Shape-shifting with Snakes and Ladders: Zoe lays the table, Lisa learns and I beat the belt

In at the Deep End took a very close look at a mother-child interaction at home. In the third part of the analysis, I spoke about scaffolding as a typical means of structuring learning (noting the absence of it in my interaction with Pia). We see scaffolds on buildings all the time. They enable you to work on the structure from the outside – or inside – until the building is stable enough to stand on its own. Once you’re that far, you may remove the scaffold. We use this image of scaffolds to describe what teachers do in classrooms: they set up structures to support learning, they check that the item is stable, then they do away with the scaffold. Very frequently, teachers use initiation-response-feedback (IRF):

Teacher: Which day is it today?

Children: Monday!


(Laughter. I have the impression they are getting it wrong on purpose)

Teacher: Today is the first day of the week…

Children: Monday!

Teacher: Monday, right.


This model is very popular in Western countries, which is not to say that it should be regarded as a universal truth. We have seen that children who are also familiar with such structures at/from home have it easier at school. These children speak the school’s language, we could say; they have the ‘right’ cultural capital. Such children, studies have repeatedly proven, tend to come from middle-class backgrounds.

Rethink. My parents certainly didn’t speak the school’s language. They were far too busy for stuff like that; too busy holding down several jobs in one go so they could own a house, a car and treat us to a take-away at the weekends. They spoke Jamaican – bad English, or so I thought then. They never came to parent evening, Open Day or signed up to accompany us on school outings. If our grades were bad, we were scaffolded by my father’s leather belt. I’m a university lecturer today. I’m not saying I made it this far thanks to or despite of, I’m just wondering: how comes?

Rethink. Lisa. Lisa lives in Luxembourg. Like the vast majority of her classmates, Lisa is multilingual. She speaks six languages and she’s in Year One. She’s in a class of children I want to visit at home. Each and every one of them. ‘Don’t bother with her,’ the teacher says. ‘Her parents can’t even read or write’. I want to visit Lisa. Her parents are all too willing. At home, Lisa sits down and reads a book with her mum. It’s a book she’s never seen before; one I brought along as a thank you present. It’s in English, French and German. Lisa doesn’t know how to read English yet, but she gives it a try. Lisa follows the text with her finger and her mum turns the pages at the right moment. Lisa’s mum doesn’t speak English. I talk to her in French. Their body language is amazing. For ethical reasons, I won’t share my video recording here. Lisa must remain anonymous. Her name’s not really Lisa. You know that. Watching the two of them, it suddenly dawns on me that Lisa doesn’t know that her mother cannot read. Her mother doesn’t know that I know that she cannot read. Should I be angry with the teacher for colouring my judgement, or grateful, since it allowed me to be on the lookout and led me to gain totally new insights on what it means to support learning? That’s a question I still can’t answer. I dare to say that for Lisa’s family, my moral dilemma isn’t important. That Lisa’s mother doesn’t know that I know is not important. What’s important is what she can do: she can scaffold her daughter emotionally, and she does that as well as any other. Whenever I ask the teacher how Lisa is coping, she says, surprised; ‘she’s doing amazingly well’. I think I’m less surprised than her teacher. I have no worries about Lisa’s future.

Scaffolding may take many forms, just as learning may take many forms. Scaffolding may be taken down when the structure is stable – stable enough –  but can we ever say for sure where learning starts or stops?

Meet Zoé. Zoé lives in France and is in Year One, or CPcours préparatoire –  as any French first-grader will announce proudly. Her mum, Christine, a single mum, rushes home in her lunch break to prepare lunch and dashes back afterwards. Luc, Zoé’s brother, is on his way; he takes the bus. Zoé didn’t have to. I drove her home after a morning spent with her in class. Somehow, there’s still time, still space, created and squeezed in around lunch, for learning, for reshaping bits of what’s been learned, for shuttling it spontaneously between overlapping living-, learning- and work-places. I think of scaffolds and I think of the game snakes and ladders, where you move up, down and across the board. Knowledge doesn’t sit still in this scene; it’s fidgety, hopping around, making new friends with other bits of knowledge from other places; numeracy is networked with literacy (‘5 is like an S, a little bit…’) and further linked back to drawing (‘8 is like a snowman’). Thinking about a snowman reminds Zoé of a song she once learned. Zoé’s toolbox is rich with cross references, with intertextuality: S and Z are almost twins, she realizes. And because only almost, we know Zoé’s thinking about just how much S and Z are the same or differ. It’s a typical first-grade dilemma:

Mrs. Esselinger (…) she gave me the letters of my names, the first name and the last. I took possession of my letters. They were mine. I loved them like I loved Mrs. Esselinger. Except I learned to hate the letter S. My S snaked its way between me and Mrs. Esselinger and hissed its way into her heart. “But that’s a Z,” she said. “That’s not an S. That’s not one of your letters.” (Lesa Lockford)

Working out the characteristics of letters, numbers (which direction they take, where they start and where they stop…), with the aid of familiar images, song, mum, kitchen utensils, the added difficulty of a left-handed brother just when you thought you had finally worked out where to place the knives and forks, and despite this stranger, sitting in a corner with her video camera on (okay, let’s say non-family member. Zoé knows me by now; I’m a regular at her school). All of this whilst hurrying to have lunch and get back to school. Is Christine, Zoé’s mum, the only one scaffolding Zoe’s learning?


Zoé (Z) helps her mother, Christine (C), to lay the table. Each turn is numbered to make identifying specific sections easier:

(1) Z: Today it’s my turn to lay the table. Luc did it yesterday. (Goes to the drawer to fetch the cutlery)

(2) C (Without looking at the child): Well go on then!

(3) Z (Counting the forks as she takes them out. Taking her time): Zoé … Luc … Mummy… (Counting the knives as she takes them out):

Zoé … Luc … Mummy…(She tries to carry all the cutlery in one go, then decides to group all the knives in one hand and all the forks in the other.) Where’s my marker?

(4) C (Over her shoulder): Isn’t it in the drawer?

(5) Z: No!

(6) C: Then it must be in the dishwasher

(7) Z (Looks at her hands full of cutlery, then puts them all down. Thinks for a moment): Blue to the left… blue… to the … left…(Picks up forks with her left hand): Red to the right… to the right… (Then the knives with her right hand)

(8) C: See, you don’t need your marker anymore then, do you?

(9) Z: Yes I do. In case I forget! (Laughs, looking at her mum)

(10) C (Her back still to the child): If you forget, then think about the rule. Blue…

(11) Z: To the left (looking at the forks)

(12) C: …to the left… that’s right… Red…

(13) Z (Holding up the knives): To the right. (Puts the cutlery on the glass table, noisily)

(14) C (Turns around): Where are the table mats?

(15) Z: I’m going to get the table mats. (Goes to the buffet and opens a drawer. Takes the table mats) Zoé … Mummy … Luc (stands briefly in front of Luc’s place, thinking)

(16) C: Don’t forget two for the middle. And if you’re not sure where to put them, then just sit down where that person would be sitting, and work out where’s your left and right. That way you won’t get them the wrong way round…. especially for Luc… Don’t forget the-

(17) Z: Two for the middle. (She fetches two more. Her face lights up) Mum, two plus three makes five!

(18) C: Very good, Zozo. And how many knives and forks have we got?

(19) Z (Pointing at the pile of cutlery): One … two … three … four … five … six. Six!

(20) C: Great. Here. (Turns round to give Zoé two big serving spoons.) Put ’em in the middle (impatient)

(21) Z (Zoé places the spoons in the middle of the glass table, noisily.)

(22) C (Turns around again at looks at Zoé crossly)

(23) Z (Rolling eyes): Oh! (Puts two table mats in the middle of the table, and then the spoons on the mat.)

(25) C (Wiping down the worktop and putting ingredients away quickly): How many have we got now?

(26) Z: Two.

(27) C (Stops. Looks at Zoé): Two what?

(28) Z (In a self-explanatory tone, and pointing at the spoons): Two spoons!

(29) C: I mean altogether.

(30) Z (Looks at her mum, incredulously): Everything altogether?

(31) C (Exasperated): Only the cutlery.

(32) Z (Pointing): One … two … three … four … five … six … seven eight!

(33) C: Excellent. (Scrapes the vegetable peels into the bin.)

(34) Z: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! Eh mum, five is like an S. A little bit, isn’t it, mum?

(35) C: Yes.

(36) Z: And eight is like two Ss kissing each other. (Draws an S on the table, laughing)

(37) C (Laughs. Says over her shoulder): Or a snowman.

(38) Z (Singing): Snowman, snowman, How do you do? I’m very cold-

(39) C (A bit stern): Zoé, the table mats.

(40) Z (Putting the table mats in place, singing):

Would you like a hat?

Yes thank you!

Would you like a scarf?

(No longer singing)

S and Z are almost twins, aren’t they, mummy?

(41) C: Hurry up, Zoé.

(42) Z (Puts the knives and forks in place, talking to herself. Looks at her mum): Okay?

(43) C (Looks round): You need enough space for the plate in the middle.

(44) Z (Pushes the knives and forks to the edges of the table mat): Give me the glasses.

(45) C (Takes the glasses out of a wall cupboard and passes them to Zoé one by one)

(46) Z (Places each glass on the worktop, then takes them to the table individually): Can I help make the drink?

(47) C: One minute. Get the serviettes whilst you’re waiting

(48) Z (Tears off three pieces of kitchen paper, folds them in half and places them beneath the knives): It’s not really in the middle…

(49) C (Without looking): It’s fine like that. I’ll show you how to make a fan later. Some other time.

(50) Z: Yeah! Are you ready now?

(51) C (Taking a pot off the cooker): Get the syrup.

(52) Z (Brings a bottle of syrup and opens it)

(53) C (Watches to see if Zoé can manage alone, then gets a jug): Tip it up slowly!

(54) Z (Tips the bottle very slowly)

(55) C: (Watching. Moves the jug so that the syrup is poured into the middle.) Okay.

(56) Z: I’m going to pour the water! (Pulls a chair to the sink. Climbs on it and turns on the tap)

(57) C (Places the jug under the tap): That’s enough!

(58) Z (Turns off tap. Signals that she wants to carry the jug by reaching for the handle)

(59) C (Pulling the jug slightly to herself): I’ll do it. It’s too heavy for you. (Carries the jug over to the table.)

(60) Z (Follows mum, holding hands beneath the jug)

(61) C (Places it on one of the centre table mats. Says in a tone of relief): So (She moves as if to reposition the glasses, then waves a hand as if to say: it doesn’t matte). I’ll do the plates. Thank you, Zozo.

(62) Z (Smiles)



Zoé’s circumstances are not unique. Neither are Lisa’s. As much as it would tickle my vanity to think that I am, I’m not unique either. This seems to be suggesting something. It seems to suggest that some of the questions we ask when we talk about learning, about supporting learning, not to mention where, how and why we look for answers, need to be revised.


One thought on “Shape-shifting with Snakes and Ladders: Zoe lays the table, Lisa learns and I beat the belt

  1. Pingback: Over to you, children and parents! | joanbarbarasimon

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