To be published in the Literacy in America: An Encyclopedia (Barbara Guzzetti, Ed.), New York, ABC, 2002.

Beth Berghoff

Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis
Department of Language Education
Education 3116
902 West New York Street, Indianapolis, IN 46202,
Phone: 317-278-1008     Fax: 317-274-0211

Jerome C. Harste

Indiana University, Department of Language Education
Education 3036, Bloomington, IN 47405
Phone: 812-856-8276         Fax: 812-333-1216


     Semiotics is the study of how groups of people create and share meaning.  Semiotics has been said to be an “architectonic discipline,” meaning it is a discipline that attempts to explain everything.  Within this discipline, literacy is defined as knowing how to interact using many different forms of communication for many different purposes, and becoming fully literate involves the study of language, gesture, art, music, dance, drama, architecture, and more.  America’s greatest pragmatist, Charles Sanders Peirce (1931-1958) introduced semiotics to North American scholars with his attempt to develop a comprehensive theory of semantics or meaning making.  His goal was nothing short of mapping the complete history of thought.

The concept of triadic relationships is central to semiotics.  Whereas behaviorism posited a stimulus-response connection as the key to learning, semiotics posits that learners construct an “interpretant” in response to a “sign” and the “object” for which it stands.  According to this theory of social cognition, meaning making depends on “thirdness”–the ability to generate meaning that goes beyond the duality of a sign and a fixed meaning.  Semiotics posits that it is always possible to generate a third point of meaning from which to gain a new perspective.  This understanding, that there is always a third perspective or point from which to view things, is one of the major contributions of semiotics to the field of literacy.

From a semiotic perspective, literacy has been too narrowly defined.  Schools tend to discount sign systems other than language and mathematics and thereby set unnatural limits on learning.  Literacy has also been treated as an individual accomplishment rather than the social and distributed capability that it is from a semiotic perspective.  Pop culture and the media teach our children more about literacy than do schools, and a semiotic perspective suggests that educators must become critical about whose meanings are privileged.  New literacies emerge in new times, and school curriculum needs to exceed today’s canon.

Semiotics has democratic overtones.  If different cultures have different ways of knowing, then semiotics, or an expanded view of literacy, might provide access to populations of students currently not well served by our schools.   Some would even go so far as to argue that an understanding of semiotics is a needed first step in developing a diversity and difference model of education, one that would replace our current consensus model of learning.

Signs and Semiosis

Inherent to the study of semiotics is the study of cognition.  Humans do not have direct access to their world.  All that reaches the brain are sensory impulses of varying intensity.  If we make sense of these sensory impulses – that is, if we declare that we see a car or a tree or a person – it is because the brain has done something.  It has taken this impulse as a “sign” and assigned some sort of meaning to it.  How groups of people come to “read” such signs – share meaning – is what the study of semiotics is all about.

Semiosis is the fundamental process of cognition.  Semiosis is different than semiotics.  Semiosis is the process each of us uses to assign some sort of meaning to the sensory impulses we take as signs.  Semiosis goes on all of the time as we personally read signs and make signs to record our meanings.  We might read a friend’s body language and think to ourselves, “Despite the fact that she didn’t raise her voice, I think she was very angry.”  In this case, we used verbal and nonverbal signs to make sense of daily experience.  We might go on to talk about the sense we made of the event, and in fact begin to convince others in our social group to read the signs in a similar way.  To understand what is happening at this point, we have to move beyond the level of semiosis (individual meaning making) to think about how the group of people makes meaning (semiotics).

Sign Systems and Positioning

There are two components to any semiotic system.  One component is the sign system involved – language, art, music, drama, movement, etc.  Each sign system has a content plane (that is, a semantic territory it can communicate) and an expression plane (syntax, line, shape, form, etc.).  Meaning (the interpretant) always resides above the expression plane (the relationship between object and sign.), and the relationship between meaning and expression is complex, much like the relationship between the surface and deep structures of language.  As a result, we can express similar meanings using different sign systems.

For example the concept “love” can be expressed in language, in art, or in mathematics, but not in exactly the same ways.  People choose the sign systems that are most familiar and comfortable to them and might, for example, choose to express love in a love letter, a painting that expresses feelings for a lover, or a heart carved into a tree with the names John + Mary scratched in the center.  The content plane and expression plane of each sign system varies.  For this reason, taking an idea and expressing it in some other sign system — a process semioticians call transmediation – is often generative.  The giving of a dozen roses, for example, may be more powerful than saying “I love you,” despite Hallmark’s attempt to make us believe that their greeting cards are the ultimate in tasteful expression.  Sign systems, however, rarely work alone.  Why not send a Hallmark card and a dozen roses?  You communicate the best of both worlds!

Not only do most attempts at communication involve multiple sign systems (spoken language, for example, is supplemented by gestures, postures, grimaces, shrugs, and grunts), but more and more we are bombarded with multi-modal messages that are intentionally designed to position us in particular ways – often as witless consumers.  That is what all that background music in shopping malls is about!

The second component of any semiotic system is one that is often overlooked and the reason why some semioticians prefer the term “socio-semiotics” to just “semiotics.”  While semiotics involves sign systems, what is important about the use of sign systems is how they position us.  As a result of using a sign system we stand differently in relationship to our world.  This notion of positioning is important.  Whenever we borrow signs used by others in a group to construct and share meanings, we also borrow and communicate attitudes and assumptions about power and privilege that have become associated with those signs.  Often these attitudes and assumptions are invisible.  What we take as “common sense” is really “cultural sense.”  Because the sign systems, knowledge systems, and cultural systems that are at work in the world around us support certain relationships of power and privilege, it is important that we, as literate beings, learn to be critical.  There is no place to stand outside these meaning making systems that carry with them messages about gender, class, race, and power.  Importantly, it is our use of sign systems that gives us the power to reflect on experience, articulate thought, and reposition ourselves in our world.


Deely, John.  (1982).  Introducing Semiotic: Its History and Doctrine.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press.

Eco, Umberto. (1976).  A Theory of Semiotics.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press.

Peirce, Charles Sanders.  (1960-1966).  Collected Papers 1839-1914.  Edited by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.