Contested space: The representations of literac(ies) on primary classroom walls

Wendy A. Crocker, PhD,

University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

What is the role of the materials displayed on classroom walls? In my recent presentation to the Literacies Discussion Group at Lancaster, I shared the evolution of a project that grew from a niggling question that I have had as a teacher, an elementary principal, and now as a researcher: What is the relationship between what is displayed on the walls of primary (age 4-8) classrooms and the literacies of those students? In this post, I present an overview of that talk, and highlight some of the discussion from the assembled scholars.

The role of environment

There is general acknowledgement in the literature that the environment is important for learning. Indeed Loris Malaguzzi contends that the environment is the “third teacher” in Reggio-inspired pedagogy, placing the furniture arrangement, materials, and décor on par with the teaching/learning that takes place in a space.  Further, programmatic curriculum documents remind teachers of primary grades in Ontario, Canada that their classrooms should reflect “the ideas, values, attitudes, and cultures of those who use the space” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 20)

Beliefs about literacies

In this work, I look through the theoretical and analytical lenses of local literacies (Barton & Hamilton, 1998), multiliteracies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), and geosemiotics (Scollon & Scollon, 2003) to consider the tensions between authentic expressions of children’s learning of literac(ies) and evidence of the prescribed literacy mandates of an accountability culture.



Project overview and themes in the data

The project was conceived of as a photo case study, and grew to include 31 classes across five schools in the same rural southwestern Ontario area. The data set comprises over 3000 still shots which have been analyzed by class, across grades in a school, and across grades and schools to identify commonalities in what is seen on the walls of a classroom or in the classrooms of a particular grade.

In setting photos side by side and making comparisons grade by grade, I identified themes related to: teacher created and teacher purchased materials; the height placement of particular materials; behaviour charts/motivational materials; the privileging of English print materials in light of a student population that possessed several non-English literacies; and the surprising amount of what I term “institutional literacy” – the documents that are important for the safe running of a school but that have little impact on student learning.

Literacy Group Discussion

I shared 150 photos in grade by grade amalagams (all five schools represented) with the scholars at the discussion group. We spent 20 minutes examining the photos and discussing our observations, raising many of the points that I had uncovered in my analysis of the larger data sets. What surfaced in the conversation was the privilgeing of print and demonstrations of “correctness” in evidence as the grades grew closer to the grade three year (age 8) the grade at which the provincial standardized test in reading, writing, and math is administered in Ontario.There was discussion about inheriting décor (i.e. an alphabet train above the display board) and the related cost of creating an environment that is visually appealing.

Findings and next steps

From this study, it appears that the walls of primary classrooms are contested spaces where the literacies of the students vie for display space.  Mulitliteracies, as expressions of multiple languages and meaning-making, were rare. Demonstrations of school and print literacy rival the institutional literacy expressed as maps, charts, and directions mandated by the Ministry of Education and the central office of the Board for the safety and regulation of those in the school building. Further, the washback effect of large scale literacy and numeracy assessment measures places materials suggested as “best practice” by the Ministry (e.g., anchor charts, success criteria) in competition for limited display space in classrooms.

Building on this rich foundation of photo data, the next phase of this study involves conversations with the teachers to determine how they determine what is displayed on the walls, and their perceptions of whose literacies dominate the contests spaces of primary classroom walls.



Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (1998). Local literac(ies). New York: Routledge.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New Literacies, New Learning. Pedagogies, An International Journal  4 (3), 164-195

Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). The third teacher. Capacity building series. Student Achievement Division. Retrieved from

Scollon, R. & Scollon-Wong, S. (2003). Discourses in Place: Language in the Material World. London: Routledge.




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