Category Archives: home

not ‘only’ play…

italics play 5yrs 5m

joined-up handwriting, 5yrs 5m

The idea of play creates order. It is order: ‘While it is in progress it is all movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation’ (Johan Huinzinga, 1969, p9, 10, cited in Rendel-Short, 2015, p92)

Play (verb) from Middle Dutch, pleien, meaning to leap for joy, to dance, rejoice, be glad.

shot 5

Katja doesn’t always like going to school, but guess which game she loves to play once she gets home? Here, she’s the teacher. Of course!



when muck means more

What could this be a drawing of? Three guesses:

p68 patricks drawing

Patrick, 4yrs

Ignore the blue arrows for now. They were added to describe various parts of the picture and we’ll find out more about that in a mo. But what do you think this drawing is about? Patrick is 4 years old. He’s gone to a lot of effort. He’s not merely scribbling. Can you recognize anything?

His name, for starters. To the bottom left, we can see ATI from Patrick and an attempt at a P before the other letters. This is encased in green, so it’s a unit in itself.

The yellow elements constitute a single unit. Same goes for the orange units (we’d say they were crosses, at a first glance) and the purple section in the middle.

Any ideas?

Have you noticed how well organized this piece is: the yellow elements are deliberately placed around the purple element at the centre. The orange crosses are not a slip of the pen; they are too controlled. And I’m sure they are precisely where Patrick wants them to be.

There’s a clue in the title of this blog entry. Still no ideas?

Well, hold on to your socks:

p68 patrick sewer works 4yrs

Sewage works: a child’s perspective. source: DECOPRIM Project. University of Luxembourg, 1997.

Patrick has drawn a sewage plant after watching a programme about one on TV.

I’ll start at the top and work clockwize:

i) Ausgang der Leitung, wo das Wasser wieder sauber herauskommt: exit point of the pipes where the water comes out, purified

ii) Hier entsteht Schaum: this is where foam is made

iii) Toiletten, durch die das Abwasser in die Kläranlage gelangt: toilets via which the sewage enters the sewage works

iv) Momentane Darstellung des Names: current depiction of his name

v) Leitung der Klärange: sewage pipes

vi) Krokodil, welches in der Kläranlage wohnt: crocodile who lives at the sewage plant

Admit it, you’re impressed! Here, as on many other occasions, we would be unable to decipher young children’s texts without their aid. What we would be inclined to dismiss as scribble is in fact a young child’s highly elaborate means of assimilating the world around him. A host of skills are on display here, including:

maths: specific number of toilets

science/technology: how the different components of a sewage plant fit together

language: Patrick explains the various aspects of his picture

technical drawing: this is a plan of a sewage plant

writing: Patrick adds his name to his work

culture: we have a depiction of how a specific culture treats water. I didn’t see the programme myself, but I’ll take Patrick’s word for the crocodile and assume the film he watched was of a sewage plant in a tropical country. What’s that dark purple place in the middle of the crocodile, Patrick? I hope he hasn’t gobbled up anyone!


‘If the culture of the teacher is to become part of the consciousness of the child, the culture of the child has to first be in the consciousness of the teacher.’ (Bruner)

‘prendre un enfant au sérieux est aussi une forme élémentaire de respect qu’il faudrait essayer de faire renaître en classe’ : to take the child seriously is also a basic form of respect which we should try to revive in the classroom (Zepp)

‘Effective education is developmental. It builds on the skills, knowledge and experiences that young children acquire in their homes and communities prior to coming to school and while they are in school; it extends and broadens those skills and knowledge in developmentally meaningful ways.’ (Genesee)


What do you want to be when you grow up, Patrick?

Staying alive: mother-tongue maintenance abroad

How can you help your children to keep their native language alive when they are born abroad and spend little time with mum and dad? An English family living in Luxembourg tells me one way they go about it.

When Eleanor was five so she was between the two Spillschoul years
00055 Erm, I got a, I arranged for a teacher to come across from England, who lived with us for a month in the big summer holidays
Erm, we ran an English summer school (laughs)
00056 That is what she was telling me about, Lucy?
That’s right, summer school Lucy! (laughs)
Right, right! And her cousins attended as well, it was in Henley
No, it was here, but she-
Lives, she comes from near Henley
00057 Oh, right, okay okay
So she lives in the vicinity of my family
Right, right
In England
And I think she’s even taught once at the school where her cous- Eleanor’s
00058 Cousins, erm, go to school, which is the Oratory, and, that was a, for Eleanor, that was a fantastic success that month when Lucy was here. I got together
00059 Eleanor plus another five native English speakers attending Luxembourgish schools, who, five of them, I think we within 6 months of age and one as a little bit younger and
00060 She went through, every day, a couple of English phonics with them and really tired to get them enthusiastic about reading and writing in English, and for some reason
00061 Eleanor was just at the exactly it was it came at exactly the right point for her and you could really see how her English blossomed over over that month it was wonderful

ELEANOR JUNE 01 2010 2

ELEANOR JUNE 01 2010 3

Okay. Erm, actually I’m gong to pick your brain because you could give me some
00077 Information that I haven’t yet collected. Can you tell me how, erm, Luxembourgish Spillschoul, how that functions. What do the children do? Do they really mainly play or do they, are they…
00078 Generally introduced into the world of print? Do they have writing activities and so on, erm, or is it
I think I can get you, erm, the folder in a minute
Oh alright
Of her of
00079 That she did. I would say it’s more pencil control
That they do during that time. I think the older ones, they do their letters
00080 As well they I think they do some elements of letters, phonics and sounds, but it’s, it’s quite basic. I would say the, especially of the 5-6 year olds
00081 Erm, that it’s not as fast as you would expect for that age group in the UK. But for me that was fine. It meant that I really felt as if I had this window of opportunity
00082 Especially with Eleanor being so motivated, to focus on establishing her reading English and writing English before she was getting the German so that that
00083 I felt that was and ad- a delay that I could use to our advantage
Right, right, right

from my fieldnotes: language maintenance when living abroad.

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.

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.




Literacy on the loose: an introduction

letter play edit 2014



Welcome to my educational blog; Literacy on the loose. After decades of teaching, of thinking, reading and writing about literacy, I decided it was time for me to share. Yet another education blog? Yes, yet another education blog. But unlike many others, this is going to be a mixture of samples of academic writing, fieldnotes, videos, photos etc and above all, I’ll be sharing my logbook; the juiciest part of research (in my view) before it all gets tidied up, published and sold as ‘knowledge/facts’.

I’m not selling anything. It’s all for free for anyone who’s interested: teachers, teacher trainers, trainee teachers, parents, policy advisors, kids and the public at large. Literacy on the Loose is about what I found to be really happening; in homes, in classrooms. It’s about setting this knowledge free from the privileged format of conferences, scientific publications and seminars. I’ll try to keep the jargon down to a minimum and cut out most bibliographical references which I know you won’t look up anyway and which you won’t need to in order to benefit from this blog. If you like it, share it.

Dr Joan Barbara Simon