Early Childhood Literacy and Popular Culture

Jackie Marsh. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the school saw itself as a place where working-class children might be compensated for belonging to working-class families. (Steedman, 1985: 156)

One could argue that, as a means of developing this compensatory role, schooling across centuries and continents has celebrated particular versions of ‘high’ culture in the hope of leading the populace to ‘the best that has been thought and known in the world’ (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869). This is no less true of schooling for young children as it is for the education of their older counterparts. This chapter focuses on research that has challenged this hegemonic construction of the literacy curriculum, research which has thrust issues relating to the study of the popular firmly onto the educational agenda. Indeed, the inclusion of a chapter focusing on the role of popular culture in early literacy in this handbook is an indication of the growing impact of the field. Despite its relatively recent history, there has been a range of work which has served to illustrate the complex relationship between popular culture and literacy in the early years. In this chapter, key themes and issues that have emerged from this body of research are reviewed and future research agendas identified.

The chapter begins with an exploration of the concept of popular culture itself and discusses the relationship between literacy and popular culture. The role of popular culture in the literacy practices undertaken in the home is then identified, before the chapter moves on to discuss research which has focused on the use of popular culture in nurseries and schools. In the final part of the chapter, ways in which future research agendas might be shaped by contemporary issues and concerns are discussed. What is not addressed in these pages is the question of the need for such a focus on popular culture in the first place. For this discussion, see Williams (1965) and Willis (1990) who remind us that schools should not exist to compensate children for their cultural experiences, but should, in fact, recognize and build on them. As many children’s cultural experiences are located firmly within the realm of the popular, it is necessary to turn first to a critical examination of this concept.

Popular Culture and Literacy

Definitions of popular culture are as varied and contradictory as those of culture itself (Jenks, 1993). The strict dichotomy between high and low culture which has been posited for many years can no longer be sustained. There is much evidence that texts which have long been assumed to represent ‘high’ culture actually began their days within the popular realm, as is the case with the work of Shakespeare, for example (Levine, 1991). However, it is clear that there are inherent divisions and cultural hierarchies and, therefore, it is possible to identify those texts and artefacts which may be seen as popular:

Popular culture refers to the beliefs and practices, and the objects through which they are organized, that are widely shared among a population. This includes folk beliefs, practices and the objects rooted in local traditions, and mass beliefs, practices and objects generated in political and commercial centers. It includes elite cultural forms that have been popularized as well as popular forms that have been elevated to the museum tradition. (Mukerji and Schudson, 1991: 3)

Such a postmodern construction of the term allows us to recognize that popular cultural forms are constantly changing and are bound by sociocultural contexts. Children’s popular cultural pursuits are obviously inflected by local concerns and contexts and thus there can be no comprehensive account of the texts that might be involved in children’s popular cultural practices. For some children in majority world cultures, or in economically disadvantaged communities in minority world countries, artefacts of popular culture may be few in number, might be adaptations of cultural products aimed at adults, or may be locally produced and fashioned from the materials to hand—paper, stone, wood, metal and so on, having little to do with manufactured, globalized narratives derived from television or film. This is not the case, of course, in all majority world or economically disadvantaged communities, and Ritzer’s (1996) critique of the ‘McDonaldization’ of global cultures is an incisive account of how multinational industries have ruthlessly expanded global operations, discounting localized practices and cultural knowledge and values. However, children’s agency in the ways in which global narratives are taken up is rarely acknowledged and there needs to be a much more careful study of how these texts are appropriated and adapted in specific cultural contexts. In addition, children engage in popular cultural practices which are not always a part of these Westernized narratives. For example, many children, in Asia and across the world, watch Indian movies, many of which are made in Bombay and which are an integral part of their families’ leisure pursuits (see Kenner, 2000, whose research is located in the UK). These movies are often referred to as ‘Bollywood’ films, but this appears to make it a marked binary term, with ‘Hollywood’ as the privileged concept. Dyson also notes that in one Mexican-American community in the USA, children consumed popular car magazines such as Lowrider and, in a Chinese-American neighbourhood, children enjoyed Asian animation (Dyson, 1996: 473). There is a growing body of work which attests to the culturally specific popular cultural interests of teenagers and young people (Mahiri, 1998; Moje, 2000). However, there is little research as yet into similar practices in early childhood and therefore, whilst this chapter draws primarily from research conducted in minority world locations, it is important to recognize that popular culture can be both hegemonic and non-hegemonic in nature and is differently indexed in localized communities of practice.

Children’s popular culture includes a wide range of cultural objects. Figure 10.1 outlines some of the texts and artefacts which may be included in any exploration of the term. This is not, of course, an exhaustive list. As suggested earlier, access to and use of the texts and artefacts which are contained within this web are obviously dependent on culture, economic capital and social context.

Manufacturers and media industries have been swift to exploit the possibilities afforded by the interrelationships between these texts. Narratives are developed across computer games, television programmes, toys, cards, stickers, fast food and gifts and many children are able to play with, watch, listen to, eat, wear and sleep on texts and artefacts which are linked to their favourite characters and media texts. This ‘transmedia intertextuality’ (Kinder, 1991: 3) contributes to the development of peer culture and means that children can engage in specific narratives even if they own only a relatively minor part of the system, for example stickers and cards (Marsh and Millard, 2000). More recently, Gunter Kress has indicated the importance of these ‘communicational webs’ (2000: 143) as children’s multimodal meaning making crosses sites and media (see also Nixon, 2001).

Once the extent and richness of the range of texts and artefacts that constitute children’s popular culture have been recognized, it is a short step to understanding the way in which popular culture can impact upon literacy experiences and development. Many of the texts included in Figure 10.1 contain printed text (books, comics, magazines), other texts are embedded into children’s new literacy practices (television, film, computer games, mobile phones) and others (toys, games) have books and literacy materials linked to them. There is evidence that children read material which is related to their popular cultural interests (Millard, 1997). Computer gamers, for example, often are avid readers of computer magazines as they glean information about ‘cheats’ and games (Roe and Muijs, 1998). This chapter will examine research that has indicated ways in which children engage in reading and writing texts which are located within their popular cultural worlds in out-of-school contexts, but it will also review work which has explored how far popular culture can be used within the early years curriculum as a resource and stimulus for literacy activities.

Popular Culture in the Home

Most of the studies which have explored children’s literacy practices within the home have focused upon print-based text, although many throw light on the way in which texts that are located within children’s popular culture are an integral part of this literacy network. There are four key themes which emerge from a review of this work. The first is the extent to which popular cultural texts are deeply embedded within the literacy lives of families. The second is the way in which such texts become an integral part of children’s literacy practices in households. The third theme to emerge is that, generally, in the research reported here, parents appear to view children’s engagement with popular cultural texts in a positive light. Finally, the dissonance between home and nursery/school practices in relation to popular culture is a thread which runs through a number of studies. These themes will be addressed in turn.

The Range of Popular Cultural Texts in the Home

There is evidence to suggest that popular cultural texts are an integral part of the literacy environment in many homes. Although not a specific focus of most studies located within domestic sites, research which has documented the literacy texts and practices situated in young children’s homes has demonstrated that, within this sphere, children and parents encounter a range of cultural and media texts. Purcell-Gates (1996) examined the home literacy practices of 20 families from ‘low socio-economic status’ groups in the USA, located within a range of ethnic communities. Families were observed by researchers over a period of one week and all literacy practices taking place within the home were recorded. Members of the project families engaged with a range of texts which included TV guides, junk mail and food labels.

This trend was identified by Weinberger in her 1996 study of 42 families in the UK. Weinberger traced the literacy practices of children aged three to six over three years. Weinberger found that much of the print in homes was related to everyday life and included junk mail, newspapers and magazines. Many of the children’s books in the home were related to popular television characters (1996: 48). Again in the UK, Moss (2001) constructed a study in which children aged seven to nine took photographs which tracked how reading resources were made available to them in the home. Children photographed themselves and siblings reading popular storybooks (e.g. Disney), comics and magazines, took pictures of posters, catalogues, sticker albums and a range of environmental print including shopping bags and food packaging. For these children, the literacy environment consisted of a wide range of texts and the boundaries between popular and canonical texts were blurred. Corresponding patterns which indicate the significant place of popular cultural texts in young children’s households have also been found in Australia by Cairney et al. (1996). In addition, it is clear that the pervasiveness of media and popular cultural texts in many homes crosses cultural and linguistic boundaries and there is evidence of bilingual children accessing a range of popular and media texts in more than one language (Kenner, 2000; Rodriguez, 1999; Xu, 1999).

Children’s Popular Cultural Literacy Practices in the Home

The second theme to emerge from a consideration of the literature relating to popular culture in the home is that children draw readily from these texts and artefacts in their home-based literacy practices. In Marsh and Thompson’s (2001) study in the UK, 18 families in a white, working-class community in the north of England were asked to keep literacy diaries for a period of four weeks. These literacy diaries documented the number and titles of texts which three-and four-year-old children read over that four-week period, including televisual texts. Key findings were that, as is the case with older children (Livingstone and Bovill, 1999), televisual texts were a primary source of narrative satisfaction (Hilton, 1996), with children watching television and films far more than they engaged in any other type of literacy activity. However, embedded within children’s literacy practices in the home were a range of popular cultural texts such as computer (mainly console) games, comics, books based on television characters and environmental print linked to media texts (stickers, labels, video labels and computer game boxes). The role of television in preschool children’s meaning making in the home was also a pattern noted by Rodriguez (1999) in her study of three Dominican preschool children aged two and a half to five years, living in New York City. The children were observed in the home over a period of nine months. Rodriguez reported that children engaged with a wide range of texts within the home, but were particularly drawn to television and were highly attentive to the print which appeared on the screen. In addition, they were not passive viewers, but were constantly asking questions and talking about what they were watching, demonstrating meaning making practices that have been noted in relation to older children (Buckingham, 1993; Palmer, 1986; Robinson, 1997).

Children draw from their popular culture not only when reading televisual texts, but also when engaging in multimodal productive practices within the home. Popular culture provides part of the cultural store of semiotic texts from which children draw when meaning making in whatever context (Dyson, 1997a). Kenner (2000) outlines the literacy practices of three bilingual children in their London homes. Three-year-old Billy’s favourite literacy item, his mother noted, was a Thai karaoke video that displayed the words of the songs in Thai script across the screen, which Billy enjoyed watching and singing along with. Meera, also aged three, copied Gujerati script from magazines, encouraged by her father. Four-year-old Mohammed used a song tape to learn Arabic letters and loved to identify the names of different makes of cars when out in the community. In Pahl’s (2001; 2002) ethnographic studies of children’s multimodal meaning making in homes, children can be seen moving seamlessly between multilingual sites as they mine whatever they can to produce texts that reflect a range of media and cultural interests. This rich seam of popular texts from which children draw has also been identified in a number of other studies that have analysed children’s semiotic practices in the home (see Anning and Ring, 1999; Barrs, 1988; Carrington and Luke, 2003; Hicks, 2001).

In many countries, popular cultural and media texts often form the majority of young children’s first encounters with spoken and written English. In a number of studies, children’s engagement with popular culture in the home has been linked to the development of English as an additional language. Xu (1999) documented the home literacy practices of six Chinese-American children aged between five and six. She found that children often read, alongside their parents, the TV guides in order to find out about their favourite programmes. All of the children watched television for at least one hour per day. For the children in Xu’s study, popular culture was an important means of developing an understanding and use of English as an additional language. Orellana (1994) also found, in an analysis of three Spanish-speaking children’s superhero play, that watching popular television programmes helped to develop the children’s American English. There are complex issues relating to cultural imperialism and hegemonic constructions of cultural identities within media texts which need to be traced in this process. This work does suggest that popular culture has a role to play in young children’s acquisition of language and, for bilingual children, it can provide a means of creating cultural and linguistic shared spaces between home, school and community (Kenner, 2000).

Parental Attitudes

Despite the unease of a number of early years educators concerning the influence of popularculture on young children (see Levin and Rosenquest, 2001), it would appear that many parents view things rather differently. Makin et al. (1999) interviewed 60 parents across 79 early years settings in Australia. The researchers noted that, in discussions with Aboriginal parents and other groups of parents who spoke languages other than English, the use of technology such as TV, video and computer games was highly valued by them as a means of acquiring English as an additional language (Makin et al., 1999: 130). In a number of studies in which parents have been interviewed on this topic, there is evidence that many parents not only provide popular cultural and media resources for their children and recognize their role in promoting early literacy development, but are positive about the place of such texts in their children’s lives (Arthur, 2001; Marsh and Thompson, 2001; Weinberger, 1996; Xu, 1999). This is, as the next sections illustrate, in direct contrast to the way in which popular culture is viewed in early years settings and schools.

Home-School Differences

Congruency between home and educational sites is an important concept if institutions are to build upon the richness of children’s media literacy backgrounds (Arthur et al., 2001; Jones Diaz et al., 2000; Makin et al., 1999; Marsh and Thompson, 2001). In a study of 79 early childhood education sites in Australia, in which the research team interviewed two staff members at each site and conducted focus group interviews with 60 parents, Makin et al. (1999) found that literacy practices embedded within technology and popular culture were pervasive in homes, yet few early years settings incorporated such resources into the curriculum. Although 71% of parents identified technology and popular culture as important to their child’s literacy development, only 13% of staff acknowledged such practices occurred within the home, with many staff expressing concerns about these literacy events, in particular the viewing of television.

This dissonance between home and school practices with regard to popular culture has also been identified in a number of other studies (Comber et al., 2001; Hill et al., 1998; Marsh, 2003a). Hicks (2001) provides a detailed case study of one working-class white child growing up in the USA. She observed and documented the home and school learning experiences of the boy Jake over a three-year period, between the ages of four and seven. Hicks reports that, in the home, ‘Jake’s fictional world seemed largely constructed around physically enacted texts, texts that involved a high degree of movement and that often involved media forms’ (2001: 220). Jake, for example, liked to play Sega computer games, which involved him in corporeal modes of meaning making. However, when Jake started school, the curriculum did not reflect his interests or areas of expertise; he became disengaged from activities and was soon identified as a ‘struggling’ reader. Carrington and Luke (2003) also use children’s experience of the disjuncture between home and school literacy practices to argue that so-called ‘at-risk’ students are placed in risky situations because of the lack of attention paid by educational settings to literacy practices embedded within popular culture and new technologies. The lack of continuity between homes and schools with regard to popular culture and new technologies has been extensively noted (Carrington, 2001; Kress, 1997; Luke, 1999; Luke and Luke, 2001; Makin and Jones Diaz, 2002; Marsh and Millard, 2000; Marsh and Thompson, 2001), yet the situation still persists in many societies. In the following section of this chapter, work is examined which has, despite the apparent lack of interest from policy makers, addressed the way in which such texts are used and can be utilized within the literacy curriculum of nurseries and schools.

Popular Culture, Literacy, and Schooling

Any study of the relationship between popular culture, literacy and schooling in early childhood must acknowledge the way in which the official curriculum in most institutions serves to exclude popular cultural and non-canonical texts. The work of cultural reproductionists offers insight into how the official literacy curricula of early years settings and schools reflect the interests of the powerful and governing classes (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977; Bernstein, 1996), although this work has been criticized for being overly deterministic (Sharp, 1980). In addition, the work of Freire (1972), Apple (1993) and Giroux (1988; 1994) has been central to the exploration of this relationship between pedagogical practices and culture, although the extent to which they share the reproductionist models or draw from Marxist discourses differs. In relation to literacy, the work of Luke (1994) in particular has demonstrated how ‘dominant literacies’ (Lankshear et al., 1997: 74) become enshrined in the curriculum and draw from the ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu, 1977) of particular socio-economic groups at the same time as they marginalize the cultural capital of other groups. An examination of the way in which the curriculum frames knowledge and excludes popular culture in this process must also address the issue of the ‘null curriculum’ (Eisner, 1979: 83). Eisner suggests that any study of the curriculum should contain an analysis of what educational institutions do not teach, as that impacts on what is taught. Britzman goes further to say that:

The null curriculum signifies all that is not selected as well as all that occurs but which remains unnamed and acknowledged. Housed within official school discourse but situated behind the backs of teachers, the null curriculum can be thought of as ‘renegade’ knowledge. Such knowledge exists outside the boundaries of institutional sanctions and defies institutional order. The null curriculum is represented by silences, deliberate omissions, and what the institution of school designates as cultural taboos, controversy, or matters deemed extraneous to the values of efficiency and standardization. Its exclusion is most evident when ‘covering the material’ mandates the silencing of student voice and, concurrently, the diminishment of student experience. (1989: 143)

The phrase ‘behind the backs of teachers’, however, may suggest that teachers are not complicit in the exclusion of students’ interests. This is not always the case (see Marsh, 2003b; Seiter, 1999). Despite the lack of attention paid to media and popular texts by many early childhood educators, however, children’s resourcefulness means that they find a myriad ways to circumvent such exclusionary tactics and draw from their popular cultural worlds in classroom literacy events.

Unofficial Worlds and Appropriated Texts

In 1985, Carolyn Steedman outlined how Amarjit, a Punjabi girl living in a northern UK town, created a song using the materials she had to hand which were, in this case, a reading primer and her own voice. Steedman notes that:

An act of transformation like this can be seen as an act of play, in the same way as reading and writing are play, a way of manipulating the symbols of a social and emotional world, and of abstracting meaning from a particular reality. (1985: 138)

Nowhere has children’s playful transformation and reconceptualization of media texts been traced more powerfully than in Anne Haas Dyson’s work. Dyson’s corpus of work (see 1994; 1995; 1996; 1997a; 1997b; 1998; 1999a; 1999b; 2000; 2001a; 2001b; 2002) has been central to the development of our understanding of the ways in which children transgress the restrictions of the ‘null curriculum’ in early childhood classrooms. Her writing demonstrates how children take up media and popular cultural texts in their creation of an ‘unofficial curriculum’ (Dyson, 1997a) in which they negotiate teacher-mandated tasks but reconstruct them in order that their own interests and desires are woven into the daily fabric of classroom life. Dyson’s extensive work on popular culture has focused specifically on the writing curriculum, but much of what she has to say about the potential of media texts can be applied more widely across the literacy curriculum.

In an early study, Dyson (1994) observed a second-grade classroom class in San Francisco for a period of three months. The data reported on in her paper focus on observations relating to the use of ‘author’s theatre’, in which children wrote stories which were then performed by peers of their choosing. In the study, Dyson illustrates how the children’s media stories generated power struggles in which class, race and gender were used as markers of identity and agency and informed how the children’s stories were developed and performed. In a book which provides more extensive details of the research undertaken in this school (Dyson, 1997a), she describes how further data were collected by means of extensive observations of children in their second-and third-grade classrooms and through the collection of their written texts, audiotapes of the author’s theatre and the recording of conversations with the children and their teacher. These rich data provided further information about the way in which children constructed their unofficial social worlds and how popular culture informed that construction. In choosing which of their classmates were to act out their stories, children played with notions of exclusivity and inclusivity and were negotiating their social worlds as much as they were creating written ones. In this study, Dyson outlines the attraction of superhero stories for young children and indicates how they are both liberating (in providing a forum in which children’s knowledge can be drawn upon) and limiting (in providing a forum in which stereotyped roles are rife). The worlds created by children were unofficial in the sense that the popular material was not introduced by Kristin, the teacher involved in the study, although she obviously sanctioned its use. Despite the lack of official recognition of popular texts in mandated curricula, children throughout Dyson’s studies have imaginatively exploited this rich source of semiotic material as they create media-saturated ‘figured worlds’ (Holland et al., 1998) within the realm of the classroom.

Children use this cultural agency to refashion media discourses in a playful and inventive manner. Dyson (1999a) outlines five ways in which media were appropriated by children for use in schooled texts in one of her studies. Table 10.1 provides an overview of these categories, illustrated by the examples Dyson provides in relation to children’s use of sports media. These five categories can be traced in the ways in which children appropriate media texts in a range of other studies outlined in this chapter and indicate the extent to which media discourses permeate children’s meaning making. This process of requisition serves to validate children’s own cultural resources and, in addition, it enables them to negotiate and navigate peer relationships. Seiter (1993) has suggested that popular culture is the lingua franca of playgrounds and, as such, it can offer a means for children from disparate linguistic, cultural and economic backgrounds to forge common links and develop dialogic communities of practice (Dyson, 1997a; Marsh, 2000b; Suss et al., 2001). One discourse which is regularly subject to such border crossing is that of the superhero.


Superheroes offer an iconic embodiment of the concept of ‘good’ which is engaged in the fight against its binary opposite, ‘evil’, and this elemental, mythic narrative can be attractive to young children (Dyson, 1997a). In addition, daring costumes and technological wizardry offer children performative narratives of autonomy and adventure (Marsh, 2000a). In Dyson’s (1997a) work, the superhero cult has been shown to hold a particular attraction for young children. This is also the case in other work undertaken in North America and Australia (Clark, 1995; Paley, 1984). A number of studies have examined the way in which superhero play can inform children’s language and literacy development (Barrs, 1988; Marsh, 1999) and have suggested that it can provide a means of encouraging language acquisition. Orellana (1994) focused on superhero play as a means of developing oral language in her study of three bilingual preschool children’s language use in such play. She suggested that American popular culture, and in particular the superhero narrative, was a useful tool in developing English as an additional language.

There has been work which suggests that superhero play is particularly attractive to young boys. Vivian Gus Paley (1984) observed young children in a kindergarten in the United States of America. She found that boys in particular were attracted to the superhero genre and acted out narratives based on this genre in their play. Clark (1995) conducted a study over three years in Canada, which focused on 46 children aged six to seven. The researcher studied the narratives of the children and analysed the differently gendered elements in boys’ and girls’ stories. Clark (1995: 10) suggested that boys in particular focused on superheroes as the key characters in their stories and that the girls in her study responded in similar ways to those in Paley’s (1984) work in that they were not attracted to the superhero genre. However, in the work of Dyson (1997a) and Marsh (1999; 2000a), girls were clearly attracted to the superhero genre but encountered resistance from boys who engaged in furious ‘borderwork’ (Thorne, 1993) to keep them at bay. For a more extensive discussion of issues relating to gender and popular culture, see Millard’s chapter in this volume.

Hybrid Texts

In Dyson’s (1997a) study, popular culture provided the material for the children’s writing and social relationships in the classroom and bridged the domains of schooled literacy and the literacy practices of the children’s unofficial worlds of home and community. As the children refashioned superhero stories for classroom use, the teacher introduced Greek myths to the class and the children subsequently interwove the narratives of these archetypal myths into their writing and superhero play. Thus, Dyson notes, ‘Venus had entered the classroom image store, along with the Power Rangers, the X-men, and Rosa Parks’ (1997a: 143).

In later studies, Dyson has examined in closer detail the way in which media discourses are recon-textualized by children in their production of classroom texts (Dyson, 1999a; 2001a; 2001b; 2002) and outlines how these hybrid texts present an opportunity to examine both conjuncture and disjuncture between official and unofficial worlds. In a classroom ethnography undertaken over a year in an elementary classroom, Dyson observed children for four to six hours per week over an eight-month period, in addition to collecting the work of all 20 children in the class. In a close analysis of the way in which two children used media texts to inform their social and cultural landscape, Dyson (2001a; 2002) outlines how the children appropriated narratives from cartoons, songs and classroom texts to inform their writing. She argues that the children were:

recontextualizing material from diverse sources. That recontextualizing necessitated some negotiating among the conventions of different symbolic media, and it led as well to a highlighting of the social expectations of different words. (2001a: 28)

The children deftly negotiated the different textual, social and ideological practices embedded within these various media as they produced hybrid texts which included snippets from pop songs and cartoon videos alongside more canonical classroom texts such as non-fiction books on space and picture books.

Hicks suggests that schools need to develop ‘hybrid pedagogical spaces’ (2001: 226) in which children’s out-of-school interests are given due recognition within the curriculum. There are a number of compelling accounts of how such hybrid pedagogical spaces have been developed successfully across a range of social and cultural contexts (see Au and Kawakami, 1991; Kenner, 2000; Millard, 2003; Moll et al., 1992). Such a move with regard to children’s experiences could provide opportunities to address some of the difficulties identified by Hicks (2001) and Carrington and Luke (2003) regarding children’s lack of motivation to engage in literacy practices as framed by schools. Throughout much of the literature on the use of popular culture in educational settings, a key tenet has been that it can provide a useful means of motivating children to take part in schooled literacy events. The following section reviews this body of work.


Motivation is key to literacy learning (Guthrie et al., 1996; Turner, 1995; Turner and Paris, 1995). There is growing evidence of the way in which popular culture can orientate children towards taking part in schooled literacy practices. Helen Bromley (1996) analysed the way in which children she taught in a reception class drew from video films in their oral and written narratives and outlined how films provided an exciting stimulus for literacy work for these children as they retold favourite stories and read video covers. The stories recreated in many of the videos watched by children, the majority produced by Disney, drew on fairytales, myths and legends, all of which encapsulate and replay deep narratives of desire (Hilton, 1996: 41). It is inevitable, therefore, that these are the texts which magnetically draw children to literacy events in classrooms.

In Marsh (1999), a Batman and Batwoman HQ was set up in a base shared by two vertically grouped classes containing 58 children aged between six and seven. Data were collected through observation, videorecording of the role-play area and analysis of children’s written texts. The study indicated that the superhero theme was extremely appealing for the majority of the children in the class, but proved to be particularly attractive to a group of boys who had been identified by the teachers as underachieving in literacy. These boys were observed engaging in a wide range of literacy practices in the HQ and took more interest in literacy activities outside of the ‘Batcave’ (Marsh, 1999; 2000a). This also proved to be the case in relation to younger children who attended two nurseries in the north of England (Marsh, 2000b). Sixty-three three-and four-year-old children took part in a range of literacy activities based on ‘The Teletubbies’ television programme, which included making ‘Tubby custard’ and then writing their own ‘Teletubby’ recipes. Data were collected using observation, analysis of written texts and interviews with nursery staff. Again, analysis of the data indicated that the discourse was very attractive to the children and the nursery staff expressed astonishment at the response of children previously identified as not being orientated towards schooled literacy practices (Marsh, 2000b). In addition, the activities promoted discussion by the children of their knowledge of the shared texts and thus enhanced the opportunities to build dialogic communities in the multilingual environments of the nurseries.

A number of other case studies also indicate that the use of popular cultural texts in early childhood classrooms can enhance motivation, whether that is through the use of popular computer games such as Super Mario (Hill and Broadhurst, 2002) and Pokmon (Arthur, 2001), television characters such as the Smurfs (O’Brien, 1998), or comics featuring a range of popular characters (Millard and Marsh, 2001). In addition, such work can provide a means of recognizing the ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll et al., 1992) from which children draw and which arises from their saturation in popular culture at home and the community. (This is an issue explored further in Carrington, 2001; Comber, 1998; Comber and Simpson, 2001; Dyson, 1999a; Hicks, 2001; Marsh and Millard, 2000.)

It is important to point out that the work outlined above does not subscribe to a romantic vision in which children’s popular culture is idealistically celebrated and used uncritically as a means of orientating children towards schooled literacy practices. Although the role of the consumer industry in a post-Fordist, globalized economy is recognized, and the way in which children are inscribed within that discourse acknowledged (see Kenway and Bullen, 2001), children are not bereft of agency as they engage with media texts. In addition, their critical literacy skills can be utilized and extended in work on media texts in the classroom. Nor does an emphasis on the use of popular culture in the curriculum suggest simplistically that such work will provide a platform for democratic pedagogical practices, an issue which has been addressed more extensively in relation to critical literacy.

Critical Media Stories

‘Critical literacy’ is a term which has been applied to practices which involve the examination of the sources, uses and effects of power within a text (Comber and Simpson, 2001; Knobel and Healy, 1998). Popular cultural texts lend themselves to this kind of critical analysis because of the vast amount of knowledge that children bring to an examination of the production and consumption of these texts, and there has been an emphasis on developing critical literacy skills in order to deconstruct the discourses of power embedded within popular texts. Although some of the research in this area has been concerned with older children (see Alvermann et al., 1999), there are a growing number of researchers working in the early childhood field (Comber, 1998; 2000; Comber and Simpson, 2001; Jones Diaz et al., 2002; Knobel and Healy, 1998; O’Brien, 1998; Vasquez, 2001).

As Comber’s chapter in this volume suggests, work in this area demonstrates how children’s lived experiences develop their capacity to explore critically the texts they encounter in a range of contexts, skills which can be drawn upon in enlightened and imaginative ways in classrooms (Comber, 1992; 1994; 1998; 2000; Comber and Kamler, 1997; Comber and Simpson, 2001; Comber et al., 2001). Comber’s work demonstrates that, although we can enhance children’s critical literacy skills, they do not begin this process as empty ciphers; they enter classrooms with a wealth of understanding about the popular cultural world around them. Misson (1998) also reminds us that we must approach this work with an understanding of the pleasures such texts bring to children and seek to respect this pleasure, not destroy it.

If the rich practices identified within this corpus of work are to be embedded fully in policies, curricula and early years practice, then educators need to be convinced of the ways in which such work can develop ‘powerful literacies’ (Crowther et al., 2001). Initial research in this area would suggest, however, that this recognition of the potential role of popular culture is, as yet, not widespread amongst early years professionals.

Teacher Attitudes

Research on teacher attitudes to the use of popular culture and media in the curriculum is very limited but, nonetheless, provides some illuminating glimpses into the way in which such work is viewed by professional educators. Dyson (1997a) reports on the discussions of 10 primary school teachers from San Francisco, in which they reflected on their experiences of and attitudes towards the use of popular culture in their classrooms. Some of the teachers reported on how they had used some forms of popular culture in their classroom, e.g. videos, magazines, and reproductions of popular fast-food outlets in sociodramatic play areas. Dyson suggests that ‘The genres associated with commercial media (e.g. videos, advertisements, and television shows) did not, in and of themselves, cause any ideological uneasiness. But the content of media forms could’ (1997a: 174). Thus, some teachers expressed concern over representations of women in magazines or the violence which permeated some of the media stories. The teachers reported a number of strategies to deal with this such as censoring materials, discussing their objections with children and replacing the texts with more acceptable alternatives. One teacher, Kristin, took an approach which involved children in reflecting on the ideological tensions in the media material they reworked in their stories, developing their critical literacy skills. In this way, the responsibility for challenging racist, sexist and exclusive discourses was not just the teachers’, but also the children’s.

Green et al. (1998) interviewed 28 teacher graduate students in Australia. They asked the teachers to compare the amount of time the children they taught engaged with electronic media with their use of print media. In their feedback, the teachers complained about the individualistic nature of the games, the gender imbalance in the use of the games and the way in which reading was a less favoured pursuit of the children. Green et al. suggest that a number of this new generation of teachers:

seem to be thinking and talking about Nintendo in ways that are more like their parents than their little brothers and sisters. They are concerned to make a link between computer game play and antisocial, aggressive, ‘non-literate’ behaviour. On this basis, it would seem that teacher education has a long way to go. (1998: 35)

Makin et al. interviewed 158 early years teachers in Australia and, from their negative attitudes and lack of knowledge about the discourse, concluded that:

There is wide divergence between parents and early childhood staff in terms of their beliefs about the role technology and popular culture can play in young children’s early literacy. Because staff do not seek or understand parents’ knowledge about children’s early literacy at home and in the community, most staff seem unaware of the literacy learning potential of technology as well as other aspects of early literacy at home and in the community. (1999: 115)

This negative attitude towards popular computer games is not confined to Australian teachers. A study by Sanger et al. in the UK demonstrated that most of the teachers who took part in their survey disapproved of the kinds of games likely to be used by many children and banned computer magazines from their classrooms, despite being ignorant of the content of these publications (Sanger et al., 1997: 39).

Disapproval of computer games is usually founded on misgivings about the level of violence, racism and sexism involved in many of the texts and on fears of addiction. Whilst these fears are not to be dismissed, there are ways in which children can challenge these discourses effectively within the classroom (see Comber’s chapter in this volume; and Marsh and Millard, 2000). The studies outlined above have been conducted with primary teachers. Research which has documented the views of nursery and kindergarten teachers indicates that such disapproval of media texts is widespread also in this sector.

In a study of children’s media use in Finland, Spain and Switzerland, the researchers report that, ‘The gap between children’s own media culture and media use at home and the media preferred by teachers is especially clear in Switzerland where electronic media and media-related toys are in some ways taboo in many kindergartens’ (Suss et al., 2001: 34). There are, however, notable exceptions within the literature. In the USA, Seiter (1999) reports on a project in which 24 preschool teachers and childcare workers were interviewed about their attitudes towards the use of media in preschool settings. Seiter found that the teachers displayed a diverse range of opinions on the subject and illustrates some of the themes which emerged from her work in a case study of two very different settings. In one setting, a Montessori school, the teacher, Sarah, banned videos and Disney films from the classroom. She held very negative attitudes towards media texts, felt that they encouraged children to be passive and worried that they introduced them to inappropriate material. In the classroom, children were discouraged from media play and even prevented from talking about the programmes they had watched and enjoyed. In contrast, Seiter (1999) provides a description of the practice of Gloria, who taught in a private nursery. Gloria was enthusiastic about television for children and encouraged its use in the nursery. Children were allowed to watch videos and engage in fantasy play related to the programmes. Seiter suggests that these two contrasting views are located in two very different paradigms in which children are viewed either as active constructors of meaning in their world, in the case of Gloria, or as passive victims who need to be protected from the ravages of media, as Sarah imagined to be the case.

Given the intransigence displayed by many teachers, it is not surprising, therefore, to find some resistance in the use of popular cultural and media texts by pre-service teachers (Marsh, 2003b; Xu, 2001b). Xu’s work (2000a; 2000b; 2001a; 2001b) demonstrates how initial teacher education programmes can effectively challenge such negative attitudes and support student teachers in ensuring that they plan a literacy curriculum which reflects the lives and cultural interests of children. Such work is essential if the cycle which perpetuates the trivialization of children’s pursuits and the marginalization of media texts in early years settings and schools is to be broken.


From the research reviewed within this chapter, it can be seen that much is now known about the way in which popular culture penetrates children’s home literacy practices and the means by which it can inform the early childhood literacy curriculum. Nevertheless, there is clearly still much work to be done in the field. In particular, there needs to be much more detailed research undertaken that helps to identify what children’s popular cultural interests are across a range of cultural and social contexts. Much of the large survey work which examines children’s use of media texts and identifies their leisure pursuits does not include children under five (Livingstone and Bovill, 1999). We also need to look closely at how children appropriate or resist hegemonic popular cultural discourses in their localized contexts. In addition, ways in which young children take up or contest discourses in relation to ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, disability and other forms of identity should be analysed, for popular culture and media texts provide prime sites for marginalization, stereotyping and oppression (Dyson, 1997a; Giroux, 1994).

In identifying areas in which research might usefully shape our understanding of this field in the future, it is clear that the role of families is central. Parents’ and siblings’ roles in recognizing, fostering and celebrating children’s popular cultural interests could be usefully studied. Families and communities are central to young children’s development as literate agents, as other chapters in this volume demonstrate (see, for example, chapters by Cairney, Kenner and Gregory, Knobel and Lankshear, and Hannon in this volume). Popular culture infuses the literacy lives of communities and families (Barton and Hamilton, 1998) and there needs to be a clearer focus on the ways in which this informs young children’s literacy development.

Although we have a rich array of work, as evidenced in this chapter, on the role of popular culture in children’s literacy practices, we are only just beginning to appreciate ways in which popular culture can inform the literacy curriculum of early years settings and schools. Research agendas which extend this arena so that we develop further understanding about the ways in which work on popular culture in educational settings can motivate, extend and challenge children’s critical literacy skills will be useful in providing further evidence to educators and policy makers that the lack of attention to such material is an ‘urgent question’ (Luke and Luke, 2001: 118) which needs immediate attention. Finally, research which analyses how pre-service and in-service teachers’ professional development in early childhood education can ensure that the educators who populate early years settings and schools are fully conversant with theoretical and pedagogical discourses in this field needs to be extended. If this issue is not embedded into teacher education courses across the globe, then literacy in early childhood education will continue to reflect the concerns of a twentieth, not a twenty-first, century.

Above all, we need to pay close attention to patterns emerging from studies in the forefront of this sphere of scholarly study as it evolves over the next decades and attempt to draw together the common themes and issues. In this way, we can avoid the fate that Stahl assigns to the field of phonics research when he asserts in a recent review that, ‘We seem to be asking the same questions as we did 40 years ago, with the same results’ (2001: 343). Parker, in a book aimed at elementary teachers, written in 1919, discussed the influence of movies on his son:

Recently, seeing Griffiths’ moving picture ‘Intolerance’ gave a vivid notion of the life of Babylon, of Belshazzer’s feats, of the battles of the Persians and the Babylonians Thus as a result of a peculiar combination of adventure reading, fourth-grade history, the movies, and current events he has developed an active desire, an active ‘reaching out’ for more Biblical reading. Perhaps it may result in a permanent abiding interest in biblical matters. (1919: 49-50)

Over 80 years later, we are still asking the same question about the potential of popular culture and the media to create ‘a permanent abiding interest’ in literacy learning because we have hardly, as yet, begun to answer it.