Part 1. Key principles of early childhood literacy
Part 2. Embodied non-verbal literacies
Part 3. Spoken and written literacies
Part 4. The power of stories
Part 5. Course conclusion


Need help?

In Part 1, we established that literacies are the ways that human beings use various symbol systems to communicate meaning with others and, in Part 2, we will continue to build on these core principles. Recall the idea that literacies are multimodal: in other words, literacy is not only about talking, reading, and writing, although these are also really important and will be addressed in Part 3 of this course. We also learned that literacies develop from birth – some would argue before a baby is born – and are shaped by the cultural practices children engage in at home. Children bring their knowledges and experiences of literacies from home to their early childhood contexts.    

In this section, we will explore some of the ways that children learn to understand and express their meaning in embodied, nonverbal ways. We will consider:
  • How young children might engage in embodied, nonverbal literacies
  • Connections between embodied literacies and everyday play and social interactions
  • Ways that early childhood teachers can encourage children to develop embodied literacies
  • The role of digital technologies in supporting children to make and share meaning       
This will involve:
  • Watching a video with Professors Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope about embodied literacies in early childhood
  • Reading about the ways in which young children might use embodied and nonverbal literacies
  • Reflecting on how you have observed children in your setting use embodied literacies to communicate
  • Watching videos with teachers from Elim International Kids Early Childhood Centre and Stokes Valley Kindergarten talk about the way they support and promote embodied and digital literacies in their different settings
  • Inquiring into how your focus child uses embodied and nonverbal means of communicating

There is also a wealth of further reading and additional resources if you would like to learn more about supporting embodied and nonverbal literacies.

Revisit your learning so far

Think back to your observations of literacies for a child in your centre. What did you learn about the ways the child shared meaning with others using their bodies, objects, sounds, images, space, speech and /or print? How did your conversation with the family further shape your understanding of their home literacy practices?   

Your observations will likely have illustrated that literacies are multimodal – in other words, not limited to talking and reading. Children are learning how to understand and express themselves in multiple ways, and each child has their own unique pattern of strengths in communicating meaning with others.

Watch a video

Listen to Mary and Bill, who we met in Part 1, talk about what embodied literacies might look like in early childhood settings. 

Mary: When children enter school, and even before, they’re what we call synesthetic: they make meaning by touching, by feeling, by expression, by space. They’re synaesthetic.

How might we see children engaging with multiple literacies in early childhood education contexts?

Mary: The first they’re doing is that they’re curious, and they’re copying, and they’re a sponge. We take those early responses to the world, and channel them, whereas initially, they’re not channelled. They will touch everything, and then when they get burnt, they’ll learn, ‘I’m burnt – I can’t touch that again’.  They’ll make sounds, and when somebody responds to that sound, they’ll say, ‘oh, okay – I can do this again’. If we don’t make that sound, there’ll be something else. They express themselves in these multiple ways, and we’re trying to figure it out. We – adults – because we’ve got stuff in our head about the way that we make meaning, that we’re not conscious of the way in which, explicitly, young brand-new learners are making meaning. Now, you look at the little ones now – you put a pad in front of them, and they’re doing the same thing on that screen. They’re figuring it out. They know – they do sight-reading around the images and around the words, and they’re extraordinary. You don’t have to teach them to use that anymore that you have to teach them to make meaning in everyday living.

How can teachers support children to make meaning in a range of ways?

Bill: You’ve got to give early childhood educators a lot of credit, because they’ve always had picture books, which put text beside image. They’ve always had objects that students manipulate. They’ve always had students doing physical activities, and the trick, or the key, if you like, has always been multi-modality, multiliteracies, particularly in early childhood.  So, all credit to early childhood teachers. But what is it about this moment which is kind of interesting? Well, I’ll just give you one example: young children are increasingly using digital devices, increasingly using screens, and what’s interesting about screens is that, in an unprecedented way, text and image and sound all come together. So, in the old days, you’d read a book – perhaps it was a picture book, perhaps it was not – but there wasn’t sound that went with the book. You’ve got moving image there as well. So, what we’ve got is we’ve got the media of popular culture that kids use – that young children use now – are profoundly different, and profoundly multi-modal. So, in other words, one of the challenges then, for early childhood teachers, is how do we have curriculum which stays relevant to that experience, which is as engaging as that experience is, and how do we leverage a whole lot of skills? By the way, using a screen now is a tactile process: you do swiping, you do pinching, you do a whole lot of gestural movements, which in some ways become kind of almost like sign language, as well. In other words, formalised ways of using your body in relation to the screen.

Mary: All the educators in the toddler environment, in the early childhood environment, have to recognise that in meaning-making, transitions happen, or transpositions, or transitions are happening all the time. We have to focus how we understand and interpret and help the learners make meaning, whether they utter a sound, and then try to make an image for it, or get a colour to represent it. I mean, this is really powerful knowledge, which will be very good for those learners as they progress up the grades, and as they progress into adulthood because if we, as educators, recognise multi-modality as ubiquitous, as there from the moment you come out of the womb, and that we have to harness that multi-modality, and enable the learners to understand the power of each mode, and the power, as they switch backwards and forwards of those modes. We need to prepare them very early for that. Maria Montessori and other early educators understood the importance of having different tools and environments that the kids could switch – they’d go to a different station, and then another station, and another station, but they were inter-related, and we have to bring those kinds of skills and sensibilities into our early childhood spaces.

Delve deeper

Mary and Bill talk about the ways young children use all their senses to explore the world, including touch, feel, and moving their bodies in space. Multimodal meaning-making has always been integral to learning holistically in early childhood settings. Children have a natural curiosity to explore and express themselves in multiple ways as they figure out how to make meaning in their social relationships with others. Young children learn very early on about how to make meaning from images, objects, and other kinds of texts in their everyday lives. Digital technologies are one aspect of literacy that draws on popular culture, bringing together text, images and sound. Children learn to engage with digital media using gestures such as pointing, swiping, and pinching. Teachers can help children to make connections between the meaning of sounds, words, images, and other texts as they explore different kinds of embodied literacies in their everyday environments. 


In what ways have you seen children in your centre communicate meaning in embodied, nonverbal ways during play interactions and everyday routines like nappy changes or meal times? Can you think of times that children use combinations of body language, facial expressions, images, space, objects, sounds, speech, and print to make and share meaning with others?


The following reading, Examples of embodied literacies in early childhood settings, explores in more detail the different ways that children share and communicate meaning.

Examples of embodied literacies in early childhood settings

Embodied, nonverbal literacies encompass ways of making and communicating meaning that are not limited to talking, reading, and writing. Embodied literacies draw on all the senses, and use tactile, gestural, spatial, and visual resources for making meaning. Traditionally, research has tended to focus exclusively on linguistic aspects of literacy, such as talking, reading, and writing. Recent studies in early childhood education (ECE) have highlighted the value of considering the multiple, holistic ways that children make and share meaning using different modes, including gestures, images, and movements as well as sounds, words, and print.

In any ECE context, there will be multiple examples of children engaging in embodied literacies as part of their everyday social interactions. For example, imagine the following scenarios:  

  • a group of children enacting a story together as they engage in role-play with diggers in the sand using vehicles, objects, actions and noises such as ‘vroom’ and ‘beep beeeeep’ with varying rhythm, pitch, and loudness
  • an infant or toddler who looks, listens and points, but is not yet using spoken words
  • a child who is learning to use deaf sign language (such as NZSL), key words, gesture, or braille as their main system of communication
  • a child who has recently immigrated to New Zealand and speaks a home language that is different to the English, the main language used in their ECE centre  
  • two children searching on Google with their teacher to find digital images to support their inquiry into caring for ocean environments  
  • a child who has a communication disability and uses an augmentative or alternative communication system (such as low-tech picture systems like a photo book, or high-tech assistive devices such as an iPad).  

In addition to oral, audio, and written literacies, children make and share meaning with others in embodied, nonverbal ways during play and social interactions. There are many different ways young children might engage with embodied literacies through play in their ECE and home contexts. These include:

  • Gestural literacies, such as learning how to make and interpret facial expressions and body actions, dance, dress up, feel, pretend
  • Tactile literacies, like exploring how to mix, squish, dig, splash, and bake
  • Spatial literacies, which involve making meaning through positioning, such as running, jumping, rolling, swinging, climbing, building, and using puzzles and maps
  • Visual literacies, which involve expressing meaning using visual media such as paint, drawing,  photos, and digital technologies.

The above list teases out some examples of meaning-making in different forms, but it must also be acknowledged that, in reality, people use multiple modes to communicate at any given time. For example, think about the last time you had a face-to-face conversation with someone – it is likely that it involved not only words but also mutual facial expressions, gesture, body actions, and perhaps even touch and noises too! Communication and literacies typically involve people selecting combinations of modes to suit their purpose and context for making meaning.   

Why embodied literacies are important

It is natural for young children to express themselves in multimodal, whole-body, and sensory ways rather than privileging one form of communication over others. Opportunities for sensory, embodied exploration in ECE settings allow children to express themselves holistically and in ways that might include, but are not limited to, talk and print. Such opportunities value and build on children’s strengths and interests, as well as the cultural patterns of making meaning they bring with them from their home environments. In this way, embodied literacies recognise the wide range of resources children have available for learning. This is not only important for infants and toddlers who cannot yet talk, but also for children who are learning multiple languages or who communicate in non-verbal ways, such as through sign language or via augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems. The more ECE teachers understand about multimodal literacies, the more they will be able to create an environment where young children can communicate and learn via multiple forms. This creates many possible avenues of access for children to create and share meaning beyond narrow conceptualisations of literacy limited only to print and talk.          

Strategies for supporting embodied literacies in ECE settings

Teachers can intentionally support embodied literacies in ECE settings by taking time to observe the variety of ways that children share meaning with others during everyday interactions and play. Teachers can extend learning by noticing, recognising, and responding to children’s multimodal signs of meaning, which may be as subtle as an eye blink, a point, or a shrug of the shoulders. Intentional teaching practices also include the documentation of ways that children communicate with others, which is essential to recognising patterns and progress over time. Sharing observations as a teaching team, as well as with children and families, is also critical in order to build a holistic picture of children’s communicative strengths, capabilities, and challenges.  

To read the referenced version of this guide by Dr Amanda White, click here.


Have you noticed any patterns in the kinds of embodied or nonverbal modes used by the children you work with, or in particular learning areas in your early childhood environment?

Watch a video

In this video, teachers Irene Padtoc and Angela Jenkins from Elim International Kids Early Childhood Centre in Wellington talk about ways they support the literacy development of infants and toddlers, and notice and respond to embodied literacies during everyday interactions with children in their early childhood setting.     

Introducing Irene Padtoc and Angela Jenkins:

Irene Padtoc is the centre manager at Elim International Kids Early Childhood Centre. She had been teaching Infants and Toddlers for more than nine years and loves the times that she spends with the infants and toddlers. Irene is passionate about supporting very young tamariki in developing and learning early literacy skills, and she is a co-author (with Amanda White) of a publication called Supporting toddlers as competent story navigators across home and early childhood contexts. Irene has a Master of Science in Psychology and a Graduate Diploma in Teaching Early Childhood Education, both of which shaped her teaching philosophy and practice in early childhood education.    

Angela Jenkins is an infant and toddler teacher at Elim International Kids Early Childhood Centre. She has been teaching infants and toddlers for just over seven years and loves working with this age group. She believes that children communicate and express themselves through 1000 languages and through a range of literacy modes including through their bodies, their gestures, their senses, and their words. Observing so many children grow through this age group has given her a new perspective on ways to extend early literacy development for even our youngest children.

Angela: We try to make a print-rich environment, so that’s setting up lots of domains like a section for them to do their art work, making sure things are within their reach, so that they can go when they want to, as well as a nice, quiet place for reading, if they want to take time to themselves, as well as using different strategies, such as – there’s one called narrating, where while they’re playing, we sort of add meaning to what they’re doing by just explaining what they’re doing, just saying, ‘oh that’s a nice colour you’re using – look, here comes Emma to come play with you’. Just adding that meaning to their play, and extending their vocabulary, so that way, their literacy, and how they make meaning of their world.

Irene: Yeah, and on top of that, maybe we could also talk about giving them enough time to explore – not only time, but space, just like what Angela mentioned about having a space for all the learning – small buckets of learning, and also the relationship that we have with the children. So, we develop that quality relationship – a responsive, reciprocal relationship with the children, so that they feel secure and safe, and that when they feel secure and safe, they are free to explore, and be able to learn from the activities that are prepared for them.

How do infants and toddlers use their bodies and senses to communicate meaning with others during everyday interactions?

Angela: When they’re exploring throughout the day, they use their bodies when exploring, such as where – kind of like with us, where they position themselves. So, when they’re approaching an area to play, you can sort of see in their body language if they’re excited about it, or if they change their mind, they might move away – and even communicating with others, so gestures just like pointing, waving, or come here – you can sort of see what they’re trying to express to someone else, as well as either facial expression, where their eye gaze is.

Irene: So, with all these facial expressions, the sensory stimulation they have, we are able to learn what their preferences are, we are able to learn what they know about, what they are knowledgeable of, what they can do, and what they cannot do. We also learn about their emotions, their feelings at that time. We also learn about what they like and dislike.  

Angela: If they keep returning to something, then we can say, that’s something they’re interested in, especially if it’s a group of children, as well – then we can think, okay, yes, we want to extend on this. So, extending on those learning opportunities that we see.

Irene: Yeah, and that also helps us think about planning about how we can extend this further. So, based on what we see, based on what the children are showing us, then we would know what their preferences are, what they really are interested in, and that gives us an idea as to how we can plan to be able to extend on their knowledge, or on the skills that they have from their play.

Why are relationships with parents and families important for supporting literacy development?

Angela: We take an interest from when they first arrive. In the first settling visit, one of the questions we ask is about any aspirations that they have, and during their time with us, during drop-off and pick-up, we always make time to talk to each child’s parent, to see how the child’s feeling that day, as well as just general stories and anecdotes. We’re like, ‘oh, yeah – what did you guys get up to?’ So, we talk to the child about that throughout the day, and we also have pictures throughout the environment about past experiences, so that helps connect – make that connection between the home and centre, as well.

Irene: Yeah, and also, in our learning stories, we always see to it that we involve the parents. So, we ask questions about how they feel about the story of their child. So, they often give us responses, and that’s actually great for us, too, so that we would know what their thoughts and feeling about their child’s time here at EIK.  So, we often communicate with them via phone if there’s need, by interview, or just during drop-off or pick-up times.

Angela: Yeah, just sharing those stories. I remember once we had a parent who said that their child kept singing ‘pao pao pao’, and they didn’t understand what it meant, so they talked to us that morning saying, do you know what this is? We’re like, ‘oh, yeah – pao pao pao wiri wiri’. Then, the parent’s like, ‘oh, that’s what they’re saying!’ The child was getting frustrated that the parent didn’t know what the song was. So, we were able to clarify that, and that was really nice, as well, because it’s clear that the songs and waiata we sing – the child’s really enjoying it, so she’s doing it at home, as well – we’re able to share it.

Irene: Yeah, and sometimes parents, when they come to drop off or pick up their child, they often tell us what their child is doing at home, and then they tell us, ‘oh, we haven’t taught this to them, but when they come home, they show us this kind of action’. It’s something probably that they’ve learned from the centre. So, when they mention about it, then we would affirm yeah, indeed that’s something that the child has learned in the centre.

Delve deeper

Irene and Angela talk about the many different ways infants and toddlers demonstrate their thoughts, feelings, interests, preferences, and capabilities through their body language, eye gaze, gestures, and tone of voice. As teachers, Irene and Angela describe how they take time to observe and hone in on embodied forms of meaning-making so that they can plan and extend on children’s interests and competencies in their early childhood centre. Angela mentioned their intentionality in setting up a print-rich environment and different domains for embodied exploration and learning, such as art and books. Irene also emphasised the importance of time, space, and fostering relationships in order for infants and toddlers to learn how to communicate meaningfully with others. 

Infants, toddlers, and children who do not use verbal communication often rely on adults and peers noticing, recognising, and responding to their embodied literacy expressions. For teachers, this underscores the importance of making time to slow down, observe, and listen to what children are communicating. Some children express themselves in very quiet, subtle, and embodied ways. Discussing your observations with parents and whānau can also be valuable in helping to make sense of what children are trying to tell you. Sometimes parents may need your help too, as in Angela’s example about the child becoming frustrated when her parents did not understand her gestures!


In their interview, Irene and Angela describe the importance of noticing eye contact, body language, gestures, and touch in communicating with infants and toddlers who are not yet talking. Noticing embodied signs of meaning is an important strategy for teachers when engaging with children of any age. Can you think of children in your centre who have strengths in communicating using their bodily senses and actions? What have you noticed about the kinds of embodied actions they use to share meaning with others?

Watch a video

In this video, we focus on the use of digital technologies that Mary and Bill introduced in their interview. Digital technologies include visual, spatial, and tactile modes that can be used alongside oral, auditory, and written information to help children explore ways to make and share meaning with others. Teachers Jodi Tavite and Kelly Ballinger-Tavite from Stokes Valley Kindergarten in Wellington talk about ways they engage in digital literacies as part of everyday interactions with children in their kindergarten. 

Introducing Jodi Tavite and Kelly Ballinger-Tavite: 

Jodi Tavite is the head teacher at Stokes Valley Kindergarten. She became interested in early literacy when creating a child-led programme where children are encouraged to plan, manage, and develop their own learning outcomes. She has helped children follow their interests through oral storytelling, conversations, play, imagining, song, dance, and learning to articulate their own interpretations of the developing world around them, all of which are integral parts of literacy in the early years. 

Kelly Ballinger-Tavite is a teacher at Stokes Valley Kindergarten. She is passionate about representing children’s culture and identity within the learning environment and through her interactions with them. She promotes the use of home languages because she values the importance of representing a child and their whānau through learning and play. Literacy learning provides a framework for introducing new words, sounds, and symbols to reflect the different cultures within the kindergarten community. 


Jodi: In our kindergarten, it’s a child-led programme. So, what that looks like is children can facilitate their own learning outcomes, they can manage … they can plan their own learning. What we do as teachers is we work with and alongside the children, which creates lots of opportunity for rich conversation. When children are planning and facilitating their own learning, we work with them, and encourage the use of lots of language through our open-ended resources, so there’s plenty of opportunities for interpretation. We do lots of oral story-telling, lots of music, lots of dance. We explore a wide range of curriculum areas for children to be really expressive in who they are, and also in how they interpret the world around them.

How can digital technologies support children’s communication and literacy development?

Jodi: We use Storypark a lot. Storypark is really familiar to a lot of early childhood settings, but the way in which we’ve used it is for those relationships with family and whānau, but also with the children. So, what we do is we plan alongside the children. When we’re writing learning stories or documenting assessment, recording observations of children, we will do it in the environment alongside the child, so they’re actually part of that process. When we talk about literacy and how that’s supporting that, we’re having those conversations, we’re story-telling, we’re feeding back to the children, so they’re heavily engaged in those opportunities for conversation, and then children are having their opportunities to facilitate the story to us. So, it's their own words, their own interpretation, it’s happening within the assessment, in the moment, and then we fire it off to whānau, and then we get an instant response back. So, it’s a three-way literacy, which is absolutely amazing – something that we’re really proud of.

Kelly: With project work, it’s a lot of questioning and investigations. So, we have the iPads on the floor, so if children are asking a question, we can research that alongside them, and then thinking of our teaching strategies again, making sure we use open-ended questions. Something that we use a lot is ‘I wonder’ statements, so saying to children, ‘I wonder’, and that gives them the opportunity to think, and then articulate orally, or even non-orally with their non-verbal communication as well. So, using that on the floor is a way that we use digital technology. And then also, using computers when we’re coming to documentation in our project work. So, we have a lot of documentation in our environment – it’s not in a folder hidden away in our office, it is on the floor. Children refer to it. It starts conversations.  They revisit it, and then we have those conversations once again. The whānau are in the environment, they see what’s happening, there’s a three-way conversation again. We’ve had it on Storypark – then we have it again in our environment. It’s just prompting those conversations all the time. So, in each area where we have project work, we’re sitting alongside them, working on project mahi, and then it’s right there, and we can see it. So we use it in so many ways. We’re really lucky to live in a digital world, and use that to help our children’s literacy.  

Delve deeper

Jodi and Kelly describe some of the ways that they use digital technologies to support literacies in their everyday interactions with children. Using iPads on the floor is one way that children can be involved in the process of writing stories, and doing research and project work alongside and with teachers. Using iPads to co-create stories and document learning on Storypark also helps to connect and facilitate conversations between children, parents and whānau, and teachers. Jodi and Kelly explain how technology is a useful tool that allows them to search for information with children, but they do this in conjunction with other open-ended resources and language strategies such as open-ended questions and ‘I wonder’ statements to help support children’s thinking, questioning, and investigating as they learn together. 


In what ways do children learn about and through digital technologies using visual, tactile, auditory, and other modes in your setting? What are some of the benefits of having access to technologies to support literacy learning? Do you feel there are any potential risks or concerns around using technologies with young children in early childhood settings? 

Relate your learning to practice

Over the next week, think about how your focus child is learning to explore different kinds of literacies through their play and social interactions in the early childhood environment. Document examples of meaning-making in relation to the following literacies as you notice them: 

  • Gestural 
  • Tactile 
  • Spatial 
  • Visual 

To what extent do children use digital technologies as part of their literacy learning opportunities? 

Building on your first observation in the previous part of the course, you might start to notice patterns in terms of how the child uses their body, face, objects, images, and space or positioning to communicate their meaning with others, in a range of different ways. Discuss your observations with parents or whānau – do these align with what they have noticed at home?


In Part 2 we have explored the following ideas about embodied, nonverbal literacies:

  • Embodied literacies develop from birth
  • All children communicate meaning via touch, gesture, and visual and spatial awareness and positioning
  • Children can explore and extend embodied literacies through play and social interactions
  • It is important for teachers and families to share information and observations of how children communicate in embodied ways so that their capabilities are not missed or misinterpreted
  • Digital technologies are a potential way for teachers to share stories and other aspects of literacy with children multimodally, combining features such as text, images, and sound.

Further reading and resources

Books and articles

  • Makin, L. , & Spedding, S (2012). Learning literacies – Birth to three: Positive approaches for early childhood educators. Pademelon Press: This book contains practical ideas to support early literacies for infants and toddlers.
  • Smoldon, E., & Howell, M. (2014). Ideas for play: Literacy. Playful ways to grow children’s communication in the early years. Ako Books: This is a useful resource to help teachers and parents foster and extend multimodal literacies during play.
  • Taylor, S. V., & Leung, C. B. (2020). Multimodal literacy and social interaction: Young children’s literacy learning. Early Childhood Education Journal,48(1), 1-10: This paper discusses multimodal literacy in ECE settings.

New Zealand Sign Language 

Resources for supporting the use of early sign language and gestures with young children:

Digital literacies

  • What is digital play?: Ideas for supporting digital play in ECE settings 
  • Wood, E., Nuttall, J., Edwards, S., & Grieshaber, S. (2020). Young children’s digital play in early childhood settings: Curriculum, pedagogy and teachers’ knowledge. In O. Erstad, R. Flewitt, B. Kümmerling-Meibauer & I. Pereira (Eds.),The Routledge Handbook of Digital Literacies in Early Childhood(pp. 214-226). Routledge: This is an academic article that considers digital literacy and play practices across family homes and ECE settings.

Visual, tactile, spatial literacies

Resources for supporting the visual and embodied forms of expression in ECE settings: