When old fashion is not just new fashion but tastes of paradise, I need say no more
Here’s a mum like many I have met during the course of my research. Her native language (German) is not the same as the language her daughter, Katja, is schooled in (French). Her daughter is having ‘problems’ according to more than one teacher. Maybe her mother should speak to her at home in the school language instead?
Let’s find out more about this family’s language choices and obligations:
Mum: Well, Katja began learning both languages when she went to nursery school at the age of two and that’s why she makes… she doesn’t conjugate her verbs the right way. If I correct her, then she’ll repeat the corrected expression but she’ll say it the wrong way again the next time. ‘Have’ and ‘be’ are often different in German; they’re used differently. That’s the same mistake Alsatians make, by the way, and that’s how you know they’re Alsatians. Or the two forms of ‘your’, they’re different in French as well and that’s how I can tell she’s translating from French into German because French is the language she’s at home in, actually. (…)Neither of my children are any good at translating. But if you speak to them in French, they naturally say everything in French. If I speak to them in German, they naturally speak in German. Whereby… Katja less so. She’ll often reply in French and, erm, I continue to speak to her in German anyway.
Me: You say that Katja first began to speak at nursery school. She was two years old at the time.
Mum: Well, no, it’s not true to say that she didn’t say anything at all, but it was more, well, like: mama, dada, papa, wow-wow, so it wasn’t, she wasn’t really making proper sentences. In fact she first started to say individual words, to describe things, or to say real sentences, three syllable sentences, first when she was two years old, that’s right.
Me: So what you’re saying is that school played a key role in her linguistic development?
Mum: Absolutely. For both children, I would say that school was the most important factor in helping them to speak properly. French, too, because I myself couldn’t speak French at the start. And, erm, well, yeah, so that they learn to speak properly. That happened at nursery school for the most part. Yes, I would say, the ground was laid at nursery school, yes.
Me: We’re talking about French here, aren’t we?
Mum: Yes, about French.
Me: And about them speaking French properly…
Mum: That’s right.
Me: What about German? I mean, it’s their native language…
Mum: Yes I know, but there are loads of words that the children don’t even know in German because they learned them within the school context. I dunno… So they’ll only know the word ‘cahier’ or at nursery school, too, I dunno, they’ll have done some work involving the colour ‘rouge’ and then they’ll simply use the French word.
Me: So you’re saying they’re storing the word in the language they ‘felt’ it in.
Mum: Precisely. Of course I read stories to the children or I speak to them but at school they deal with different themes to the ones dealt with at home and that’s how I even noticed what kind of vocabulary they were learning at school and that they were dealing with different themes to the ones at home because they were using these French words from school. So I then looked up these words myself and that’s how I began to learn French myself.
Some time later, half a year or so, I speak to the family again. They have moved to a different region in France, far away from bilingual Alsace, and Katja has just completed her first term in her new school. What’s the situation like for her now?
Mum: Well, when Katja joined her new class, we had the problem that her teacher got in touch straight away and told me that she thought Katja couldn’t speak French at all and that she’d need a speech therapist. I told her that that can’t be right cos Katja grew up bilingually and that in Alsace it’s quite normal to speak German and French. Katja was two when she went to nursery school and she learned both languages, French and German, at the same time, and I even know that she dreams in French, for example. She said, ok, but we’re not in Alsace anymore but in France, in a French school, and French is important, it’s the main language, and that I should speak French to Katja so that her French improves. Then I said to her that that wasn’t a good idea because I can’t speak French properly and Katja would only make the same mistakes as I do and that I didn’t want her to lose her German, which is also important, and that growing up bilingually is an advantage, a gift for life and not at all the same as simply speaking French and learning a second language at some later point.
No matter which second language you learn, it has the same value, the same worth as French. She said okay, but Katja wouldn’t come to terms anywhere in France and we’re living in France after all and she’d just have to adjust. I said that might be, but I wasn’t in a position to help her, that it was her, the teacher’s, job to help her because Katja’s at school most of the time, from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, so in the two hours she spends at home she can speak German. The same goes for the weekends too. And she’s got homework as well, and all of that’s done in French. When Katja talks to herself or to others, then in French, so you can’t say that her main language is German. She said that Katja translates from German into French, and I said I didn’t think so because Katja makes loads of, the same grammatical mistakes in German. I don’t know about French, but her word order, well, sein, son, le and la, she gets it wrong in German too and she translates from French into German. So she said, well, then Katja has a problem with languages in general and that it wasn’t good for children to grow up bilingually because they never really learned either language properly and that we desperately needed a speech therapist because Katja hadn’t a clue at school, she didn’t know how to read, how to write and she couldn’t speak French properly either. All I said was that I needed her help because she was the one who is French and she’s Katja’s teacher, She’s the one teaching her all day long. I didn’t allow myself to get drawn into a debate about the fact that she had a problem with bilingualism, and it wouldn’t help Katja at all if I said her teacher was crappy and didn’t know how to motivate children. Fortunately, Katja is a confident child. She thinks her teacher’s just daft (…)
If you ask me, either they prepare the children well at school and then they manage, or you don’t and they don’t, but then it’s not the children’s fault. My own opinion is that the teacher has a problem with German in general. I think it’s to do with the past, because the Germans were here during the war and occupied the area. Lots of horrible things went on at that time and I think Katja’s teacher has a problem with German that’s somehow linked to her family’s past. There are several children in Katja’s school who speak French and German, as I have now discovered, and where one parent is German, so Katja’s not a single case. But our problem’s that I’m a single parent; I don’t have a French husband, so that’s why it’s even harder for Katja to learn French, much harder than for the others. (…)
I think the real problem is the fact that the teacher can’t come to terms with the fact that you can be bilingual at home because the idea doesn’t fit into her little world, because she probably has problems herself with English and German, which she can’t speak at all. That’s the true nature of the problem. But whatever, Katja will just have to get through this year with that teacher. Next year she’ll have someone else. I won’t be able to solve the problem. I won’t be able to change the teacher. It’ll just be a rather long, hard year for Katja, but she’ll manage all the same, she’s got all the confidence a child needs.
I won’t offer you any conclusions. What are yours?
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
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.
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:
The tiger came to tea again and again, mostly when the child sat in her nightie on the kitchen radiator, which was where she’d get her bedtime story. Like anyone else, children love to repeat the things they like. We’re not talking about copying here. Children don’t copy. Not in my view. They relive. They internalise. They extend. This picture has many elements which do not appear on the original book cover. Written with a pencil In the top right corner of the picture there is, for example, the dedication – in French – to her family; pour mama et papa. Strictly speaking, the dedication’s in French and German (Mama is German, maman would be French).
The trilingual text to the right (smiley for English, heart for French, sun for German) provides a summary of the key statement I drew from this sample of writing: trial and error are essential to learning strategies. It’s not only ok to change your mind, you’ll probably need to do so several times. I’m not just talking about the immediacy of editing: making sure your Ps and Qs look nice. I’m talking about understanding. About layers and layers of experience which contribute to meaning making. At the end of the day, and despite the many theories out there, no one really knows exactly what sticks, how, when and why. But by the learner’s subsequent reactions, we may recover traces of what has stuck. Some time later, when reading this text, its author commented with some displeasure:
‘the to should’ve been in a different colour.’
Why did she say that? She had become aware that to tea are two words, not one, and that if she were to be consistent, these two words would each need to be represented by a different colour, in keeping with the previous words in the book’s title. We see that by revisiting the text, changes take place in the child’s mind as what she knew then becomes linked, updated, to accommodate (aspects of) what she knows now.
When the child learned that I would be coming to her school to do research with (and ultimately for) the children, her first reaction was one of horror: but mummy, you’ll see all our mistakes!
No I won’t. I’ll learn lots. And lots.
The systematic research which culminated in my doctoral thesis was sparked off by an encounter with my eldest daughter, then 6 years old.
Hoping to make her view a piece of school work from a different perspective, I tried to make a bridge between what she had just learnt at school and a possible parallel in an everyday, non-scholastic context. I was surprised by the extent of her resistance to my suggestions as by the vehemence of her tearful, exasperated outburst:
But Mummy! The one has nothing to do with the other! School is school, and here you are telling me stuff about home! What the teacher says is right, and anyway, what do you know!
A number of things became clear to me as I watched my daughter demonstratively heave her work more to her side of the table. Firstly, that literacy acquisition can be an emotive affair. Secondly, this child evidently makes a clear demarcation between home and school. The third, most perturbing, conclusion was not only my daughter’s unequivocal sense of the incompatibility of the two domains, but also the further strong allusion to the displacement of the validity of learning contributions from the home (relegated to mere stuff) by the infallibility of learning contributions from school. Was all of this only taking place in my daughter’s mind, or also in the minds of other children, parents and teachers, I wondered? Such reflections engendered a series of questions:
- How do the pre-schoolers I investigate encounter literacy at school?
- How do the same experience literacy out of school?
- Which values are communicated by school literacy practices?
- How do these compare to the values communicated by the children’s home literacy practices?
- To what extent do homes and schools, as literacy domains, interact?
The major hurdle to be overcome for anyone wishing to see what goes on behind closed doors is access. I knew from the start that my research would not involve large numbers, for I was not looking to follow an entire class of children over a longer period, but wanted, above all, to perform qualitative research on one child. I began to scan my environment. Most of the mothers approached had kept the work their children had done at nursery school not only because they found it cute, but also because none of their own work had ever been valued enough to be kept. Here again we see the bridge between parents’ childhood recollections and their behaviour towards their offspring. Careful probing revealed, however, that almost no-one had systematically kept the work their children produced at home; the drawings, mark-makings, first writings, etc. Whilst this provides insights into the contrasting values placed upon children’s writing and drawing performed at school and at home, the latter of which mysteriously disappeared at a convenient moment, it nonetheless thwarted my research ambitions. The only person I knew who had meticulously guarded every piece of work done at home and at school was: myself.
‘All that I have, all that I have
I will give Jesus all that I have’
A whole school of children sat crossed-legged on the floor, singing the songs that punctuated assembly. By force of habit, some knew the words by heart and could allow their glances to frolic around the congregation; to Miss Adams banging out the melody on the piano at the front, or to the grazed knees of the children placed strategically to the front and to the back of the congregation, perched upon chairs and holding up the words on heavy white cards. These scratchy-kneed prompters might be lucky enough not to have to chirp along, but how their aching shoulders let them pay for it afterwards. And who could tell, in fact, if you were really singing as long as your mouth opened and closed in all the right places? Children love to sing so why not build upon their natural talents? Those sitting at the end of the rows, flanked by teachers who did not have to sit cross-legged but quite comfortably on their chairs, were more or less obliged to deliver the daily proof of this axiom, whilst those snuggled in the middle could content themselves with going through the motions. Unless of course, they really did enjoy singing. About Jesus, fish, and loaves of bread, instead of ‘One potato two potato three potato four’, or even ‘Not last night but the night before’… Many children couldn’t even read the words anyway. Complicated words like ‘I have promised to love Thee till the End’ or ‘My Saviour and my Friend’, written nicely by our teachers, each verse a new colour. We would pick it up, they said. If it is around you for long enough, you’ll just pick it up.