`Show Me a Child before S/he Is ...'? Prior-to-Preschool Literacy Experiences of Children in Australia

Article excerpt

Children's prior-to-preschool home lives are the focus of this article. Carried out as a part of DEETYA Children's Literacy Project (Hill et al., 1998), the research characterises the differences between the prior-to-preschool literacy experiences of these Australian children in terms of the material, social and cultural resources that their families have available to them in their everyday lives and that which the children take up as their own as part of `themselves'.

Introduction

It is clear that the school and preschool are not the only settings in which small children learn to be literate. Further, these are not the only settings in which children experience what can be seen as formal literacy practices. In this article I focus on the home as a category for explicit attention. In 1996-97, Sue Hill, Barbara Comber, Bill Louden, Judith Rivalland and I studied the connections between literacy prior to school and in the first year of school for 100 Australian children across five research sites funded by DEETYA as a Children's Literacy Project (Hill et al., 1998).(1) Twenty of these children have been the focus of case studies, and our analyses indicate that these children's prior-to-preschool home lives can be broadly categorised in several significant ways, in spite of sometimes marked differences from each other within and between our research sites.

The differences in the prior-to-preschool literacy experiences of these Australian children can be characterised most clearly in terms of the material, social and cultural resources that their families have available to them in their everyday lives, and that which the children take up as their own as part of `themselves'. For children such as Paul and Erin, Aston, Christianne, Allan and the others we studied, the time they spend at home and with members of their families is not like the time they spend at preschool or school. For each of them, though, this time is more or less like time at school, in terms of the language interactions and literacy experiences on offer. The family literacy practices of the children in this study, however, vary far more than the literacy practices of the different preschools and schools to which their families send them.

Stephanie Gunn (1997) has already noted that one of the recurring themes evident in national children's literacy research projects funded in Australia to date `is that literacy practices and activities in the schools have more in common than the literacy practices at home and in the community'(1997: p. 3). She cites work by Breen et al. (1994), and Cairney et al. (1995) to note the similarity of school literacy practices in schools `regardless of the location or type of school population' and the lack of adjustment made by schools in response to differences among clientele (Gunn, 1997: p. 3).

On the basis of our analysis of the case studies developed during this project, I want to argue here, along with many other Australian and international researchers (e.g. Heath, 1983; Luke, 1992; McCarthey, 1997), that some of the literacy events in some homes draw on official literate traditions and cultural practice. These can also, at times, be seen as literacy events which actually fit more institutional definitions of the literacy curriculum, like those on offer in preschool and school settings. Learning literacy, and being a (pre)literate preschool child, therefore is a matter of contexts (ways and means of engagement and interaction in social practice involving literacy) as well as of content (knowledge and information about how literacy works). It is a matter of what is available in children's homes, of how children engage in literate practices that enable them to learn, as well as what they learn. From such a perspective, there is quite clearly a home literacy `curriculum' in some families, in which school literacy knowledge is a mode of communication, and which `naturally' places the children of these families at an advantage when they begin school literacy learning. …