Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy Learning and Children's Social Agendas in the School Entry Classroom

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

Literacy Learning and Children's Social Agendas in the School Entry Classroom

Article excerpt

Introduction: Some uses for pencils

Pencils, to literacy educators, are beginner tools for writing with. Despite the advent of digital writing technologies, these low tech implements remain the tool of choice for those inducting young children into literacy. Learning how to hold and manipulate a pencil is still considered one of the signs of readiness for formal literacy instruction. Parents from all walks of life ensure that their preschool children have had opportunities to use pencils, or similar writing tools such as crayons and textas, before they set foot in a classroom. When children do begin school, one of their first experiences of formal instruction is in how to hold a pencil so that they can form letters properly.

As well as writing, though, young school children do other kinds of work with their pencils, work that is neither the subject of adult instruction nor taken as a sign of readiness to learn literacy:

   Five-year-old Toby, Dylan, David and Max are sitting
   around a set of tables, each with a worksheet in front
   of him. Their task is to circle pictures that depict
   words starting with 'D'. Toby picks out two pencils from
   the tin in the centre of the table group and holds them
   up against each other. He scrutinises the pencils and
   then announces: 'This one is more grown up than this

   Across the table, Dylan counters with 'I bet I can find
   the longest pencil'. A boy from another table leans over
   to look. Toby puts down the two pencils he was holding
   and picks up a whole handful of pencils, nearly all the
   contents of the tin. He looks carefully at each and
   selects out a black pencil with a red stripe. 'This is
   more grown up' he says.

   Dylan brandishes a longer pencil: 'This is even more
   grown up'. 'What does that mean? Even more grown up?'
   Toby challenges.

   Anneliese, at a nearby table seems to be tuning in.
   She stands up holding a handful of pencils in front
   of her and calls 'We've got lots of pencils here!'

What are we to make of this scene? Does it have any significance for educators interested in children's literacy development?

One way of thinking about this example is in terms of the children's engagement with the literacy task. A task-centred analysis would maintain the focus on the teacher's agenda in relation to the objectives of the literacy curriculum. This kind of analysis would be consistent with the current push for accountability and benchmarking. The task in this example is to circle pictures of words beginning with 'D'. All other uses of the pencils would thus be indicators of 'off-task' behaviour and could potentially constitute a management issue for the teacher. Of course, the task itself could be challenged. Circling pictures could be seen as a lower order activity, likely to result in boredom and work avoidance. These children could be engaged with creative, interesting literacy tasks, the argument would go, and then they would not need to resort to mucking about with pencils.

Another way of thinking about this example is to consider the children's social goals and their ways of employing whatever is at hand--the everyday objects in their classroom worlds--in the pursuit of these goals. From this perspective, pencils could be seen as a valuable commodity, a resource to be accumulated and traded. Participating in the 'pencil economy' might be understood as a higher order challenge than the literacy task set by the teacher and its performance might tell us quite a lot about the social competence of the players. Do we need to know about children's social goals and social competence in order to understand their literacy development? If the purpose of literacy learning is to enable children to participate as social agents, and if literacy learning is itself accomplished through participation in social practices, then the answer is yes.

Social agendas in the school entry classroom

In this paper, I will be presenting three case studies, each one focusing on a particular child's participation in the social context of classroom literacy activities. …

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