Early childhood literacy – a view from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Earlier this week the American Academy of Pediatrics launched a new toolkit to encourage early childhood literacy.  There’s a lot to be said for it:

It seems really desirable that medical practitioners are being encouraged to work with all the families they meet to encourage children’s literacy development.

It’s great that reading together is being encouraged, and that talking about texts is seen as part of reading, as is singing.  Perhaps best of all, the lively illustrations with the campaign show that reading can be a social activity.  Children are shown clearly enjoying themselves, with others.  There are many links made between cognitive development, positive affect and reading.

The initiative is being supported by high profile contributors including Hillary Clinton.

I think if you’ve read this far, you might be expecting a “but” or two.

OK.  I’m not enthusiastic about the emphasis on “toolkits” and programs, although to be fair, what this toolkit mostly consists of are lists of tips, rather than the promotion of commercial programs that bedevils so much of early literacy policy.  This side of the pond, I think many of us still agree you don’t have to equate encouraging reading with the purchase of programs.  You can mention libraries, (independent) bookshops, and, dare I say it, suggest that people, including young children, might choose their own reading materials.  There are plenty of inspirational ideas out there, such as the Guardian’s diversity in children’s books week being celebrated at the moment. This  initiative is associated with the charity Seven Stories.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ toolkit is accessibly written and contains some sensible advice.  However, my biggest “but” is the idea that only printed books, bound between covers, count as suitable reading material.  I do appreciate the suggestion that it’s fruitful to set aside some time to focus on doing things with your child.  But it’s not the same thing to insist that this is necessarily without “TV, texting and other distractions” as is repeated many times or to suggest that you should “turn off the television and other electronic devices.”  This ignores the point that popular culture, in the form of TV shows, screen-based books and games might actually provide opportunities to engage in mutually delightful reading opportunities with a child.  To switch everything else  off and treat the printed book as necessarily more worthy than other media might at best lose opportunities for engaging early literacy and at worst, create a divide between “serious” and “fun” literacy activities that could turn out to be counter-productive.

It’s ten years since Jackie Marsh was making this point through, for example, her book Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood and there were predecessors.  And indeed I see that Seven Stories, with the fabulous National Media Museum in Bradford, has put on an exhibition Moving Stories – Children’s Books from Page to Screen.

Literacy for homeless learners: Relevance and motivation are key

Last month the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee published a report on its inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy. One of the report’s key findings was that “the motivation of adults is crucial” if they are to take up and benefit from opportunities to develop their literacy skills.

So what motivates adults to improve their literacy? In our recent research into the maths and English skills of clients of the homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway, we found that clients were motivated to improve their literacy skills when they could see that doing so was relevant to their everyday lives and personal goals.

Interviews with homeless learners showed that individual goals and motivations vary. For some, accessing work was the main motivation for improving their skills. For others, being able to read a tenancy agreement would help them to sustain a tenancy and recover from homelessness. For one interviewee, improving their literacy skills was important for their self-esteem, “I was 32 and felt like I write like a six year old… I wasn’t happy with my handwriting and wanted to improve.” These motivations evolve in response to changing circumstances and life aims, and participating in learning was also found to spark motivation for further learning.

In contrast, our interviewees also provided examples of attending lessons or courses when they had not been motivated to learn, for example when at school, in prison, or through the job centre. On these occasions most felt that they had learned very little. In addition, feelings of boredom, frustration or shame generated by these experiences made some reluctant to participate in learning in future.

These are important lessons for policymakers who are considering greater skills conditionality, i.e. making benefit claimants attend skills courses in order to maintain their benefit claims. Forcing people to attend courses that they feel are irrelevant to their personal goals, or that are pitched at the wrong level, not only risks wasting learners’ and tutors’ time, it can also put people off leaning for life.

Our research and the BIS select committee report make clear that there are major challenges to offering the specialist, client-centred approach needed for literacy support to be relevant to the lives of homeless learners. The majority of skills funding continues to be predicated on learners achieving qualifications and completing courses. But these formal, linear courses simply don’t fit with the motivations or everyday lives of many people who are homeless. Proposals to broaden Further Education measures of success to include destinations, earnings and progression are likely to mean that skills providers will still struggle to fund learning for the most disadvantaged, including many people who have experienced homelessness.

More positively, the Government has started to fund STRIVE, a small St Mungo’s Broadway and Crisis pilot project, which offers the opportunity to develop a new model of support that works for people who have experienced homelessness who want to develop English, maths and other skills. STRIVE tutors work to identify learners’ personal goals and then support them to reach these.

Let’s hope that the emerging results and evaluation of STRIVE motivate the Government to do much more to support people who are homeless to improve their literacy skills.

By Daniel Dumoulin Senior Policy and Research Officer at St Mungo’s Broadway and Katy Jones, Researcher at The Work Foundation and PhD candidate in Educational Research at Lancaster University

50 years of the UK Literacy Association

Back in July many of us went to the University of Sussex to the 50th International Conference of the UK Literacy Association.  In my opinion it’s a superb organisation I’m very proud to be a member of, combining robust good sense, sound research and a powerful commitment to foster children’s imagination.  The latter is particularly apparent in its support for children’s literature; I’ll never forget, for example, hearing Malorie Blackman talk at an earlier UKLA conference.  This passion for books is something shared by some of the best contributors to the National Council for the Teaching of English – a US conference I visited in 2012. There I encountered the indefatiguable Donalyn Miller, who tirelessly discusses children’s literature and the power of reading via Twitter (@donalynbooks) to her 47k followers. Many folk in both organisations are interested in books, whether accessed by print or new media.

My excuse for writing about the UKLA conference now, perhaps a little late, although of course we are still in the UKLA 50th anniversary year, is that I’ve come across this superb blog post by Eve Tandoi about the Sussex conference. It’s brought back some good memories, engaging carefully with the views of the plenary speakers in particular.  I think I would just add that I was at the time very aware of the controversial nature of Ken Goodman‘s claims about literacy.  He raised quite a Twitter storm when suggesting that it would be better to abolish the teaching of literacy as such, rather embed it in purposeful, authentic work with children.  He is very critical of SATs that are so narrow that they demand, especially in less privileged classrooms, teaching to the test and endanger the sense of excitement in learning that children start out with.

Finally, then, I’ll share the short abstracts of the symposia by my colleagues and myself at the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre.  If you’re interested in learning more about any of this work, do contact any of us directly or look at our webpages.

Many voices of literacy: polyphony in Literacy Studies research.

These linked symposia from the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre reflect on the value of researching literacy as a social practice to enable us to hear and engage with the multiple voices and perspectives of different participants in literacy research.  We have a tradition of research which reveals the multiple capacities and creativity of people’s everyday literacy practices.  Ethnographic and interpretive methodologies seek to make visible, and sometimes to empower, the voices of those who are often silenced by the pseudo-objectivity of governments, policy-makers, large-scale survey research and other dominant voices.

The first session, on researching literacies in educational settings, continues an established area of interest.  The second, on researching digital literacies, reflects on an area which challenges and forces us to develop our established ways of doing research. They are followed by a discussion led by our discussant Brian Street.

Session 1: Polyphony in educational settings

Papers in this session focus on educational settings, addressing how literacy research can engage with the voices of teachers and learners positioned within centralised policies, formal, decontextualised assessments of achievement, and measurement against national and international league tables.  We have a tradition of working with teachers and literacy practitioners, understanding their role as active agents who bring their voices, experiences and understandings of learners to negotiate policy frameworks.

Diane Potts: “Teachers as knowledge workers: Positioning professionals in discourses of accountability.” A multimodal discourse analysis of teachers’ digital accounts of classroom literacies practices and educational stakeholders’ responses to these texts illustrates the challenge for educators attempting to take up a position within policy debates.

Mary Hamilton: “Representations in policy: positioning key voices, occluding others.” Examples of the powerful imaginaries of literacy and literacy learners that circulate widely in the media, government and popular discourse.

Uta Papen: “Studying phonics policy and practice: how the voice of policy is heard by literacy teachers.” A detailed analysis of how synthetic phonics and the new Phonics Screening Check are presented in policy documents and how the policy is put into practice by teachers and children in primary school classrooms, based on critical discourse analysis with classroom ethnography.

Session 2: Polyphony in digital literacies

In researching online practices, moves towards harvesting ‘big data’and applying techniques such as corpus analysis and visualisation can indicate broad trends and developments.   However, without an ethnographic perspective we risk divorcing digital content from its originators, occluding the perspectives and voices of the people engaging in these practices. The presenters will each address an approach to researching individuals’ perspectives on and practices in online literacy.

David Barton: “Technobiographies –  bringing the self into research.” A methodology for researching the range, variety and changes in people’s contemporary language practices. This also acts as structured way for students to reflect on their own life histories with technologies, as an introduction to studying new media.

Julia Gillen: “Adopting a new kind of professional voice: a literacy studies approach to a Twitter case study.”  A case study of an individual’s developing use of Twitter, drawing on ethnographic methods, examined in their sociohistorical context and through interactions involving others.

Karin Tusting: “Language use on an internet forum: voices of collaborative learning on Mumsnet.”  Detailed analysis of vernacular literacies for learning in online settings, developing an example of collaborative learning about parenting practices from the Mumsnet talk forum.


“What is a letter?” Interdisciplinary symposium, Oxford, 2-4 July 2014

I was fortunate to be invited to give a paper at the interdisciplinary symposium: “What is a letter?” earlier this month, by the organisers, Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig and Caroline Socha.

It is hoped that the papers presented will be published and meanwhile there are full details of the programme, including abstracts, available from the symposium blog.  Rather than try to cover the main programme here, I thought I would mention a few side shoots from my experience there.  One such is a mind map produced (after I’d had to leave) which I think does a good job of summing up concisely some of the themes raised. For me, many of the issues that are often raised in Literacy Studies appear here; such as materiality, social practices and text trajectories, albeit sometimes expressed with different terms.

IMG_5175 mind mapA highlight of the extra-mural activities for me was the invitation to view some of the special collections of the Bodleian library.  We were introduced to some of the most interesting items by the Keepers, headed by Chris Fletcher.  The most fascinating letter for me was one written by John Evelyn to Samuel Pepys.  Of course these are the two most celebrated diarists of their age (if not for all time) in England, but what was salient at this point in their correspondence was their interest in naval affairs.  Evelyn was a board commissioner, concerned with sick and wounded sailors as well as prisoners of war while Pepys was clerk of the acts to the Navy Board. Evelyn’s letter, written apparently while he was indisposed, included this marvellous sketch of the Dutch fleet making a raid up the Medway in June 1667. This map (pasted into a book into which such letters have been collected) is so marvellously detailed it includes a key to the ships and even details of sandbanks.

IMG_5101 Evelyn map


An event I missed at the end of the conference was a workshop on letter locking by Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, Oxford) and Jana Dambrogio (Conservator of special collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  From talking with them earlier, I know they are interested in many of the historical practices concerning, for example, folding letters to go through the post when envelopes aren’t available. IMG_5219 tuck and sealJana had shown me how letters were folded in the Soviet Union during WW2.  Here is another kind of example of folded letter.

folded letter

I’m certainly sorry I missed that workshop.

My own contribution was a paper about writing Edwardian postcards. There is a short illustrated summary here.

A couple of other papers at the symposium also drew upon an earlier work from the Literacy Research Centre, the book Letter Writing as Social Practice, edited by David Barton and Nigel Hall.