahorse and The Hero. At the end of the project, we could ascribe this change in varying degrees to all of the children.


The Seahorse (SK) spoke in whispers. She became empowered through the creative process, but specifically through identifying one of her special things as a seahorse. Figure 8 shows her drawing the seahorse. This became her metaphor for her identity expression, representing an ethereal strength that grew and her internalization of the process. Figure 9 represents the choices she made for her important things and their representation. The seahorse is represented through a shape configured with eyeballs; when asked about that, she said "Seahorses have large eyeballs" and "Seahorses are magical." She was also the initiator of the paper quilt created for me by four of the children.

One of the most significant transformations through visual narrative occurred with an "I can't draw" child, whom we called The Hero. His identity journey began by validating the importance of why he was special. He viewed himself as a superhero who "helped his Mommy and Daddy," and this made him happy (see Figure 10). This was a child who struggled to find his place in his learning community. Over the course of several weeks, it became evident that this child was experiencing angst over his ability to draw, paint, and even conceive of creating a quilt square. He would frequently rush through his initial representations.

The major turning point took place while he was drawing his three important things. I decided to sit with him in his space while he drew. He initially moved quickly through the task. He first drew a car; then, after a discussion, he decided that the car needed wheels and remembered that windows and a door were also needed. The same thing occurred when he went to draw his truck. As I sat there, we talked about the objects and why these toys were important to him.

The next image he wanted to draw was his stuffed dog. When he said "I can't draw," I talked about how I picture things in shapes when I couldn't figure out how to show it. He said the body was "like, like a race track." He then said, "That is an oval shape." It didn't take long for him to determine the shape of the head, ears, and eyes. He decided it was important to show four legs, as dogs could not stand on two. This was a significant turning point. We had been sitting together for more than 40 minutes and he was self-directed in this process. Just being with this child validated his process and drawings. Perhaps the attention was needed; however, it was a shift in how he saw himself. This carried over into his planning quilt, quilt square, and poem (see Figure 11).




After this, "The Hero" wanted to draw, and he asked to do so. He entered into the club of those who liked to draw in the class. Others began asking him to draw a car or a truck for them. At the celebration, his parents shared their observations of changes they had seen in their son: He was asking to draw at home and wanted to learn more poetry. These observations confirmed his self-growth and how he related to others. Although drawing became his language, his visual voice, his I Am poem also reflected this strength in understanding self:

I am happy when my dog licks my cheek.

I am sad when someone is unkind to my friends.

I am happy when Wall-e and Eve love each other.

Observed was the intertexuality of image and talk, and image and text: the artistic experience through multimodal expression.

The content of these images also reflected what was important. Such popular and well-known icons as Wall-e and Cinderella entered into their visual discourse. Some objects could be identified as gender influenced, but the majority could not be categorized as such. This observation is supported by the work of Pahl (2007), who explored the importance of how gendered identities are revealed through visual texts. The surprises showed the capacity for sentimentality. One boy brought in a button his mother made for him. There was a special bracelet, and a representation of a blankie. Also shown were pets and plants, things that one cares for. This reminds us that we cannot underestimate the depth of children's understanding and their ability to connect to bigger things.

Literacy Beyond Text

This emergent theme, though strongly observed in one child's responses, reflected an initial concern overall of a need for more artistic approaches using the arts in this learning environment and alternative ways to view literacy learning. This particular child demonstrated excellent writing skills, not only in her sentence structure, but also in her composition. When asked to draw why she was special, she represented her ideas only in writing (see Figure 12). Although she affirmed her sense of identity, the way she expressed her view was framed by her perception of what she thought literacy should be and what she thought the adults in the room would want. To her, literacy was about print. It raised the question about overall prior knowledge or expectations from home as well. This understanding shifted as she experienced more creative activities. Figure 13 shows a visual representation of one of her important things, her house. After she realized that she could represent concepts visually instead of textually, this child was more able to return to drawing and painting for expression. This experience gave her permission to move beyond text. We recognized a confidence in adapting another mode of expression. The importance of this understanding extended into her own initiative of creating a paper quilt at home.



This understanding was further reinforced during the session where I was showing personal artifacts of importance: a rock, a room number from an old classroom, and a Vincent van Gogh finger puppet. A week before, I had read Ish by Peter Reynolds (2004) to the class. Ish illustrates the exploration of authenticity and ownership over one's artwork. The book reinforced for children the message that it is OK to represent objects in their own way. Ish provided the vocabulary for thoughts or ideas and opened up the possibilities for the children who had placed artistic limitations on themselves: the "I can't" responses. We wanted the children to have permission, if you will, to create their way, thus opening the opportunity to express their ideas successfully instead of getting bogged down by how something looked. By this point, the children were being redirected back into the art from traditional text to express themselves, for which the book became the catalyst. The children were also familiar with Vincent van Gogh's artwork, as there was a beautiful print of a sunflower in the room.

The following conversation reflected this particular child's understanding of this concept and growing recognition of the importance of alternative ways of communicating. It was here we observed that not only was she beginning to frame her thinking around art, but that the rest of children were as well.

Teacher: I have a very strange-looking man.

Children: (Laughter)

Teacher: His name is Vincent. His name is Vincent van Gogh. And he lived in the late 1800s so he is very old.

Children: (Gasps.)

Teacher: But he died, so it's okay. He is not still living. But he was a famous artist ...

Teacher: He lived in Holland and he also lived in France. And he was a very famous painter and he painted beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful paintings, and I have a wonderful story on Vincent and I will bring that in for us next week.., he could have learned a lot from you. I decided to bring Vincent, because Vincent is one of my favorite artists and I love his paintings. And when I look at his paintings they make me feel very ...

Child: Happy!

Teacher: Happy and ...

Child: And very paintish.

Teacher: Yes. That's a good word. I like that word. Makes me feel very paintish ...

This process demonstrates what Suhor (1984) called "transmediation." This child has interpreted the meaning from one sign system (picture book) to another form (embodiment of feeling). Significant is the authorship in representing ideas and feelings, and in communicating in different modes other than traditional forms of text. This anecdote also illustrates the importance of honoring the voices of the children through different modes of expression.


What emerged from this research is a deeper insight into how young children shift their understanding of what literacy looks like through multimodal narratives. Such situated constructs strengthen the children's identity texts and the potential to make thought visible in ways that are not just text. Using artistic literacy practices engages educators in a new socially constructed discourse of possibilities, deconstructing traditional understandings of what is perceived to be literacy learning for young children. The findings suggest that literacy, as it is conceived in school curricula for young children, can be reconceptualized beyond print. There are alternative expressive modes to understanding children through attending to and reading their images and art creations. From ideas or acts that made them special, to selecting three things that represented what was important to them, to representing these concepts in images, the children shaped and reshaped their ideas of identity; through being together during this process, they extended an understanding of self to others. The poetry, although often perceived by some as traditional in nature, also reflects an artistic representation of identity interweaving the images and words.

Incorporating a reflective component at the end emphasizes the recognition that young children have the capacity to internalize experiences of importance and show their thinking. Framing the research through open-ended activities, during which the children made art, discussed their art, solved problems, and shared new understandings with each other, resonates with Sullivan's (2006) suggestion that inquiry is "interactive and reflexive whereby imaginative insight is constructed from a creative and critical practice" (p. 20) and provides ways to engage in art-making that offers creative new constructs and possibilities of understanding. This precipitates a potential paradigm shift in the teaching and learning process, whereby understanding the cultural capital that children bring to the learning environment is not only recognized but also becomes the foundation for practice. A deeper insight for teachers provided the impetus for curriculum change in this learning environment, using the visual arts in more meaningful ways and raising the potential for recognizing their use as language. Moving beyond text and looking at the art as literacy opened up new territory for not only meaning-making, but also for rethinking what literacy means for young children.

Validating identity texts through visual narratives reframes the power of early literacy through a critical pedagogy. It transforms and supports teacher practice and creates authentic literacy spaces for diverse children in their learning environments. Because young children aren't always able to express themselves through the printed word, visual representations become the language of meaning-making, to the point that the quilt squares were significant creations of social text.

In her seminal study of children's use of language in three distinct communities, Shirley Bryce Heath (1996) validated the importance of how children show their understanding of the world, not just from printed text, but also through the different "ways of taking from their environment" (p. 12). Home practices have a tremendous influence on literacy learning at school and contribute to children coming to school as "being literate," not just "becoming literate" (Gillen & Hall, 2003, p. 10). Heath argued that literacy events must reflect "larger sociocultural patterns that they may exemplify or reflect" (p. 74). James Gee (2001) extended Heath's concept through a New Literacy Studies perspective of understanding children's multiple literacies through their "ways with words" (p. 41), in situated practices and social language. By broadening the concept to include multimodal forms of expression, I would like to offer the notion of "ways of taking with images," in which children make meaning of their world through the images they create and the symbols they take and form to represent this understanding.


Research demonstrates the significance of symbolic representations before written language is mastered (Dyson, 1993; Genishi & Dyson, 2009; Kress, 1997). The expressive communicative value of multiple literacies (Eisner, 1998; Narey, 2009; New London Group, 1996) deepens and broadens the view of literacy beyond text. The current study builds on and contributes to existing research on the arts and literacy (Albers & Sanders, 2010; Wright, 2010) by offering further evidence that supports the importance of not just interconnecting the arts and literacy in a curriculum for young children, but also giving credence to the notion of the visual arts as literacy within the pedagogy of multimodal expression.

The experience of going through a process of designing of the quilt squares and writing I Am poetry demonstrates the transforming nature of the arts in the lives of young children. Children gain authorship of their work through visual narratives that reflect their identities. The project advocates for artistic alternative perspectives in understanding young children within the learning environment, which can lead to more critical discourse on practice. Of significance is the demonstration of what young children are capable of doing if provided with such creative endeavors that challenge and validate the knowledge they reveal through contextural and intertextual experiences. The importance of a critical pedagogy (Souto-Manning & James 2008) emerges to crystallize the paradigm shift in the teaching and learning process: one that views the arts as an essential thread in enabling children to share their lived experiences through multimodal literacy narratives. This presents the possibilities and foundation for future research with young children, interconnecting other art forms and identity texts.

Past and present experiences constitute how one reads the world (Freire & Machedo, 1987). Cultural and historical influences impart a unique signature that reflects personal interpretations and interrelationships. Understanding the sociocultural significance of children's experiences enriches the dimension of learning interactions. Honoring personal histories provides the possibilities of cocreating an environment that values the building of community. The importance of attending to the many facets of children's identities empowers teachers to take on more of an advocacy role in working with the myriad factors that impact on the learning experiences of the children who enter their classrooms.

Multiple forms of expression reveal the multidimensional layers of lived experiences. Through the visual arts and the arts as a whole, the complexities of understanding the world enable children to express the multitude of thoughts that embody their everyday lives and to make this graphic thought public (Binder, 2004). An understanding of their personal landscapes is transformed through their social and cultural ways of knowing, empowering identity and voice. What is also transforming is the nascent understanding of their personal landscapes, where they explore their social and cultural ways of knowing and empowers their voice.

The research presents the importance of children's voice and multimodal narratives to express identity and understanding of the world. The results indicate a need for children to explore different modes of expression as a way to develop understanding of self, other, and community. Observed was the significance of artistic modes of expression in the learning lives of young children. Although the research demonstrates the importance of multimodal literacies as opening up the boundaries of what is considered literacy and literacy learning, providing semiotic spaces for young children could benefit from extended study. To consider the visual arts as literacy could be a powerful construct for early learning, providing opportunities for young children to voice ideas and empower their sense of self through alternative modes of expression.


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Marni Binder

Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Sally Kotsopoulos

Humber College, Toronto, Canada

Submitted May 19, 2010; accepted January 28, 2011.

The authors thank the Faculty of Community Services, Ryerson University, for funding this research.

Address correspondence to Marni Binder, EdD, Assistant Professor, School of Early Childhood Education, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto, ON M5B 2K3, Canada. E-mail:

DOI: 10.1080/02568543.2011.606762
describe the products of students' creative work or performances
   carried out within the pedagogical space orchestrated by the
   classroom teacher. Students invest their identities in the creation
   of these texts which can be written, spoken, visual, musical,
   dramatic, or combinations in multimodal form. The identity text
   then holds a mirror up to students in which their identities are
   reflected back in a positive light. (p. 91)
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