Knowing vs Doing: preschool perspectives on literacy

asking eleanor edit 2

‘a card is a little folded book you give in an envelope to someone you like.’ Finding out what 5-year-olds think about writing (and of course, writing it down!)


Here I am, with the aid of a self-designed questionnaire, attempting to get closer to preschooler perspectives on literacy. What will I discover?

Assimilation and appropriation: closed questions

As a first step, the children (five-year-olds from a bilingual (French-German) nursery school in Alsace, North-East France) answered a series of closed questions. Their answers make it immediately clear that they have already begun to appropriate semiotic representations (i.e. signs and their significance):

Q1: Do you know how to write? Yes = 15  No = 7

Q2: Can you write your name? Yes = 22  No = 0

Q3: can you write other letter which are not part of your name? Yes = 22  No = 0

Q4: Do you write at home? Yes = 14  No = 6

Q5: Do your parents practise writing with you at home? Yes = 5  No = 17

Q6: Do you keep all the writing you do at home? Yes = 0  No = 19  Some = 2

Assimilation and appropriation: open-ended questions

Closed questions were followed by open-ended questions, not only yielding answers which are less binary, but also allowing the children to give more than one response:

Q7: What do you write at home? I copy things = 17,  Words = 10, The letters I know = 9, Names = 6, Whatever I want to = 3, Stories = 3, Rubbish = 1

Q8: Which languages do you write in at home? French = 19, French and German = 3

Q9: What do you use when you’re writing at home? Paper = 22, Crayons = 12, Pencil = 10, Pen = 8, Felt tips = 6, Learner’s book = 3, Exercise book = 2, Mum’s things = 1

writing nicely A

practising the letter A according to the French handwriting model

writing nicely D and F

practising the letters D and F according to the French handwriting model

Interpreting assimilation and appropriation

These answers are already beginning to tell a story. They tell of a discrepancy between knowing and doing, for although seven children declare that they are unable to write (Q1), all twenty-two children can write their own name (Q2) and other letters of the alphabet (Q3). One possible explanation could be that the children and I mean different things by the term ‘writing’. Maybe they assume I mean the conventional model they are all being initiated into at school (and some at home) – a model  they do not yet master –  so that they are not ready to say that they can write, though they can (if writing means sign-making with recognizable communicative intentions). The children’s responses seem to suggest that the children see themselves as becoming, not being, thus as apprentices, rather than as practitioners.

The majority (77%) declare that their parents do not help them to write (Q5). We nonetheless have five responses to Q7 which allude to the use of books aimed at structuring literacy acquisition. Are we witnessing children who actively seek to get inside the world of print and make writing their own? How reliable are children as a source of information on their own development? The responses gathered here will be cross-checked by other means in order to reinforce, or rectify, these first impressions.

The open-ended questions (Q7-9) throw light on the notions the children harbour about what constitutes writing. Whilst several responses reveal the child’s awareness and ability to be explicit about certain forms or characteristics of writing, such as words, the letters I know, names or stories, the most frequent response remains vague : I copy things. It seems that the children are engaged in an activity which they are not yet able to explicitly verbalise, so that, once again, the discrepancy between knowing and doing is made apparent. One response, ‘whatever I want’, underlines a central difference to writing performed at school, notably the greater control children enjoy at home over their actions. Another response, describing the writing done at home as rubbish, clearly disqualifies the home environment as a valuable learning site. My immediate reaction is to wonder whether this child is simply repeating the response of a dismissive parent or sibling. I hope not!

No child claims to write in a language other than the school languages, i.e. French and German, with the vast majority of children, despite three years of bilingual education, choosing to write only in French (Q8). This is perhaps due to the children’s predominantly monolingual Francophone background. Institutional bilingualism, clearly, does not infiltrate the children’s domestic writing.

General recognition and family practice

A further set of open-ended questions shift our focus from the children’s own writing practice to their more general appreciation of the concept of writing, their general awareness of the presence of print and their awareness of literate behaviour within their own families:

Q10: What is writing? Words = 10, What you learn at school = 6, In books = 3, Letters, abc etc = 2, Don’t know = 1

Q11: Where can you see writing in your house? On pages = 8, On a birthday card = 6, Don’t know = 5, In books = 4, In the kitchen = 2, On the ABC wall-chart = 1,  In the study = 1, In a newspaper = 1

Q12: Where can you see writing elsewhere when you’re not at home? At school = 9, Don’t know = 8, On shops = 6, On street signs = 3, In books = 1, On walls and trees = 1

Q13: Do you ever see other people in your family writing at home? No-one = 11, Older siblings = 7, Mum = 5, Dad = 1

There is a lot to explore there and I’ll let you do that on your own for the large part. As always, if you would like to share your observations, I’d love to hear from you. What I would like to do, though, is dwell on the children’s awareness of their own abilities. Not wishing to pathologize children’s answers, I notice all the same how frequently don’t know is given as a response. When a child says don’t know, and although it is incumbent upon us as researchers to take each response as authentic, we should not altogether exclude the possibility that don’t know might also mean can’t explain for young children unaccustomed to having to make explicit such forms of knowledge. Ask yourselves how well you, even as adults, are able to put into words for the first time something you have never given thought to before. Far from easy!

Feelings towards literacy

Whereas French curricular guidelines are quite explicit about attainment levels even from the nursery school years, barely giving mention to the correlation between emotion and cognition, the German syllabus employed at the school involved repeatedly underlines the importance of harnessing learners’ emotional access to the world of print. A section of the questionnaire, thus, sought to illuminate the feelings the children associated with literacy acquisition:

Q14: Do you like writing? Yes = 16, A little = 3, Don’t know = 2, No = 1

Q15: Can you tell me why you (don’t) like writing? Don’t know = 7, To go to CP (i.e. Year 1) = 4, To write my name for school = 3, To learn to read = 2, Because I like writing loops/letters = 2, To read to my dolls = 1, Because it’s easy = 1, Because I’ve got books at home to practise = 1, Because it’s boring. I prefer to play = 1

Many explanations are inward-looking, involving the child as an isolate, but there is also recognition of the emotional reward in using writing to look ‘outward’ in order to interact with others (read to dolls). Given that the children are only just beginning to write complete words at this stage of their development, a central function of their writing, certainly at school, but possibly also at home, as my primary data suggests, is, for the time being, to get it right. This does not mean that their writing involves ‘non events’, as one researcher remarks, for the wish to get it right does not, in my opinion, impede children from investing their texts with social meaning. These children do not approach the task of literacy acquisition and practice with indifference and we have evidence of their reflections on what literacy is, what counts and what it might be good for. What is and what counts are, however, not synonymous, for you can stop counting whenever you like. What counts is, essentially, always a choice; the result of a sub/conscious selection of criteria to the effect of marginalizing, if not excluding, other forms of the same phenomenon. A very strong message being transmitted by the children’s answers to the questionnaire and despite their sensitivity to and engagement with print in their everyday lives (even a poster pinned to a tree does not go unnoticed) is that literacy is something you learn at and for school.

I want to know more:

Q17: Why do you think you learn to write? For school = 7, Don’t know = 7, To write words = 1, Because I like it = 1, To give letters = 1, Because mum says = 1, Because it’s good = 1

Q18: Do you know what a letter is? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q19: Can you tell me what the difference is between a letter and a book? Don’t know = 18, Letters have stamps = 1, A letter is written, a book is not = 1, Letters are sent = 1, Books are read or played with = 1, A letter is not a story = 1

Q20: Can you tell me what the difference is between a letter and a card? Don’t know = 10, You get cards for your birthday = 7, Cards have pictures = 4, A card is a little folded book you give in an envelope to someone you like = 1

Q21: Imagine that you have just written a letter to a friend. What do you have to do so that your friend gets the letter? Give it to mum = 9, Give it to him/her = 6, Put it in the letterbox = 3, Know the address = 2, Wait = 1, Don’t know = 1

Q22: Has anyone ever written you a letter? Yes = 2, No = 20

Q23: Have you ever received a card? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q24: Have you ever written a letter? Yes = 1, No = 21

Q25: Have you ever made or written a card? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q26: If you have ever received a letter or a card, did you try to read it yourself? Yes = 19, No = 3

Q27: Did you ask someone to read it to you? Yes = 22, No = 0

Q28: Did you write back? Yes = 0, No = 22, Said thank you = 13

My primary data had already indicated children’s early awareness of letters, books and greeting cards.The questionnaire would help me to see if my earlier results could be confirmed. All the children know what a letter is (Q18), even though the vast majority had never written one (Q24). Books are familiar to the children in both the scholastic and domestic contexts, each introducing the children to different content and interactional styles so that the description of a book as a story or as something you can play with strongly invites the interpretation that the children who provide these responses have storybooks and the domestic context in mind.

A number of responses reveal certain children’s sensitivity to the differing properties of books, letters and cards, although many are unable to explain what distinguishes the one from the other (Q19, Q20). The potential confusion in English between a letter as a semiotic sign, e.g. abc, and a letter as a written communication, i.e. as mail, is obviated in French, the language in which the questionnaire was conducted, for in French, the two terms are not the same: lettre for the former, courrier for the latter.

pia letterbox 2004

A letterbox

A number of responses to Q19, Q20 and Q21 demonstrate an understanding not only of the inherent properties of letters, books and cards, but also of their appropriate social contexts. Letters have stamps and are sent. You put letters in a letterbox, but to do this, you first need to know the address of the recipient. You can play with books (e.g. electronic or interactive books). Books tell a story. You receive cards for your birthday. Cards have pictures. ‘A card is a little folded book you give in an envelope to someone you like’.

By writing or making a card, be it a birthday card, a Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Easter, Christmas, friendship card or otherwise, the child is actively involved in a literacy-based interaction. This action is also social, or peopled, extending beyond a child’s solitary use of a social semiotic tool and encompassing other social actors, helpers and recipients. Further data confirms that children would much rather make a card, and may spend considerable time in doing so, than write a message in a ready-bought one. The fact that children receive more cards than letters might well provide the motivation for them to also write more cards than letters.

The overwhelming majority of the children (86%) try to read such cards themselves (Q26). All, however, ask someone else to read the card to them. This would imply that all the children still need assistance, even if only to have their understanding confirmed. In so doing, they exhibit their awareness of the limits of their knowledge, actively initiate the help needed and transform the reading act into a collaborative activity.

None of the children write back (Q28). One possible explanation could be because some feel they cannot write well enough (Q1). This uncertainty might be attributable to the fact that they have picked up on their status as non-writers, as a year long of being told, in the Grande Section, that they are learning to write, might reinforce.

In a nutshell

The questionnaire permits a new take on the notion of literacy as a zone of promoted activity, a zone as seen from the child’s perspective. I discover that the 5-year-olds concerned exhibit knowledge of literacy as ‘peopled’ activity in a wider social context, sensitive to the sites, functions, materials and audiences involved.

All the children are literate. Their writing is invested with intention, despite an apparent uncertainty their statements imply about the children’s status as writers.

The children know a lot about literacy, possibly more than they are able to explain. Nor do they wait to enter the classroom to be taught about literacy, but are ‘ready’ and active beyond institutional literacy transmission. Literacy at home, however, certainly seems to be less important to the children than literacy at school, with few children keeping what they write, and conflicting statements being made about the purposes of literacy, which are mainly coupled with the scholastic context in the minds of the five-year-olds. The implicit character of literacy practice and discourse at home means that its messages and influence on shaping children’s learning and practice remain on the margins of the children’s awareness, not only making it difficult for children to talk explicitly about domestic practice, but also possibly undermining children’s appreciation of the home as a valuable learning environment.

Questionnaires are a bit like building a house: you would never do it the same the second time round. Even when I’m off duty, I catch myself fretting over the quality of my questionnaire and keeping an eye out for better ‘data’. It’s amazing what you can stumble across, not only in the form of written texts but also as dialogue (impossible to capture accurately though paraphrasing may also be sufficient). It all depends on what/whom, where, when, how and why you are observing. I’m sure I’ve overlooked material because I simply failed to register it as important or provide adequate means of data collection and analysis. Discrepancies between knowing and doing affect us all. Thanks for the insights, children! Let’s close this entry with your comments, not mine:






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