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?
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.