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.





One thought on “In at the deep end: the ingredients of family literacy

  1. Pingback: Médiathèque: yes or yes? | joanbarbarasimon

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