Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Literacy: The Sociocultural Influence

Aria Razfar & Kris Gutiérrez. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

In April 2000, the National Reading Panel presented their analysis of more than 100,000 studies on early literacy and concluded that the five most essential components to a child’s ability to read are the following: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. What is notably absent from this report are the significant contributions that sociocultural views of literacy and human development have had on understandings of early literacy development and instruction. Over the last 25 years, there has been a growing interest in sociocultural views of language and literacy. In particular, sociocultural perspectives on literacy and learning highlight the important relationships between language, culture, and development. The study of literacy as a socioculturally situated practice in which culture and context take on principal roles presents a fundamentally different conceptualization of early literacy.

In this chapter, we will discuss early literacy studies that are premised upon several key principles of a sociocultural or cultural-historical view of literacy and language which we believe distinguish this view from other prominent views of literacy. The emergent sociocultural theories of human development draw from multiple disciplines, particularly anthropology and psychology. In this way, a cultural-historical theory brings together the history of the development of the individual in relation to the history of both proximal and distal contexts.

We will explore briefly several general theoretical principles that help define a cultural approach to the study of early literacy development. Within this perspective, human beings interact with their worlds primarily through mediational means such as cultural artifacts or tools, and symbols, including language (Vygotsky, 1978). Language from a cultural-historical or sociocultural perspective is considered the pre-eminent tool for learning and human development and is said to mediate individuals’ activity in the valued practices of their communities across a lifespan (Cole, 1996; Cole and Engestrom, 1993). Of significance to the focus of this chapter, a sociocultural view of learning centres attention on cultural practices, or valued activities with particular features and routines, as fundamental to understanding the nature of literacy. By focusing on the cultural activity of various communities, the influence of the organization of the valued practices of a community on the nature of learning and participation therein is made visible. Here the role of other participants and the available cultural tools in the social ecology of individuals’ lives become key features of learning environments.

Following this perspective, literacy learning is a socially mediated process that cannot be understood apart from its context of development, the forms of mediation available, and the nature of participation across various cultural practices. Thus, in contrast to conceptions of literacy as the acquisition of a series of discrete skills, a sociocultural view of literacy argues that literacy learning cannot be abstracted from the cultural practices in which it is nested. Instead, there is an emphasis on the available tools or artifacts and forms of assistance present in activity (Gutiérrez, 2002).

Culture is central to this view of learning and human development and is said to mediate human activity. Here culture is not treated as an external variable—as something apart from cognition—and thus it cannot be studied directly, or in an isolated, discrete, or causal manner (Cole, 1996). Instead, a more productive approach focuses on studying how people live culturally; that is, how people participate in the quotidian activity of their communities (Moll, 2000). Of significance, a sociocultural view espouses a non-normative, non-integrated dynamic view of culture in which culture is instantiated in the practices and material conditions of everyday life. This focus on activity helps us understand that there is variation in the ways a community’s members instantiate and make sense of the valued practices of their community, as well as variation in which practices individual members take up (Gutiérrez, 2002). Thus, both regularities and variation are expected in communities, as culture is not uniformly understood or practised across the members of cultural groups (Gutiérrez and Rogoff, 2003).

This instrumental view of culture is at the core of sociocultural views of literacy and has implications for how we make sense of children’s literacy practices and how we study them. Since culture is interwoven in all aspects of human development, sociocultural research necessarily foregrounds the role of culture and context in human development. Accordingly, the development of early literacy practices (and their study) is understood in relation to the contexts in which those practices are culturally, historically, and ideologically situated. From a cultural-historical view, consideration of contextual and cultural influences on language and literacy processes, of language as a lens to understand microprocesses (e.g. shifts in roles and participation over time), or of larger sociological practices and processes, allows us to understand that literacy events have a social history that links the individual to larger sociohistorical practices and processes. Thus, people’s literacy practices are necessarily situated in broader social relations and historical contexts.

The concept of literacy as a social activity is illustrated by the literacy practices that people draw on when participating in literacy events (Barton, 1994). This notion of literacy as a sociocultural practice has been developed across an interdisciplinary body of work. Most notably, the work of cultural psychologists contributed new conceptions of literacy as a highly social rather than an individual accomplishment; and they promoted new methods, such as combining ethnographic and experimental studies in order to understand the relationships in indigenous forms of literacy, their practical activity, and the cognitive consequences (Scribner, 1984a; 1984b; Scribner and Cole, 1978; 1981). Within this body of work, cultural psychologists focused on social practice as a unit of analysis to conduct cross-cultural analysis (Scribner et al., 1977). These cross-cultural studies linked the literacy of a cultural group to the larger societal values of the community and illustrated the complexity of the literacy practices in which children engaged outside of formal instructional contexts.

Important to the discussion in this chapter, we highlight how sociocultural theories of literacy have significantly informed our understandings of early literacy development (Bruner, 1977; Snow, 1977). Within this work, we emphasize sociocultural theories of language socialization (Ochs, 1988; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984), as well as sociocultural studies of early literacy that have advanced our understanding of power relations vis-à-vis literacy practices. For example, the new literacy studies (Gee, 2001; Luke, 1994; Luke and Carrington, in press) have illustrated that as children are socialized to particular literacy practices, they are simultaneously socialized into discourses that position them ideologically within the larger social milieu. In addition, sociocultural theories have challenged the role of formal schooling in literacy development (Nicolopoulou and Cole, 1997) and have documented how the social organization of learning of out-of-school settings can promote language and literacy development (Gutiérrez et al., 2001; Hull and Schultz, 2002; Vasquez, 2003).

More recently, especially in the last decade, sociocultural theory’s dynamic view of culture has become central to a growing body of literacy studies concerned with the education of poor children, including English language learners (Gutiérrez et al., 1999; Michaels, 1982; Moll et al., 2001; Orellana, 2001; Rueda and McIntyre, 2002; Trueba, 1999). Rather than only raising questions about whether children can read and write, such studies ask what children know about literacy, seeking to learn about the relationship between children’s literacy and the nature of literacy practices in which they routinely engage. Of significance to this approach to studying literacy, a cultural-historical theory of learning and development challenges views that equate culture with race and ethnicity and attribute individual traits (including language use) to being a member of a particular group (Gutiérrez, 2002; Lee, 2002; Rogoff and Angelillo, 2002).

We will elaborate on these theoretical principles in our discussion of the following: (1) the historical context in which sociocultural views of early literacy development are situated; (2) emergent literacy constructivist and sociocultural perspectives; (3) sociocultural perspectives on early literacy; (4) mediation and forms of assistance in early literacy development; (5) language socialization and the studies of home and community early literacy practices; and (6) power relations and ideologies as mediators in early literacy practices.

Historical Context: From the Individual to the Social

For most of the twentieth century, research on literacy as well as early literacy was dominated first by behaviourist psychology (Skinner, 1957) which conceptualized literacy development as a scripted habit formation, and then by cognitive psychology (Piaget, 1951; 1962) in which development was conceptualized as an individual and linear process. Instruction within these frameworks followed individual development; as a result, literacy practices associated with formal schooling were based on these assumptions of learning and development.

From the late 1800s to the 1920s, the research literature on reading and writing focused primarily (or almost exclusively) on the elementary school years (Teale and Sulzby, 1986). For more than 50 years, it had been widely assumed that children’s literacy development began with formal schooling. From this perspective, it was believed that the mental processes necessary for reading were fundamentally intrapersonal cognitive processes that would unfold in concert with biological development (Teale and Sulzby, 1986). Thus, the process of learning to read was highly correlated with biological maturation. The idea that development precedes learning naturally lends itself to the notion of readiness. In 1925, the National Committee on Reading published the first explicit reference to the concept of reading readiness—the dominant theory of reading from the 1920s to the 1950s. In reading readiness programmes children were considered ready to read when they had met certain social, physical, and cognitive competencies (Morphett and Washburne, 1931; Morrow, 1997). Thus, literacy activities occurring in the home and community before formal schooling were not central to the process of acquiring literacy. Instead, the reading readiness paradigm argued for literacy practices that would not interfere with the process of development. In addition, it did not adequately recognize the social dimensions of learning and development. As a result, traditional instructional practices such as whole class instruction and emphasis on formal features of literacy, including phonics-based instruction, dominated instructional practices. In addition, the reading readiness perspective inspired many of the standardized testing batteries used to determine if a child was developmentally ready for reading. For instance, the use of word primers as a stimulus to elicit a conditioning response is an example of reading readiness research and pedagogical practices that were rooted in behaviourist psychological perspectives of human development (Gates et al., 1939; Thorndike, 1921).

Emergent Literacy: From Social Constructivism to Sociocultural Theory

The social turn in literacy that occurred in the past few decades was motivated by a series of events and sociocultural phenomena. When the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in the 1950s, there was growing anxiety that American education was not adequately preparing the next generation. With the state of American education coming under scrutiny, researchers began to question the fundamental assumptions of prevailing educational practice, including the reading readiness paradigm. During this period, Chomsky’s classic book Syntactic Structures (1957) demonstrated that structural assumptions of language and cognition are incapable of accounting for the fundamental characteristics of language. Chomsky’s notion of the language acquisition device (LAD) also was a major breakthrough; it illustrated that children acquire the rules to generate complex syntactic structures long before formal schooling. Although Chomsky’s work fostered a paradigm shift in cognitive psychology and in the study of literacy and early literacy, applied linguists and linguistic anthropologists argued that Chomsky’s notions did not adequately address the communicative and social dimensions of language and language learning (Hymes, 1972; Labov, 1972).

In the last half of the twentieth century, Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ in the US coincided with researchers’ attempts to understand ‘cultural deprivation’ and later to challenge deficit-model explanations for the social and educational practices of poor children, many of whom were children of colour. The growing emphasis placed on the social introduced social constructivist views of learning in the field of early literacy. According to Hiebert and Rafael (1996), one of the first and most well-known early literacy movements born out of social constructivist views of learning was the emergent literacy perspective (e.g. Clay, 1966; 1975; Mason and Allen, 1986; Sulzby and Teale, 1991).

The emergent literacy framework, with its roots in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, was one of the first theories of early literacy to challenge the commonly held assumption that reading and literacy activities in general are intrapersonal and linear mental processes. The term emergent literacy was first used in the late 1960s to describe the behaviours of young children when they used books and writing materials in non-conventional ways (Clay, 1966). The term was used to describe the behaviours used by young children with books and when reading and writing, even though the children could not actually read and write in the conventional sense. Whereas the concept of reading readiness suggested that there was a point in time when children were ready to learn to read and write, emergent literacy suggested that there were continuities in children’s literacy development between early literacy behaviours and those displayed once children could read independently. This perspective also emphasized the importance of the relationship between reading and writing in early literacy development (Clay, 1975). Until then, it was believed that children must learn to read before they could learn to write.

This body of literature served to broaden the view of children’s literacy outside of formal instruction (Mason and Allen, 1986; Sulzby and Teale, 1991). It stressed the importance of parents, caregivers, teachers, and literacy-rich environments in children’s literacy development and challenged the view of reading and writing as an individual mental process that begins with formal schooling (Burns et al., 1999; Teale and Sulzby, 1986). As a result, contextual factors that lead to literacy development became a crucial dimension in the study of early literacy. The emergent literacy studies emphasized that in the period prior to formal schooling, children’s literacy develops in multiple formal and informal contexts (Ferreiro and Teborosky, 1982; Stahl and Miller, 1989; Sulzby and Teale, 1991; Teale and Sulzby, 1987). Furthermore, children’s contributions and participation in adult-directed activities are essential to their development.

The recognition that early literacy development is multifaceted and complex had methodological implications for how early literacy studies would be conducted. The unit of analysis in these studies focused on activity settings and situated literacy practices rather than the performance of literacy skills under controlled experimental conditions. As a result, a number of the emergent literacy studies focused on children’s participation in everyday practice and utilized sustained participant observation to gain a deeper understanding of early literacy development (Mason and Allen, 1986). Ethnographic methods allowed researchers to document literacy practices and the process of literacy development as it unfolded in its natural context (both in the home and in other contexts outside of school).

These studies represent a fundamental theoretical and methodological shift from traditional experimental designs that presumed early literacy development to be an individual, discrete process (see Hiebert, 1988, for an overview of emergent literacy studies). This shift also marked a growing realization that culture is fundamental to the development of literacy, and that meaning making and cognition are interactive (with others, including artifacts) and situated in nature.

With the growing importance of culture and context in the study of early literacy came the recognition that the literacy practices of the home were essential to children’s literacy development. Some of these studies examined adult-child interactions at home and made them the basis for creating similar contexts in school and other literacy projects.2 One of the clearest indications that emergent literacy research was having widespread influence was the 1965 inauguration of Project Headstart in the US, a federally funded programme designed to provide children thought to be disadvantaged by poverty with the skills they would need for formal schooling. Longitudinal studies of students enrolled in Headstart programmes showed that Headstart graduates were more likely to be in college and have more educational achievement (Schweinhart and Weikart, 1993). Although Project Headstart illustrated the importance of home literacy practices prior to formal schooling, it was limited in that it did not address the unique factors affecting linguistic and racial minority students. In addition, emergent literacy perspectives tended to apply a deficit view of the home-school disparity, and the problem of low achievement for linguistic and racial minorities was constructed as deficit with the home, that ‘families do not read enough or lack book knowledge, that they do not value literacy or model it effectively’ (Carrington and Luke, 2003: 9; Mason and Allen, 1986; also see Marvin and Mirenda, 1993; Marvin and Wright, 1997; White, 1982).

These deficit views about the literacy practices of linguistic and racial minority homes can promote narrow conceptions of literacy and culture in which literacy is considered a neutral practice. By privileging the literacy activities of formal schooling—practices that often index the values of white, middle class communities—this work implicitly valued particular forms of literacy (Heath, 1982). Thus, the literacy activities and practices of language minority homes were devalued in relation to the dominant literacy practices. The undervaluing of the literacy practices of non-dominant groups led to beliefs that matching home literacy practices to those valued by schools would solve the chronic underachievement of poor and non-white students. Studies drawing on sociocultural theories of human development have addressed these issues and have argued that literacy cannot be considered independent of a community’s culture, history, and values (Cazden, 1979; Heath, 1982; Scribner and Cole, 1981). While emergent literacy perspectives identified the importance of literacy activity prior to school and the role of adults/caregivers in this process, early literacy researchers drawing on sociocultural theories were also able to illustrate the informal contexts in which literacy develops prior to formal schooling (Cazden, 1979; Heath, 1982; Scribner and Cole, 1978; Wells, 1985). Sociocultural theorists also recognized the importance of the adult’s role in early literacy development (Bruner, 1983; Cazden, 1983; Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1978). However, one of the major differences between the emergent literacy perspective and sociocultural views of early literacy development is how adults interact with children vis-à-vis literacy practices (Cazden, 1991). Although adults are generally the more expert members of literacy practices, the roles of experts and novices are more fluid as we expect change in the nature of participation over time in literacy activity (Rogoff, 1990); through active participation, children’s development is mediated via available material, ideational and cultural tools. Thus, early literacy development is a multidirectional and mutually engaging process between adults and children.

Studies of Early Literacy: A Sociocultural Perspective

Although much of the work in early literacy has focused on language or reading development, it is important to acknowledge studies of the writing practices of preschool and early primary school children, particularly those studies that illustrate the link between reading, writing, and oral language development. Of significance, sociocultural views of literacy development challenged emergent theories of writing that described stages of writing development along Piagetian lines (Ferreiro and Teberosky, 1982) and instead argued that children’s writing emerges coherently but idiosyncratically (Barton, 1994; Hall, 1987; John-Steiner et al., 1994). Read (1971), for example, focused on the invented spellings children use when they begin to create texts. Read argued that these spontaneous spellings serve as a window into how children begin to make sense of the conventions of written text without the help of more expert others. In general, these sociocultural studies have illustrated how writing is embedded in children’s everyday practices. Carol Chomsky (1972), for example, examined children’s writing as they learned to speak. Hudson (1994) provided a teacher’s perspective to capture developmental change in a young child’s emergent writing. Similarly, Bissex (1980) and Bissex and Bullock (1987) highlighted the logic revealed in children’s early writing as children made hypotheses about language and text. These ethnographic accounts illustrate how reading, writing, and oral language develop simultaneously in formal and informal contexts and highlight the importance of studying literacy in situ.

Unquestionably, there has been significant interest over the last 50 years in the child as a language user and meaning maker. In the early part of the twentieth century, Lev Vygotsky (1978) was among the first to argue the social nature of learning. Sociocultural perspectives across a number of disciplines have influenced the ways educational theorists think about language and literacy. Following Vygotsky, John-Steiner et al. (1994) have argued that the use of a social and functional approach to the study of literacy is common across this work. Specifically, John-Steiner et al. delineate several tenets we believe both help define this approach, and distinguish the model from other models:

  • Sociocultural studies of language and literacy employ functional vs. structural models. Of significance, there is particular focus on communicative intent and on the representational functions of language (Austin, 1962; Grice, 1975; Searle, 1969).
  • Social interaction serves as the generative context for language/literacy mastery. Here the reciprocal nature of language and context is emphasized, for example (Bruner, 1983; Wells, 1981).
  • The study of language is expanded to include meaning, use, as well as structure. Thus, the situated nature of knowledge and its relationship to specific sociohistorical contexts and practices are emphasized (Hickmann, 1987). The situatedness of language suggests that its forms must be understood in terms of context and function (Bruner, 1983; Gee, 1990).
  • Interdisciplinary methodologies, particularly ethnographic and sociological methods, generated a new field, the ethnography of communication. The focus on speech events (Searle, 1969) and the influence of culture (Scribner and Cole, 1981) contributed to a multidisciplinary foundation for the study of literacy. This line of work in particular was instrumental in new research on the literacy in school contexts (Cook-Gumperz, 1985; Gilmore and Glatthorn, 1982; Schieffelin and Gilmore, 1986).
  • There is a shift in emphasis from the individual to understanding literacy practices as socially and historically situated (Goodman and Goodman, 1990; Scribner and Cole, 1981).
  • Research methodologies help explain processes and socially constructed situations. The result is an interest in activity in context (Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1983) and microgenetic approaches (Siegler and Crowley, 1991; Tudge, 1990; Wertsch and Hickmann, 1987). (1994: 5-6).

These principles are elaborated in a number of edited volumes on the social origins of literacy, and their visibility signals the growing influence of this perspective. Situating their work across various contemporary contexts and communities, literacy scholars in the neo-Vygotskian tradition elaborate on many of the theoretical and methodological issues relevant to the study of early literacy development (Bloome, 1987; Candlin and Mercer, 2001; Hamilton et al., 1994; Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000; Moll, 1990; Reyes and Halcon, 2001; Wells and Claxton, 2002).

Literacy as a Socially Mediated Process: Mediation and Forms of Assistance in Early Literacy

For researchers drawing on sociocultural theories of cognition, the individual/social dichotomy is a problematic construct in that there is a reciprocal and bilateral relationship between the social and the mental. Human beings participate in activities through the use of tools as a means to change themselves, their surroundings, as well as the tools themselves. It is important to emphasize that for Vygotsky, the preeminent tool that mediated human development was the use of signs, which included oral language, writing systems, and number systems. Thus, development constitutes the ability of a child to use these signs in a culturally appropriate way that is mediated by the cultural and historical context in which it is embedded. It is the more expert members of a particular practice that determine what is or is not ‘appropriate’ participation.

Specifically, a sociocultural understanding of learning and development focuses on the cultural resources that mediate an individual’s participation and engagement in social practice. The notion of mediation becomes important to the development of a sociocultural view of literacy and, in particular, how language mediates learning and our experience. Here the notion of language as a medium has several interpretations:

Firstly, from a constructivist view of the world, all our experience is mediated, nothing is direct. Secondly, by the way they structure reality for us in social interactions, people mediate our experience; and thirdly, texts, whether they are books, films or advertisements, mediate our experience. (Barton, 1994: 68)

In other words, the notion of mediation suggests that all human actions, both external and internal, exist in relation to other material and/or symbolic objects that are culturally and historically constructed to make meaning of the world. Thus, the construction of meaning, the basis of literate practices, is always situated and embedded within human activity systems that are goal directed and rule governed (Wertsch, 1981). For example, the word ‘ball’ is reconstituted to mean ‘not strike’ within an activity system such as baseball (Levinson, 1992). Indeed, language is considered the tool of tools mediating human activity (Cole and Engestrom, 1993).

In other words, social relations mediate individual mental processes—relations that are primarily mediated by speech, including inner speech. Although cognitive psychologists also have recognized the importance of inner speech or ‘private speech’ in early literacy development, cognitive psychological views of inner speech suggest that it is a self-contained, discrete activity (Piaget, 1962). In contrast, Vygotsky (1978; 1987) claimed that internal thought is mediated by meanings and externally by signs. From a sociocultural perspective, individual mental processes are contextually situated and are fundamentally social. The use of private speech as a mediator of thought demonstrates the importance of cultural tools such as language in the development of ‘individual’ cognition. Studies drawing on sociocultural views of early literacy development have examined the self-regulatory speech of preschool children (Berk and Spuhl, 1995; Elias and Berk, 2002; Patrick, 2000). For example, Patrick (2000) found that preschool children (ages four to six) increasingly used self-regulatory speech to mediate problem solving in more difficult tasks. Another study (Elias and Berk, 2002) found that children’s use of self-regulatory speech is situated and mediates the development of literacy practices through participation in problem solving and sociodramatic play. Another type of inner speech, a child’s metalinguistic awareness, or the ability to think about language and its purposes, is linked to conventional forms of literacy (Olson, 1994). Specifically, the ability to reflect upon an imagined audience and speak to the generalized other is critical to literacy (Applebee, 1978). More importantly, imagined audiences are always situated in a particular cultural context.

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (henceforth ZPD or Zoped), one of the most important constructs growing out of the sociocultural tradition, has special significance to the notion of mediation and early literacy development. The ZPD emphasizes the fact that the development of a child’s individual mental processes is socially mediated. Broadly defined, the Zoped is the contrast between what a child can do independently (zone of actual development or ZAD) and the child’s potential development or what a child can do with the assistance of a more expert other(s) (Vygotsky, 1978). For example, two children might have the same level of actual development, but given the appropriate form of assistance, one might be able to solve many more problems than the other. Thus, while there is recognition of children’s individual capabilities, their individual development is supported by their co-participation with more expert members in a particular literacy or discourse practice. In addition, how adults assist children to navigate the zone is a focal point of a number of sociocultural studies of early literacy.

However, Griffin and Cole (1984) have pointed out that most English-language interpretations have perceived the notion of the zone more narrowly than Vygotsky intended. More traditional conceptions of adult-child assistance strategies construct the child as a passive learner, where the more expert adult usually provides next-step assistance, for example, when an adult asks a question for which the answer is already known. In short, the ZPD places emphasis on what children can do alone in relation to what they can do with assistance.

More dynamic notions of the zone of proximal development reshape traditional conceptions where the nature of the adult-child relationship is for the most part top-down and unidirectional (Cole, 1996; Engestrom, 1987; Griffin and Cole, 1984; Stone and Gutiérrez, 2002). Rogoff s (1990) notion of apprenticeship, for example, helps to reframe the child as an active participant in his/her literacy development. Moreover, the nature of both adult and child participation and how adults assist children in literacy activities is critical toward understanding how children effectively move through the ZPD (Bruner, 1983; Rogoff, 1990). Activity theoretical views of learning and development expand the notion of the Zoped and illustrate its complexity by documenting the role of conflict and tension inherent in learning activity and, in particular, the potentially productive role of conflict in robust learning activity (Cole, 1996; Cole and Engestrom, 1993; Engestrom, 1987; Gutiérrez et al., 1999).

The focus within this view is on socially supported activities, their organization, the mediational tools, the task, and the participants, and their social relationships. For example, a study of children’s writing by Diaz and Flores (2001) is illustrative of this more complex understanding of the Zoped. In this work, the authors describe the importance of the teacher as sociocultural mediator in promoting the emergence of positive or productive Zopeds.

Language socialization research into caregiver-child interactions also supports the view that children are actively engaged in the literacy learning process (Bruner, 1977; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Snow, 1977). The role of caregivers in mediating early literacy development has been well documented by early literacy research based on sociocultural views (Bruner, 1977; Bullowa, 1979; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Snow, 1977). As the more expert participant of various literacy practices, adults mediate children’s early literacy development through the various assistance strategies they employ.

Of relevance to this chapter, early literacy activity is often embedded in children’s play. According to Vygotsky (1978), play affords children opportunities to move beyond their daily routines and behaviours and ‘contains all the developmental tendencies in a condensed form’. In particular, through imagination or imaginary play—where the boundaries are more fluid and dynamic—children can assume roles and engage in activity not afforded them in real life. Play is by nature rule governed and goal directed; however, the rules and goals are subject to manipulation by the participants, which leads to the use of higher cognitive functions. In this way, the roles and forms of participation in play serve as preparation for participation in literacy events and in development (Hall, 1991; Nicolopolou, 1993; Vygotsky, 1978). Thus, play serves as an important leading activity; that is, it becomes a context for reorganizing performance (Griffin and Cole, 1984). Play also affords children opportunities to use cultural symbols and practices to negotiate and navigate social relations, in particular with their peers, to drive the overall meaning making process (Dyson, 1997). Dyson (1997) shows how enabling and less restrictive activities such as ‘author’s theatre’ (compared with the more constraining ‘author’s chair’) provide contexts for the development of more complex literacy tools such as negotiation of conflict, analysis of gender equity, and understanding authoritative voices as they are textually positioned (also see Dyson, 1989; 1993). The wide range of tools that are invoked and utilized through play make it an optimal activity for promoting zones of proximal development.

Another central feature of play is that it creates opportunities to interact with more expert and novice peers. Children’s interaction with peers creates contexts for conflict and negotiation, which mediates the use of higher-order literacy practices (Mugny and Doise, 1978; Pellegrini et al., 1998; Pelligrini and Galda, 1990). Moreover, points of conflict are intrinsically emotional and have a strong affective component. This in turn leads to more profound reflection and higher-order cognitive functioning in children (Pelligrini et al., 1998).

Language Socialization: Studies of Home and Community Early Literacy Practices

Human beings undergo a lifelong process of socialization whereby they continuously transform into the values of an expected social order. Sociocultural views of early literacy development emphasize that human beings are socialized to particular language practices through language itself. Language socialization is the process whereby novices gain knowledge and skills relevant to membership in a social group (Lave and Wagner, 1991; Ochs, 1991). Cross-cultural studies of language socialization have argued that adults and children actively engage each other in the meaning making process (Geertz, 1959; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Scribner and Cole, 1981; Weisner and Gallimore, 1977; Whiting and Whiting, 1975). From this perspective, language plays a fundamental, dynamic role in the construction of social languages (discourses) and identities. These identities and discourses are subject to constant fluctuation as meaning is constantly negotiated and renegotiated between various segments of society, including adults, caregivers, and children (Gee, 2001; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1986). Studies of caregiver-child interactions have helped us understand the process by which children are socialized to and through language use (Cazden, 1983; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984). They also helped us reconceptualize the novice child as an agent who assumes roles as author and speaker in the meaning making process (Larson, 1995; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1995; Rogoff, 1990; Schieffelin, 1990). They have helped us understand how children are socialized to various problem-solving practices through various language activities (Goodwin, 1990; Nelson, 1989; Rogoff, 1990). Language socialization studies have demonstrated the powerful ways in which children are socialized to various social identities such as gender, religion, learning disability, and authority (Cook, 1990; Goodwin, 1990; Gutiérrez and Stone, 1997; Mehan, 1996; Schieffelin, 1990). Further, novice members are socialized to these multiple identities through affective features of language practices (Miller et al., 1990; Ochs and Schieffelin, 1989).

The continued underachievement of poor children from cultural and linguistic groups served as the impetus for language socialization studies that compared home literacy practices with those of formal schooling. Prior to the understanding that literacy is fundamentally a cultural practice, these children were labelled as having some type of developmental deficit. Language socialization studies that examined the match between formal schooling practices and the literacy practices of middle class homes served to counter the deficit view. Cook-Gumperz (1973) argued that children who have similar literacy practices in the home and in school tend to be more successful (also see Cook-Gumperz, 1986; Scollon and Scollon, 1981). Teachers were found to rely heavily on question and language games primarily found in white, middle class homes (Cazden, 1979). Heath’s (1982) 10-year study of two communities suggested how different social and linguistic environments and literacy practices of families differentially affected how children learned questioning, storytelling, concepts of print, reading, and writing.

Recent studies have shown the impact of this cultural differential on achievement and school literacy (Vernon-Feagans et al., 2001). For example, Vernon-Feagans et al. (2001) demonstrated that superior narrative skills in poor African-American children are negatively related to literacy, while the narrative skills in Caucasian children in the same classrooms were positively related to achievement and school literacy. In other words, the literacy practices that African-American children come with are not valued in relation to the types of literacy practices that are valued in formal schooling. Other studies have compared the patterns of interaction and language socialization of non-white homes with the socialization patterns prevalent in school (Au, 1980; Erickson and Mohatt, 1982; Philips, 1972; 1982) to illustrate the context specific use of speech. Philips (1972; 1982) compared the patterns of classroom interaction among Native American reservation children and among Anglo children in the same community. She found that the patterns of communication of Native American children varied systematically from one type of situation to another.

This type of emphasis on the context of interaction helped to dispel the notion that Native Americans have a developmental or linguistic deficit. In another cross-cultural study, Duranti and Ochs (1986) examined the difference in adult-child relationships and discourse in Samoan households and school settings. The different socialization practices restricted the ability of Samoan children to be full participants in formal educational contexts.

Understanding and valuing the discursive practices of the home is particularly important for the success of language minority students. Reese and Gallimore (2000) present a case study of the cultural literacy practices that mediate early literacy development of children in some Mexican and Central American immigrant families. They found that parents began to read aloud to their children as a result of the expectations placed on them by school. Nevertheless, the parents’ own formal schooling and literacy experiences mediated these read-alouds. Moll et al. (1995) elaborated the concept of funds of knowledge to demonstrate the value of working class Latino households in transforming the teachers’, parents’, students’, and even the researchers’ views of literacy (also see Moll et al., 1992). The application of this construct has been used to illustrate how the utilization of a child’s complete repertoire of cultural knowledge could mediate the development of proficient, biliterate practices in both English and Spanish (Moll et al., 2001).

Sociocultural Theory, Power Relations and Early Literacy

The importance of cultural and ideological factors in children’s early literacy development led to a body of work in the late 1970s and 1980s that examined the socialization practices of children in their homes. Over the last 25 years, a number of literacy researchers and practitioners who have gravitated toward sociocultural theories of learning and cognition have done so in a particular political context. For years, the cognitive psychologists and behaviourists who presented the dominant view on literacy, learning, and human development suggested that literacy was the cause of rational and abstract thinking which in turn led to modernization and the ability to properly participate in the global markets (Scollon, 2001). Thus, illiteracy, in the narrow sense, was seen as the cause of all social problems, and the relationship between literacy, power, ideologies, and the social distribution of goods became the subject of interest for early literacy research.

Scollon (2001) argued that the ‘benefits’ of literacy as well as the social problems of illiteracy are derived, not from knowledge of scripts or the lack of this knowledge, but from the ideological power struggles of those who control this knowledge and those who are excluded from participation in ‘literate’ communities of practice.

The following studies illustrate the significance of examining early literacy development as it is embedded within social contexts of power and privilege. Although some of the studies may not be strictly considered cultural-historical (Bernstein, 1982; Hasan, 1986), they demonstrate the importance for current and future researchers drawing on cultural-historical perspectives of early literacy to consider issues of power and privilege in their analysis of early literacy issues. Bernstein (1982) found that different socialization practices (based on class differences) have direct implications for children’s language use. The work of Bernstein and others (Bernstein, 1982; Cook-Gumperz, 1973; Hasan, 1986) shows that mother-child interactions and early language socialization practices are mediated by class and class stratification which have an effect on later literacy development. Scribner and Cole’s (1981) study of the Vai community who use multiple scripts (English, Arabic, Vai) in multiple contexts of power demonstrated that social situation (usually marked by power relations) determines the use of each script. Issues of power and control are even exhibited in early childhood writing practices (Hall and Robinson, 1994).

Similarly, the new literacy studies (NLS) argue that literacy or illiteracy is highly value laden and interest driven (Gee, 2001; Luke and Carrington, in press; Street, 1993; 1995; 2001). These studies aim to understand the learning and language development of children in terms of ‘discourses’ rather than the more limited notion of ‘language’. According to Gee, ‘Discourses’ are more integrated and comprehensive:

A Discourse integrates ways of talking, listening, writing, reading, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, and feeling in the service of enacting meaningful socially situated identities and activities. (2001: 35)

Of importance here are the ‘believing, valuing, and feeling’ dimensions of discourse because it moves beyond traditional understandings of language as a set of equally valued, abstract mental representations of the world. In addition, becoming a competent member of a particular discourse community always involves how marginally or centrally one participates in specific social situations. NLS challenged what Street (1993) and others (Nicolopoulou and Cole, 1997) have called ‘autonomous models of literacy’ which presume literacy practices to be discrete and neutral. Sociocultural notions like event, activity, and practice moved literacy studies from ‘the individual’ as a unit of analysis where autonomous cognitive processes are examined under controlled experimental conditions (Goody, 1968; Ong, 1982) to a broader unit of analysis, ‘the social practice’ (Heath, 1982; Scribner and Cole, 1981). According to Street, ‘Researchers dissatisfied with the autonomous models of literacy have come to view literacy practices as inextricably linked to cultural and power structures in society’ (1993: 7). Thus, ‘ideological’ models of literacy where literacy is necessarily linked to other dimensions of social life including power structures (authority and power/resistance and creativity) became the focal point of NLS. Thus, literacy practices become a site where these larger social asymmetries converge (Gee, 2001; Luke, 1996; Street, 1987).


In this chapter, we have aimed to provide the reader with an overview of the orienting principles that guide sociocultural studies of early literacy. Social constructivist views of learning and early literacy, such as the emergent literacy view, challenged the assumption that literacy learning begins with formal schooling. Sociocultural views of early literacy have also helped us understand the nature of learning as a socially mediated process, where even individual cognition is necessarily embedded within a particular social context. The understandings that language is the pre-eminent tool for development, that children are socialized to discursive practices through language, and that learning precedes development have caused a paradigm shift in the field of early literacy research. One of the major consequences, over the last 25 years, has been to move researchers and practitioners beyond the deficit views of linguistic and racial minority homes and communities. These studies have documented the complex ways in which adults and children mediate early literacy development, where the child is an active participant in his/her literacy learning. These social relations are negotiated and renegotiated to construct multiple identities in a constantly changing social reality. Sociocultural views of early literacy have now expanded our understanding of the context of development to include larger ideological and power issues as evidenced by the new literacy studies. Sociocultural theory helps us better understand what it is to be human and how to improve the human situation vis-à-vis literacy practices.