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Staring at the page: the functions of gaze in a young child’s interpretation of symbolic forms

Lancaster, Lesley (2001) Staring at the page: the functions of gaze in a young child’s interpretation of symbolic forms. Journal of early childhood literacy, 1 (2). pp. 131-152. ISSN 1468-7984

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This article argues that young children are capable of complex abstract reasoning which is rooted in their physical and emotional engagement with the world. It suggests that even apparently commonplace representative objects are not transparent, and children are faced with a major interpretative problem when becoming familiar with symbolic images and objects. It also suggests that young children are motivated by an expectation of significance about the symbolic systems they encounter, including systems of low modality like writing. Their interpretative activity is mediated through physical and bodily resources, of which gaze is of major significance to sighted children when reasoning about visual, spatial modes of symbolic representation. The article presents a micro-semiotic, multimodal analysis of a small section of video film in which a two year old child is engaged, with her father, in drawing and marking: representing and interpreting graphic signs. Three functions of gaze are identified during this activity: analytic, interpersonal and expressive. The systematic and motivated coordination of these types of gaze with other bodily modes, including language, is shown. The article concludes that the boundaries between young children’s bodily and cognitive activity can be seen to be flexible, making many of their processes of reasoning and interpretation about systems of symbolic representation accessible to description.

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