Category Archives: school

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!



A Song A Day

Work, Rest or Play?



MOIEN (i.e., Morning/Hello). How many other languages can you find on this poster?

We are in a primary school in Luxembourg. From the linguistic vantage, the education system in Luxembourg is very special. In fact, it’s unique in Europe: it’s the only one confronted, on the one hand, with the nationwide statutory practice of French-German bilingualism (or trilingualism, if one takes into account the daily use of Luxembourgish in the classroom alongside the official languages of instruction). On the other, schools in Luxembourg are characterized by a high rate of foreigners. How high? 40 % in general (49.1% and 44.4% for preschool and primary school respectively). That’s high. That’s not necessarily the problem.

The problem: the problem is not the high rate of foreigners in the classroom, but that many of these pupils do not speak any of the three national languages; Luxembourgish, French and German. If such pupils did not attend nursery school (Spillschoul), where the language of instruction is Luxembourgish, or have no opportunity to learn Luxembourgish at home, they are automatically disadvantaged for primary school.  Luxembourgish is, essentially, a German dialect with a sprinkling of French. The German word for school is Schule. In Luxembourgish, it’s Schoul. If you speak German, you’ll pick up Luxembourgish very quickly. If you don’t, it’s trickier. Knowledge of French is not really an advantage. At primary school, Maths is taught in German. A significant proportion of the Year One curriculum is thus dedicated to learning German, either as a subject in its own right or as the vehicle for another subject. Primary school children do not learn to read and write Luxembourgish, but German. French is introduced in the second semester of Year Two. The teaching of/in German is intensified from Year Three. From this point on, there is also a direct correlation between the children’s background and their academic success.

The effects: very few (19.2%) of the pupils considered foreigners or with a migration background make it to lycée classique, which is the branch of the Luxembourgish school system that will lead to university. I won’t go down the very slippery road that involves reflecting upon the distribution of responsibility for academic failure (part teacher’s fault? part learner’s fault? part the fault of the learner’s family background?) or asking why all those hours spent at school still do not suffice to secure the success of the vast majority of pupils. I’ll limit myself to the observation of a fact: limited language skills and lack of familiarity with institutional discourse will result in academic failure. Nothing to do with being bright or not:

…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 figure in the Performance Indicators in Primary School (PIPS) test used in my thesis. Unless you are someone who reads Serbian Cyrillic you wouldn’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? You are still not able to answer the question: “how many cars are left if there were four and I took two away?” I will have to give you 0 points and you will probably be identified as an underachiever. Better luck next time (Reljic, 2011).

Language opens doors. It affords membership to communities of practice. Doors may be opened in different ways. The summary of the linguistic situation in Luxembourg and a closer analysis of a single child is the subject of a doctoral thesis by Roberto Gomez (2011). I learned a lot by helping Roberto with this thesis. The brevity of the description I provide here (courtesy of Roberto) cannot do justice to the complexity of the situation, but it will give you an idea.

Foreigners, a contentious word. I know. Children with migration background. Children whose parents do not speak Luxembourgish at home. Is a child whose parents come from Portugal, or a child who speaks Luxembourgish even though his/her parents don’t, still a foreigner? The system would be inclined to say Yes. It is possible to apply for and be granted a Luxembourgish passport even if one doesn’t speak Luxembourgish fluently, or even speak it at home. Once in possession of this passport, is this person a foreigner? The system would say No.



We are at the end of a Year One German class. The children have been listening to a popular story, Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten (The Bremer Town Musicians). The class comprises 25 children. Given the statistic above, we can estimate how many ‘foreigners’ are in this class. Given the statistic above, we can estimate how many of these primary school children don’t speak German outside the classroom. Will the German taught at school suffice to secure these children’s later academic success?


But the children have been working hard, listening hard, and now, to wind down, they engage in a colouring activity.


Each child present in the video clip has a different nationality. Some speak Luxembourgish better than others. None of them speak German at home or outside of German classes. To reinforce the off-task, less official nature of the colouring activity at hand, the teacher puts a CD on. It’s not in Luxembourgish. It’s not in German. Watch this clip to the end. The kids deserve it:

A song a day; work, rest or play? A new community of practice is created by this activity. By singing along – and look how much they’re enjoying themselves – these children form a subgroup within the classroom. On off mode, they are livelier than before. They’re probably not thinking so much about German anymore, yet they are training language skills in other ways; in a more emotive, less abstract, less grammatically-directed manner. They’re learning although they’re not deliberately trying to. So are they working, resting or playing?

Tricky. Better not over-simplify.

In French, we call this reproduction of the phonetics of a language unfamiliar to the speaker yaourt: yoghurt. These kids will begin to learn French in Year Two. Bet they’ll know the lyrics of this song better by then, if not by heart, and other songs too!

ways with(out) words: empowerment and motivation

Year One. Real school, therefore: a timetable. Or should I say: picture table?

picture curriculum b

Pictures, too, to monitor the children’s behaviour on a daily basis:

pig or sheep anonymous

Extremely uncomfortable with this idea of classifying naughty children as pigs (whatever their misdemeanour), I’m the sort of mum who would have kicked up a fuss. There’s something ugly here. Insensate. Something remotely Christian which I object to in any classroom, let alone in a multicultural classroom as this one. (Quick look at the timetable: religious education twice a week…). None of the parents appeared to object to this threat of a public stoning; to the threat of their offspring being branded as pigs. I was only visiting. I also wanted to be allowed back into this classroom. I kept my mouth shut. Before leaving the school for good, I did permit myself to ask the teacher to tell me more:

“it really motivates them, for at the end of the week there’s a prize.”

Didn’t the Head ever stroll into the classrooms from time to time, I wondered? Could s/he have overlooked this? I would have loved to sneak into the other classrooms to see if there were pigs and lambs cavorting as institutional corrective measures, whether the other members of staff had devised their own special (better?) means, so that this one here really was but a one-off, an effective one-off (so I’m told) not worth my getting over-sensitive about. My observation periods were restricted to 2 hours per morning. No correct way of entering other classrooms without the teacher’s permission. Without the Head’s permission. Without the parents’ permission. Without a letter first having been addressed to the Ministry of Education explaining the precise scope of my activities. No way, therefore, without getting into some ethical hot water (which I’m probably in already by now). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not into mud-slinging. I am into critical research. There’s a lot of good practice out there; the picture timetable is a wonderful off-task way to orient the children through the week. But as we all know: there can never only be good practice out there. That goes for me too.

Classroom literacy (2): The First Days

Twenty-two children learning to read and write in French and German in Year One (in Alsace) and trying to work out for themselves what these skills might be good for. Two teachers – Sandrine for French and Ingrid for German –  charged with the task of transmitting these skills effectively. I continue my series of narrative snapshots, hopefully getting across some of the excitement and the character of typical classroom interactions. What would you say is the main difference between the German and French teaching styles presented here?

Snapshot #2: First Day in French

Twitter. Twitter.

Look at my new shoes. You’ve cut your hair. Where did you go on holiday? I like your new satchel, grandma bought mine can you already read a little I can, I’ve been practising in the holidays. With mum. Oh no, she wants to take even more pictures of me (deep sigh yet inwardly pleased). (Sarah)

Parents mill around in the school courtyard. Bright flowers. Bright smiles. Yes, they do grow up so quickly, don’t they? In no time they’ll be…

From now on we are not allowed to enter the school grounds, but must await our knowledge-hungry offspring at the school gate, today being an exception. Today being their Big Day. Ten to eight. Time to leave.

Oh I wish she wouldn’t wave at me like that I’m not a baby anymore. (Daniel)

Real school. New room. New layout. Tables no longer clustered like honeycomb the children would weave their way through and clamber over to snatch something from a classmate before the teacher intervened with a stern voice. In real school the tables are lined up like pencils on their sides: one, two, three, four rows, every face to the teacher. In real school you don’t hang your coats up in the classroom like the little ones do, but leave them outside on a hook with your slipper bag. And you keep your things in that compartment under your desk…

Who’re you gonna sit next to? D’you think we can choose? I hope I won’t be right at the back. (Marie)

Please don’t put me next to Thibault if I have to sit next to him I’m gonna throw up. (Elise)

We can’t all sit together anymore they’ll probably move us around like they did last year. If you sit at the front you’re the teacher’s pet. (Sophie)

N’importe quoi! (what a load of rubbish!) (Dimitri)

Belt up! Who’s talking to you, anyway? (Marie)

D’you reckon we get to come and write on the whiteboard? (Elise)

The walls are as bare as the new books now being taken from the satchels and purchased in strict accordance with the list handed out to the parents at the end of the preceding school year. Every book, every pencil, rubber and sharpener, every pair of scissors bears the child’s name. Hours of writing, sticking, of calming down excited children implored to write their names neatly (unless you opt for just initials in capitals or for using a pc) have gone into the preparation of this big day, their first celebration beyond the intimacy of home – their first public celebration of the public Self. The classroom looks, smells squeaky clean, thanks to the investment of a cohort of mothers in the run-up to school. The naked walls, like their exercise books (like their supposed minds???) shall soon be clothed with common knowledge.

The children – erratum – the pupils may in fact choose their own seats, the noise level necessarily rising, yet the teacher is generous with her patience. For today. The register is then taken. They all know the routine. The pile of new books, stacked on the teacher’s desk like so many plates in the canteen, now ladled out to the children, row after row. These books, that is what today, what the rest of their time in these rooms, is all about…

Sandrine: Bien. Et maintenant, au travail. (Right, now let’s get down to work)

The first morning includes activities like these:

Activity 1:

The course book is handed out: Mika CP. The key figure, Mika, is a little girl, whose adventures with a wolf provide the narrative context for the reading exercises. On the front cover, the book is described as ‘méthode interactive d´apprentissage de la lecture’ and further as ‘cycles des apprentissages fondamentaux’ (i.e. as ‘an interactive method for learning to read’, and as ‘a basic training course’). From the back cover we learn that Mika will accompany us through our first year at school, that we will read our first story (broken down into 10 episodes) and that the book contains numerous exercises to help us understand how the written language works: ‘le fonctionnement de la langue écrite’.

We turn the first page. Sandrine distributes a sheet with a text on it to each child. She reads:

‘The start of school. Today, it’s the start of school (la rentrée). For you, it’s your big day. You are now in Year One. Real school’.

The pupils are asked to identify and underline in yellow a number of words in the text: La, jour, entrez, m’appelle, amie, votre maîtresse. Other words: jeudi 5 septembre, c´est la rentrée des classes, pour, au CP, à la grande école, bonjour je suis, are to be underlined in red. At the bottom of the same sheet, four words are encased in the following order: Mika – je – Bonjour! – m’appelle. The text is cut out and pasted into the classbook. The pupils must now cut out the four jumbled words in order to reconstitute the sentence ‘Bonjour! Je m’appelle Mika’ in the allocated speech bubble:

je m'appelle MIKA

Sandrine goes from pupil to pupil, checking the answer before stamping the date into the pupil’s exercise book. Those who have finished may browse through the book whilst they wait for the others.

Activity 2:

Sandrine distributes a sheet featuring the underlined words from the previous activity. The red words form ‘The start of school’ form one group. The yellow words form another group.

Whilst the pupils are busy cutting out the words, she writes the same words on sheets of A4, using the standardised writing model. When she reads these words out loud to the class, she holds them beneath her chin: “what does this say?” Some pupils shout out the answer and are reproached with a stern look. She chooses a pupil who has put his hand up. His answer is correct. ‘Good!’ Sandrine praises, before she repeats the answer, then pins the word on the wall next to the whiteboard. If no-one is able to read the word, Sandrine gets the pupils to identify each of the letters in the word before she says the word slowly, running her finger along the letters as she pronounces them. Then she invites the pupils to pronounce the word a number of times:

je m’appelle…

je m’appelle…

je mappelle.

       (short short  l o n g…)

Activity 3:

The pupils must now write their names according to the French italic writing model they’e been practising since Reception Class/Grande Section. The children are eager and complete the task without any difficulty. Sandrine, sitting on her desk, asks intermittently: “finished?”

For homework:

  1. learn to recognise the words from the yellow group.
  2. draw a picture of yourself and your teacher.
  3. colour in the picture at the front of the book (children outside the school-gate, keen to start their first day of real school).

Very little talk all morning apart from Sandrine’s instructions and the pupil’s answers. During the cutting out activity, the noise level rises slightly. The pupils seem eager to work hard. Above all, they must work individually. I comment on the solitary nature of the morning’s activities. Sandrine informs me that after the break, the pupils can work in pairs with their word cards.

Snapshot #3: First Day in German

(as the children have a whole day in a single language, their first day in German is in fact the second day of school)

The children enter the grounds accompanied by their parents, laden with bags or boxes filled with the year’s materials and which they deposit near the teacher’s desk. Some children are accompanied by a larger cluster of adults, a number having come from far afield to be there on this big day. Grandparents have come along, too, and who might the others be? They’re the aunties, uncles, godparents of the native German-speaking pupils, and they take snapshots of the new first-grader who poses proudly with satchel and Schultüte, an enormous cone filled with sweeties and school-related objects, as every real German first-grader knows all too well.

Once the excitement recedes, overtaken by the rev of engines reversing out the car park, Ingrid, having rallied the pupils around her and whilst still waiting for all the other pupils to enter the building, clears her throat:

“So, dear children, welcome back to school. Welcome to Year One (die erste Klasse). I’m sure you all had a wonderful summer. And I’m sure we’ll all have a wonderful time learning to read and write in Year One. In Germany, the start of Year One is an important day for every boy and girl and it is celebrated. For each of you, I have a Schultüte, like in Germany. I shall take a photo of you with your Schultüte and you can give this photo to your parents. Or stick it in your photo album if you’ve got your own one already.”

The pupils are called forward in alphabetical order. Ingrid takes a photo and the pupil may then enter the classroom and sit down (same seating arrangements as for French).

Typical activities for German:

i) Look at your schoolbag carefully and draw it on the paper (Betrachte deine Schultasche ganz genau und zeichne sie dann auf das Papier!



ii) My Schultüte


Who has never seen a Schultüte before, Ingrid wants to know. Some pupils turn round to see how the others respond. “I’ve seen some in the supermarket,” proffers one pupil. Others agree. Someone comments “mais ce n’est pas la même!” (They’re not the same!). No, Ingrid agrees, those ones are not the same. They’re too small, they’re for anyone, and they have nothing to do with school. The pupils must draw their Schultüte, either the one Ingrid gave them that morning, or else the one they received from their parents/family. At the end of this activity, Ingrid passes round a picture of herself on her first day of Year One, bright-eyed, knobbly-kneed and holding an enormous Schultüte. The pupils are fascinated. Laugh. Ask questions. Ingrid says she remembers exactly her first day of school. And the name of her teacher. More questions. Genuine interest. Ingrid laughs. “Ok, let’s get back to work.”

III) wir halten Ordnung! (we keep the place tidy!)



Ingrid solicits from the class what they see in each of the eight pictures. One set of pictures shows a tidy classroom, the other set, a messy one. She asks which picture is the better one and why. Some hands are raised. Other pupils just say what they think. Ingrid recapitulates a few responses: because it’s nicer to work in a tidy area. Because it’s less dangerous for yourself and others. Because it makes things easier to find. The pupils must follow the instructions concerning the school desk, the waste paper bin, the coat pegs and the tables and chairs: Male die richtigen Bilder bunt aus! (colour the correct pictures brightly).

Iv) so spielen wir miteinander (this is how we play together). Wir gehen vorsichtig mit unseren Spielen um! (we handle our toys carefully!), Wir streiten nicht! (We don’t fight!), Wir räumen unsere Spiele auf! (We tidy away our toys!).



v) school materials



Now that these worksheets have set the social climate for the classroom, Ingrid turns to the course material: negotiating space in the run-up to writing:



and, of course, now that we’re at real school, there’s homework:

nino ninaGerman HWK










At the end of this learning block, Ingrid secures the attention of her class by asking them to look her way. She introduces the Kummerkasten, or complaints box. A big box with a slit in the lid, which she holds chest high as she faces the class. If the pupils have anything they’re unhappy with, they can write a note and put it in the box. Spelling is unimportant because it’s not a test. She will look in the box once a week and she will always get their meaning, Ingrid promises. The notes can be anonymous or signed and Ingrid assures them that their comments will be read and taken seriously: ” It’s a box for you, so use it whenever you are ready to.”

‘Don’t forget!’

She gives the box a shake, places it on a table near her desk.

Morning break.

Classroom literacy (1): Grande Section’s daily routine

Over the next few entries, I’d like to make you familiar with the classrooms I conducted  research in. We’re in France. In Alsace, to be precise. And we’re in a bi-lingual French-German nursery-primary school. I’ll provide what I call narrative snapshots: descriptive accounts of typical routines. Today we’ll visit the last year of nursery school; la Grande Section. Does any of this seem familiar to the contexts you know? As always, I’d love to hear from you.




Snapshot #1:

The Grande Section’s daily routine ( 11th February, 2002, 15.15h-15.40h)

Teacher, Isabelle (T) and children (CC).

Isabelle and all the children are seated on a long v-shaped bench in the corner of the classroom, away from their tables and chairs. The interaction takes place in French.


T: Are all the children here?

CC: Yes!

T: Are you sure? We’ll see. Elisa, are you here?

Elisa: I’m here!

(Isabelle notes Elisa’s attendance with a tick in her register)

T: Victor, are you here?

Victor: I’m here!

Isabelle goes through the whole class. Whilst the register is being taken, the children fidget and whisper.

 T: How many are we today?

CC (simultaneously): Fifteen!



T: How many girls? Who would like to count the girls?

Numerous hands shoot up and a few bottoms hover above the bench fervently. A girl is selected. She stands up, points her finger at each girl as she counts. The other children count with her. The procedure is repeated for the boys. Today there are nine boys and eleven girls. Two boys are missing. Isabelle chooses a different child to count how many children are present altogether. Some children join in too, whilst others chatter. Isabelle waits patiently.

T: So, we have more…

CC: Girls!

T: Girls.

The girls cheer. The boys sulk.

T: Which day is it today?

CC: Monday!



T: Today is the first day of the week…

CC: Monday!

T: Monday, right.

Isabelle gets up. She walks over to a wall chart with the heading : Aujourd’hui nous sommes (‘Today we are…’). The heading is followed by the days of the week, each associated with a particular colour and a one-line poem. Handwritten day tags, of the same colour as the days on the chart, are pinned on the wall next to the chart. Isabelle chooses a girl to find the right tag for Monday. This girl finds the tag, takes it off the wall and places it beneath the chart. The other children begin to get restless. The noise level rises.

T: What is the date today?

The children guess various numbers. They seem to have forgotten the date they had on Friday (I hear a few whispered ‘Friday was the …?’) and over the weekend they appear not to have use of knowledge of this type. Still, they work it out in the end. Today is the eleventh.

T: How do we write eleven?

Isabelle holds out a bag of numbers written on square card. She chooses a boy this time to come forward, who finds the correct number before placing it next to the day below the chart.

T: Good. And the month?

CC: February!

T: February. Two thousand…

CC: … and two!

T: Two thousand and two. So today is…

CC: Monday, the 11th February, 2002.

Isabelle crosses the classroom to the blackboard. In the top right hand corner, she writes the date in joined-up letters, pronouncing each word as she does so:

T: Lundi, le… onze… fevrier… deux … mille … deux. Bien!

With a gesture, she signals the end of the activity. The children return to their tables, grouped to seat up to five children.


Activities in the Grande Section consist of a clearly defined blend of play-oriented skills acquisition tasks, with the morning and afternoon sessions consisting of four activity blocks: ritual, language work, worksheet, pre-writing exercises. A typical worksheet is Le trait vertical; the vertical line, which progressively structures the size of the children’s penstrokes in the ‘run up’ to writing:



My observation of this activity is accompanied by the following fieldnotes:

The children sit at group tables, are supposed to work individually, but mix their work with private talk, which, though tolerated, is punctuated by Isabelle’s frequent reminders as she moves from group to group: ‘not so loud! Concentrate on your work!’ At the end of each morning or afternoon session, the children’s work is filed away in their folders, stored in a communal area along one side of the classroom. The children go over to a big chest of drawers and put their pencils and crayons back in one of the drawers bearing their name.

Despite the significant space accorded to promoting the activity of writing, rigorous evaluation criteria are not applied to work in the Grande Section and no use is ever made of the red pen. The children self-correct as they gradually learn to manage the directionality and spacing of script. When required, Isabelle explains, sometimes using a separate sheet of paper, how to improve the writing, after which the child returns to his/her own sheet and attempts to carry out the recommendations.

Notwithstanding the argument that children insist upon the distinction between drawing and writing, writing development is channelled as ‘emerging’ from drawing, it therefore requires the children to ‘redesign’ their knowledge of drawing and we may clearly identify the different steps assisting the child through the activity to achieve a degree of accuracy which brings writing ‘within reach’. Although the child is required to complete such worksheets alone, the activity is nonetheless facilitated, or framed, by others, notably those who design the worksheets in the first place, and by the teacher, who will verbally prepare the child for the activity by explaining what needs to be done, and who will assist the child further in the event of any difficulties. The children, we note, are not yet being taught the sound of the letter, but are drawing, or ‘pre’-writing. The boundary between the illustrative and the semiotic, therefore, appears to be porous, yet the clear intention is to use drawing to ‘stretch’ the children to the higher developmental skill of being able to write. For the moment, reading remains ‘beyond reach’.


Framing learning and practice in La Grande Section

Classroom interactions send a plethora of messages; overt, covert, and even, at times, conflictual:

‘A classroom, for example, where young children spend considerable time copying letters beneath their teacher’s clear handwriting and are expected to get every spelling correct in the first draft runs on assumptions about learning that are very different from those of a classroom where children choose what to write and where children’s invented letter shapes and spellings are accepted and encouraged’. (Czerniewska, 1992:53)


The classroom as a zone of free movement (ZFM):

We may think about the classroom in terms of its functional availability and how adults structure a child’s access to this culturally designed physical environment.

With regard to literacy acquisition, this classroom comprises three main learning spaces:

i. grouped tables: the mechanics and meanings of writing are practised and appropriated with the support of worksheets like ‘the vertical line’.

ii. bench area: here, the registration routine encourages the recognition of key words associated with scholastic discourse. The bench area is also the space where the children may withdraw to discover or read books – but not write – on their own if time permits.

iii. whiteboard: forges a link between the tables and the bench as discrete seating areas. It channels the children visually to a limited space, from which they may take the knowledge the teacher places there.


We see, then, that the physical characteristics of the classroom are not arbitrary, but consciously designed to provide an optimal learning and working zone for teachers and pupils. Classroom design limits specific types of learning to specific spaces for learning in a systematic manner (unlike home). The classroom, however, also offers supplementary learning zones, which promote rather than limit the child. These zones can be considered a Zone of Promoted Activity and will be addressed next.


The classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA):

The concept of a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA) relates to the interplay of people and materials involved in interactions on offer within the environment which, rather than limiting the child’s development, are geared towards promoting the child’s development with regard to a particular activity. Let’s take a closer look.


Interactional partners:

There are a number of people on offer within the classroom environment. There are the children, the teachers, the auxiliary staff and the parents. These actors may be paired or grouped in a number of ways: children interacting with other children, teachers interacting with auxiliary staff and children, teachers interacting with parents, etc. Children’s talk among themselves, however, is only tolerated to a certain degree. The auxiliary staff are not charged with pedagogical responsibilities in this school, and the parents only pop in and out of class mostly to pick up or bring their children, with whom, as with the teacher, they may only exchange a few brief words before their departure. In practice, therefore, the potential offered by all these interactional partners is not fully exploited, and, as intended, social interactions within the classroom centre around the teacher-pupil dyad. In what follows, I highlight how teacher-pupil interactions are framed at this school in order to promote literacy development.


verbal and affective frames:

Children’s learning to write, along with their emerging identity as a writer, is framed verbally largely via question-answer routines, commonly referred to as ‘initiation-response-feedback’ (IRF), which channel, tease out and confirm the correct or desired reply:

T: Today is the first day of the week…

CC: Monday!

T: Monday, right.

With her statement ‘let us see if all the children are here’, or the question, ‘Elisa, are you here?’, Isabelle also subtly manoeuvres the children at the start of each day away from their private identities into their identity as learners in an institutional context, employing specific learning strategies and discourses that may, or may not, be familiar to the children from their home backgrounds. Getting the children to internalise school discourse prepares the children for the more imperative, analytical linguistic styles or registers later encountered in the course material for Year One.

At another level, feelings are harnessed in order to promote learning. We are talking about affective frames. The feelings solicited often try to evoke a sense of fun to take the sting out of learning. The registration ritual, for example, is designed to feel like a game; the children cheer, play at sulking, laugh. Pre-writing exercises are made to feel like drawing rather than the serious business of learning to write.

Wall work, as an interface between parents, teachers and children, and thus between the home and the school, may also be harnessed emotionally. By talking about their work on display, the children may not only proudly demonstrate their abilities to their parents, but also see the interest of their parents validated by talk with the teachers. Verbal framing, moreover, has additional affective attributes in that the children, once repositioned as pupils, are supposed to feel differently; in particular, they should feel that they are at school to work, yet may look forward to learning via activities and interactional strategies that are intended to be enjoyable, and therefore motivating. Fun and games notwithstanding, the school does not feel like home, so that, even at the emotional level, different zones may be identified.

Not only the teaching materials employed or the potential interactional strategies seek to tap into children’s feelings in order to promote their learning, but the classroom design itself constitutes an emotional frame. The children sit in groups, whose members are rotated so that the children may learn to learn, and make friends, with different people. The physical and social climate of the classroom will feel quite different in Year One, due to frontal, individual, and definitive seating arrangements.


Material frames: the classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity:

There is a link between the physical and social properties of the classroom and how they promote literacy activity. Unlike the objects referred to in the Zone of Free Movement, designed to limit activities (e.g. activity x is only performed in space x), within the Zone of Promoted Activity, as the name suggests, new spaces are provided that promote development in a non-binding manner. I don’t believe it is essential to remember the terminology. What we can remember is: some areas promote learning by keeping a tighter hold on it, others promote learning in a less controlled manner. The two zones, ZFM and ZPA, may, and do, overlap: objects on offer within the ZPA form an interface with the ZFM in that they are part of the physical equipment of the classroom. But as explained, they are used differently:

coatpegs: bear the children’s names, and to which the children return several times a day as they arrive and leave school and come in from or go out to play.

wall space: wall space showcases samples of the children’s schoolwork at the child’s eye-level, inviting, but not demanding, the children’s attention. The children must, therefore, actively decide to interact with these literacy spaces and ‘opportunities’, and in so doing, they are interacting proactively, even though they are not writing. (Other materials, by contrast, lead to the children interacting reactively. These are the materials such as worksheets, wall charts, cue cards, or indeed classroom rituals as teaching material, which solicit the children’s responses, but do not allow them to instigate.)


On the one hand we have carefully structured, goal-oriented interactions, on the other, we have more holistic opportunities for more child-initiated interaction. The children are, therefore, being sensitized in different ways towards diverse forms and functions of writing.

Notwithstanding clear curricular specifications, in practice, there still seem to be conflicting messages about what really counts as literacy. I note, for example, the inherent discrepancy between minimal correction of classroom work on the one hand, and the selection of conventional, error-free samples of writing for public display, on the other. The teacher does not systematically write according to the official model, although she only selects work which corresponds to the norm for public display. It seems that one aspect of what counts as literacy is accuracy in the display of skills. Moreover, there appear to be two levels of skills display involved. On one level, the worksheets, later filed away in the children’s folders, document the progressive acquisition of writing skills and provide a reference point on display for the children. On another level, the selection of perfected writing for public display document an additional, more official interface between:

  • the children as a community of learners, and the school as an institutional, evaluating and evaluated organ
  • the children and parents, hence the home and school

Thus, the question of what counts must be pursued by for whom? The answer to what counts relates to who is seeing, and judging, different texts.


An image of how the child is being shaped as a writer begins to emerge from all the facets analysed so far. It is of the child as becoming rather than as being a writer. I hope this blogpost has helped you to take a fresh look at the pre-school classroom, above all at the physical, verbal and affective properties and at the shifting perspectives of thought and action for everyone concerned. Has this post made you think of anything you would like to share with me? I’d love to hear from you.


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.