Monthly Archives: April 2014

In at the deep end: the ingredients of family literacy

I am in my study, playing the treble recorder – classical music by Telemann. I consider it a treat, a reward that I accord myself after a good stint of work. Fifteen minutes will do. To clear my mind and build me up. My whole body is engaged in the act. As a child, I was taught to play the recorder sitting down. As an adult, I choose to stand, to lilt and dip to the pleasure clearly extending beyond my lips or the tips of my fingers. A light, fanciful piece that your inner rhythm cannot resist, even less so the ears of my daughter, occupied until then with an invented one-man game in the kitchen down the hall. Hardly have I begun to play, along she scuttles, bursting as breathlessly into the room as if I had held up a bag of sweets and shouted, ‘Come and get it!’

There is an exchange of glances. I bow her a bienvenue! to the rhythm of the melody. She smiles at me, as much with her eyes as with her mouth and cheeks as she inches closer to hover around near my side. Her glance falls on my paper-strewn desk, cluttered also by the habitual lamp, the telephone, a tray marked ‘to do’ and a pile of undefined documents that catch my attention daily but somehow don’t manage to keep it for long enough for me to seriously attempt to do something about them. These ‘regulars’ reside alongside the more temporal accoutrements of my learning which litter the table top in ever new constellations: an array of books with strips of coloured paper poking out of them, all manner of slips, sliding around at my arm’s command, fliers for forthcoming and long gone exhibitions, old ID cards… Texts in English, French and German. Printed articles, hand-written snippets, written by all the family members, individually or collaboratively. A paper puncher. Two staplers, one empty. Post-it stickers,  an expensive professional pencil sharpener, the investment in which I am still not convinced was worth it, but which I insist must stay in my study to escape the unsupervised manhandlings of my daughters. To the untrained eye, my table would be tutted at as a mess. For me, it is organic; the evidence of my mental webbing, the musical score for the melody of a particular activity of my mind. And my daughter knows better than to touch anything on it without my say-so. Beside her, on the bookshelf, is a sturdy blue plastic folder crammed full with the photocopies of newspaper articles and disused documents her father brings home from work, and which we recycle as drawing material for the children. She plucks a sheet from her folder, flips it onto the clean side and reaches for a nearby felt tip pen. I continue to dip and bend to the callings of my Vivace. The child curls over her sheet, following her own calling. Like me, she is standing up, and although I am concentrating on a decent rendition of Telemann, I also take in the fact that, like me, every fibre of her is involved in her graphical act; she does not simply use the pen, she becomes the pen. We both do more than make or interpret signs, we become signs ourselves as we invest our entirety into their interpretation and expression. Her back is turned to me. My eyes are on my notes. Yet I feel an intimacy with and for her at that moment that clearly stems from our distinct and nonetheless related performances.

The scratching of her felt pen on the reverse – the clean – side of a document charting the contents of a 3-day seminar at papa’s workplace stops for a brief moment as she looks at me thoughtfully before re-immersing into her own writing. In a flash, she has filled the page, which she then holds beneath my nose. I nod. Satisfied, she places it on my table and skips back off to the kitchen.

So much has been said between the two of us, though not a single word exchanged. Telemann over, I take a look at her offering. Questions, questions, questions:

–       Tu mapprend a Jouer la flute? (will you teach me to play the descant recorder?)

–       Warum samelst du alles vas ich mache? (why do you collect everything I do?)

–       Kann i doo some BasckdtBall?


For each question, an allocated box:

–       Oui non

–       Ja nein

–       Jess No


The text is demarcated from the picture below by a dotted line as playful and meandering as my music making, as the child’s own fantasy. Let us take a closer look at the picture. We see a woman playing the recorder, reading the notes on a music stand. In a ‘speech bubble’, music rather than words flow from the woman’s mouth and this music is an astonishingly accurate reproduction of the notes on the  music stand. It is by far not the best drawing I have seen my daughter produce, yet it is absolutely sufficient for her purposes. Which are?


I call her back. ‘Number one…’ I let her wait and her grin gets wider, ‘…yes. Number two…’ I hook this in the air, just out of her reach.

She takes up the posture of someone about to catch a ball; knees dipped, hands at the ready…

‘… because I learn a lot from you. And I’ve told you that a hundred times already.’

A little hop of delight.

‘And number three…’

She waddles with her hips and rubs her hands. On your marks… get set…

‘…of course you can.’

‘Oué!’ she is off and out the door.


And I? I pick out my research diary from the books and files strewn at my feet. May 15th, 2004, I enter swiftly, before I falter in the face of the daunting prospect of satisfactorily, of scientifically, documenting the wealth of the preceding effortless minutes.

04-05-17 musical mama phd2a

 7yrs 5m

The fleeting, initially silent nature of the interaction belies the extreme complexity of what is actually taking place, which I began to glean as the child skipped off to some other pleasure. We may probe further with the following questions:

–       What is happening here?

–       How?

–       Where is the control located?

–       What does the interaction mean to the participants?


And we can encompass all these considerations in a central question:


What does the interaction appear to tell us about writing interactions and learning in a domestic context?


To observe how children learn outside school, we need to observe with an open mind and in detail, researcher Charmian Kenner advises us. This is precisely what I plan to do in my research.  I’ll explain how I plan to analyse the data. I’ll show how physical, social and psychological factors interact to shape the child’s literate development. I’ll draw attention to the child’s ability to network skills gained in different domains as she uses writing as a multifaceted social tool. I’ll examine the meaning-learning strategies of her home and expose the subtle nature of the assistance provided by the mother. I’ll demonstrate, in the end, the extent to which texts and learning strategies are deeply embedded in particular sociocultural contexts. Above all, I’ll keep it brief and straightforward. As the aim of this pilot study is to test, or explore, the data’s potential to see how my research may best be pursued, I’ll close the study with an evaluation of the analysis before I go on to specify the modifications which will be necessary to optimise the rest of my research.




We don’t need no pen and paper!

Summer holidays, hurray!!! School’s over, yipeee!!!!

Whether at home or at school, this little girl still loves to paint, to draw and to practise the movements that, in French nursery schools, are harnessed to pre-writing activities. Who wants to join in? Wendy? Great!

PLAY: A self-help tool that enables children to achieve higher levels of cognitive functioning. (Johnson et al, 1999)

PLAY: Play is the arena in which young children make connections between their immediate personal world and activities that are important in the larger social world of family and community, and play is the context in which many children find ways to make culturally valued activities part of their own personal experience. ( McLane & McNamee, 1990)


IMG_2009 IMG_2010 IMG_2011 IMG_2013


What we are witnessing here is the making of a text in a much larger sense – not simply the painting of a pretty picture –  and it can be said to comprise three levels of construction:

  1. T1: the tangible written, graphical or semiotic text produced during the interaction
  2. T2: the linguistic or conversational text which accompanied the interaction and which can be coded as a transcript (though what each participant says in their head is lost forever!)
  3. T3: the literacy event as a whole and as a multimodal phenomenon comprising not only T1 and T2, but also other non-verbal elements (e.g. gaze, touch) and players (who’s taking the photos?)

Well done! Who needs pen and paper!


Song for mum

A key question I put to parents is: how many writing systems does your child come into regular contact with? We think of the Roman alphabet, of Arabic, Chinese and so on, but one mother asked: does music count? It does! Many of the children I have researched have music classes and even if they don’t, they are frequently immersed in a world filled with music. Representations of music, consequently, may appear in their exploration and appropriation of semiotic systems from a very early age:

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.43.14 AM    Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.43.21 AM    Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.43.02 AM

The first three texts were written by the same child, aged 5yrs.
The first two demonstrate her awareness of musical layout at an age where in many countries, children are first being taught to write their name. The third text represents the lyrics. Here, we note the predominance of letters which appear in her name, but also her familiarity with other letters. We note also the use of capitals.
The first two texts/songs were written on the same day. The third text one week later.


The fourth and final text, written by the same child at the age of 11, is a song she composed for her mother. Elton John, eat your heart out.

Screen shot 2014-04-17 at 9.42.47 AM

Contrary to what is commonly assumed, when children write, they do not spend all their time writing stories, but compose a wide range of texts which are socially purposeful: games, recipes, letters to friends/family, complaints, lists, menus, bills, songs, spells, reminders, instructions, etc. In short, one function of children’s writing is as a socially empowering tool; a tool that addresses an audience, communicates a sincere message and anticipates (inter)action which extends beyond the mere reading of the text itself. Children’s writing may of course have several functions. I’ll be looking at several of these in this blog.




Living language and catching literacy… or not, as the case may be: the case of The Red Bus (and the language strudel)





Below is an excerpt from a doctoral thesis I lent my support to. In return, I not only gained greater sympathy for psychometric research in general but was incited to reconsider my notions of why/how plurilingual literacy is situated at the interstice between change, chance and challenge.


I always wanted to be a hairdresser (I was probably influenced by the gender-predominant roles promoted by our culture and because there was no ballet school in my village I had to take what was available). However, because I read a lot as a child, my father used to say that one day I would become a scientist; for me, the most boring profession imaginable.

During my schooling, I outperformed all my peers in all the school subjects all the time. I vividly remember the look on my parents’ faces when I kept coming home with straight A’s. They didn’t know ‘where I got it from’. My mother is a nurse, my father is a blue-collar worker, raising their family in a poor rural area. The same went for my sister; she didn’t ‘get it’. To calm them all down, I tried to convince them that it really wasn’t that difficult for me and that I actually liked learning new things.

I actually think that I got ‘it’ from them. That ‘it’ being their life wisdom;  something psychologists still struggle with as a concept related to general intelligence (difficult to measure, though).

And I think I got ‘it’ from my preschool years that I so vividly remember. I spent them in a red bus with flowers. In Serbia, at that time, one form of  preschool education in rural areas was a bus equipped with a bus driver and a preschool teacher (it would have been too much for the teacher to also drive the bus). The bus gathered children from different villages, since preschool institutions were only available in the cities. Not many children from my village showed interest in going to the preschool bus classes, after all, they weren’t compulsory. There were times I was the only child, which was fine with me, though I do suspect that both the bus driver and the teacher would have preferred to be at home on such occasions. The red bus and my parents’ wisdom did the job for where I am now. And where am I now?

I woke up this morning to the sound of French radio. Breakfast over with, I turned on my computer and started reading and writing in English. On the phone, I spoke to my husband in Serbian (with forms of Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin, to be politically correct). My mother slipped a few Czech words to me as Serbian is not her mother tongue. The bus driver politely said ‘Moien’ to me in Luxembourgish, before he continued in Portuguese with a lady next to him. To finish the day, I had my Yoga class in German and I hoped that my dreams would be without words…

“…А сада смо дошли до следећег питања. Поставићу ти питања везана за ову слику. Као и на претходној слици и овде имамо неке предмете и људе који нешто раде. Погледај пажљиво слику коју ти показујем и пробај да одговориш на следећа питања: 1. Покажи ми неког ко пише. 2. Покажи ми неког ко чита. 3. Покажи ми нешто написано/неки рукопис. 4. Покажи ми реч на овој страници. 5. Покажи ми слово азбуке/абецеде.”
How does it feel to read something you don’t understand? I’ve just asked you to answer a few questions from the section of Ideas about Reading that constitutes part of the Performance Indicators in Primary School (PIPS) test I  implemented in my study. Unless you are someone who reads Serbian Cyrillic you won’t be able to answer those questions, even though they are very simple ones:
“Show me someone who is writing and reading. Show me a word or a letter on the picture that I am using.”
Then I could continue with mathematics and ask you a simple question: “Овде има четири аутомобила. Ако узмем два, колико их остане?”
Still don’t know the answer? It doesn’t get any better, does it? You are still unable to answer the question on how many cars are left if there were four and I took two. Unfortunately, because you didn’t give me the correct answers I will have to give you 0 points and you will probably be identified as an underachiever. Better luck next time.
(Gabrijela Reljic, from: Is Mother Tongue Important for the Academic Achievement of Minority Children? The Case of Luxembourg, Serbia and Europe. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Luxembourg, November 2011. Dr Reljic’s thesis subsequently won an award for the best doctoral thesis submitted at the University of Luxembourg.)

Long after the lollipop: an outburst of resistance leaves me questioning the ‘stuff’ learnt at home



The systematic research which culminated in my doctoral thesis was sparked off by an encounter with my eldest daughter, then 6 years old.

Hoping to make her view a piece of  school work from a different perspective, I tried to make a bridge between what she had just learnt at school and a possible parallel in an everyday, non-scholastic context. I was surprised by the extent of her resistance to my suggestions as by the vehemence of her tearful, exasperated outburst:

But Mummy! The one has nothing to do with the other! School is school, and here you are telling me stuff about home! What the teacher says is right, and anyway, what do you know!

A number of things became clear to me as I watched my daughter demonstratively heave her work more to her side of the table. Firstly, that literacy acquisition can be an emotive affair. Secondly, this child evidently makes a clear demarcation between home and school. The third, most perturbing, conclusion was not only my daughter’s unequivocal sense of the incompatibility of the two domains, but also the further strong allusion to the displacement of the validity of learning contributions from the home (relegated to mere stuff) by the infallibility of learning contributions from school. Was all of this only taking place in my daughter’s mind, or also in the minds of other children, parents and teachers, I wondered?  Such reflections engendered a series of questions:

  1. How do the pre-schoolers I investigate encounter literacy at school?
  2. How do the same experience literacy out of school?
  3. Which values are communicated by school literacy practices?
  4. How do these compare to the values communicated by the children’s home literacy practices?
  5. To what extent do homes and schools, as literacy domains, interact?


The major hurdle to be overcome for anyone wishing to see what goes on behind closed doors is access. I knew from the start that my research would not involve large numbers, for I was not looking to follow an entire class of children over a longer period, but wanted, above all, to perform qualitative research on one child. I began to scan my environment. Most of the mothers approached had kept the work their children had done at nursery school not only because they found it cute, but also because none of their own work had ever been valued enough to be kept. Here again we see the bridge between parents’ childhood recollections and their behaviour towards their offspring. Careful probing revealed, however, that almost no-one had systematically kept the work their children produced at home; the drawings, mark-makings, first writings, etc. Whilst this provides insights into the contrasting values placed upon children’s writing and drawing performed at school and at home, the latter of which mysteriously disappeared at a convenient moment, it nonetheless thwarted my research ambitions. The only person I knew who had meticulously guarded every piece of work done at home and at school was:  myself.

It started with a lollipop

‘All that I have, all that I have
I will give Jesus all that I have’

A whole school of children sat crossed-legged on the floor, singing the songs that punctuated assembly. By force of habit, some knew the words by heart and could allow their glances to frolic around the congregation; to Miss Adams banging out the melody on the piano at the front, or to the grazed knees of the children placed strategically to the front and to the back of the congregation, perched upon chairs and holding up the words on heavy white cards. These scratchy-kneed prompters might be lucky enough not to have to chirp along, but how their aching shoulders let them pay for it afterwards. And who could tell, in fact, if you were really singing as long as your mouth opened and closed in all the right places? Children love to sing so why not build upon their natural talents? Those sitting at the end of the rows, flanked by teachers who did not have to sit cross-legged but quite comfortably on their chairs, were more or less obliged to deliver the daily proof of this axiom, whilst those snuggled in the middle could content themselves with going through the motions. Unless of course, they really did enjoy singing. About Jesus, fish, and loaves of bread, instead of ‘One potato two potato three potato four’, or even ‘Not last night but the night before’… Many children couldn’t even read the words anyway. Complicated words like ‘I have promised to love Thee till the End’ or ‘My Saviour and my Friend’, written nicely by our teachers, each verse a new colour. We would pick it up, they said. If it is around you for long enough, you’ll just pick it up.

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