literacy 2

Course Readings

· Peter Johnston, 

Choosing Words, Choosing Worlds

· Rita Pierson – 

TedTalk – Every Kid Needs a Champion


· Larson & Marsh (2015) – chapters 6-8 (pp. 115-173)

· Fisher, Frey, & Hattie (2016) – chapters 1-2 (pp. 2-70)

This paper should be 4 pages, double-spaced, 12 pt Times New Roman font, 1-inch margins with APA citation format. You are to use your course texts and videos in this paper; 
no outside sources.  It should be well written and organized, include a reference list when appropriate (in APA format

In this assignment you will be asked to reflect on the readings and video and discuss the following citing your readings as appropriate and relating theory where applicable:

· how play and centers support vocabulary

· how the language we use with children impacts their identities and agency

· how you can create deeper knowledge and transfer

· begin to examine your own language choices and biases

· how play, centers, and language can be reimagined in your classroom based on the readings and videos so far

· what theories seem to be impacting your thinking and choices the most.

Making Literacy Real

Joanne Larson; Jackie Marsh

Chapter 6

In this chapter we bring together recent conceptualizations of space, literacy, and play to understand how literacy and play are spatialized in a globalized world and to consider the relationship between each of these elements. Following Wohlwend (2013), we define play as a social and semiotic practice that mediates the transformation of imagined contexts through recontextualization of reality across spaces. We pair spatial theories with play to account for the multiplicity of spaces in which play occurs, both physical and digital. We will provide a brief overview of research on space, literacy, and play, followed by implications for classrooms and for researching literacy. Our case study classroom, outlined by Karen Wohlwend, will ground these ideas in practice. An interview with Kevin Leander closes the chapter.

Historical and Theoretical Ground

The spatial turn called for by Soja (2010) asks social science researchers to put the spatial first in a tripartite ontology of social, cultural, and spatial frames. Following Lefebvre (1991), we claim that space is socially produced and, as such, shapes and regulates power relations. In this chapter, we argue that literacy and play are also spatial practices that shape and are shaped by socially produced power relations, and that space, play, and literacy are related in numerous ways. In this way, space is more than a container into which literacy and play are placed; rather it is a social practice wherein literacy and play are produced and used (Leander and Sheehy, 2004).

Space is important in the consideration of literacy practices in a number of ways. First, the spaces in which literacy takes place impact significantly on those literacy practices, and literacy practices in turn may shape social spaces. This dynamic operates both in terms of the materiality of literacy within any given context and the social structures that are produced in that space (Leander and Sheehy, 2004).

Second, literacy education can enable a critical engagement with the spaces in which learners operate. Comber et al., for example, refer to ‘place-based pedagogies’ (2007: 14) which enable children to engage in literacy practices that are related to their local spaces, people they interact with in those local spaces and their cultural interests. Of course, these localized practices are, in different ways, often shaped by global interests (Brandt and Clinton, 2002). Place-based pedagogies enable a focus on the spaces in which children develop as readers and writers and in some cases can foster work which has a specific interest in localized environmental issues (Comber et al., 2007).

Third, a focus on space and how it is both locally and globally inflected also means considering the multiplicity of literacy practices that take place across and between cultural and linguistic groups. The concept of cosmopolitanism, which focuses on the human encounters within the local–global dynamic, is important in understanding such encounters. There is a need to be careful, however, in assumptions made with regard to individuals’ abilities to engage in a cosmopolitan lifestyle in which mixing with people from a range of cultural backgrounds is the norm. There is also a need to caution against the idea that all people can move freely in order to engage in cosmopolitan spaces, and have the resources to do so. Instead, there is a need for ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ (Delanty, 2006), which recognizes that, for some people, travel is constrained either through a lack of resources and lack of freedom and that ‘there are places where populations are more bounded and stable and where, as of yet, people (especially youth) may not have frequent direct transglobal contacts’ (Hawkins, 2014). Whilst these places may well still be impacted upon by the global, they differ greatly in terms of the kinds of cultural exchanges that can take place in urban centers, for example. Thus critical cosmopolitanism can offer a lens on the way in which the local and global impact on human interaction around multimodal texts, both analysis and production. Indeed, Vasudevan (2014) suggests that ‘multimodal cosmopolitanism’ might offer ‘a way of looking at or with the world as well as a way of living with others in it’.

Finally, focusing on an analysis of space and literacy allows educators and researchers to understand how literacy practices are instantiated within and across different spaces, both online and offline. Leander and McKim (2003) argue that ‘the emerging social spaces of Internet practices are complexly interpenetrated with social spaces considered to be “before” and “outside of” the Internet’ (p. 218) and that people make meaning fluidly across online and offline spaces, as discussed in Chapter 4. Integral to communication across online and offline spaces are matters of identity and Leander and McKim suggest that text production produces social spaces in which identities are bounded, and that the ‘textual geometries’ (p. 233) of such productions, the layout and formatting processes involved in multimodal design, construct identities in specific ways. Drawing on Lefebvre (1991) and Bakhtin (1981), they emphasize the integration of space with time and ask the important question, ‘To what extent do discursive constructions of space-time, as literate practices, shape the identities that act “into” them?’ (Leander and McKim, 2003).

In this chapter, issues relating to space and literacy are integrated into an analysis of play in an early years classroom. Traditional views of play position it as a way to improve human development, specifically using a psychological focus on cognitive functioning to examine how play leads to positive development (Piaget, 1962). In this view, play helps to develop abstract meanings and higher order mental functioning (Vygotsky, 1978). The National Institute for Play (2013) describes seven play types: attunement, body, object, social, imaginative, narrative, and transformative, through which humans come to know their world. Attunement, body, and object play typically refer to the ways in which infants bond with parents and explore the world with their bodies. Social, imaginative, and narrative play move toward interaction with others as the child comes to build and rebuild various identities. Transformative play includes a focus on how play helps us discover new knowledge. All of these types of play are located along traditionally conceived stages of what is thought of as developmental progress or progression. The goal, therefore, is to use play as a means of positive development. But play can also be understood as valuable in and of itself in the development of human meaning-making, not just as a means to a pre-determined developmental end (Dyson, 2013; Rowe, 2007; Wohlwend et. al., 2013). Play can be seen as a multimodal, communicative practice in which children draw on symbolic forms in order to make meaning. In addition, in their play, children experiment with a rage of modes, including writing, in ways that enable them to explore their own understandings of literacy as a social practice.

Considering issues of space, it is the case that spaces for play are more than just places where children play; they are also produced by children as they play. Researchers on young children and play have found that play can bring children into authentic meaning making in school spaces (Rowe, 2007; Wohlwend, 2009), peer spaces (Dyson, 2002), and home spaces (Edmiston, 2008). Moving beyond play/work binaries, this work shows that play constructs and is constructed by the spaces in which it occurs. As such, play is an important part of early childhood in that it affords children spaces of innovation and creativity.

However, the current standards-based architecture of early childhood education is pushing play out of the curriculum or at least making it in service of the curriculum, specifically as a means to improve achievement (Roskos and Christie, 2007). We view play as much more than a vehicle for achievement. As Wohlwend (2013: 90) suggests, through play, children:

•participate to take up valued roles in literacy communities;

•explore literacy practices and identities in a safe ‘not-real’ space;

•imagine themselves and identify as literacy users;

•reflect, replay, and record their lived experiences;

•negotiate and collaborate to create shared narratives;

•access and appropriate familiar cultural resources to use with literacies;

•use literacies to create cohesive social groups;

•interpret, produse, improvise, and resemiotize a range of texts and artifacts;

•wield texts in ways that reconfigure their relative social positioning;

•connect with others around meaningful texts.

With these activities in mind, we need to think of play as a crucial space for children to make meaning, explore their world, and build relationships. Children need to have access to a range of play types and spaces, in both digital and material spaces, in order to foster innovation, imagination, independence, and social engagement (Marsh and Bishop, 2014).

Implications for Classrooms

When literacy and play are conceived as spatially and socially produced practices, classrooms become expanded spaces for learning in which everything and everywhere can exist in multiple spaces and be transformed as children play meaning into being. Classrooms need to be spaces where children’s culture can live in children’s play (Dyson, 2002; Marsh, 2009; Wohlwend et al., 2013) so that children can expand the possibilities afforded by different practices they encounter in everyday life. In this way, they experiment with diverse practices and social relationships important to functioning in contemporary society. As our case study below illustrates, in today’s restrictive policy environment, teachers need to be innovative in finding spaces for authentic play. We have identified the following principles in the relationship between space, literacy, and play that we argue need to be understood as key components of meaningful learning in childhood.

Table 6.1  Principles in the relationship between space, play and literacy

Implications for Research

ing Literacy

There are a number of implications for research on the relationships between space, literacy, and play that need further consideration. For example, there is still much work to be undertaken on the impact of space on the construction of literacy. As Soja (2004) has noted:

Something remarkable happens when literacies and spatialities are conjoined in the process of mutual construction, a dialectic if you will. For literacy scholars and educators, the traditional confines of the classroom explode with new possibilities of interpretation, as this preeminent learning space is opened up to a wider, real and imagined world of ethnic, gender and class consciousness, conflicting high-density formations, creative cultural hybridities, new political positionings, an extensive microcosm of everyday life at multiple geographical scales, from the local to the global. (p. x)

This offers a very wide platform for research. We are only just beginning to understand the way in which local and global discursive constellations of literacy interact and play off each other and there is much more research that is needed on the way that, as Vaseduvan (2014) suggests, they ‘come to have meaning in the everyday moments of intercultural communication and narrative encounters’. Further, new methodologies are needed if we are to attempt to trace the flows and trajectories across offline and online networked spaces. Leander and McKim (2003) call for a ‘connective ethnography’ in which multiple and simultaneous time-spaces can be explored in ways that do not simplify or de-laminate the literacy practices taking place in such spaces. Finally, moving beyond conceiving of play as a means to greater achievement, research on space, literacy, and play needs to describe and interpret how children’s multimodal meaning making is impacted by and through play. We should interrogate the apparent conflict between play and instruction so that teachers have ‘research-based’ practices to draw upon as they struggle to find spaces for play in their classrooms. The case study outlined in this chapter offers a strong starting point for this work.

  Classroom Case Study: Pam Hubbard, Iowa City, USA, with Karen Wohlwend


Pam Hubbard is a kindergarten teacher, teaching 20 five- and six-year-old children in a three-section public elementary school that serves families who live in the surrounding suburban neighborhoods or a nearby subsidized housing complex. The school reflects the limited diversity in this rural US Midwest university community: White (82%), Asian (7%), African-American (5%), and Latino (5%) (US census, 2010). Hubbard works actively to bridge home and school cultures; for example, she communicates with families about children’s daily discoveries and successes through journals, invites parents into class to share their expertise, and encourages children to bring familiar toys, books, and treasures to school. Hubbard’s teaching is shaped by over 20 years of early childhood classroom experience in preschool and kindergarten classrooms, a Master’s degree in developmental reading, and a long-standing commitment to play-based inquiry curriculum – all in tension with highly regulated reformist educational policies.

As in many US public schools, a tight link between student test scores and teacher accountability policies drives curricular acceleration where young children are expected to master isolated print literacy skills faster and earlier. In this policy environment, play is dwindling in kindergartens, pushed to the corners of the day and replaced by no-nonsense task-oriented seatwork. Federal mandates for ‘adequate yearly progress’ (i.e., annual increases in mean test scores) have resulted in drastic program shifts toward scripted teaching of easily measured skills in an attempt to more closely match the content on annual standardized achievement tests. In this district, kindergarten teachers were expected to teach daily lessons from a basal reading series to prepare students for the tests. Despite these pressures, the principal at Hubbard’s school allowed teachers to use their professional judgment in designing their literacy instruction rather than requiring teachers to use the scripted lessons from the teacher’s manual in the district-sanctioned commercial reading curriculum. This enabled Hubbard to provide large blocks of play-based literacy learning.

Physical Environment and Resources

The physical environment in Hubbard’s classroom materializes her goals to nurture a caring community, to foster playful exploration, and to promote learner choice and independence. Floor lamps provide warm circles of light that soften the institutional glare of overhead fluorescent lighting. Soothing music plays throughout activity periods (soft piano jazz, classical instrumentals, Enya-style vocals). In the center of the classroom, a large circular rug serves as the class gathering spot; an oversized wooden rocking chair at one side of the rug is flanked by a story easel and pocket chart for displaying poems. This focal rug is ringed by fairly traditional activity centers: art table, writing table, listening center (books and tapes), ‘book nook’ (a class library with big books, puppets, story easel, song and poem charts, bookshelf), sensory table, miniature playsets, puzzles, blocks, math games, snack table, dollhouse, and next to the large sunny window, a dramatic play center. The dramatic play center includes dolls, dress-up costumes, plastic dishes, and wooden furniture: sink, stove, cupboard, refrigerator, table, doll bed, and table. Additionally, Hubbard invites children to bring household items and dress-up clothing from home to transform this play space into various imagined community sites, morphing the kitchen into a veterinarian clinic, hospital, grocery store, garden center, or ice cream parlor. Finally, children are free to tote their own personal toys, games, and popular media as they move from center to center through the day.

The Curriculum

A typical morning begins with a class meeting in which Hubbard welcomes the class, explains her planned activities, and adjusts the day’s agenda displayed on a large pocket chart to include activities that children suggest. After a shared reading of a big book and a poem, children work on self-selected play-based projects during three consecutive 45-minute activity periods – Literacy Centers, Writing Workshop, and Choice Time (a variety of play centers) – separated by two short class meetings to respond to writing, to share discoveries, and always to listen to a story. In this literacy block, Hubbard strategically appropriates elements from the district-mandated balanced literacy commercial reading program (e.g., shared reading of big books, guided reading groups, decoding skills, or word work) and from writing workshop (e.g., writer’s craft mini-lessons, individual writing conferences, writing folders and journals with children’s ongoing stories, author’s chair for sharing work for peer feedback). She incorporates these elements into a play-based inquiry approach to literacy curriculum, a literacy playshop (Wohlwend et al., 2013) that provides opportunities for playing, storying, collaboration, and production through child-led explorations, mediators, and teacher-guided engagements (e.g., toys and puppets for enacting books and media storylines, themed dramatic play centers).

It is important to draw distinctions among balanced literacy, writing workshop, and literacy playshop approaches. Balanced literacy with its emphasis on the gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student meshes easily with the apprenticeship model for developing the writer’s craft in writing workshop. Both share a top-down orientation to learning where teachers model literacy skills and techniques valued in school cultures. Literacy playshop reverses this learning flow by recognizing children as already knowledgeable and productive cultural participants. In literacy playshops, teachers playwatch to learn from children about children’s popular media and play themes, in order to mediate and work within the convergences of peer, school, home, and popular cultures that make up modern childhoods.

Play is a spatializing and participatory literacy. Spatializing literacies (Leander, 2004) that recontextualize (Goffman, 1974) the here-and-now to an imagined context shift story possibilities and participation opportunities. Participatory literacies operate through collaboration. In play, the meanings and roles in multi-player pretense must be clearly understood by all players while constantly subject to improvisation and renegotiation in the emerging scene. When children play together, they engage and produce collective cultural imaginaries (Medina and Wohlwend, 2014) by improvising together, according to their histories and current understandings of shared cultural practices, to produce child-governed spaces where they can explore what they know and stretch what they can do.

Key Features of Practice



At the center of literacy playshops are student-led explorations of toys, art materials, books, popular media, digital technologies, and other literacy resources. These open-ended explorations require regular and sufficient time and space for children to play. Hubbard makes time for large blocks of play by (1) merging play with literacy activities and (2) minimizing the amount of time students spend waiting for teacher authorization to move on to another activity, or watching passively as others perform mundane tasks (e.g., daily calendar routines, and waiting for others to finish during transitions between activities). Transitions are quick and playful with very little wait time – one minute to line up, a framing snippet of song or fantasy, ‘Let’s pretend we’re on our way to the Wild Island’ (inspired by the day’s read-aloud My Father’s Dragon (Gannett, 1948)), and they’re out the door to lunch.

Children engage independently, actively, and productively throughout the day. After signing in, they fan out around the room and the room buzzes with children playing and working with puppets, flannelboard sets, puzzles, books. After morning message and shared reading of the basal big book, children choose a Literacy Center: book nook, listening center, writing table, song chart, and word work. The following examples1 illustrate children’s play explorations during Literacy Centers:

•In the book nook center, an Asian-American child reads a non-fiction big book about fabric on the story easel, easily moving through paragraphs of text. Another girl, also Asian-American, holds a clear plastic glitter pointer and taps the illustration of a girl in kimono on the page about silk, ‘Oh, I like this part’. Meanwhile, three children on the rug play with storytelling sets, retelling books with felt pieces on flannelboards or small stuffed dolls on story mats or story aprons. One child picks up Mem Fox’s Sleepy Bears and distributes the accompanying set of stuffed bears and toy bed. ‘Let’s do the bear one. I’ll be the baby and you’ll be the mom.’ The third child volunteers, ‘I’ll be the other ones’.

•At the song chart center, a girl taps her foot in time to the music as she taps the words on the poster, at times getting ahead of the music but keeping the beat. To a passing child, she recommends, ‘It’s a beautiful song. You should listen to it at Choice Time’.

•At the writing table, two children make frames for photographs of themselves at play that they will eventually caption with the help of a parent volunteer.

•At the art table, one boy draws a favorite Nintendo game on paper while another tapes wooden Popsicle sticks together to build a prop for his SpongeBob puppets.

•At the word work center, two boys are fitting pieces into a letter sound matching puzzle.

During Writing Workshop, each child decides whether to continue an ongoing project collected in writing folders or begin a new story. These projects often center on their popular culture interests in sports or media, toys or games that children bring to the table, animating a doll as a character or recording a sequence of moves in a game of (kindergartner-approximated) chess. As needed, Hubbard attracts the children’s attention for brief directions within sing-song messages that she improvises on the spot.


Mediation naturally follows explorations. As children explore to practice and stretch what they know, responsive teachers provide just-enough-and-just-in-time instruction or timely introduction of a new tool or material that prompts deeper questions or more expert storying. During each of the three reading, writing, and play periods, Hubbard circulates around the classroom for informal writing conferences, kneeling to listen, question, suggest, admire, or play along as she mediates a child’s reading, writing, and play.

Hubbard begins Writing Workshop with a short check-in as children share their plans for current or new projects:

•a ‘coloring book’ with a color word written in the center of each page, edged with a border of that color

•a Harry Potter book

•a storyboard and stick puppets for ‘SpongeBob Goes to High School’, a puppet show about football (which will eventually lead to a live action film sequel ‘SpongeBob Goes to College’)

•a how-to book on making paper airplanes with photographs of each step

•a book of Disney princesses

•a map of the zoo in the animated film Madagascar

•a number book written in Chinese characters

•a storyboard for a book of football plays

•a Strawberry Shortcake book

•a book about the Hawkeyes (the local university football team)

After children disperse, two children who do not have ideas for projects meet immediately with Hubbard to brainstorm ideas. The room hums with children chatting, sitting, or standing at tables or sprawling on the floor, playing and writing stories with toys from home close at hand, moving from place to place as they gather materials or consult peers, books, or other resources in the room. As Hubbard travels around the room, she pauses to comment on character depictions, to wonder what will happen next in a story, or to offer strategies for spelling tricky words (e.g., Madagascar, again) by referring a child to the alphabet chart to see ‘which way d goes’ or asking ‘what do you already know about that word?’ She consistently points out resources that are available, helping children learn to recognize and use literacy resources on their own. A girl drawing Disney princesses uses a transparent Disney princess ruler as a resource for writing. She wants to know what the cursive word ‘lacy’ says, holding the ruler so that she is looking at the reversed lettering. After Hubbard flips the ruler around and reads the word, the child flips it again and copies ‘ycal’ on her paper. Satisfied, she sets her book on the author’s chair to share with the class at the close of writing workshop. After children gather for the last meeting of the morning, two or three children share their writing during author’s chair as Hubbard points out aspects of authoring that others may want to try.

Guided Engagement


Guided engagements provide opportunities for teacher demonstration and scaffolding during small group or whole group instruction. Each day during Literacy Centers, Hubbard meets with five or six children in a guided reading group while a parent volunteer supervises a small group with activities which range from explicit skills practice (simple word work such as letter identification or word matching) to embedded literacy practices that connect to children’s classroom, home, and community experiences. Examples include: children captioning or labeling photographs of themselves at play, reading and making recipes in cooking activities, following a sequence of steps in a craft project, or recording discoveries about cause and effect in science experiments (e.g., staining fabric squares with catsup and mustard and laundering the fabric in bowls of soapy water). Hubbard’s whole-group guided engagements provide interactive literacy demonstrations such as read-aloud and shared reading sessions filled with spontaneous comments and connections as children respond to the books, or writing mini-lessons and shared writing as one or two children share the pen with Hubbard while the rest of the children offer ideas and advice.

Analysis of a Series of Lessons on a Theme

As a regular practice, Hubbard engaged the children in discussion to choose a new theme for the dramatic play center and invited parents to help furnish the play space by sending non-valuable everyday objects from home. Like many early childhood teachers, Hubbard donates materials herself. When the children decided to create an ice cream parlor, Hubbard supplied two tubs of Dairy Queen commercial toys – play foods, e.g. plastic dilly bars, ice cream sandwiches, banana splits, ice cream cake slices, strawberries – as well as empty cardboard ice cream containers, and paper doilies.


In setting up the ice cream parlor, Hubbard positions children as cultural producers who are knowledgeable about their worlds, who engage as makers and remakers of artifacts, and who need material mediators as anchors to make their collectively imagined worlds present and actionable. In short, stuff matters.

With the class gathered on the rug, Hubbard asks who is interested in setting up the pretend Dairy Queen in the dramatic play area. Hands shoot up and Hubbard, having anticipated the children’s enthusiasm, introduces a sign-up sheet to ensure everyone a turn. Five children sign up and begin the task of sorting the ice cream toys and organizing them in the play kitchen. A child holds up a metal utensil, ‘I brought the ice cream scoop. It’s real.’ Two children begin setting out parfait dishes on a plastic tray. For the first few minutes, Hubbard joins the group, directing their attention to the housekeeping toys that won’t be needed for the ice cream parlor and suggesting they make room on the shelves for the ice cream toys. This sorting prompts much discussion among the children as they decide which things should be temporarily removed. They agree, ‘We don’t need the Spaghettio’s can’ but decide to keep the tea kettle. A child adds MM for M & M candies to the list of things they still need. Another leaves to find a ballpoint pen and pad of paper for taking orders, pausing on the way back to write down an order for a banana split.

At times, the children slip into playing, setting out ice cream treats to serve to customers. They repeatedly remind each other, ‘We’re not playing this remember?’ and ‘We’re organizing. We’re not even playing today.’

Literacy emerges here, not from tasking children to write but from their desire to make and play a ‘real Dairy Queen’ where a ballpoint pen is needed for taking orders.


Peer collaboration is necessary for children’s space-making and shared pretense that depends upon a premise of agreed-upon meanings to maintain a collectively imagined world. But as this example shows, when collaboration is contentious, it produces opportunities to negotiate, compromise, and resolve conflicting ideas. Young children’s arguments sometimes require an adult mediator – importantly, one who appreciates the fluidity of play and can drop the issue when children have moved on.

The activity turns to finding places to store the new props, ‘We have to put these [ice cream sandwiches] in the freezer.’ One child places bowls on the cupboard shelf but when another child moves the bowls to a new spot, a dispute pops up about where bowls should go and importantly, how this should be decided. The first child insists, ‘We have to all agree together. We did not agree,’ leaving the area and returning with Hubbard. She advises ‘You all have different ideas. You’re going to need to talk together and really compromise.’ But a minute later, the plate dispute is forgotten as the children’s attention suddenly turns to the question of whether the broom will still be needed in the Dairy Queen.

Guided Engagement

Play bridges cultures by recontextualization, changing one context for another. Here, Hubbard explicitly helps the children recontextualize the play kitchen into a Dairy Queen by planning a list of artifacts that will anchor the pretense, drawing connections between the pretended context and familiar artifacts in children’s homes as well as artifacts they may want to create.

At the close of Choice Time, Hubbard gathers the children together in a class meeting to review a large chart with the original list of ice cream shop materials (which the children had brainstormed in earlier planning session). She asks the children to suggest materials that are still needed and where they might find these materials.

‘Do we still need ice cream cones? Cups and bowls?’ Children nod.

She notes, ‘We just have one ice cream scoop,’ and a child answers, ‘We’re OK’

The class next decides to use the puppet stage for the customer counter.

Hubbard consults the list the children made today and seeing ‘MM’ asks, ‘What about M & Ms?’ A child suggests making the candies out of playdough – which is met with a chorus of ‘yeah!’ from the class. Later, another suggests also using playdough for scoops of ice cream.

’A sign, do we have one?’ prompts an immediate offer, ‘I can make one.’

‘A cash register?’ is answered by a child who has a play cash register and offers to ‘ask my mom when I get home.’

When the question of money arises, the children decide they need to make money, which inspires a literacy center on the following day with children inspecting images and words on currency and coins to make their own paper money.

Play as a Spatializing Practice for Cultural Production

Play is a spatializing literacy that children use to actively imagine as-if worlds (home, school, peer, media). Through pretense, children mediate peer culture by creating play spaces for friendship groups and mediate school culture by imagining otherwise (e.g., re-contextualizing the classroom into a pretend and more malleable space).

A week later, the Dairy Queen is running at full force … and the making is continuing. Several children are making a sign with the DQ logo on a large sheet of cardboard, listing menu items and ice cream flavors. Two children take turns standing at the entrance of the Dairy Queen, each bouncing and holding up a paper sign with penciled menu items – human billboards, enticing customers to stop. A boy holding the ice cream scoop and an ice cream bucket grins, ‘I’m sorry we have no ice cream today,’ evoking an outraged response from a customer waiting for the store to open, ‘You don’t have any ice cream?! This is an ice cream shop!’

Meanwhile, behind the counter, Kent, the self-appointed shop manager, inspects the ‘cashery’, his approximated word for cash register. Over his shoulder, he directs the cooks by the sink, ‘Can someone get the phone? Get the phone number. Please get the phone, guys.’ He then bends forward and turns the hands on the clock that decorates the front of the wooden puppet stage, ‘Omigosh we should be opening! Omigosh, guys, it’s 12:00! We should be closing.’ April opens the curtains at the counter, ‘The store’s open’ and begins to record customer orders on her paper pad, passing these along to the cooks who then load up plastic dishes with toy ice cream treats and push these along the counter to the waiting customers.

The first customer is Teresa, a newcomer who is learning English as a new language as well as learning the ways of doing things in this kindergarten. However, she quickly grasps the gist of the game of ordering and receiving pretend treats at an ice cream stand.

‘Hello. OK. I want cheeseburger, por favor.’

When April responds, ‘Cheeseburger, we don’t have any cheeseburger.’ Teresa regroups, ‘I want ice cream another.’

A few minutes later, Teresa changes roles from a customer to a cook. As April at the counter calls back, ‘We need a slushy’, one of the cooks hands Teresa his apron. Teresa takes the apron, saying something softly in Spanish that ends ‘con servid’ [to serve]. The child playing manager says ‘Cone-sair? cone-sair? Cone-sair is not even a word!’

In an instant, Hubbard is there, moving quickly across the room to take Kent aside, ‘You know Teresa speaks very well in Spanish. And we have a lot to learn from her. And it most certainly is a word.’ Later, in the morning and in the coming weeks, children play spontaneously and attempt Spanish-sounding words. When one child comments, ‘You’re talking like Teresa,’ the other child responds, ‘I know.’

As this example shows, play merges contexts and bridges cultures. When cultures converge in children’s play and the diversity of ideas and ways of participating expand, so does the potential for conflicts and misunderstandings, and the need for responsive and effective teacher mediation. The cultural imaginary of a familiar community site, as with all parts of the literacy playshop in Hubbard’s classroom, encourages children to draw upon what they know as they play with new language and literacy, and access familiar and/or desired linguistic, cultural, and material resources.

Interview with Kevin Leander

What aspects of this case study do you feel reflect current understandings of space, literacy, and play?

This chapter on Pam Hubbard’s classroom designed for making spaces of wonder and imagination through a literacy playshop gives a strong sense of hope and renews again my belief that teachers and administrators can (and must) be resistant imaginative players and space-makers in times when institutional policies and control are hard at work to freeze children into seatwork and testing. While there are many, many aspects of the case study that reflect understandings of space, literacy, and play, I will focus on a few that I think are perhaps most emergent and dynamic.

First, along with the sense that Pam Hubbard’s classroom is full of stuff – materials of all types, textures, sizes, and colors that children can use to enter into imaginative play – if we turn our focus just a bit the case brings to life the engagements and movements of bodies as central to engagement, identification, and learning. Bodies here are not merely ‘tools’ for learning that are somehow directed by and separated from mind; rather, mind is held in the body, practiced in the body, and developed through the body (Barsalou, 2010; Glenberg et al., 2004; Hall and Nemirovsky, 2012; Wilson, 2002). The case shows beautifully how embodied learning cannot be separated from affective intensities in learning: ‘At the song chart center, a girl taps her foot in time to the music … to a passing child she recommends, “It’s a beautiful song … .”’ The girl’s experience of the song is through rhythms of her body – the song is not an object outside of her or a ‘mediating tool’ for learning, but rather an embodied engagement that literally moves her to experience beauty, and in turn to be moved to share this beauty. Her appreciation of the song – leading to experiences about music, rhythm, literacy, and social relations – is an affectively charged experience (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Leander and Boldt, 2013; Massumi, 2002). That the girl is free to move to this music activity space is critically important, but not less important is her freedom to ‘be moved’ while she is there.

A second key idea that I believe is important and trending in the field is that reconfigurations of space can provide new opportunities to learn that were not previously available. Pivots, transitions, movements toward central participation, trajectories, zones of development, and other concepts drawing on spatial metaphors need be taken seriously as pointing to material-semiotic-embodied reconfigurations of possibility. As the chapter describes, spaces and places, in their ongoing production, are rife with relations of power, and such reconfigured power relations provide new openings and pathways for learning. The girl listening to the song, as an embodied engagement, turns to a girl passing by (also free to move) and provides her an opportunity to learn. The example is not just ‘peer collaboration’, but peer co-movement in the playshop. An even more telling example is the example of Teresa in the newly constructed classroom Dairy Queen. As a new created and imaginative place for learning, the Dairy Queen provides Teresa an opening – a physical opening, an activity structure, and an imaginative identity opening – to engage in the learning ecology of the classroom, where the leading activity is play. As an English Language Learner, Teresa does not simply need ‘words’ and word structures for some kind of imagined life outside of the activity of the classroom. Rather, as Dewey well reminded us (1913), the classroom itself is a miniature world. In relation to theories of space, what Teresa needs is an opening to a new position through which her embodied engagement, an imagined adult worker identity, an apron, plastic dishes, toy ice cream treats, and the transformed puppet theater provide a venue for meaningful, joyful, and imaginative language use (DaSilva Iddings and McCafferty, 2007).

However, opportunities to learn – to imagine, play, and practice the worlds of others and adults – are not simply given by material or curricular structures. A third aspect this case provides us, provocatively, is images of what learning-focused, critically informed, and affectively charged teaching might look like in a literacy playshop, as it unfolds, moment by moment. Hubbard intervenes in the relationship of Teresa to the others this is a tricky business, as she needs to preserve the children’s agency in the playworld but also to mediate on behalf of Teresa, whose opportunity to learn is being closed down by the little child playing DQ ‘manager’, who marginalizes her language practices. Hubbard hears this interaction and gets in the middle, pulling the ‘manager’ child out of the interaction. What does this kind of critical intervention look like, and how does it work in the literacy playshop? How do play, power, an ethics of recognizing and valuing diversity, and teaching as a practice of spatial design come together? The idea of progressive literacy teaching as involving new spatial organizations is of course not new, with perhaps the clearest examples being those of reading and writing workshops hearkening back to the 1970s. But, along with new spatial organizations, as so clearly evident in Pam Hubbard’s classroom, equally intriguing and powerful are new spatial, embodied practices that involve forms of teacher awareness, movement, physical presence, absence and intervention, and also a teacher’s capacity to help children materially and imaginatively re-construct a classroom for equity and access. Recently, we have been reminded that children in schools in low-income areas have the least playtime (DaSilva Iddings, 2014). This kind of call to action and policy change reminds us also of a dire need to intervene with spatial pedagogies of hope in contexts of (increasingly) highly diverse populations.

What do you see as the most important contribution spatial and play theories can make to classroom practice?

Many teachers – and probably more elementary than secondary school teachers – have had for a long time a sense that the place(s) of their classroom matter, and have worked, some tirelessly, to make children feel at ‘home’ or to have a sense of identity with the classroom places. Theories of space and place have a role in helping us understand that relations between place and identity are highly consequential, even in (and sometimes especially in) a globalized world (McDowell, 1997). When we put the body and experience at the center of learning, rather than de-contextualized concepts, we understand that schools often operate as non-places (e.g., like airports or other institutional buildings resisting attachment (Augé, 2009)). Recently, I was interviewing a high-school student for a project my doctoral students and I have been involved in, where high-school students were designing a learning lab for youth at a public library. In the interview, this girl (‘Jude’) described how she rarely did any work in school itself, but saw school (quite like an airport) as a space to pass through, collect assignments, and move on. Jude could not feel her body at home in furniture, in the lighting, with the smells and feel of the classroom. And Jude’s body was mostly immobilized in school – stuck in a seat, operating on the world as a series of pieces of paper, life at the scale of 8½ by 11 inches. For Jude, neither movements, imagination, the material world, literacy practices as producing new spaces, or flows of inside to outside culture (e.g., akin to the popular cultural engagements in Hubbard’s classroom) allowed her to become involved in place-making in school.

How place(s) of learning are made in ongoing learning practices is an issue at the center of moving from earlier accounts focusing on individual identity and literacy learning to a renewed focus on collective engagements that are affectively charged, meaningful, and build connections between semiotic and material ecologies. Telling here also is the way in which the Dairy Queen of Hubbard’s classroom itself has been constructed out of the classroom puppet theater; opportunities to learn are made in ongoing creation and re-creation in which the making and use of the sandcastle in the present is far more important than keeping the sandcastle as a frozen (museum-like) space in which to learn. Play stimulates the development of abstract thought – such as the child thinking about the broomstick as a horse, as a classic example from sociocultural work (DaSilva Iddings, 2014). The capacity to project beyond actual into imaginative circumstances through playful engagements is of course also related to the capacity to re-imagine and re-constitute the classroom as a space that is not merely institutional, not merely a neutral landscape (or worse, a punitive, unnatural one), but rather a place where material and semiotic attachments can be formed and imaginative attachments can be launched. To treat the classroom or school critically as a container that necessarily forces a certain type of activity could be read on the one hand as an example of critical scholarship or teaching, but on the other hand as an example of the failure to imagine research and teaching as productively space and place-making practice.

Another important contribution of spatial theory and its relationship to play activity is to help us think about literacy learning as a form of circulation. In earlier work I discussed the rhythms, speeds, and specific movements of circulations in classroom activity and gaming activity of one adolescent boy, focusing also on how, in circulating systems, things stand in for other things, or get ‘translated’ (a term from Actor Network Theory) into other things (Leander and Lovvorn, 2006). This construct is more than just a theoretical wandering – it seems very important to understand the spatial (and play-related) practices of the literacy playshop or other innovative practices like it, pushing us, for example, to ask how embodied engagements with things lead to engagements with words and other signs (or vice versa), and how sign-things get combined or hybridized into new learning ontologies for children and for teachers. What moves? How? What combines? These actual circulations of texts, meanings, bodies, and objects are rich material for understanding how value is assigned to objects and texts. Writing, reading, and oral language in this view are not merely ‘in context’, as the saying goes, rather they stitch together the movements of objects and bodies in the production of space, which in turn is shaping the positional identities and movements of learning bodies.

Further, an important mantra to recall from the work of many social geographers and spatial thinkers, including Lefebvre (1991) is that spatial production is always in relation to time; we cannot think spatially very well without thinking spatio-temporally. This issue is particularly important for schooling in that power operates in school through temporal ordering and structuring. It’s hard to imagine school without a strict organization of time, without temporal control that acts as a gateway, authorizing certain experiences and eliminating others. Children likely learn to temporally segment their lives in school more than anywhere else. Experiments in reconfiguring the temporal organization of school come up against powerful resistance and regulation, and yet, serious spatial organization cannot emerge without spatio-temporal transformation. While typical examples of this phenomenon point to school schedules of the week or day, this chapter as well as spatial theories also suggests another place to look for spatio-temporal re-organization: to the idea of being in the present, to experience as unfolding moment-by-moment. As Gail Boldt and I have written elsewhere (2013), even New Literacies theories, including multimodality theories, have tended often to evacuate present moments with projections of identities and activity structures to future moments – identities are ‘projects’ that are engaged in as movements toward a future (Massumi, 2002; McDonald, 2012). Some spatial theories emphasizing emergence align nicely with theories of play on this point – being-in-time (as presence, emergence) is perhaps more important for learning than is being-on-time, although the latter has dominated discourse on learning, curriculum, and organizational structures of schooling.

What ideas do you have to help educators understand space, literacy and play?

Together with Rogers Hall and doctoral students, in the Space, Learning and Mobility (SLaM) lab at Vanderbilt, we have worked with teachers, librarians, and other educators on developing connections between learning and teaching practices and spatially relevant pedagogies, as well as pedagogies directed toward the development of new means of spatial thinking. The history of transformative pedagogies in literacy instruction makes evident that one means of moving toward reform is to put teachers in the student roles of learners to help them come into contact with their own identities, for instance, as writers, readers, users of social media, etc. We have found the same to be true in our experiences with teachers, and have attempted in classes and in learning in out of school settings to engage teachers directly into activities including mapping their own online and offline movements during the course of a day or longer, making designs of new physical/digital hybrid spaces for literacy learning, following students through GPS technologies or through on-campus walks to trace their movements, and working in groups on the multi-modal and spatial analysis of weather and election maps. One of the challenges we have for pedagogy that involves transformations of space-time, as well as related transformation toward play, is that ‘normal schooling’ and especially the ‘new normal’ of accountability governance hides the ways in which space, time and the domestication of bodies operates on teachers mindsets and perhaps more so, their ‘bodysets’.

One movement that seems to have a great deal of untapped potential for teacher and student learning is changing the scale of teaching and learning practices (Hall et al., 2010). Marked shifts in scale appear to be a leading activity that allows for: (1) multiple perspective taking on the same activity (e.g., intrinsic and extrinsic perspectives); (2) increased embodied engagement; (3) group coordinations and group learning; and, (4) important circulations between representations of activity and embodied practices. Although a case of math learning rather than literacy learning, the work of Jasmine Ma, a former doctoral student in SLaM and now a professor at NYU, is relevant to this discussion. Jasmine’s work engages students in ‘walking scale geometry’, in which they create and transform geometric figures and solve problems often at the scale of 20–50 meters or more. To engage in this embodied work, toward an understanding of basic and advanced geometric concepts, students use ropes, stakes, tape, and an array of invented materials to navigate and literally mark their understandings. In literacy classrooms, much representational work is done on the desktop and increasingly on the screen, but considerations of producing and interpreting at different and large scales is also highly relevant and full of potential. In early childhood education we might consider, for instance, not just rooms of play but representations of rooms of play and the rotations between them, or making maps of neighborhoods and walking in neighborhoods and how these experiences come together. Young children are also rapidly becoming adept at video games and game worlds that provide multiple and differently scaled perspectives on the same activity, such as MineCraft. Using these worlds, and positionality and spatial affordances within these worlds, offers clues to how we might transform classroom experiences or experiences that stretch outside to connect reading, writing, and multimodal productions across scales.

What are the implications of the relation between space, literacy, and play for literacy research in the contemporary context?

The chapter cites a paper by Kelly McKim and myself on connective ethnography, published in 2003. In thinking through this interview response, I am struck by how many of the methodological problems remain for learning how to study the movements of learners across online and offline contexts, even though these notions of context have been greatly expanded by spatial theories, mobility studies, and cultural studies of flows, and even though internet practices are all the more embedded and embodied into our everyday circulations than they were over ten years ago. Yet, rather than focusing on or listing problems remaining for the development of something like connective ethnography, in the context of a chapter on space and play I would like to raise problem areas that I believe could be fruitfully expanded and addressed in research, with an effort to transform schooling in the contemporary context.

First, the timing seems overripe to expand and transform our thinking about literacy and learning systems, including those within classrooms but also those that expand in connective learning opportunities broadly speaking (e.g., online, home learning, after school clubs, informal activity) to include not only critical theoretical views of the social, or sociocultural views of production, but embodied and affective theoretical views of engagement (Clough and Halley, 2007; Gregg and Seigworth, 2010; Lemke, 2013; Pink, 2011). In many forms of play-like learning under development in and out of school, including gaming and maker-spaces, which are somewhat like higher-tech versions of Pam Hubbard’s classroom for older youth and adults, we are left with a strong sense that things work well, or that engagement among children is high, but we are left with a fairly impoverished view of why. For instance, object-orientation in sociocultural theory tells us something of goal directedness, important enough, but fairly little about the felt and experienced sense of affective engagements with materials, texts, and signs. If our theory du jour can’t describe what it’s like to fall in love, how should we expect it to describe what it’s like to fall in love with playing, with experience, with learning? How are some forms of engagement and some configurations more exciting than others, more intense? How do affectively charged experiences shape emotions over time? How is all of this related to the constitution of identity?

Second, if and when we ‘place’ play in relation to space, place, and learning, then what does teaching look like? How do we reproduce wonderful instances of the teaching described in this chapter by Pam Hubbard with diverse kids in highly diverse contexts? Studying these forms of teaching needs to move past commonplace assumptions (e.g., ‘guide on the side’, or ‘apprenticeship learning’) and develop a new language and means of describing how these forms of imaginative and embodied engagements of teachers with children, as they shift scales of meaning, use myriad objects, representations, and technologies, move across time and space, develop and dispense with goals, create affective intensities, construct collective forms of engagement and energy, and yield ongoing trajectories that we retrospectively call ‘learning’. What does ‘co-messing around’ look like? What does an explicitly spatial pedagogy of activity that has the capacity to design and redesign spaces that children act into – where room ‘containers’ are shaped by activity and then in turn reshape the next round of activity – look like?

Finally, and to return more directly to a social justice perspective on the production of play/space, an important implication for the development and research of new spaces and places of learning involves asking what these new configurations use from the material world, what they produce in the material world, and what identities they are shaping for children in relation with the material, emplaced world. Spatial theory reminds us that materials, including the physical landscape of the earth, are not neutral, but are consumed and reproduced in social-spatial practices that involve issues of justice and political distribution. On the small scale, as objects rotate in and out of classrooms, what forms of human life, including consumption and production, are we engaging children in? Multicultural education often focuses on language alone as key to understanding and connection, and certainly as literacy educators we have a special commitment to language. But, as we articulate language and literacy learning to material production and consumption, and also with embodied practices, we cannot pretend that our discourses of focus are language in the mouth or on the page. Rather, the material world comes alive with possibilities for play but also with possibilities for critical consideration. What does a socially just production of space, of a classroom or school, look like? Instead of filling dumpsters with student papers, what does such a system make, materially speaking? And, across the connections of learning in and out of school, through such systems, how does capital flow from material productions to writing and reading the word? Such questions offer us a wealth of possibilities and opportunities to understand not only how individuals learn, but also how systems ‘learn’ over time and through their multiple lines of connection.

Chapter 7

Reframing Sociocultural Theory: Identity, Agency, and Power

What does it mean to say that learning is changing participation? How do activities change by our participation in them? And what does any of this have to do with classrooms? It has always been surprising to us that people talk about teaching yet tend not to talk about learning. When people do talk about learning they usually assume a shared understanding of what learning means and how people do it. Typically, learning is equated with achievement and achievement is measured solely by a test score (Larson, 2014). It is commonly based on their own perceptions of how they learned and that ‘real’ learning, whatever that means, happens in school. Recent scholarship in literacy has challenged both traditional and current assumptions about learning and where it occurs (Erstad and Sefton-Green, 2013; Ito et al., 2013; Lewis et al., 2007; Sefton-Green, 2013). In this chapter, we will draw on research in cultural psychology to outline what Rogoff (2003) has called sociocultural theory and connect that theory to research, scholarship, and practice in literacy. Sociocultural theories have drawn attention to the way in which learning takes place in social contexts, through the establishment of communities of learners or communities of practice. The case study will then outline particular ways in which communities of learners can be established in work related to children’s literature, in which children can be positioned as the active inquirers, drawing on the work of a South African scholar, Karin Murris. She offers us ideas about how including children’s democratic participation in reading texts in communities of philosophical inquiry could be transformative. In the final section of the chapter, Patricia Enciso reflects on the way in which sociocultural theory requires reframing in contemporary contexts in order that sufficient attention is paid to issues of identity, power, and agency.

Historical and Theoretical Ground

Sociocultural learning theory defines the child as an active member of a constantly changing community of learners in which knowledge constructs and is constructed by larger cultural systems (Cole, 1996; Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000; Rogoff, 2003). Explanations of the active nature of the learning process often refer to knowledge construction as being mutually constituted. Cole links the term constituted to intention:

The dual process of shaping and being shaped through culture implies that humans inhabit ‘intentional’ (constituted) worlds within which the traditional dichotomies of subject and object, person and environment, and so on, cannot be analytically separated and temporally ordered into independent and dependent variables. (1996: 103)

We can link the idea of intention, or the constitution, of knowledge (literacy knowledge in particular) to the dynamic learning processes that occur in and out of classrooms which are grounded in sociocultural theory (Gutiérrez, 2008). Mutuality is an inevitable process that emerges when humans interact to learn, hence knowledge as a mutually constituted social, cultural, and historical process. What is interesting about this perspective is that it steps outside traditional dichotomies (e.g., subject/object (or student/literacy)). In rethinking learning as dynamically co-constructed by both teachers and students, we can begin to see how contexts for learning can be reconstructed to enable the fundamentally social and cultural processes of learning discussed in this framework.1

Sociocultural theory presents a culturally focused analysis of participation in everyday life, in both formal and informal learning settings, that offers teachers and researchers a way to meaningfully use or analyze students’ practices in the classroom or research project (Moll, 2013). In this view, literacy is a tool for interpreting what people from different communities do, not simply what they do not do when compared with a dominant group. Rogoff puts it this way:

Interpreting the activity of people without regard for their meaning system and goals renders observations meaningless. We need to understand the coherence of what people from different communities do, rather than simply determining that some other group of people do not do what ‘we’ do, or do not do it as well or in the way that we do it, or jumping to conclusions that their practices are barbaric. (2003: 17; italics in original)

This perspective of learning and culture helps us to see how children ‘live culturally’ (Moll, 2000) rather than isolating culture from the practice of everyday life and highlights students’ practices as valuable resources for curriculum. Furthermore, conceptualizing learning from this perspective constitutes a shift from traditional teacher-centered or student-centered classrooms (concepts familiar to most teachers) to conceiving of classrooms as learning-centered contexts for education. Rogoff et al. (2001) have articulated how teachers might conceptualize and make use of such a shift when designing, implementing, and assessing curriculum.

Social Origins of Learning

According to Cole (1996), human thought processes are fundamentally social in origin and develop through the following key processes: cultural mediation, historical development, and practical activity. Cultural mediation refers to how humans modify mental and material objects (tools, artifacts) to regulate interaction with the world and with others. Language and literacy are key mediating artifacts for meaning construction, for example. Historical development is a process in which humans arrange for the use of existing tools over time, although as Rogoff (2003) argues, those tools are transformed by each generation of use. Practical activity claims that human psychological functions are grounded in everyday activities and practices. Cole states the connection of these ideas to education:

This view of social origins requires paying special attention to adults’ power to arrange children’s environments so as to optimize their development according to existing norms. It generates the idea of a ‘zone of proximal development’ which affords the proximal, relevant environment of experience for development. It is the foundation upon which, in an ideal world, the education of children would be organized. (1996: 111)

What are the implications for organizing literacy learning from this perspective? If learning is a mutually constituted social, cultural, and historical process that is mediated by language and interaction, then the context (material, social, and spatial) needs to foster this process. We would expect table groupings rather than rows, for example, and more time for small group or paired interaction so that children and adults can use the cultural tools for thinking they bring to the classroom. In other words, children are key in constructing the learning; children are not ‘constructed’ in some linear way by teachers (Rogoff et al., 2001).

Children use the tools for thinking, such as literacy, through interaction with more skilled partners (adults and/or peers) within the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). As Rogoff argues: ‘Artifacts such as books, orthographies, computers, languages, and hammers are essentially social, historical objects, transforming with the ideas of both their designers and their later users. They form and are formed by the practices of their use and by related practices, in historical and anticipated communities’ (2003: 276). This suggests that literacy knowledge is constructed through tools teachers and students use in everyday life, in and out of school (such as traditional texts, multimodal textual practices, texting, or social media like Twitter and Facebook, and computers).

Teachers can use this framework to better understand how literacy learning happens in their classrooms and beyond and how to use their students’ ‘linguistic and cultural-historical repertoires’ (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003: 22) as curricular resources. Furthermore, this framework helps to break the hegemony of the deficit model (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003; Irvine and Larson, 2007; Rogoff, 2003; Woods, 2004) by conceiving of literacy as a social practice that looks at what people do with literacy in their everyday lives and by actively using those practices in the classroom (Ball, 1995; Lee, 2001). Building on Moll (2000), teachers and researchers alike can ask how their students (or research participants) live culturally and for what purposes? In this chapter, we will draw on Rogoff’s (2003) work to outline a definition of learning as theory in our case study.

Before we go too much further, however, we should go back to the ‘beginning’, so to speak. The next section briefly outlines the roots of current thinking in this framework.2 We will close the chapter with an interview with Pat Enciso after illustrating some aspects of the theory in a classroom case example.

Historical Ground

What to call a theory of learning based on the work of Vygotsky has gone through its own evolution (e.g., sociocultural, cultural-historical) that is related to the goals and purposes of scholars (Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000) and has evolved out of studies of practice (Cole and Engeström, 1993; Moll, 1990). It is at base a theory of human development. Historically, education has relied on traditional psychology to explain learning and development. Theories rooted in educational psychology suggest that development is based on maturation and seek to establish developmental norms in research. In this traditional perspective, instruction should follow development and to introduce learning activities before a child is mature enough would result in failure (Elkind, 1981; Gesell, 1940).

Research on development in early childhood that was based on Piaget (1926), and influenced by the maturationist view, introduced the notion that children constructed knowledge from their experiences across a sequence of stages. How they constructed this knowledge and what knowledge was constructed was determined by their developmental level, not necessarily their age (Rogoff, 2003). Learning was defined as an individual process of growth through progressive stages of cognitive development. In this view of learning, teachers designed curricula that coincided with a child’s developmental level in order to be ‘developmentally appropriate’ (Bredekamp, 1987). While some of this research acknowledges the sociocultural processes involved in learning, the primary focus is on individual growth and development and is based on the premise that instruction follows development (Saracho and Spodek, 1993).

Vygotsky’s Contribution

The work of Vygotsky (1962, 1978) transformed our understanding of learning in early childhood, and language and literacy learning in particular. Vygotsky (1962) offers a detailed, comprehensive analysis of the relationship between thought and speech, and argues that the primary function of speech is communication or social interaction. Vygotsky’s analysis is through units (thought and speech interrelated and mutually constituted) that retain all the basic properties of the whole. Vygotsky uses the classic example of water (H2O). He argues that we cannot understand the meaning of water by separating it into its component parts (e.g., hydrogen and oxygen). Hydrogen is hydrogen and oxygen is oxygen. It is only when they are brought together in a particular way that we get what we understand as ‘water’. What we do with water varies by culture and history, and thus the meaning of water varies. Edelsky (1991) connects this idea to literacy learning with her bike-riding metaphor. We don’t learn to ride a bike by first learning pedalling, steering, and balancing. We learn to ride a bike by riding a bike with the help of someone who knows how. How people ride bikes and for what purposes varies, but learning to bike ride is still constructed in interaction. To connect this to literacy, we can say that people learn to read by reading and to write by writing, with the assistance of others, about something and for a specific purpose or purposes and a particular audience.

We come to understand that word meaning exists in a dynamic relationship between thought and language in interaction as literacy knowledge is mutually constituted. Vygotsky (1978) argues that all thought occurs first in social interaction on the interpsychological plane, and then gradually moves to the internal or intrapsychological plane as the learner appropriates knowledge. Furthermore, the concept of literacy learning as interactional connects to Gee’s (2007) conception of D/discourse described in Chapter One by understanding language as a mediating tool in the construction of identity, social languages (Bakhtin, 1981), and community languages (Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000) that serve as resources used both deliberately and implicitly by students and teachers in the co-construction of literacy knowledge.

Most notably, Vygotsky introduced the notion that learning can occur before development in what he (1962, 1978) termed the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development (sometimes referred to as ‘zoped’ or ‘zpd’) represents the range of a child’s ability characterized by the discrepancy between a child’s current level and the level of ability she reaches in solving problems with assistance. This conception of learning situates an individual within the concrete social context of learning and development and provides a unit of study that integrates the individual with the social environment (Moll, 1990). Designing activities that promote learning just beyond the child’s developmental level, then providing assistance or scaffolding (Bruner, 1975) during the activity, serves to extend development (Saracho and Spodek, 1993) and move the child through his/her zone. The zone shifts forward and new challenging activities can be presented that draw on the child’s previous experiences. From this perspective, then, instruction precedes development.

Implications for Classrooms

The work undertaken in relation to sociocultural theory has a number of important implications for curriculum and pedagogy. In the following sections, we reflect on the notion of learning as changing participation, introduced in Chapter One, the role of community in classrooms, and the nature of learning on multiple planes.

Learning as Changing Participation

This view of learning has influenced research on literacy learning and has become familiar to some teachers through professional reading or education conferences. The concept of emergent literacy, for example, addresses the range of ability now understood as part of children’s development of literacy competence over time. Emergent literacy suggests that children learn as they are engaged in language activities that are preparatory to learning to write in more formal settings (Saracho and Spodek, 1993). This view of literacy learning represents a shift from a readiness perspective that emphasized the mastery of discrete skills to the understanding that children develop a set of behaviors and concepts about literacy that precede the development of conventional literacy skills (Sulzby, 1989).

Learning occurs, therefore, through participation in social, cultural, and historical contexts that are mediated by interaction. Thus children learn by participating in sociocultural activity, in both formal and informal contexts. Specifically, children learn the meaning of written language in the context of culturally relevant situations (Daiute, 1993; Lee, 2001) both in and out of school. In this view, the focus is not on transferring literacy knowledge from those who know more to those who know less but on the collaborative use of mediational means, such as literacy, to construct and communicate meaning (Moll, 1990). This notion of the co-construction of literacy learning reflects the critical consciousness of problem-posing education that unveils reality for both student and teacher and acknowledges the children as possessing literate voice, as we discussed in Chapter Three (Freire, 1989). Children’s capabilities as literate beings are recognized and legitimized in the classroom and the community.

The Role of Community

‘Community’ is a term thrown around a lot in education. What does it mean to say ‘classroom community’ or ‘community of learners’? Teachers are expected to construct a ‘community’ in their classrooms year after year with different children and their families. How does this happen? What does community mean? From a sociocultural perspective, community is expanded to include the larger society as a community of practice or, multiple communities of practice, to which children are being socialized on multiple levels. Think of what might be a typical day for children of primary school age on a school day in the West. They get up, eat breakfast, and leave for school (walking, riding a bus, or getting a ride from a parent or caregiver). At home they may have watched television, listened to music, and completed homework. Crossing from home (private) to community, then school (public) spaces, the child walks through a host of communities of practice (bus drivers, walkers, riders, carpool). Both at home and in school, they participate in multiple communities simultaneously. They are students, children, and learners participating in a community of teachers, adults, parents, professionals, each with its own set of practices and discourses.

Lave and Wenger define community of practice as a ‘set of relations among persons, activity, and world over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice’ (1991: 98). Learning occurs through participation in social practices, such as schooling, that are motivated by the desire to become full participants in communities of practice. Lee and Smagorinsky describe community as being more than ‘sense of harmony, but rather to a shared set of social practices and goals that become differentiated among subgroups’ (2000: 5). Rogoff et al. describe community as involving:

relationships among people based on common endeavors – trying to accomplish some things together – with some stability of involvement and attention to the ways that members relate to each other. In other words, a community of learners develops ‘cultural’ practices and traditions that transcend the particular individuals involved, such as expected ways of handling conflicts and interpersonal issues and crises, as well as traditions for celebrating turning points and successes. (2001: 10)

If we look at classrooms as culturally embedded communities of learners that are reflective of and creators of social hierarchies in the larger society, then we can determine how and in what ways students are socialized to become competent members of their communities, multiple communities, and perhaps, how and to what degree they are differentially socialized. Children are necessarily legitimate peripheral participants in adult social worlds or communities of practice as they go about their daily activities (Lave and Wenger, 1991). In many white middle-class households in the US or UK, for example, children participate in family activities such as grocery shopping and meal preparation, but are separated from most adult activities. In many other communities, children participate broadly in the full range of community activities (Heath, 1983; Rogoff, 1990, 2003, 2011).

Furthermore, as Rogoff explains, ‘communities can be defined as groups of people who have some common and continuing organization, values, understanding, history, and practices’ (2003: 80). She goes on to explain how community:

•requires structured communication that is expected to endure for some time, with a degree of commitment and shared through often contested meaning and discourses;3

•develops cultural practices and traditions that transcend the particular individuals involved, as one generation replaces another;

•involves generations that move through it, with customary ways of handling the transitions of generations.

The challenge for teachers is to build and maintain a meaningful learning community, a community of learners in the short time frame of an academic year, whilst facing increasing scrutiny from governments and the general public.

Participation on Multiple Planes

Rogoff (1992) helps to clarify the layered complexity of participating in multiple communities by thinking about participation as occurring on three, mutually constituted planes: (1) apprenticeship; (2) guided participation; and (3) participatory appropriation. Apprenticeship corresponds to the plane of community activity in which caregivers, or teachers, in the case of schools, arrange the occurrence of children’s activities and facilitate learning by regulating the difficulty of the tasks and by modeling expert performance during joint participation in activity. Guided participation refers to interpersonal processes occurring in everyday activity. Guided participation coordinates the adult’s (or other expert’s) attempt to orient the learner to the task, to provide links between current knowledge and the knowledge to be appropriated, and to structure the activity so as to afford the learner a range of choices that can guide decision-making, with their roles collaboratively adjusted so that they are involved at a level that is challenging but within reach (e.g., within their zone of proximal development). Guided participation also uses culturally constructed and valued tools and/or signs in this co-constructed process of literacy learning. Participatory appropriation corresponds to personal processes in which the learner changes through participation in activity and indicates how that participation prepares the learner for future similar activities. Rogoff emphasizes the routine, often tacit, nature of participation in culturally organized activity to point to observing change in a community of learners.

Table 7.1  Characteristics of a community of learners

Guided participation emerges as key for applying sociocultural theory to classrooms. The principles of guided participation are present in multiple contexts, in and out of school, but can be particularly useful for teachers when teaching literacy so they can move beyond simply correcting papers, and think instead about what specific instructional strategies, or scaffolds, students need to compose (revise, edit, publish) a variety of texts. This might include multimodal, post-typographic texts (Lankshear and Knobel, 2013), such as a website, blog or Twitter feed. Teachers can orient students to tasks by asking questions such as ‘Tell me about your story’ or ‘What sounds do you hear?’ when young children ask how to spell a word, or setting questions/activities needed for constructing/using websites that do not just put ‘new wine in an old bottle’ (Lankshear and Knobel, 2011).

Building on Rogoff’s (1994) articulation of a community of learners, we can put forward characteristics of a community of learners based on sociocultural theory, as shown in Table 7.1.

Our case study classroom will provide the context for seeing what these characteristics might look like in practice.

Implications for Researching Literacy

Understanding a form of life, or anyway some aspects of it to some degree, and convincing others that you have indeed done so, involves more than the assembly of telling particulars or the imposition of general narratives. It involves bringing figure and ground, the passing occasion and the long story, into coincident view. (Geertz, 1995: 51)

Research by advocates of sociocultural approaches (Cole, 1996; Cole and Engeström, 1993; Gutiérrez, 1993, 2002, 2012; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000; Lewis et al., 2007; Moll, 1990, 2000, 2013; Rogoff, 1990, 1992, 1995, 2003, 2011; Sannino et al., 2009; Scribner and Cole, 1981; Wertsch, 1991) situate learning in social structures, both formal and informal, in order to understand what gets learned, how it is learned, and with what variations and similarities (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003). Viewing literacy learning as socially situated expands our understanding of learning to include the social, cultural, and historical contexts of an individual’s existence. In this view, learning is inherently situated in social interactional, cultural, institutional, and historical contexts (Wertsch, 1991) in which teachers and students construct authentic opportunities for learning (Putney et al, 2000). Research from this perspective will necessarily be situated and context specific.

In the following case study, Karin Murris outlines an approach to working with children’s literature which, we feel, draws on some of the key principles outlined earlier in this chapter, and which characterizes a community of learners. The specific context for this work is a series of lessons relating to children’s literature, in which philosophical enquiry is at the heart of children’s engagement with texts. The community of learners developed in this classroom is one that takes for granted the key tenet of sociocultural theory, which points to the need to attend to the cultural, institutional, and historical aspects that contribute to specific instances of learning and teaching.

  Classroom Case Study: Karin Murris, Western Cape, South Africa4


Karin Murris is currently a teacher educator at the School of Education in Cape Town, South Africa. She qualified as a youth librarian in 1978 and her subsequent studies in philosophy resulted in a PhD in philosophical inquiry with children in 1997. For her research Murris taught philosophy as part of literacy at several primary schools before running an educational consultancy for many years in the UK, and taking up an academic post in South Africa. For more than two decades her in-service work with primary school children, teachers, managers, and lecturers has focused on supporting schools to include philosophy with picturebooks as part of their everyday literacy strategies. Her pioneering work was the subject of a large Welsh research project in 1993–4 to examine whether philosophy with picturebooks could prevent reading problems developing with five-year-olds (Dyfed County Council, 1994).

Although the backdrop to her work is Matthew Lipman’s Philosophy for Children (P4C) program and its community of inquiry method, in collaboration with Joanna Haynes, Murris has developed a distinct approach to using children’s literature for literacy education that provokes children to use their imagination, to think out loud, to suggest ideas that are not necessarily their own and to test their ideas playfully with others. This requires adults to take up a distinct listening, guiding, and co-inquiring role, and to include fantasy as a meaning-making tool.

In her co-authored book Picturebooks, Pedagogy and Philosophy (2012), Murris argues that contemporary picturebooks with their ambiguous and uncertain meanings demand and deserve a distinct pedagogy: the community of inquiry. The reason why this is the case is that in picturebooks the meaning of the two different sign systems (the written and the visual) is far from fixed. As Lewis (2001) points out: there are not just two languages – the most obvious ones being the words and the images – but in semiotics5 there are infinite sub-sign systems, e.g., use of color, place on a page (Doonan, 1983), choice of art style6 (Browne, 2011), and the shapes. How these signs ‘interrelate, connect, and influence each other’ depends on what children bring to the narrative themselves. Murris draws out the epistemological and ethical implications. She explains how these ‘highly sophisticated aesthetic objects’ (Sipe 2012: 4) require a pedagogy that makes room for children’s own ideas and questions. After all, as Nikolajeva and Scott (2000: 238) argue, ‘children’s literature speaks to both adults and children’ and ‘the two audiences may approach textual and visual gaps differently and fill them in different ways’. For the inclusion of young children’s perspectives, Murris stresses that when working with young children the magical, the visual, and the imaginative need to be included in what it means to be rational, as an integrated dimension of ethical educational practice. A powerful vehicle for hearing children’s own ideas is to allow them to ask their own questions about literature.

Physical Environment and Resources

A contextual feature of the case study is the University of the Witwatersrand’s creation of good practice audio-visual resources to be disseminated to all higher-education institutions in South Africa, of which this classroom case study is a part. The school that took part was an independent, co-educational school in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the classroom teacher of the Grade 2 class was one of Murris’s postgraduate students at the university where she used to work.

There were 21 children in this class and they had been using the community of inquiry pedagogy as part of literacy for four months before Murris visited the school and led six literacy lessons over a period of three weeks. At the time of the research their ages ranged from seven to eight, while four of the learners were nine years old. The class was fairly evenly balanced with 11 girls and ten boys. Of the 21 children, there was only one girl of Indian descent; the others were white. Of the 11 girls, three were on prescription medication for attention deficit disorders, while six of the ten boys were on some form of medication for the same reason. These children have been identified by teachers (either in Grade R or Grade 1) as having some barrier to learning.

The Curriculum

In the last decade, poor early literacy results in South Africa have attracted much attention. Despite massive investment in education since apartheid, at most, 17 to 18% of South African learners in only two languages (Afrikaans and English) could be considered competent readers (Howie et al., 2007: 28). These results have contributed to a radical change in the South African national curriculum – including a move from Outcomes Based Education (Curriculum 2005) to the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement, or CAPS in short (Department of Education [DoE], 2011). When introduced to philosophy with picturebooks, the children’s regular classroom teacher assumed that using this approach for early literacy would not only help her teach the national curriculum, but also move far beyond the CAPS requirements, in that the pedagogy builds on children’s imaginative meaning-making capabilities, requires deep immersion in a story and teaches higher-order questioning skills.

Asking the ‘right’ question

Kathy Short (2011) distinguishes three kinds of reading: reading strategically, reading for personal purpose, and reading deeply. In Murris (2014) it is explored how each kind of reading assumes a different epistemology, as summarized in Table 7.2. Reading strategically involves acquiring both literary knowledge and literacy knowledge (Short, 2011: 58). Reading for personal purposes includes using a wide range of literature for enjoyment and entertainment and talk with peers (Short, 2011: 58). Reading deeply involves allowing learners to make connections between the text and issues in their own lives as well as in broader society (Short, 2011: 59). In the latter, literary events include deep immersion in the narrative and critical engagement with the text through discussions with peers. These different approaches to reading literature require different theories of knowledge (epistemologies), and therefore pedagogies. In reading strategically, adults are the problem-posers. They teach reading strategies and text structures explicitly and ask the questions that matter in class. Teachers already know the answers to the ‘closed’, rhetorical questions they ask.

Table 7.2  Four different ways of using children’s literature in literacy education

In contrast, when reading literature for personal purposes children ask the questions, and are allowed to ‘wonder about and talk back to a book’ (Short, 2011: 59). Here, children are the problem-posers. Central is the connections children themselves make between their own lives and identities, and the texts they explore. Personal, subjective responses and anecdotes are encouraged and celebrated, but not critically compared or evaluated. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

When reading deeply, both adults and children are problem-posers, as well as problem-solvers (Short, 2011: 59) and children not only ask or answer the questions that matter, but also learn to ‘question the questions’ (Short, 2011: 50) – in other words, they ask second-order questions.7 Murris argues that a different pedagogy is required if not only teachers but also children pose second-order questions in literacy lessons and she therefore proposes a fourth kind of reading (reading in a community of inquiry). In a community of inquiry, all participants routinely ask second-order questions provoked by the abstract concepts in the first-order questions children ask about a story (e.g., What does the abstract concept ‘self-killing’ mean in the question ‘Does Bernard want to kill himself?’ in the picturebook Not Now Bernard (1980) by David McKee?).8

Reading in a community of inquiry

Murris proposes that literacy should include all four different kinds of reading. Originally developed in the context of science education by American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914), the community of inquiry is a structured and systematic meaning-making practice with the aim of reaching better understanding about a topic through critical, caring, creative, and collaborative reasoning (Lipman et al., 1977; Splitter and Sharp, 1995). A community of inquiry is a literacy event characterized by open-ended conceptual investigations and a democratic negotiation of meaning. It can facilitate a ‘deep kind of literacy’ (Hannam and Echeverria, 2009: 86) in that it goes beyond simply being able to read the printed text and it concerns itself ‘with being able to hear and understand the voices and the ways of being with others who are different from one-self’ (Hannam and Echeverria, 2009: 86). In the mainly oral thinking work in a community of inquiry, the product is not known in advance and is interdependently constructed by its participants. The idea is that children learn to think for themselves through this process of thinking together guided by the open substantive questions asked by the teacher as facilitator. As expressed visually in Figure 7.1, the higher-order thinking (or deepening of thinking) is provoked by a focus on the meaning of the concepts involved in the investigation. Of key importance is the teacher’s ability to support individuals in verbalizing and extending their ideas, but especially in pushing the children to build on each other’s ideas by listening responsively and asking the right questions by focusing on the central concepts to enable deeper understandings.

Figure 7.1  The building of a community of inquiry through teacher’s open-ended substantive questioning

Teachers and children let their questioning be guided by problematizing the meaning of the core concepts in a story. Stories typically involve abstract concepts such as ‘love’, ‘hate’, ‘conflict’, ‘jealousy’, ‘time’, ‘fair’, ‘friendship’, and nature’. The abstract nature of these concepts makes their meaning contestable, that is, relative to the context in which they are used. Drawing on everyday experiences, definitions need to be tested, adjusted, and reshaped using concrete examples and counter-examples. This connection between the conceptual and the experiential, the concrete and the abstract, aids deep philosophical reading of texts. The knowledge and experience brought to these common, everyday concepts in turn inform judgments and actions. The pedagogy positions children as able and reflective thinkers, and teachers as co-inquirers, responsive listeners, good questioners, problem-posers as well as problem-solvers.

What is distinctive about Murris’s approach to literacy is how the children’s ideas and their progress are evaluated. Philosophy with picturebooks positions a child that is a concrete and an abstract thinker, competent and capable of initiating learning and moral agency; a child that is social and contextualized, and whose competencies are interwoven with those of others; a child that is embodied and to whom material resources and the environment in which learning takes place matter for how and what is learned. Finally, a child that is a competent ‘semiotic engager’ (Stables 2008: 4), rather than ‘naïve’ or ‘not yet ready’, thus offers an alternative to the deficit thinking that many psychological stage theories presuppose.

Key Features of Practice

In a community of inquiry a literacy lesson starts by allowing the children to ask questions about a story that ‘Google-cannot-answer’ as a powerful way of accessing what children think of a story. Making drawings is included as part of the pedagogy and a multimodal tool for children to ‘create and express complex meanings about their world’ (Kendrick and McKay, 2009: 53). The content of the literacy lessons centers on the problematization of the meaning of concepts children either raise directly, or are embedded in the comments or questions they generate from texts. The teacher is very aware of the epistemological, political, and ethical dimensions of her role and makes important decisions about who asks the questions about a story, how the furniture is arranged, how they listen to children, the kind of questions they ask, and how lessons are evaluated and assessed (see Table 7.2).

Table 7.3  Literacy through philosophy with picturebooks

The meaning-making process in a community of inquiry can be supported through a sequence of pedagogical interventions as described in the first column of Table 7.3. In the second column, links are made with literacy skills and values, and in the third column the role of the teacher is made explicit.

In one literacy lesson, most interventions in Table 7.3 can be included, but as the children get used to the method and start enjoying the space the process makes for their ideas, often the philosophical work with one picturebook lasts many sessions, as the case study illustrates. The key is to choose a picturebook carefully. Murris has discussed the selection criteria in detail elsewhere (Haynes and Murris, 2012: 119–21). They include: ambiguity and complexity; the ability to make the familiar appear strange; playfulness; provoking questions that cannot easily be settled through empirical investigation; engaging the emotions and the imagination; featuring ‘contradictions’ between the images and the text. She particularly likes picturebooks that question power relationships between adults and children and that are uncondescending in tone; and those that also blur the boundaries between social and anti-social behaviors. From an aesthetic perspective, choosing those that feature high-quality artwork is vital for her, just as seeking to represent a wide variety of styles and cultures.

The view that children are semiotic engagers has implications for Murris’s teaching practice. Children’s progress or depth in thinking is evaluated by carefully examining the complex web of verbal and written signs, their oral contributions, the expressions of their bodies, the images in the text as well as the children’s drawings. Moreover, contributions over many sessions are read and interpreted collaboratively with other practitioners in order to pick up lateral connections otherwise missed. Interpreting the undetermined interplay between the different sign systems provokes infinite readings ‘beyond’ the text and opens up fresh ideas about how young children’s ideas might bring something new and profound into the world. The particular expertise children bring to the classroom is their capacity to make meaning across a variety of sign systems, including the visual.

Analysis of a Series of Lessons on a Theme

What follows is an analysis of five literacy lessons Murris conducted with the Grade 2 class mentioned above. The particular text she had chosen opens up an explicit secret space for the main characters of the story – a group of elephants. Readers of Tusk Tusk (1978), written and illustrated by David McKee, are positioned to hypothesize and use their imagination when a group of ‘peace-loving’ animals flee into a maze (see Figure 7.2) to escape from groups of more aggressive black and white elephants.

© David McKee, Tusk Tusk, Anderson Press

Figure 7.2  The maze

As readers, we are not privy to what happens in this maze, but years later grey elephants appear. At first they live in harmony until the elephants with the big ears start exchanging strange looks with those with small ears. Black and white elephants attack each other (see Figure 7.3) by turning their trunks into fists and other weapons until they are all dead. The story ends with uncertainty about the future of the remaining elephants.

The story is sometimes chosen for its themes of tolerance of difference and conflict resolution. However, it is also avoided by teachers because the story has no clear happy ending and can easily provoke discussion about race and sex, and the intersection of the two: sexual relations between people of different color.

After reading the story, collaborative open-ended questions were created by the children and collected to give a focus to the classroom collaborative search for understanding. These questions are always posed and selected by the children. The class worked in small groups and wrote down their questions and their self-selected group names on A4 sheets that the teacher placed on the blackboard. These were:

1.Why did they go into the maze and never came out? (Zebras)

2.What happened in the maze? (Pythons)

3.How did the grey elephants get born? (Awesome)

4.Why did they want to kill each other? (Super group)

5.Why is it called Tusk Tusk? (Flower elephants)

© David McKee, Tusk Tusk, Anderson Press

Figure 7.3  Interpreting the story from the perspective of the birds

6.Why did the black elephants stay on one side of the jungle and why didn’t the white elephants have one side of the jungle? (Cool Bananas)

7.How did a baby get born if all the elephants were dead? (Red Dragons)

8.What did the elephants do in the maze for so long? (No name)

Unsurprisingly, some of the learners connected in a particular political manner with the narrative as they are situated with their conscious and unconscious minds and bodies in South Africa. Still, two decades on, racial segregation and violence is a structural feature of their everyday lives, inspiring deeply felt topics for discussion. Murris’s commitment to working democratically includes resisting the temptation to ‘fill’ and ‘form’ the child, but instead to create a space that enables the children to reveal something not yet considered or still left unspoken. When reading texts in a community of inquiry the teacher needs to treat her own knowledge as contestable and be willing to inhabit the perplexity of children’s questions. Teachers don’t control what counts as truth or meaning. Importantly, all children’s ideas are taken seriously and respected in communities of philosophical inquiry – even the ‘politically incorrect’ ones (which does not mean they go unchallenged). Each reader finds his or her own voice in the text. Children’s ideas are not ‘innocent’; and over time it is the community that regulates itself through reasoning and challenging each other. Individuals as part of that community (including the teacher) learn to think for themselves through thinking with others (internalizing external dialogue). So, as far as certain inquiry skills are involved the facilitator is more of a mediating expert in the Vygotskyan sense; as far as content is concerned the teacher is just as much the epistemological novice.

Topics such as ‘sex’ frequently emerge. In the plenary discussion one girl shyly suggested that ‘the elephants could have been mating’. In this case, the children had been given the opportunity to express their thinking through drawing and writing activities and were allowed to remain in the fantastical realm of the story of the elephants without insistence that links were made to ‘real life’. Murris had stopped the reading of the story when the elephants disappeared into the maze (Figure 7.2) in a deliberate effort to collect their ideas without being influenced too much by the storyline. The children were asked to speculate in pairs what might be happening in the maze space, to have some ‘thinking time’, to draw the images in their minds and to talk about these first. This was followed by individual artwork and writing (of choice) back at their own desks. Their imaginative and diverse ideas re-emerged often in the remaining sessions like threads producing a cloth – they created their own ‘text-ile’ (Sipe, 2012 inspired by Lewis, 2001).

The next day the mating theme surfaced again in the plenary dialogue when the children tried collaboratively to answer one group’s question: ‘How did a baby get born if all the elephants were dead?’ It was suggested that two black elephants could have escaped into the jungle and had babies. Some suggested that it could not have been the white and black ones as they – logically following from the story – would fight. The maze was conceptualized by several as a ‘hiding place’ and later as a ‘place for play’. Murris probed on both occasions by asking the conceptual questions about whether animals can hide and/or play and whether elephants can perhaps be both hiding and playing at the same time? The others were asked to respond directly to Hassiena’s9 observation earlier that elephants are big, so the maze is too small for them as a hiding place. She picks up again her original concern with one of the proposed answers to the question of how the elephants were grey:

Hassiena: But how can you get married when the white and black ones hated each other?

Bronwen: … if they fight why would they love each other, because the parents they would just be unhappy together?

Murris asked the class to remember Hassiena’s remark about the relevance of the elephants’ color. This may have influenced Charne Steyn to revisit the mating theme and link it to the book’s title (Figure 7.4). By linking race and gender she proposes a creative and logical solution to how the elephants emerge grey when they entered as black and white. Her courage to express such politically incorrect prejudices illustrates the efficacy of the approach with its safe space to authentically express any issue for philosophical examination.

Figure 7.4  Charne Steyn’s controversial connection between race and gender

The use of the well-known storytelling device of interrupting the reading of a story out loud, and letting them speculate various story-endings, supported the philosophical work. Without knowing what was going to happen, and looking at the double-spread page of the maze only (Figure 7.2), the children suggested some of the following rich narrative scenarios: ‘the black and white elephants are fighting’, ‘making friends’, ‘mating’, ‘sleeping in the middle’, ‘having wars over the golden treasure’, and ‘they are jealous’. The last suggestion is like a miniature story. One boy suggested that the black king is jealous of the nice white king who has the gold. Their maze drawings offered opportunities to the children to construct their own meanings, and to link the story with prior knowledge and experiences. The drawings show a wide variety of binary narrative scenarios ranging from happy, peaceful spaces where people live in dens, play and read, love each other, make babies, get married, and are friends, to also include dangerous, scary, confusing places with difficult tasks set to complete the journey. Many drawing narratives include blood, ghosts, robots, spiders, sharks, dark tunnels, bats, pumpkins, snakes, skeletons, poo, lasers, and dragons. One drawing proposes that a maze could be a place where there is love as well as a spot where ‘you will die!’ (Figure 7.5). In another drawing the suggestion is made that one half of the maze is hell and the other is heaven.

Figure 7.5  In a maze you can die as well as love

Drawing made by Troy Wiggill.

These enormously varied interpretations of the maze kept weaving themselves into the five sessions as the children were often connecting laterally with what was emerging in the oral dialogue. When Murris discussed some of her interpretations with their regular teacher they discovered that merely reflecting on short episodes of transcripts gave a false impression of how these children were thinking and reasoning. When considering all sessions together, certain patterns about the maze space emerged and it is these threads that create the text-ile which allows different kinds of readings – one of connectedness, building on ideas, temporal sequencing, sometimes logical, sometimes trying out several (sometimes contradictory) explanations and hypotheses. For example, when Leanne proposed an alternate explanation for why the elephants were fighting (see Figure 7.2 for the artistic positioning of the birds on the page), the following brief exchange emerged:

Leanne: I think that the birds were irritating them and then the white and black elephants got the jungle to hurt them.

Bridget: But in the book it said.

KM: Can you remember where this was? Can you show us?

Leanne [Reading out loud]: ‘Once all the elephants in the world were black or white. They loved all creatures.’

In this episode above, an alternate reading was possible, but the suggestion was also put to the critical test and supported by looking for evidence in the book.

Drawing on Roland Barthes, Sipe argues that words and pictures limit each other, at the same time, but in different ways (2012: 10). In other words, the interplay of these two sign systems introduces criticality and sets limits to creativity. Importantly, oral work involves a different kind of temporal sequencing – it is like a line or a chain. Visual art, on the other hand, involves more diffuse cognitive activities. Readers of images tend to ‘gaze on, dwell upon, or contemplate them’, while verbal narratives spur readers in a forward, linear direction (Sipe, 1998: 100).

Murris proposes that the drawing activity did at least two things. First, it imaginatively set boundaries to what might be possible by drawing attention to the spatial conditions of the story interpretation. For example, after making the drawings, the children expressed ideas like: ‘the elephants might get stuck’, ‘the maze is too small for elephants to live’, and ‘elephants cannot get married because they are too big for a wedding dress’ and besides ‘they have no hands for a wedding ring’. Second, the drawing activity provoked further questioning. One boy wrote: ‘Why did they want to be in peace?’ and ‘How do the elephants play in the maze?’. In other words, the different spatial and temporal dimensions involved in the various sign systems influence the kinds of opportunities for meaning-making and provide an epistemological context that is always shifting, evolving, and indeterminate.

The particular expertise these young children brought to the classroom was their capacity to make meaning across a variety of sign systems, including the visual. Murris’s case study supports Andrew Stables’s proposal to regard children as multimodal ‘semiotic engagers’ (Stables, 2008: 4) as an alternative to the kind of deficit thinking (not yet like that of an older child or an adult) that developmental theories tend to suggest.

Putting effort into validating a classroom space for children’s thinking is crucial. This means inviting learners to be curious, to be surprised and to formulate questions about texts that will provide the basis for discussion. It also involves normalizing disagreement and, most importantly, it requires the teacher to let go of solely content-based objectives in early literacy and to learn how to follow and not be judgmental about the children’s thinking. Finally, it implies allocating and protecting the necessary regular slot in the timetable and making various means of artistic expression routinely available (Haynes and Murris, 2013).

By focusing initially on the oral work, Murris had missed many of the creative, lateral, and critical connections the children were making across the various sign systems. Linking the five sessions afterwards through the examination of what the same children were saying, either in pairs, small groups, or plenary, and comparing these with their drawings and written work, revealed the children’s developing thinking, which otherwise would have gone by unnoticed or would have been dismissed as contradictory or fanciful, magical and not to be taken seriously. Balancing the critical and the creative is delicate, uncertain, and complex, foregrounding a critical and reflexive pedagogy (Haynes and Murris, 2013).

Interpreting the undetermined interplay between the different sign systems provokes infinite readings ‘beyond’ the text and generates fresh insights about how young children’s ideas might bring something new and profound into the world. Philosophy with picturebooks makes it possible to open up magical spaces that provoke children to use their imagination, to think out loud, to suggest ideas that are not necessarily their own and to test their ideas playfully with others (Haynes and Murris, 2013).

The narrative maze device turned out to trigger very diverse and imaginative ideas. These young children felt the intellectual freedom and seemed very absorbed and motivated to fill in the deliberate semantic ‘gaps’ made by the artist between words and images and by deliberately withholding information in both sign systems. The readers of the story had to figure out for themselves the problem of how the elephants happen to be grey; it is in this sense that picturebooks can be a powerful vehicle for developing thinking. Creating meaning through stories involves not only making logical connections between abstract concepts, but also making imaginative, affective connections. The blurring of reality and fantasy in Tusk Tusk allowed the children to feel at ease in the playful and intellectual juggling of ideas that the complex artwork provoked. The various dialogues were engaging for young and adult, and were also memorable because of the space between the imaginative and the everyday, through ‘what if’ kinds of questions and through the construction of other possible worlds. Elephants as narrative characters that love, marry, fight, hate, and kill express the kinds of metaphorical thinking that gives rationality life, color, and meaning (Egan, 1991: 86) and open up a space where children and adults can think, marvel, and enjoy picturebooks together.

Interview with Patricia Enciso

What aspects of this case study do you feel reflect the main tenets of sociocultural theory?

Sociocultural theory is concerned with the formation and transformation of materials, practices, and identities as people (of all ages) participate in activities together over time. As described in the case of young children reading a complex allegory of racial conflict, everything, not just the curriculum, counts as meaningful and in process: the book offers an ambiguous storyline, open to interpretation; the classroom discussion practices and routines support questioning and consideration of possibilities; and the children and teacher participate in a community that has been formed to share the responsibility of interpreting social life. Taken together, meanings related to the book, the group’s discussion practices, and children’s understanding of responsibility are mutually constituted in each moment, across time. Through the teacher and researcher’s history of practices with picturebooks and discussion structures, and their related intentional planning and selection of resources, they created – or guided, in Rogoff’s terms – an extended sequence of opportunities for children’s participation in reading. The teachers did not seek a rush to answers, but rather planned for continued openings into and use of ‘semiotic engagements’ for meaning-making. Thus, as children focused on meaning and multiple interpretations of images and words, both in the book and authored by themselves and others, they were also in the midst of becoming people who are ‘semiotic engagers’, ‘responsible for participation’, and capable of ‘dwelling’ in meaning, and asking ‘second order questions’. Sociocultural theory asks how a person participates in social life to becoming a person who learns in new ways. From this perspective, learning is not located in the mind but in the nexus of social relationships, materials, and forms of participation that invite problem-solving and the transformation of materials and relationships (through drawing, writing, talking, and questioning) for use with new questions and problems.

What do you see as the most important contribution sociocultural theory can make to classroom practice?

As many scholars have argued, sociocultural theory recognizes learning as a process, that relies on each person’s cultural repertoires, experiences, and dynamic relationships as significant material for solving problems, developing concepts, and introducing new ideas into social life. However, these materials are not static, and neither are our ways of making sense of the world. Vygotsky understood that people imagine, play with, and improvise on everyday material and relationships; and thus make it possible to see beyond what is immediately concrete and already understood. Through play, people transform what is ‘real’ (e.g., a chair) into something possible (e.g., a boat) so they can examine what everyday life means to themselves and others; and what alternatives might be enjoyable and worthwhile to explore further. The children in Murris’s research project were invited to play with meaning as they studied images and words. They were not expected to name what they saw, but rather speculate about what was possible; and do so within the public space of interpreting ideas and images with peers. The structures for talking together and seriously considering one another’s proposals about the events unfolding inside the maze, for example, meant that their imagined scenarios were heard and built upon so that the children eventually shared the possibilities of a common imagined world. Only sociocultural theory asserts the significance and value of imagination in learning.

What do you feel are the limits of such theory, and how does the case study point to the need to reach out to other theoretical fields to understand moments of learning and teaching in specific contexts?

Sociocultural theory, alone, does not adequately account for the ways power circulates among people and materials and is asserted in different situations to promote or authorize some meanings and ways of being over others. In communities of philosophical inquiry, power relationships among children are effectively mediated by routines and practices that allow all children to speak and be heard. However, another form of power was circulating in the children’s questions about the book’s images that cannot be easily addressed by sociocultural theories of mediation. Power also resides in the narratives that are valued and made accessible for interpretation among members of a community. In this case the story of white and black elephants represented an allegory for the ways humans identify and judge differences among one another and thereby cause pain, loss, and destruction. In the context of post-apartheid South Africa, this story can also be read as a long and tragic history of segregation and violence based on colonial and racialized categories of difference and property rights.

The mediation of narratives based in complex often unspoken experiences and anxieties are likely to be insufficient for addressing some of the most profound issues and concerns of our lives (Enciso, 2007). More generally speaking, sociocultural theory does not account for unspoken and inaccessible histories, even though history is a vital part of any sociocultural analysis. As a way to extend sociocultural theory, I turn to the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth (1997) whose poststructural scholarship addresses the repetitions in our daily lives that constitute what is accepted as normal and available for thought and identity formation, while they also point to what is absent, unnamed, and undesirable. Poststructural theories of language, specifically the work of Bakhtin (1983), are also critical for understanding how a narrative (visual, film, novel, social media) addresses us and asks us to be answerable from a particular positioning of status, interest, identity, or power.

Among children and adults, to speak from a particular position is also to risk being misunderstood, and be mis-recognized as a competent person in a group. For historically marginalized children in schools and communities, misrecognition and categorizations are commonplace; so much so that the language, ways of being, and experiences with learning they share among others, are not regarded as valuable for future learning. This absence of recognition is not accounted for in sociocultural theory. Paradoxically, a key way to argue against the absence of recognition is to turn to the central tenet of sociocultural theory that learning depends on our own and others’ capacities to use the full range and depth of our culturally formed resources. According to sociocultural theory, we can only learn in the presence of others; but we cannot simply be present, we must recognize one another. Critical theories, based on Freirean philosophies of social subjectivity and agency and feminist theories in education informed by the work of Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa, contribute to a fuller understanding of the importance of recognizing and naming the dignity of all our languages, cultural heritage, and histories as we live and learn together.

How do you help educators implement such a framework in their classrooms?

I start with the assumption that we do not know what children already bring to their participation in learning with others; and we will not be able to understand what children bring if we rely only on language or talk to make ideas visible. Language is a key part of children’s repertoires for interpreting and expressing insights about new concepts, but according to Vygotsky’s understanding of meaning, initial understanding is often expressed as ‘a storm cloud of thought’, unfinished and in parts. For some children, an overreliance on language for mediating understanding leaves them with little room to express or explore the insights they value. Further, when talk is the only resource or sign system through which learning is mediated, some students may become positioned as lower in status and power among their peers. The case study also exemplifies doing justice to the importance of including the body and various sign systems when making meaning of texts. Displacement from full participation has implications for future learning opportunities.

Over the years, I have described a number of ways visual and embodied representations of meaning can mediate students’ interpretations of and relationships between literature and everyday life; as these sign systems also open new ways of perceiving relationships and identities among students. Through these practices, including visual, symbolic representations of characters (Enciso, 1998, 2004) and dramatizations of perspectives and plotlines (Edmiston and Enciso, 2002; Enciso 2011), students and teachers are able to explore meaning using multiple sign systems, before they are called upon to articulate and consider meaning among others. Through multiple resources, students also begin to see one another as insightful and surprising participants, with histories and experiences that might otherwise never be present as material for learning. These ideas about the relationship between semiotic potential for learning and equity of participation are evident in many classroom-based studies informed by sociocultural theory, critical theory, and multiliteracies research (cf. Gallas 2003; Campano 2007; Gutiérrez et al., 1999), especially among youth who have been historically marginalized in school literacy education. My point, though, is to help teachers understand that literacy education includes a deep history of inclusive practices that not only disrupt traditional scripted performance of teacher–student interaction but replace these with problem-solving and inquiry using multiple resources and improvisations so that possible (not merely efficient or singular) approaches to interpretation can become visible and transformed for future learning. In addition, I ask teachers to listen and remain uncertain about their knowledge of students’ perspectives and experiences; so that students themselves and related family and community members can work with teachers to name and define what they care about and need to know to develop further learning.


This chapter has considered issues raised when we seek to create classroom cultures that have similarities with sociocultural theories of learning. Karin Murris’s case study illustrates how, through a focus on children’s literature, children developed collaborative philosophical modes of inquiry in which their explorations opened up new ways of thinking for them; as well their teacher Pat Enciso reminds us, when attempting to develop such communities of practice, we need to be attentive to issues of power, voice, and identity. Through such a re-conceptualization of sociocultural theories of learning, teachers can facilitate children’s critical agency and ensure that their classroom activities lead to social change. Murris offers us other ideas about how including children democratically in inquiries could be transformative, especially as children themselves would help reconceptualize what concepts such as ‘power’, ‘voice’, and ‘identity’ mean. A reading of texts in communities of inquiry resists forcing adults’ agenda for a just future onto children. Murris would regard that as another way of silencing them. This recalls aspects of the discussion in Chapter Three on critical literacy, reminding us that none of the theories/fields of study that we have discussed in this book stand alone. In the final chapter, we consider how they may work together to produce literacy education which is transformational in nature.

Chapter 8

Bringing the Frameworks Together: Implications for Research, Policy, and Practice

This chapter considers the relationships and connections that may be made across the frameworks and fields of study described thus far in the book. In doing so, we aim to move beyond the idea that theories and frameworks can be applied to teaching in a simplistic manner, and consider how reflective educators might approach the construction of practice in specific spaces and times. In the final part of the chapter, we consider the implications of the issues raised in this book for policy and research.

In examining the connections that might be made across the theories and areas of study outlined in the previous chapters, we will pay particular attention to how the frameworks may work together to enable educators to achieve several goals:

1.Make active and meaningful use of children’s language and literacy practices as resources for curriculum.

2.Understand literacy as a critical social practice and embrace its potential for change.

3.Provide a pedagogical approach which fosters communities of learners.

4.Plan classroom activities that embed meaningful opportunities to engage in the analysis and construction of multimodal texts.

5.Utilize teaching approaches that move beyond the ‘false tension between abstracting the codes of language and learning their application for meaningful purposes’ (Hall, 2003: 324).

These goals offer a means of designing, planning, implementing, and studying meaningful literacy curricula, in spite of the increasingly reductionist pressure to teach literacy as a set of decontextualized skills. They provide a framework for the analysis of the case study classrooms, in that we interrogate the practice outlined in previous chapters and identify how the teachers strive, in their various ways, to meet these goals, informed by the theories they draw upon in their approach. Initially, however, we consider the relationship between these models.

Educational Goals

We would suggest that one of the aims of developing a sound theoretical underpinning to research, policy, and practice is to achieve well-formulated goals that advance knowledge and understanding and effect social change. In the next section, we move on to consider the five goals outlined in the introduction to this chapter. These goals are central to contemporary educational practice and each of the case studies offers examples of how teachers can strive towards their achievement, despite constraints posed by official curriculum mandates and limited resources. Here, we draw out the key features of the teachers’ practices that illustrate each of the goals.

1 Active and Meaningful Use of Children’s Language and Literacy Practices as Resources for Curriculum

All the theoretical models and fields of study emphasize the need to embed authentic literacy practices within the curriculum. In the case of New Literacy Studies, researchers have advocated the use of extended ethnographic accounts of learners’ lives outside educational institutions to inform curricula (e.g., Hull et al., 2013). Proponents of new technologies have stressed how important it is to build on the extensive experiences many children now have with digital literacy practices outside the classroom (Lankshear and Knobel, 2011, 2013). A major feature of critical literacy theory is the extent to which it recognizes the value of building on children’s own linguistic and literary repertoires in the classroom in order that schools do not privilege canonical texts (Comber, 2003, 2013). Studies that focus on space and play pay attention to the specific contexts of children’s everyday practices and their playful engagement in the world and draw on these as resources in the classroom (Wohlwend, 2013). The study of multimodality recognizes the skills developed in children’s out of school engagement with multimodal texts and offers insight into how to draw on these skills in the use of multimodal texts within the curriculum. Finally, by focusing on ‘people’s history of engagement in practices of cultural communities’ (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003: 21), sociocultural theory shifts educators’ attention away from a focus on individual traits to look instead at how people live culturally (Moll, 2000). This more complex understanding of repertoires of practice affords educators a means for seeing cultural practices and for using these practices in the construction and implementation of curricula.

All of the case study teachers illustrate how this particular goal can be met. For example, Gatto takes literacy learning beyond the classroom. She combines authentic learning experiences with professional practices in a way that gives her students opportunities to change their participation in multiple forms of literacy across a variety of contexts. Her science-based curriculum fosters excitement and engagement in her students. This excitement could be seen as students tracked the growth and changes in trees in Ellison Park over the course of a year. Each student kept a scientific journal that documented a tree’s changes over fall, winter, and spring. They communicated their findings with a partner classroom in Kentucky using videoconferencing and email, both practices commonly used in business in the twenty-first century. Gatto constructs authentic pedagogical spaces for students to use their home and community literacies in inquiry projects that have a social action component.

This authentic respect for children’s own cultural practices can be seen in Kate Pahl’s case study. Children were able to research the history of coal mining in their community and through their activities as researchers, which involved archaeological digs, the making of films, and work with poets, became more politically aware of their own heritage.

2 Understanding Literacy as a Critical Social Practice and Embrace Its Potential for Change

As with the first goal, it should be noted that all of the theoretical frameworks and fields of study analyzed in this book emphasize the potential for literacy to act as a critical social practice that can effect change. Street, for example, suggests that detailed ethnographic studies can be used to inform policy, citing work in Nepal as an example:

The Community Literacy Project Nepal aims to do precisely this. Based on a spirit of engagement between theory and practice, academic and applied concerns, it aims to make a contribution at the interface, clarifying conceptual issues, and enhancing knowledge on the one hand and aiding policy making and program building on the other (cf. Rogers, 1992). (2003: 8)

Researchers focused on digital literacy practices suggest that this work can effect social change on a large scale (Rheingold, 2003) as communities find ways to communicate and share thoughts and strategies. Twitter, for example, has the potential to provide a source of uncensored information on a range of matters and can impact on the political climate (Bruns et al., 2013). Sociocultural theory is not typically associated with the kind of political praxis that is embedded in critical literacy; however, by bringing a complex notion of culture to the forefront of analyzing literacy practices, it affords the transformation of the deficit model ideology so prominent in schools (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003).

The tenets of critical literacy as critical social action can be seen in Gatto’s classroom. For example, her students wrote letters to the Mexican government with suggestions for preserving the monarch butterfly habitat after they learned that commercialization might endanger the habitat ecology (Gatto, 2001). Students internalized the use of literacy as a tool for social and political action. The summer after the completion of the three-year loop, Gatto received a letter from a student asking her if there were any grants he could apply for so he could try and improve the school lunches at his new school.

In Rowsell’s case study, Ruby engages with the Cindy Sherman project in ways that enable her to make strong statements about the objectification of the female body. She uses her own body as an artifact in a photograph displayed in a local art gallery to make a powerful statement about her identity and her resistance to normative discourses about appearance. This kind of practice has an audience beyond the classroom walls and having an authentic voice which has impact in the ‘real’ world can be highly motivating for pupils.

However, although all the theoretical models and fields emphasize the way in which literacy should effect change in various ways, it is critical literacy that has made most impact in terms of offering practical models for such work. In Vasquez’s classroom, children used literacy to challenge established practices and effect change. The children, through carefully prepared letter-writing, were able to guarantee the provision of vegetarian food at the school barbecue in future years, and the school library had to reconsider its book collection in the light of the children’s campaigning. These children had a powerful understanding of the potential literacy has to transform the political and social landscape.

3 A Pedagogical Approach which Fosters Communities of Learners

The development of a community of learners is important if teachers and students are to construct classroom spaces in which peer tutoring and collaboration establish meaningful contexts for learning. Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that the notion of ‘community’ should indicate unification and lack of dissension, given the differences in power and status that learners bring to the site of learning (Lewis, 2001). Rather, the development of authentic learning communities relies on the degree of trust that can be built up between participants, trust that will enable challenges to normalized power relations and social practices within classrooms. In relation to the theoretical models and fields of study outlined in this book, all embed recognition of the importance of building such communities, but it is, perhaps, in sociocultural theory that the main emphasis on the social construction of knowledge can be found.

In Murris’s case study, the children were able to share their ideas about what was happening in the maze space in the picturebook Tusk Tusk and build on each other’s suggestions in developing an understanding of how the grey elephants emerged from the jungle. This was not done in a way that ignored differences, however, as in the example of Bridget challenging Leanne’s idea that the elephants wanted to hurt the jungle birds. In this community of inquiry, oracy, writing, and drawing all served to provide opportunities for children to explore each other’s thoughts and to ask questions that prompted peers to construct both shared and independent conclusions.

4 Classroom Activities that Embed Meaningful Opportunities to Engage in the Analysis and Design of Multimodal Texts

As suggested in Chapter One of this book, traditional literacy practices have focused too heavily on the analysis and construction of written texts. However, given the profound changes that have taken place in communicative practices through technological change, it is no longer feasible to deny children opportunities to analyze and produce texts using a wide range of modes and media.

By the very nature of the range of modes involved in digital literacy practices, this strand of theory and practice has consistently recognized that different modes offer various affordances that can be taken up in diverse ways by text analyzers and producers (Kress, 2003, 2010; Lankshear and Knobel, 2011, 2013). In the case study outlined in Chapter Four, Cosgrove provided children in her class with an opportunity to create texts that drew on their knowledge of digital literacy practices. She was aware of the children’s use of tablets and games consoles at home and enabled them to bring their knowledge and understanding to a range of activities, including the iPad drawing and the use of social media to reflect on their work.

Similarly, the case study of Vasquez’s classroom outlined the importance of incorporating multimodal texts from real-life contexts into the curriculum. Although the examples given focused on letter writing, Vasquez did emphasize that the ‘Learning Wall’ contained a wide range of texts that included photographs, maps, and internet printouts.

All of the case studies also indicate the relationship between production and analysis of multimodal texts. Classrooms that focus on one at the expense of the other do not offer pupils sufficiently balanced curriculum opportunities and do not allow children to develop the ability to apply the skills and knowledge developed in a productive activity to an analytical one (and vice versa).

5 Teaching Approaches that Move Beyond the ‘False Tension Between Abstracting the Codes of Language and Learning their Application for Meaningful Purposes’ (Hall, 2003: 324)

All the theoretical traditions and fields of study outlined in this book have offered challenges to the psycholinguistic, skills-based notions of literacy which permeated educational practice throughout the twentieth century and are still embedded within some curriculum frameworks due to the neoliberal interest in comparative educational performance, seen in the increased attention to the outcomes of measures such as PISA and PIRLS. However, we do not wish to set up a simplistic dichotomy between a skills-based model and the frameworks outlined in this book. No one is suggesting that classroom practice has to be either/or – either focused on learning the codes of language or applying these codes in meaningful ways that reflect literacy as a social practice. For example, in Hubbard’s literacy playshop, children were able to play their way into engagement with alphabetic literacy as writing was naturally embedded into their imaginative scenarios, as in the case of the list of things needed for the ice cream parlor. Indeed, all of the case studies have illuminated how teachers can construct curricula in which children acquire a variety of relevant skills, knowledge, and understanding across a range of authentic practices and for a variety of meaningful purposes.

All of the teachers highlighted in this book design rigorous, high-quality curricula that are based on who their students are and what they bring to the classroom. Their practices illustrate that when the curriculum is robust in the ways we have described, externally imposed standards are met, especially given that these standards are typically based on reductionist ideologies of literacy. When students are engaged in deep learning with relevant and meaningful literacies, meeting narrow standards becomes moot.

Implications for Teachers

For practising teachers, finding ways to embed some of the approaches outlined in the previous chapters may be challenging, given the demands of a performative culture in which comparison of school outcomes and the use of league tables are rife. One way to begin to examine new ways of working is to undertake action research to shape the conditions of practice (McKernan, 2013). Action research is a long-standing practice whereby practitioners rigorously investigate their own practice in order to change/improve that practice based on evidence. Given the extensive literature on action research (e.g., Kemmis et al., 2014; McNiff, 2013), we feel that it is redundant to outline the process here. Rather, we would emphasize the need to engage in critical action research in which the research process is used to question and explore instantiations of power within the classroom and outside of it. In the ‘Digital Futures in Teacher Education Project’ described in Chapter Four, teachers engaged in projects in which they researched the impact of embedding digital practices within their literacy curricula, but they did this in ways that sought to unsettle established constructions of literacy within the National Curriculum in England – which fails to refer to multimodality at all.

That project enabled the establishment of teacher-researcher networks, which offered opportunities for teachers to chew over ideas, share reflections, and try out new curriculum and pedagogical approaches in a supportive context. We would suggest that some key features of such networks are:

•the involvement of teachers who have self-identified as co-inquirers into a particular issue/set of issues;

•partnerships with interested others, such as academics, who may be called upon to collaborate in ways that promote equal distribution of power within the group;

•the identification of an issue or set of issues that is of significant interest to all in the group;

•commitment to the trying out of ideas in the classroom, so that the outcomes can be reflected on in a critical manner in the network;

•a commitment to scholarly inquiry.

Research which involves teachers examining the out-of-school practices of learners is invaluable in forging an understanding of what children bring to the classroom and can help teachers to devise means of building on this in meaningful ways. However, we also feel that it is essential to conduct research that examines different curricula and pedagogical models closely and enables teachers to relate theory to practice in the classroom in dynamic ways. In-service teachers can obviously also benefit from more formal professional development models for which they attend courses and training days, but they also need opportunities to engage in the longitudinal processes that a research network can provide.

Pre-service teachers can also engage in the inquiry-based models outlined above, if their training programs provide them with sufficient space. For example, in the ‘Digital Futures in Teacher Education’ project, student teachers at the University of Sheffield collaborated with a local city learning centre and produced digital videos on the theme of Sheffield. They researched and used clips from the Yorkshire Film Archive and embedded popular music into soundtracks and, from these practices, reflected on issues relating to copyright. Through their own engagement with digital design and their critical reflections on the process, they felt more prepared to incorporate new literacies in their classrooms. For those students who are on courses that appear to close down options for inquiry-based learning, participation in Twitter-chats, webinars, and online forums may enable the development of virtual communities of practice.

Implications for Research

Although there are a growing number of accounts of the relationship between the various theoretical models of literacy discussed in this book and classroom practice, this is obviously an area for continued focus. In addition, there need to be further studies that explore the integration of the different models and the implications for curriculum and pedagogy. There are examples of work in which this integration is taking place, as explored in this book. For example, critical literacy meets spatial literacies in place-based pedagogies (Comber et al., 2007). Multimodal cosmopolitanism (Vasudevan, 2014) takes understandings of the local–global dynamic, explored so carefully in spatial studies of literacy, into considerations of the way in which learners might learn from and with each other in the creation of multimodal productions that foster a sense of belonging. Further work needs to be done in merging together some of the theoretical threads that weave throughout the book and these studies can provide inspiration for that future project.

In addition, whilst there have been developments since the first edition of this book in the research that traverses traditional boundaries of home/school, online/offline, public/private, there needs to be additional focus on literacy practices across and between domains. What happens in the spaces between domains, and the overlap across them, as well as within them? What kinds of methodologies are required in such complex spaces, which traverse the binaries? There has been much attention paid to online, multimodal, visual, and sensory ethnography in recent years, but there also needs to be a focus on methodologies that enable micro-analyses to be mapped simultaneously onto to macro-analyses. As Wang (2013) suggests, ‘Big data needs thick data’ and in the years ahead, such considerations will become ever more salient.

Further, in co-produced research in which communities, pupils, academics, and other partners can work together to identify the key issues that need to be focused upon, the spaces and places in which literacy might be the subject of study are open to negotiation and may change over time. The outcomes of such projects may no longer focus on the implications for the classroom, but also consider the implications of research for the lives of participants. Through engaging in inquiry-based practices, pupils and other partners in the research process may find ways to develop new ways of working in their everyday lives, ways which foster social action and community change (Larson, 2014).


In this book, we have outlined a variety of theories of literacy and related fields of study in an attempt to facilitate discussions about literacy learning and pedagogy. The case studies have provided glimpses into the practices of teachers who draw from these theories and fields in the construction of their curriculum and shaping of their pedagogy, in order to offer concrete examples of these theories embedded in meaningful practice. In addition, the reflections of key theorists in each of these areas have helped to crystallize the basic principles of each of the areas and have been important in identifying possible future directions in terms of research, policy, and practice. We have made several key arguments throughout these chapters, but would like to close by emphasizing just three.

First, theory counts. All teachers and researchers have theories of language and literacy and of learning. These theories frame research and pedagogy. Theories can be aligned with traditional definitions of literacy, or they can contest these definitions. We claim here that contesting these definitions is preferable to maintaining the status quo. Second, we argue that multidisciplinary theories of literacy learning value the experiences and knowledge that children bring to the classroom. Students count. Complex theories of literacy, as outlined here, have the potential to counteract the deficit model by challenging conceptions of children’s language and literacy practices in terms of what they lack compared with school literacy. Finally, we suggest that the kinds of educational opportunities that are outlined in this book can be offered more widely if partnerships between students, teachers, parents and carers, communities, and researchers can be formed to develop communities of practice in which inquiry is at the heart of learning. Collaborative research counts. We need to challenge the neoliberal drive to count only certain types of inquiry as evidence for practice, such as the continued discourse regarding randomized controlled trials as the ‘gold’ standard. When engaged learners and teachers work with committed partners to demonstrate the kinds of outcomes that have been shared in our case studies, then educational change will – and does – happen.

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