Emilia Djonov

Macquarie University, Australia

Transforming spaces into places and activities into learning experiences: A social semiotic framework for enhancing early literacy sessions at public libraries

Public libraries around the world strive to promote early literacy in the communities they serve by offering not only free access to reading materials and new technologies, and spaces for learning, playing and socialising, but also early literacy sessions such as Baby Rhyme Time and Preschool Storytime. These sessions engage young children and their families in the shared reading of picture books, singing and dancing, reciting nursery rhymes, storytelling, and craft, and thus highlight the important role that multimodal interaction has always played in fostering early language and literacy learning.

In this talk, I will discuss the unique challenges of developing a framework for evaluating existing and designing new early literacy sessions that public libraries in metropolitan, regional and remote areas across New South Wales (NSW), Australia could adapt to the needs of their communities. The framework is the outcome of a research partnership project funded by State Library of NSW, and is informed by: a wide review of research on early literacy and on library services for children; a survey completed by 133 NSW public library staff involved in children’s services; the analysis of 57 early literacy sessions observed and video-recorded in different libraries across NSW in 2015; 38 interviews with their presenters; and a survey completed by 539 parents/caregivers who attended these sessions.

Specifically, through the analysis of the design and use of children’s library sections and 3D artefacts in early literacy sessions, I will illustrate the potential of a transdisciplinary framework grounded in multimodal social semiotics to empower library staff to design sessions that can foster language and literacy learning, a love of reading, and a sense of belonging to a community of readers. The analysis of the sessions is based on Van Leeuwen’s (2008) model of the relationship between discourse and social practice, while that of the design and use of 3D space and artefacts employs Stenglin’s (2004, 2008, 2009) grammar of 3D space and notion of ‘bonding icon’. The results are interpreted with reference to Pahl & Rowsell’s (2011) concept of ‘artifactual literacy’, Basil Bernstein’s (1975/1977) theory of symbolic control in education, and Victor Turner’s (1967; 1977) hierarchy of symbols in ritual. The analysis identifies principles that public libraries can use to transform their children’s sections from spaces into places and their early literacy sessions from series of activities into rich learning and community-building experiences.


Bernstein, B. (1975/77). Class, codes and control: Towards of theory of educational transmissions. London & Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2011). Artifactual critical literacy: A new perspective for literacy education. Berkeley Review of Education, 2(2), 129-152.

Stenglin, M. (2004). Packaging Curiosities: Towards a Grammar of Three-Dimensional Space. (PhD Thesis), University of Sydney, Sydney.

Stenglin, M. (2008). Olympism: How a bonding icon gets its ‘charge’. In L. Unsworth (Ed.), Multimodal Semiotics: Functional Analysis in the Contexts of Education (pp. 50-66). London: Continuum.

Stenglin, M. (2009). Space Odyssey: Towards a social semiotic model of 3D space. Visual Communication, 8(1), 35-64.

Turner, V. (1967). The forest of symbols: Aspects of Ndembu ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, V. (1977). Symbols in African ritual. In Dolgin, J.L., Kemnitzer, D.S, & Schneider, D. M. (Eds.) (1977). Symbolic anthropology: A reader in the study of symbols and meanings (pp. 183-194). New York: Columbia University Press.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2005). Introducing Social Semiotics. London: Routledge.

Van Leeuwen, T. (2008). Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Analysis. London: Oxford University Press.


Emilia Djonov is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and specialises in language and literacy in early childhood, multiliteracies, multimodal and critical discourse analysis, social semiotics and educational linguistics. In independent and collaborative studies, Emilia has examined the interaction between children’s website design and navigation, and between semiotic technologies (especially ubiquitous communication software) and their employment in various social practices (e.g. children’s interaction with e-games; PowerPoint-supported presentations; integration of websites and learning apps in classrooms). Her research has contributed to critical multimodal discourse studies and research on young children’s multimodal literacy development, language learning and engagement with new technologies.