Thursday, 29 August 2013

Becoming Literate

My grandson is now three and five months and I recently spent ten days with him and observed him interacting with his world. The wealth of his learning in just a few short years inspires me with awe and respect. What I have seen is strong evidence of his gradual emergence as a literate person. This has caused me to wonder if the teachers he will have when he starts school in a year’s time will understand just how his understanding of literacy has already been shaped by the many layers of surrounding persons, communities and histories he has been exposed to in his short life. Too often as far as literacy is concerned teachers consider children as white paper to be written on or wax to be molded – tabula rasa – my experience with my grandson suggests they arrive at school already well aware of signs and symbols as representations of things in their worlds.
Consider for a moment that my grandson, like all children in the UK, lives in a highly literate society. In a society like ours becoming literate is essential and it is not surprising that governments place such a high value on ensuring children do achieve this. Our family’s aspirations for Charlie are the same as all other families in the UK – we want him to become highly literate. How each child achieves this is of course influenced by their family circumstances, for example, no child choses the language they will speak, the parents they have, the socio-economic circumstances into which they are born or the cultural opportunities they will have in their lives, and all these factors impact on the opportunities they have to achieve a high level of literacy. And it is also true that the human child is driven from birth to actively engage in constructing meaning as they seek to interpret the world they find themselves in. Having an opportunity to observe this happening is a wonderful thing.
Charlie is fortunate, he lives in a literacy-rich environment; he already owns over 100 books and loves stories. He is very articulate as the adults around him talk to him all the time ­– there is no doubt he is one of a privileged group of children. However, like all children in highly literate societies, regardless of background, since birth he has been exposed to environmental print such as shop signs, print on household product packaging, advertising hoardings and increasingly print on computers. As he walks or travels around in cars and buses he sees street signs and symbols and, as I discovered this week, he knows what many of them mean and has the knowledge to work out what they mean even, if he doesn’t know – he is an active meaning maker. Consider for a moment, even a visit to the doctor means exposure to a literate environment. A visit to the park or the swimming pool involves exposure to environment print – it is a ubiquitous part of everyday life for young children growing up in our society and plays an important part in their literacy development that begins long before they arrive at school.
Furthermore, in a highly literate society like ours, young children like Charlie frequently witness the people around them engaging with printed material and print-on-screens and want to join in. Anyone who has seen a baby grab a mobile phone and start pressing the keys or a two-year old playing with an iPad knows that babies and young children have a strong desire to use the communicative tools of their social worlds. They want to do all the things the grown ups do – they want to join in the socio-cultural practices of their culture, it is therefore natural for them to want to explore the symbolic representation that is all around them – print of all kinds: symbols, logos, drawings and words. Increasingly toys for young children reflect these literate practices and as children engage with applications on iPads, phones or computers, they rapidly became familiar with signs and symbols and can use them to achieve what they want.
This week Charlie moved to a new home and we spent the week exploring. This is when I started to notice him behaving like a literate person. When crossing the road he knows to press a button to make the traffic stop. He knows that when the green man flashes it is safe to cross. He knew the sign where we waited for the bus meant that “buses stop here”. When we got to town and went to a café for lunch he knew how to summon a lift and how to make it work. In the café he scrutinised the menu and pointed to a picture of pasta that he wanted for lunch. He knew the door with a picture of a baby on was where to change his baby brother’s nappy. At the library he knew he needed a card to get a library book and took his chosen books to the desk and handed over his card. I already knew he could tell the difference between writing and illustrations. Six months ago before he was even three I had asked him where the writing was on the page of a book and he could point to it. He also knew the difference between writing and pictures and knew that speech bubbles meant someone was talking.
Now three and five months he knows the difference between letters, numbers and pictures. He brought me a building block while I was still in bed, “for you Nana, it’s got a lion on it.” “What else has it got Charlie?” I asked. “Letters,” he said. I pointed him a number one – “what’s this?” “Number 1,” he said.
When we went to the park and I asked him what the sign on the gate said – “No dog poo,” he replied. Later I found out he knew the difference between this sign and one that meant, ‘No dogs.’ We went for a walk alongside the river and every time we came across a sign I asked Charlie what it meant and he was nearly always able to tell me. He found one a bit puzzling. It depicted danger from falling into the river.
Me: What does this mean, Charlie?
C: Danger.
Me: Why danger?
C: I don’t know.
M: Look at the picture.
C: Danger – you might fall in the river.
In Charlie’s new garden he asked me to put his flag that he got from Warwick Castle so that it flew from a bush – he knows what the flag says. Later in the week we passed a church with a castle-like tower with a flag flying from it. “It’s a castle,” said Charlie. “No, it’s not a castle, it’s a church,” I said. Charlie was adamant – it has a flag flying so it must be a castle and he wouldn’t be budged. He is confident in his ability to interpret symbols in his world. On another occasion we passed Magdelen School on the bus, which has a large sign outside. Charlie’s grandfather had attended this school and already he recognized it, despite only having seen it twice before. “You haven’t got a school in Oxford, have you Nana,” he said.
Playing at home one day I drew a rough outline of a castle and a dungeon. Charlie immediately recognized my rather incompetent drawing as a castle and we spent time during the week deciding which of his toys were ‘good’ and would be allowed to attend a party at the castle and which were ‘bad’ and would have to go to the dungeon. He was able to use my drawing as a symbol for a real castle and create scenarios to go with it. This is surely an example of abstract and decentred thinking, so necessary for literacy. Two weeks after this I returned to the house and we were acting out “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”. In the part of the story when we need to deal with the Troll who wants to eats the goats Charlie said, “Where’s that dungeon gone?” He had remembered our game, but unfortunately the drawing had long been consigned to the bin, but not his memory of how symbols can be used to represent things.
Charlie is also very keen to play with my iPad, in particular the games that involve Fireman Sam. He has mastered how to find and upload the games. He knows what the symbol for ‘loading’ is and what it means. He knows that an ‘X’ means ‘No’ and a tick means ‘Yes’. He knows how to exit a game and how to play it again. He knows which button to press for an ‘easy’ game and which for a ‘hard’ one. He checks to see how many stickers he has accumulated through playing games and how many videos have become available through multiple playing. He can recognize and manipulate shapes to load up ‘Jupiter’, the fire engine and can move it around to rescue people from fires. He is very able to manipulate signs and symbols necessary for playing the games.
As readers of my blog know, Charlie loves stories and during the week he showed his increasing awareness of how stories can be manipulated. A favourite story is ‘Red Riding Hood’ and I decided to see what he would do when I changed the story. “One upon a time there was a little girl call Little Blue Riding Hood”. “No!” shouted Charlie. “No?” I said, “What is it then?” “Little Red Riding Hood,” he said. “Oh I see,” I said. I carried on changing the story and he found it funny and laughed as he told me the ‘right’ way to tell the story. Later I tried it out with the Fireman Sam theme tune. “He’s never on time, Fireman Sam. He’s engine’s quite dirty, Fireman Sam”, I sang. Again he laughed and corrected me. Then he indicated that he understood rhyme in the song and started to change the words himself. The word ‘shout’ in the song became ‘pout’ and as I went through the alphabet for different words that rhymed with shout Charlie repeated them all and laughed.  During the week we had several episodes of finding rhyming words, nonsensical ones produced the most merriment. He is clearly becoming aware of sounds in a new way and wants to play with rhyming vocabulary.  In his short life he has had so many experiences with rhyme through nursery rhymes, songs and books. Now he is confident enough to play with words. He delights in the sound of unusual words.
What all this experience with Charlie is teaching me is that literacy is a cultural activity. As he actively seeks to join in the cultural world he is part of he notices and pays attention to how literacy is used, for what purposes and to achieve what outcomes in different contexts. This realisation led me to reflect on the research that was done on emergent literacy in the 1990s. The evidence from the research was unambiguous – children have acquired many of the cultural tools needed for participation in a literate world long before they start school and that furthermore they want to engage in the social practice of literacy because adults all around them are doing it. Charlie is helping me understand that becoming literate is a dynamic process that involves more than the mechanical skills of learning to decode and create print. It is the ability to engage with signs and symbols in his environment. People often profess to be shocked when they are told that babies of just over a year old can recognize the MacDonald’s logo – I’m not – I celebrate it – it is evidence that young children in print-rich environments are on the way to becoming literate from a very early age.
What I am learning from Charlie is that we mustn’t treat literacy as a discrete set of teachable skills to those who need to be taught how to be literate, but to see children as active meaning makers who are observant of the print world they are immersed in and capable of interpreting this world as they seek to join the socio-cultural world they are part of – a world which is highly literate and mediated through signs and symbols. The rest of the week Charlie showed us in many ways how aware he is of environmental print, and how curious. He asked what signs meant and what words said in numerous ways. He scrutinized a flier for a performance of Henry V and asked for the story of the knight depicted on it; he studied pictures of ice cream and chose the one he wanted. He was excited at depictions of dolphins on the swimming pool floor. He is well on his way to taking part in a literate society.   

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Story and Play

My first grandson will be three next month and our time together over this year has been enjoyed through stories in all different shapes and sizes. I stay at his house for about 3 days each month and during that time we share stories. He comes in about 6.30 am and says, “Hallo Nana – story”. By 11.00 am we could easily have shared 40 stories. These stories come from books, and from my memory of traditional fairy tales and most recently we have created stories together. He knows what he likes and doesn’t like and this changes all the time. He has enjoyed oral stories most of all and as the year has gone by he has increasingly joined in with the repetition and patterns that are characteristic of stories aimed at young children. He loves revealing that the knocking on the door in the story of the Three Little Pigs is “a big bad wolf!” He loves singing the song at the end of the story, “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf” and chanting the refrain of the giant to Jack, “Fe, fi, fo fum, I smell the blood of an English man”. The rhythm and pattern of story, the shape of the narrative chimes in with who he is at the moment. I have learnt that Charlie is passionately attached to fantasy, he has a need to listen to stories and over this year that need has been extended to the creation of his own stories which he wants to tell and act out. It is through these fantasy world that Charlie explores ideas and in the process his vocabulary has exploded as he has extended his narrative skills.
Of course Charlie is influenced by the world he has been born into, but although so small he has shown that he is also an active interpreter and shaper of that world. More than anything I have learned from Charlie what active meaning makers small children are.  In the world he has been born into stories are important. I love stories and so does Charlie’s mother, we think stories are important for small children and  in this time between two and three years of age, Charlie has been introduced to all manner of stories. To traditional stories that have been passed down the centuries that exist both orally and in books; there are also lots of books in his house about daily life for children both similar and different to him, about animals and other imaginary worlds. His life is enriched by high quality picture books that we buy him and he borrows from the library. Through these stories he has become aware of dinosaurs and monsters and witches. He is also a fan of CBBies and in particular the characters of Fireman Sam, Mike the Knight and the Octonauts. He also loves to play with my iPad and his favourite application is about Fireman Sam where Charlie is called on to be Fireman Sam and rescue cats from trees, puts out fires, load up Jupiter (the fire engine) and look for his fire-fighting equipment. He also loves nursery rhymes and songs and simple games enhanced by visit to Rhyme Time at the library and regular singing at his nursery which he attends three days a week. His imagination is further enriched by regular visits to the woods at the back of his ouse to talk to the ‘talking trees’, to look for fairies and act out the stories that take place in the woods – Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty and others. Charlie also loves live theatre and has been to several performances, for example, he sat for two and a half hours for ‘Snow White’ at Christmas and was entranced by the circus last month.

His immersion in stories has helped him to develop the fundamental and essentially human capacity for creating meaning out of stories. As the year has gone by he has demonstrated his creativity as he has taken the different genres of stories and made them his own weaving dinosaurs with Fireman Sam, Mike-the-Knight with fire-breathing dragons and creating new adventures that have evolved as we have shaped them together.

Charlie does not passively receive stories, during the year he has actively sought to fashion and reinvent imaginary worlds for himself and for us, his family. Sometimes he does just retell stories, but more often he actively reshapes them as he creates meaning out the narratives for himself. In the last few weeks he has started to make up his own stories and the influences of all the narratives he is immersed in are identifiable. He uses props like his Fireman Sam figures and play fire station, dinosaur and dragon figures to create stories; he dresses up as a knight and gallops on his wooden horse, dons his Fireman Sam or Bob the Builder outfits and acts out a variety of scenarios.

Charlie knows what he likes in stories although this changes from week to week. One week he will demand a story about ‘a monster’ or ‘a dinosaur’; sometimes he wants a ‘Mike-the-knight’ story or a ‘Fireman Sam’ story (his two favourite CBbies programmes). We have acted out over and over again the same scenarios and have endlessly rescued Norman Price, (a child in Fireman Sam) from the well. Living in Wales I can do a fair impression of Dilys, Norman’s mother and Charlie loves it when we take on the role of the characters.  One minute he is Norman, “rescue me” and the next he is Fireman Sam on the end of a phone reassuring Dilys he is coming to the rescue, “Don’t worry Dilys” and to his fire fighting colleagues, “Let’s get Jupiter [the fire engine] and go!”

Charlie’s language has exploded this year and has clearly been influenced by all the stories he has heard.  He is a thinker. When he was two and a half, I told him the story of Rupunzel, the princess who was locked in a tower by a witch and courted by a knight. After he had heard the story three times Charlie came to me, “I don’t like it when the witch throws the knight in brambles and he blind. I like it when he can see again.” Already he is making moral judgements about actions of characters. Charlie is emotionally engaged in his stories. When he asked for a story about a bear and a monster I made up a scenario whereby a bear and a monster living in two different houses didn’t want to go to bed because they were scared. The Monster was scared of bears, “Don’t be silly”, said his mother, “There’s no such thing as bears”. The bear was scared of monsters, “Don’t be silly”, said his mother, “There’s no such thing as monsters”. Charlie stopped the story. “I’m going to tell Daddy, I don’t think he knows that.” He runs to the kitchen, “Daddy, did you know – there’s no such thing as monsters?”

In a recent story that Charlie and I co-constructed we can see that Charlie is beginning to become an author and take the given worlds of stories he has heard and constructs new stories and new worlds of meaning. After I presented Charlie with a dinosaur I had knitted for him he wanted to have a dinosaur story. I asked, “What else?” He wanted a boy in the story, I suggested the boy could be “Charlie”. “No, Jack” he said. “Where shall we have the story?” I asked.  “By the sea,” he said. My mind had to work overtime to try and create a story from the characters and setting he had decided. I began,
“One day Jack was walking along the cliff top and suddenly he noticed a huge egg on the beach.”
Charlie, “A dinosaur egg”. (Lots of picture books for small children have eggs with dinosaur’s coming out of them).
“Maybe” I said. “Jack decided to go down to the beach and look. Just as he got there the egg began to make a cracking noise. Jack was scared and hid behind a rock. Slowly the egg cracked open and out came..”
“A dinosaur” said Charlie. 
“Yes, a dinosaur. Jack watched as the dinosaur started to stomp up and down the beach, stomp, stomp, stomp.” (Those with small children will recognize the inter-textual reference to a popular song about dinosaurs.) “Jack didn’t know what to do.” “Tell his mummy” said Charlie. 
“Yes, Jack ran back up the cliff as quietly and quickly as he could.  He ran home and into his house. ‘Mummy, Mummy, there’s a dinosaur on the beach’. ‘Don’t be silly’, said his Mummy, ‘there’s no such thing as dinosaurs’. Jack went and found his Daddy, ‘Daddy, Daddy, there’s a dinosaur on the beach’.  ‘Don’t be silly’, said his Daddy, ‘there’s no such thing as dinosaurs’. [Charlie is now joining in the refrain]. Jack went and found his Nana, ‘Nana, Nana, there’s a dinosaur on the beach’.  ‘Is there Jack? We’d better go and see.’ So Nana and Jack went to the cliff.  Nana looked down at the beach and there sure enough there was a..” “Dinosaur” said Charlie.
“‘We had better go and tell everyone’ said Nana so they went back to the town.” “They should ring the bell Nana” said Charlie.  [Did he get that idea from Fireman Sam?]
“Good idea Charlie. Nana and Jack went to the church and rang the bell.  All the people came from their houses to the square. Nana told them that Jack had found a dinosaur on the beach. ‘Don’t be silly,’ said the people, [Charlie and me together] ‘there’s no such thing as dinosaurs.’”
“Come and see”, said Nana. Nana and Jack led everyone to the cliff. Everyone was so surprised when they saw the dinosaur stomping up the beach.
“What are we going to do?” Someone had an idea.
“Maybe the dinosaur will be like a bird and the first living thing it sees he will think is his mother. Then that person could lead the dinosaur to the quarry where he can’t get out, but will have plants to eat. I think it’s a herbivour.”
‘What a good idea’, said Nana, ‘but who is going to do it?’
‘I’ll do it Nana,’ said Jack, ‘I found the dinosaur so it should be me.’
‘But what will happen when you get to the quarry Jack, how will get back up when the dinosaur has followed you down?’
“Fireman Sam,” said Charlie.
“That’s a good idea, Charlie, perhaps we better ring him up now – do you want to be Fireman Sam?”
“Let’s ring him now. Brriing Briing, Briing Briing, Hallo, is that Fireman Sam?”
“Yes,” said Charlie. “Can you go to the quarry and bring rope and winding gear because Jack is going to lead the dinosaur into the quarry and will need to be pulled back up?’”
“Yes,” said Charlie. [I resumed the story].
“So Jack climbed down the cliff and went up to the dinosaur, the dinosaur starting to follow Jack, up, up, up the cliff, through the town, until they got to the quarry.  All the people followed behind. Fireman Sam was waiting. He tied the rope round Jack’s waist and he walked down into the quarry. The dinosaur followed. When he got to the bottom he called to Fireman Sam. ‘You can pull me up now Fireman Sam’. Sam started turning the winding gear. [Charlie is now in role turning the handle] Jack was pulled to the top.
‘Thank you Fireman Sam,’ he said.
‘That’s alright Jack,’ said Fireman Sam, ‘glad to be of help.’
‘Hurrah for Jack’, said the people.
Jack’s Mummy and Daddy were so proud of him, but now he was very tired.  Daddy put Jack on his shoulders and carried him home where he had his favourite tea, pancakes and ice-cream and went to bed so he would be ready for more adventures tomorrow.”

In co-creating this story with me followed a week later by his adoption of the aka of Fireman Sam, Charlie shows that wonderful and strange capability that humanity is born with – that of making anew what already is. Charlie shows he is able to give his own meaning to an already meaning-saturated world. In his second year he is beginning to invest his world with new shape and meaning. He reaches out for communication, he builds up his language, starts to interpret the world around him, both real and imaginary. He brings his very powerful imagination and his capacity to pretend to reshape the stories of his world. It is through play that he creates his world and brings meaning to his life.

In attaching himself to me, his grandmother, Charlie has given me the gift of a new and living social relation and the joy of watching his very human ability to create his own being in the world and in turn I am stretched towards new understanding of myself and my world. It helps me to understand that slippery concept, creativity and learn from a small boy that each of us is creative. Charlie is an active meaning maker who is not just subsumed into the worlds of meaning into which he is born. Rather he engages in the daily task of remaking that world for himself and for those around him.

I have realised through watching Charlie that by viewing play in an instrumental way, as a tool adults can deploy for teaching children about the world, about what values to have or how to grow up, we undermine the capacity children have to use play to do this for themselves. Charlie is engaged in an endless process of becoming and has the capacity for transforming the world into ever new possibilities. Although he has been born into a world that already has meaning he, from the beginning, is re-constructing that meaning, he already has that human capacity to act and create and change things. He is actively creating his own world of meaning and this week Charlie really brought that home to me.
When I arrived at his house my daughter told me that Charlie had decided he is not Charlie but Fireman Sam and in turn my daughter is Penny, her partner is Elvis, the baby is Officer Steel and Mabel, the dog has been renamed Radar. Many of the characters from Fireman Sam now inhabit the house. Charlie contemplated who I could be. My daughter suggested Dilys or Bella Lasagne. Charlie didn’t want me to be Dilys and he couldn’t pronounce Bella Lasagne and for a day he considered what character I could be before finally deciding that I was Goldilocks. For the next two days I was not Nana, but Goldilocks. Only occasionally did he say, “I want to be Charlie now Nana,” but for the vast majority of time his absorption in the world of Fireman Sam was impressive. We kept forgetting he was ‘Sam’, but he never did – whenever we called him ‘Charlie’ by mistake he would quickly retort, “I’m not Charlie” and we would say, “Sorry, Fireman Sam.” If I said, “Go and tell Daddy”, he would say, “not Daddy, he’s Elvis”.

Unsurprisingly to go with his new persona, Charlie demanded Fireman Sam stories. Not having many to hand (I don’t watch a lot of CBBies) I offered him the possibility of re-writing his favourite stories of Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, The Enormous Turnip, The Gingerbread Man and others to include Fireman Sam. He readily agreed and soon Fireman Sam was responsible for using a helicopter to rescue the Gingerbread Man from the nose of the fox as he swam across the river; of using his axe to cut Grandma and Red Riding Hood from the wolf’s stomach; of using the helicopter again to capture the wolf who is about to jump down the chimney and devour the three little pigs and help Mike the Knight deal with the dragon from fire mountain with his hose. Charlie loved these new renditions of his stories.

I had been planning to tell him the story of ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’ which had been one of his mother’s favourite stories when she was three, and decided to introduce Sam into the story from the beginning. For those who don’t know, the story is about a mother and child who are poor and frequently hungry. The little girl helps an old woman cross the road and as a reward she is given a ‘magic porridge pot’. Whenever she says, “Cook Little pot, cook,” the pot produces porridge.  When she wants it to stop she has to say, “Enough little pot, enough”.  One day the girl goes to visit a friend and the mother was hungry and asks the pot to cook some porridge. When the pot is full she wants it to stop, but she can’t remember the words. “Stop little pot, stop” she says, “No more little pot, no more.” Nothing works and the porridge flows over the table, onto the floor, out into the street and soon the whole town is full of porridge. The little girl comes back and tells the pot, “enough little pot, enough” and it finally stops producing porridge.
“What shall we do?” asks the mother.
“I know”, says the little girl,
“Call Fireman Sam” shouts Charlie.
Charlie now moves into his role as Fireman Sam and answers the ‘phone’. “Hallo” says the little girl’s mother, “Is that Fireman Sam?” “Yes” says Charlie (aka Fireman Sam). The ‘little girl’ explains the problem and Sam offers to bring Jupiter and a hose. Charlie gets into ‘Jupiter’, puts on the ‘nee, naw’ and drives to the town. He unloads the hose and using appropriate noises, hoses down the street. He is profoundly thanked for his services and offered tea and cake and three cheers for Fireman Sam. Over the next three days this same scenario is played out many times. The smile on Charlie’s face expresses his delight with the new story. I have found he always wants a new story repeated over and over until he has fully absorbed it and by the end of my stay he was beginning to join in with “Cook, little pot, Cook” and “enough little pot, enough”.

Charlie stands before the world full of untold possibility, he is ceaselessly exploring, playing, taking in new ideas, opening up new potentials. In that process his creativity is expanding and interdependent with the adults that he shares his world with. Charlie is not only trying to understand his place in his world, but engaged in the task of reshaping and reinventing it. Charlie’s life is already complex and conflict is a daily experience for him as he seeks to gain agency over his world. As he engaged with story and with the adults in his life he is learning how to put himself in other’s shoes – at the moment he is exploring what it feels like to be ‘the hero next door’, he is learning how to treat people and animals with respect, to show consideration for others’ toys and belongings, and to willingly embrace social responsibilities. But he is not merely receiving these moral ideas about how to behave, he brings to these ideas his own creativity. He shows that at the age of 2 years and 11 months he is a fully human being who inhabits and is able to create fully meaningful worlds for himself.

How children are understood by adults is both historically and socially constructed, through the concept of ‘childhood’ which is diversely interpreted throughout the many cultures of the world and at different historical times. My living experience of being a Nana to Charlie is challenging my previous understanding of childhood. I realise that Charlie as a two year old has a fundamental capability for creating meaning, he is already creating new worlds of meaning from the worlds of meaning that have already been created by history and culture. This calls for change in the very structures of our society in response to what is distinctive about children and to recognize that children are full human beings not merely adults-in-the-making. opening themselves up to more expansive experiences of being and relations.  It can include games, imagination, pretending, sports, art, literature, theatre etc, but play can also be understood as the very dynamics of HB in the world. Play is what makes it possible to create meaning.