Researching Young Children’s Out-of-School Literacy Practices

Michele Knobel & Colin Lankshear. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

‘Out-of-school literacies’ means different things to different people, and has been enlisted in diverse types of research during the past 20 years to serve a range of educational purposes. In this chapter we outline some of the positions that have been adopted and provide examples of the research done under each particular description. Most of the chapter, however, will be devoted to our preferred conception of ‘out-of-school literacies.’

Two broad distinctions delineate the main positions available on out-of-school literacy research. One distinction is between views that include as out-of-school literacies any literacy practice—including school-like or school-centric literacies—occurring in contexts outside formal school settings, and views that omit school literacies from consideration. Those taking the former position will be prepared to include, for example, caregiver or intergenerational story reading to young children, name writing, print awareness, decoding food product and other brand-related labels, completing school homework, drawing and colouring and oral book-like storytelling, among others (cf Britto, 2000; Cairney, 2002; Carrington, 2001; Janes and Kermani, 2001; Martens, 1999). Those who take the second position, however, adopt the view that one defining feature of an out-of-school literacy is that it is not generally recognized as a characteristic school literacy (cf. Cook-Gumperz and Keller-Cohen, 1993; Hicks, 2002; Hull and Schultz, 2002; Prinsloo and Breier, 1996a). Indeed, from this perspective, out-of-school literacies will typically be literacies that are not permitted or tolerated—and are certainly not encouraged—in school. To some extent, however, efforts to legitimate aspects of literacies based on popular culture or social class within the life of the school may be seen as attempts to ‘smuggle’ out-of-school literacies into—or endorse them within—classroom curriculum and pedagogy. The second broad distinction also relates to age. Some researchers recognize out-of-school literacies as practices engaged in by people of any age. Others, however, confine their interest in out-of-school literacies to practices engaged in by persons during their formal preschool to end of high school years. This raises some interesting questions. In some ways, it seems odd to think of someone who does not attend school having ‘out-of-school’ literacies: at least, in the case of adults beyond compulsory education. It may not be so odd, however, to think of the concept applying to very young children who are becoming initiated into pre-literate and emergent literacy behaviours and other forms of primary socialization that will impact one way or another on their school literacy achievement. The issue is clouded by the emergence of concepts such as ‘lifelong learning,’ which entails people of all ages ‘going back to school’ in some sense (whether school, a higher education institution, work-based training programmes, ongoing professional development, and so on). The issue is clouded still further by the existence of a set of concepts that nest around the border between school and the wider world. These concepts include community literacies, literacies of popular culture, intergenerational literacy, family literacy, and so on (see related chapters in this volume). There is usually an implication here that school literacy (or literacies) is the real one on which other literacies depend for their recognition, in relation to which they are regarded as ‘unofficial’ and less important or valid (if not actually antagonistic), or to which they relate in a service capacity in order to help enhance school literacy performance.

These two distinctions provide four broad positions so far as defining and distinguishing ‘out-of-school literacy practice’ are concerned.

Our main interest in this chapter lies with research falling within the third quadrant—the study of students and their ‘not school’ literacies. As we argue later, this approach to investigating children’s out-of-school literacies holds rich promise for directly informing effective pedagogical practice, for challenging commonly held but detrimental assumptions and stereotypes regarding traditionally marginalized students and their out-of-school lives, and for helping to shape more equitable literacy education policies. Before discussing this particular body of research, however, it is useful to consider briefly the other three quadrants in our matrix.

Accordingly, there follows a summary explication of quadrants 1, 2 and 4. We present examples from English-language research literature, drawing particularly on published literature—especially from refereed journals—rather than unpublished literature (e.g. dissertations, conference papers), on the grounds of ready availability to readers.

Quadrant 1: Any Literacy, School Age Range

Quadrant 1 describes research studies focusing on what children do outside school that contributes directly to them developing (or not developing) sound and efficacious understandings of how written, spoken and visual texts ‘operate’ (much of what is referred to as ‘family literacy studies’ falls into this category: see Cairney, in this volume). Within early childhood, this research orientation generally assumes that language and literacy skills ‘are predictive of school literacy success’ (Neuman and Celano, 2001: 12), and focuses on documenting young children’s literacy development or their ‘emergent literacy,’ that is, acquiring ‘literacy concepts and knowledge through ample exposure to and interacting with print’ (Xu, 1999: 47). Thus, these studies generally tend to be investigatory or evaluative in nature, rather than interventionist.

The criteria used to judge sound and efficacious literacy understandings are drawn mostly from school-centred definitions of literacy (e.g. correct letter name and sound identification, awareness of print, reading readiness measures), and this group of studies is most often framed theoretically by psycholinguistics, developmental psychology and cultural psychology (especially, by appropriations from Vygotsky). Key concepts include: ‘emergent literacy,’ ‘at-home literacy,’ ‘literacy environments,’ ‘disadvantage,’ ‘connection’ and ‘disconnection,’ ‘collaboration’—and, increasingly, ‘meaning making,’ ‘diversity’ and ‘literacy practices.’ Studies falling into quadrant 1 often do not involve the researcher in conducting detailed observations in homes. Instead, these studies rely on parent reporting of home-based literacy practices via interviews or surveys, audiorecordings or videorecordings of literacy events made by children and/or their caregivers, parent-completed inventories, diaries and/or checklists, and so on (cf Bloome et al., 2000; Gregory, 2001; McCarthey, 1997; Parke et al., 2002; Reese and Gallimore, 2000).

At least three types of purposes characterize this body of research: (1) to document (and sometimes to evaluate, but rarely to intervene in) parent-child interactions with texts in order to identify children’s emerging understandings of the functions and purposes of print (e.g. Kenner, 2000; Martens, 1999; Smith, 2001); (2) to compare young children’s prior-to-school literacy development with their in-school literacy performance in order to better understand transitions from informal literacy learning at home to formal literacy learning at school (Arthur et al., 2001; Breen et al., 1994; Freebody et al., 1995; Hill et al., 1998); and (3) to respond to what are seen as the limitations of emergent literacy studies that ‘do not fully take account of social and cultural variations that exist in young children’s literacy learning trajectories’ at home and school (Jones Diaz et al., 2000: 231). This last-mentioned group of studies documents a range of in-school and out-of-school literacies and literacy activities—such as popular-culture-related practices, play events, young children’s text production, telephone discourse, intergenerational socialization, etc.—and argues for their pertinence to early childhood literacy education (e.g. Arthur, 2001; Cairney and Ruge, 1998; Carrington, 2001; Drury, 2000; Dyson, 2001; Gillen, 2002; Gregory, 2001; Kenner, 2000; McClain, 2000; Moss, 2001; Mulhern, 1997; Parke et al., 2002; Purcell-Gates, 1996; Rodriguez, 1999; Wan, 2000; Williams and Gregory, 2001; see also Marsh, in this volume).

Quadrant 2: Any Literacy, Any Age

Quadrant 2 describes studies investigating literacy learning or competent performance regardless of age or non-school location. Studies falling within this quadrant mainly have some family-based intervention programme development in mind—and are often concerned with evaluating the efficacy of an existing family literacy intervention programme (Barton, 1997; Cairney, 2002; Hannon, 1995; Purcell-Gates, 2000; Serpell, 1997; see Hannon, in this volume). Most family literacy programme studies aim at helping parents deliver effective literacy instruction at home (Barton, 1997; Janes and Kermani, 2001; Nason, 1997; Saracho, 1999; Wollman-Bonilla, 2001).

The studies may be:

  • Exploratory, e.g. documenting pregnant teenagers’ literacy levels, documenting lower-income families’ story-reading practices
  • Comparative, e.g. comparing parents’ and grandparents’ reading to young children, comparing the home reading practices of diverse families along lines of class and/or ethnicity
  • Evaluative, e.g. evaluating the effectiveness of a storybook reading programme that targeted single mothers.

Interventions developed or evaluated in the course of these wide-ranging studies generally target families with parents who are judged to be struggling with standard literacy themselves. For example, some interventions train parents to engage in talk about texts with their children that is ‘lexically rich, includes extended discourses, and is somewhat distanced from the here and now’ (Jordan et al., 2000: 526). Others equip mothers of young babies with free books and instructional materials (e.g. Hardman and Jones, 1999). Others challenge the ‘non-neutrality’ of literacy instruction and remediation at school by examining a range of discourses operating in the homes and schools of ethnically marginalized children (e.g. Rogers et al., 2000).

Theories used to frame these evaluative studies include, among others: psycholinguistics, cultural psychology (Vygotsky), and emergent literacy theory. Key concepts characterizing this research include: ‘transformation,’ ‘disadvantage,’ ‘communities of learners,’ ‘instruction,’ ‘authentic assessment,’ and, increasingly, ‘social context,’ ‘power,’ and ‘discourse.’ Data are collected mainly by means of families videorecording literacy events at home, teacher and parent interviews, observing programme participant demonstrations of a new skill or process, and so on. Again, despite claims regarding home literacy practices, it appears that studying actual home literacy events is not a necessary requisite for this body of studies. And, as with studies in quadrant 1, the criteria used to analyse or evaluate home literacies and literacy interventions tend to be drawn from school-focused definitions of literacy.

Quadrant 4: Non-School Literacies, Any Age

Studies falling within quadrant 4 focus largely on everyday literacy practices of adults and include work-and community-based activity and learning (cf Gee et al., 1996; Hull, 1997). This body of research ‘explores the functions of literacy’ (Hull and Schultz, 2001: 597) in a wide range of practical contexts in order to better understand the literacy requirements and literacy-related social practices of workplaces and adult literacy programmes, and draws attention to ways in which literacy education in schools—including universities—does not always equip adults with the kinds of literacy knowhow required by the world of work (2001: 597).

The rise of the ethnography of communication during the late 1960s and early 1970s as a distinct approach to studying different ‘ways of speaking’ and doing within a community (e.g. Gumperz, 1982; Hymes, 1972) has generated keen ongoing interest in researching language use within different cultural groups and social contexts. Many such studies in the late 1980s and the 1990s responded to claims alleging a ‘literacy’ crisis in developed countries. They aimed to show how in their everyday lives so-called ‘illiterate’ adults engaged in a wide array of literate activities that usually went unrecognized by policy writers, employers and adult educators. Such studies typically address literacies that are not officially recognized in formal school-like or workplace settings yet nonetheless require relatively high degrees of literate competence in order to operate in everyday work, community and home contexts. These ‘alternative’ literacies include profession-related literacies, like those practised by taxi drivers (Breier et al., 1996), nurses (e.g. Cook-Gumperz and Hanna, 1997), or farm hands (Gibson, 1996); religion-based literacies such as those practised by individuals (cf Guerra and Farr, 2002), the Amish in the US (e.g. Fishman, 1988), or a community of Seventh Day Adventists in Australia (e.g. Kapitzke, 1995); literacies within economically depressed urban areas (e.g. Cushman, 1998; Barton and Hamilton, 1998); or literacies within prisons (Wilson, 2000); literacies practised by Cape Town gangsters (China and Robins, 1996); the literacy mediation role played by freelance scribes working in a Mexican plaza (Kalman, 1999), by an ‘illiterate,’ middle-aged woman who is a fluent speaker of six languages and responsible for overseeing a range of text-based bureaucratic functions within her community (Kell, 1996), by one man within the day-to-day farming activities in, and bureaucratic systems operating on, a community of Welsh farming folk (Jones, 2001); and so on.

Theories and methodologies drawn on by these studies include: cultural psychology (e.g. Cole, 1996), feminist theory (cf. Gowen, 1992; Heller, 1997), the New Literacy Studies (e.g. Gee, 1996; Prinsloo and Breier, 1996b; Street, 1997) and sociolinguistics (e.g. conversation analysis, language variation studies, critical discourse analysis). Increasingly, this body of research also draws on social semiotics (such as the work of Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996) and poststructuralist feminist theories (such as the work of Walkerdine, 1990). Key concepts include: ‘discourse’—including different orders of discourse such as ‘dominant discourse’ and ‘marginal discourse’—‘identity,’ ‘social context,’ ‘social practice,’ ‘language/literacy practice,’ and ‘literacies.’ Data are generated by means of detailed interviews and ethnographic-type observations of participants’ identity presentation, literacy uses and literacy-related activities.

The remainder of this chapter, however, focuses on research that emphasizes the contextualized study of school children’s out-of-school literacies. We believe such research holds most potential for enhancing understanding of the rich literate lives of young people and their sometimes smooth but often fraught literacy learning experiences within school. We pay particular attention to a small but growing body of research that focuses on children in the ‘early school years’ age range. This orientation toward studying ‘out-of-school’ literacy resonates (theoretically, methodologically and conceptually) with studies of adult non-formal literacy practices. It differs, however, from the studies in quadrants 1 and 2 by emphasizing contextualized documentation and analysis of everyday literacy practices that are not constrained by ‘school-centric’ views of what constitutes ‘effective’ literacy.

Researching Students’ Out-of-School Literacies

Studies of out-of-school literacy falling within quadrant 3 in Table 5.1 focus on literacies that are defined against the grain of schooled literacies. These are variously referred to as ‘everyday’ (Prinsloo and Breier, 1996b), ‘alternative’ (Cook-Gumperz and Keller-Cohen, 1993), ‘hidden’ (Finders, 1997), ‘in-between’ (Sarroub, 2002) or ‘vernacular’ (Camitta, 1993) literacies. These studies begin with the assumption that regardless of what test scores might suggest, most school students are well able to practise and engage competently in literacies outside school. Much of the driving force behind them has been to advocate for a range of children and their rich literate social practices in reaction to narrow, school-based and ‘schooled’ literacies that privilege particular and normative language and literacy uses—and to teacher-made claims that there is a ‘lack of literacy’ in poor/working-class/non-white homes. Such views and the privileged literacies associated with them work to further disadvantage already-disad-vantaged and marginalized children and social groups within a society (cf. Gee, 1991; Gilmore, 1991; Gilmore and Glatthorn, 1982; Heath, 1983; Lankshear, 1987; Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines, 1988). Research falling within our third quadrant is generally concerned with comparing the in-school and out-of-school literacy competencies and experiences of diverse school children. These studies aim at revealing congruencies and breaches between what children and young people are already able to do with literacy outside formal school contexts and what they are expected to do and be as ‘literate’ subjects within school settings.

Out-of-school studies of students’ literacies are not, however, interested in privileging non-school literacies over school literacies. This research approach recognizes the very real impact and importance of students being able to navigate and produce polished and successful school literacies. Hence, it neither relies on home literacy practices as barometers of school success nor takes school literacy as a benchmark for evaluating students’ out-of-school practices. Moreover, a focus on out-of-school literacies does not limit these literacies to home or community settings alone. Out-of-school literacies—particularly those associated with popular youth culture—can be and are brought into classrooms (cf. Alvermann, et al., 1998; Mahiri, 2003), just as school literacies can be and are brought into homes and communities (Street, 1997; Volk and de Acosta, 2001).

The concept of ‘practice,’ in the sense of ‘a recurrent, goal-directed sequence of activities using a particular technology and particular systems of knowledge’ (Scribner and Cole, 1981: 236, cited in Hull and Schultz, 2002: 20), is integral to studying out-of-school (and in-school) literacies. A concern with literacy practice always takes into account knowing and doing, and calls into play the notion of literacies as a way of describing how people negotiate and construct patterned and socially recognizable ways of knowing, doing and using language to achieve different social and cultural purposes within different social and cultural contexts (Gee, 2001; Lankshear, 1997; Lankshear and Knobel, 2003). The account of Jacques (Knobel, 1999) provides a case in point. Jacques was a young adolescent with a long history of school literacy failure. He could nonetheless participate very successfully in diverse out-of-school practices—including the world of work—and manage the texts these practices entailed (e.g. estimating square metres of gravel needed for surfacing a road, writing a flyer advertising his lawn mowing business). He also participated ‘fluently’ as an active Jehovah’s Witness. This required quite different literate practices and understandings from those employed within the family’s earthmoving business (e.g. witnessing every Saturday morning, attending theocratic school, presenting Bible exegesis to large audiences) (see Knobel, 1999; 2001).

Studies of students’ out-of-school literacies pursue a diverse range of purposes. These include:

  • Exploring negotiated gendered identities and practices (e.g. Finders, 1997; Schultz, 1996; 2002)
  • Mapping multilingual negotiations of identity and cultural, religious and school discourses (Sarroub, 2002; Skilton-Sylvester, 2002)
  • Documenting the literacy practices of students belonging to marginal youth groups (e.g. gangsters) or youth deemed ‘at risk’ of failing school (e.g. Moje, 2000; Schultz, 2002)
  • Investigating differential literacy education outcomes for a range of often-silenced or overlooked children—such as those from white, working-class homes, from marginal ethnic groups, or excluded from school (e.g. Heath, 1983; Hicks, 2002; Pahl, 2002)
  • Alerting teachers to the literacies in which students are already proficient but which may not have been accommodated in class (Heath, 1983; Pahl, 2002; Volk and de Acosta, 2001)
  • Undertaking exploratory studies that simply want to know what students do and be with literacy outside school settings (e.g. Knobel, 1999; Moje, 2000; Schultz, 2002).

Such studies often pursue multiple purposes.

Some researchers might argue that studies of children’s literacy in after-school programmes should be included within this set of studies (e.g. Hull and Schultz, 2001). We do not engage with such studies here because the programmes concerned with literacy that have been reported tend to be adjuncts to school literacy and, thus, fall outside the scope of our interest here. (Useful introductions to such studies can, for example, be found in Alvermann, 2001; Cole, 1996; Heath and McLaughlin, 1994; Hull and Schultz, 2002.)

Researching Very Young Students’ Out-of-School Literacies

Having discussed out-of-school literacy studies involving school-aged children in general, we focus in the remainder of this chapter on out-of-school literacy studies involving young school children. Hull and Schultz report that to their knowledge, no review other than their own of out-of-school literacy research has been conducted (2001; 2002; see also Schultz, 2002). Our search for out-of-school literacy research in the early years bears witness to their claim. Hull and Schultz located close to 50 out-of-school studies across the US, England, Wales, Australia, Mexico, and South Africa. Only one of the studies listed by Hull and Schultz dealt with children eight years old or younger. This was Shirley Brice Heath’s classic ethnography of three communities and their literacy practices (Heath, 1982; 1983). Our own review of the literature indicates that out-of-school literacy practices involving children aged eight or younger is a strikingly under-researched area. We found just four exemplary out-of-school literacy studies that focus on documenting in detail young children’s everyday lives and their literacy practices (Heath, 1982; 1983; Hicks, 2002; Volk and de Acosta, 2001; Pahl, 2002). These are summarized in Table 5.2 and are described in turn below.

Ways with Words

Since Heath’s study is summarized elsewhere in this volume (e.g. by Cairney), we will note only some key aspects here. Heath conducted a 10-year ethnography of three distinctly different communities in the Piedmont area of the United States. Roadville was a white, working-class community; Trackton was a relatively new African-American community of mill workers and their families; while Maintown was a middle-class community (Heath, 1982: 49). This study was largely a consequence of school desegregation in the late 1960s, when many teachers were unsure of how to teach culturally and linguistically diverse students (Heath, 1983: i). It was also motivated by research reporting patterns of low school achievement for children from working-class homes.

Heath found that the ways of speaking, reading, writing and listening in each of these communities differed markedly. Only the middle-class community in Maintown participated in language practices that were overtly valued and taken up in school (e.g. knowing fairytales and being able to write fantasy stories, asking a question whose answer was known to both the asker and the respondent) and which clearly prepared these middle-class children for operating relatively seamlessly at school.

In contrast, children growing up in Roadville were apprenticed to reading, writing and speaking practices that valued factual information over fiction. Invented stories were regarded generally as lies, and although parents did read bedtime stories to their children prior to school, their engagement with the text emphasized factual or literal engagement, rather than imaginative predictions or innovations on the text. Children were inducted into storytelling by means of factual recounts pre-scripted for them by their parents. Roadville students did well in the beginning of their first year of schooling, until the teacher began to expect more independent, abstract and creative work which they were unable to carry out successfully.

Children growing up in Trackton were taught from a very young age to be independent and to hold their own in oral engagements with children and adults alike. Thus, young Trackton children were heard playing with words, inventing rhymes, crafting elaborate oral narratives featuring family members and friends, linking seemingly unrelated events in skilfully metaphorical ways, and engaging in witty repartee and teasing word plays with adults and peers. Heath, however, aptly demonstrates how few of these literacies were made space for in the grade 1 curriculum and shows how Trackton children were confused by school practices such as labelling exercises, by ‘once upon a time’ stories, by item identification worksheets, and by unfamiliar question forms used at school (such as ‘what-explanations’) (1982: 69).

Heath’s study confronted taken-for-granted assumptions that children from working-class families did not engage in rich literacy experiences at home or in their communities. It also called for educators to rethink the ways of speaking, reading, writing and listening they valued most in class, and to make greater efforts to accommodate different ways of being literate, such as those demonstrated by the Roadville and Trackton children.

Collaborative Literacy Practices and Siblings’ Home-School Mediation

Dinah Volk and Martha de Acosta (2001) conducted ethnographic case studies of three Puerto Rican children (two aged six years, one aged five years) and their everyday lives in a working-class area of a large city in a Midwestern US state. All three were ‘Spanish dominant,’ had older siblings, and belonged to Protestant churches. Two were girls. One of the three was a proficient reader, one was making average progress, and the third was struggling with reading. All attended the same bilingual preschool. The study purpose was to address the question: ‘What counts as literacy in the bilingual classroom, homes and churches of three Spanish dominant, mainland Puerto Rican children?’ (2001: 194). The researchers also hoped to identify what could be learned from the data to usefully inform classroom teaching.

Volk and de Acosta used their study findings to critique research that focuses solely on parent-child interactions, thereby missing ‘the complexity and richness’ of wider support networks and literacy practices occurring within the everyday lives of these children (2001: 216). Older siblings particularly were found to play an important mediating role between home and school for the three focus children. Volk and de Acosta also found that adult members of each child’s support network drew directly on their own personal school experiences to help the child with his or her homework. Given traditional approaches to Spanish teaching in Puerto Rico, this literacy support often focused on letter names and sounds rather than on meaning making (Spanish being a highly phonetic language) (2001: 217). Volk and de Acosta also found a direct contrast between the literacies promoted at church—which entailed memorization, repetition, group oral recitation and reading the Bible (and were not open to negotiated interpretations)—and the literacy practices promoted in the children’s kindergarten class. The latter emphasized ‘questioning, individual pleasure, and constructing meaning’ from texts (2001: 217). Nevertheless, Volk and de Acosta suggest that far from encouraging rote learning and passivity, church literacy practices and adult help with homework served to induct all three children into literacy learning by enrolling them as ‘[a]ctive participants with more competent others’ in learning ‘the language and behaviors valued in many classrooms’ (2001: 218). They argue that the literacy practices of home blended literacy practices valued in schools with practices valued in their churches and in so doing created ‘collaborative literacy practices rooted in their culture’ (2001: 220).

Interestingly, Volk and de Acosta found that what counted as literacy at home and at church was ‘primarily social interactions with familiar texts containing significant and useful knowledge’ (2001: 219). In contrast, what counted as literacy in school ‘was a progression from social to individual interactions with print’ (2001: 219-20). Thus, literacy events at home and at church tended to be much more collaborative than at school, despite the kindergarten teacher’s overt interest in group learning and meaning making. Volk and de Acosta call on teachers to make explicit to themselves and to families the ways in which they define literacy in their classrooms, and to recognize the out-of-school literacies in which their students engage as significant resources to draw on in classroom-based teaching.

The Production of Non-Schooled Texts

Kate Pahl (2002) focuses explicitly on three young boys’ text production practices at home, to help inform the development of home-based pedagogies that take account of a wide range of text making processes and conditions. She was especially interested in documenting texts that were so ‘localized and so specific’—ephemeral, even—that they would not be recognized as texts by teachers, yet nonetheless demonstrated literate understandings and resourceful improvisation in relation to text production and meaning making (2002: 150). The study participants were aged five to eight years. Two had been excluded from school. One was attending a school labelled ‘failing.’ All boys were from single-parent (mother) families. Two of the families had histories of domestic violence. Two boys were Indian or Anglo-Indian, and one was Turkish. The study was conducted in England.

Sol (six years old) devoted his time to drawing Pokmon characters and scenes and creating his own Pokmon trading cards, inventing new Pokmon characters in the process (Pokmon creatures are evolving hybrids that hail from insect, dinosaur and animal worlds). He also made tiny Pokmon-related figures from modelling clay (Fimo). His mother liked to display these neatly but Sol preferred to play with them all over the house.

Fatih (five years old) was a keen drawer and story writer, and drew on a range of influences, like Pokmon, Nintendo’s Super Mario video games, his mother’s prayer practices, and ‘his own internal landscape of birds and chickens’ (2002: 152). Pahl referred to Fatih’s literacy practices as syncretic because ‘they combined practices from Turkey such as ways of speaking, being, acting, with practices learned in English playgrounds’ (2002: 152; see also Kenner and Gregory, and Gregory and Kenner, in this volume).

Edward (eight years old) produced a range of texts, including detailed images of trains and his grandmother’s farm in Wales. His great-grandfather had helped build the Indian railways and the family maintained a deep interest in trains—which included numerous models in glass-fronted cabinets in their home. Pahl identified family-oriented resources, like family narratives about farm life, trains and other family experiences, as key iterative resources in Edward’s meaning making—rather than, say, popular culture resources.

Besides written and drawn texts, Pahl also documents a range of what she calls ‘ephemeral’ texts. She argues that these tell as much, if not more, about these three boys’ literate understandings as more conventionally recognized texts. These ephemeral texts ‘had a necessarily short life as they were hastily constituted, often out of bits of food, old tissues, or anything to hand’ (2002: 159). For example, Fatih and his mother regularly used her prayer beads to create—and discuss—outline ‘maps’ of countries (such as Turkey and England). Pahl argues that researchers do not pay sufficient attention to ‘momentary texts’ and the literate understandings they reveal. She also discusses different ways in which these three families classified text productions (e.g. as things to display, as ‘mess,’ as play). On this basis she calls for researchers to pay closer attention to ‘children’s meaning making in the home as [being] intimately connected with the space in which it is produced’ (2002: 164), to better understand the complexities of young children’s meaning making practices. This understanding can then be brought to bear on articulating a ‘home pedagogy’ that is tied to the ‘aesthetic and moral dimensions’ of the home (2002: 165).

Working-Class Children and Their Rocky Navigation of Home and School Discourses

Deborah Hicks’ ethnographic case study of two white, working-class children living in a large US city focuses on Laurie (female) and Jake (male). Both were five years old at the start of Hicks’ three-year study and in the same preschool and primary school classes. Laurie lived with her mother, grandmother and younger brother and sister. Her family had regular financial and childcare worries and was marked by Laurie’s loving, but troubled, relationship with her mother and younger sister. Jake lived with his mother and father and two siblings (one older, one younger). He had a particularly strong relationship with his father, and they shared a passion for car racing. Both children demonstrated effective emergent literacy understandings in preschool, but struggled increasingly with literacy as they moved into higher grades.

Hicks’ study was partly a reaction to literacy research in the US that has tended to focus on ethnicity and to downplay issues associated with class. She also wanted to advocate on behalf of these two children, their families and teachers (and others like them), and to contribute to educational change for the better, if only on a small scale. With Laurie, advocacy involved Hicks providing specialized tutoring in reading and writing at home. In Jake’s case, Hicks made her research findings available to Jake’s mother to be used in parent-teacher conferences, and to argue for self-paced, individualized instruction for Jake instead of the rigid, lockstepped instruction that characterized the middle primary grades at his school.

Hicks’ study introduces Laurie as a vibrant young girl whose out-of-school life at five years old was filled with imaginary travel to exotic places, mythical beasts, and the desire for a prince (in the form of a loving father) to come and rescue her and her family. Laurie appeared to be a confident emergent reader and writer at home and in kindergarten, and often voiced her plans to be a writer and an artist as an adult. Indeed, Laurie’s exuberant understanding of story structure and book language, letter identification and other demonstrated text capabilities suggested she would encounter no academic difficulties in moving from kindergarten to grade 1. By the middle of grade 1, however, Laurie had fallen seriously behind her classmates in reading and writing and required remedial intervention at school. Her escalating academic difficulties were compounded by several factors. The school’s reading programme did not match her reading progression. She had difficulty understanding and participating in school/academic practices (for example, when using a letter identification worksheet she painstakingly copied the word stem rather than providing the letter that preceded the stem to make a word). She experienced stresses at home and within the process of negotiating conflicts between what it meant to be a girl at home and a girl at school. Laurie had also been ‘acquired by’ (2002: 68) an attention deficit disorder in kindergarten, largely on account of her uncontrollable angry outbursts that were often associated with difficulties she was experiencing at home. Pathologizing

Laurie’s emotions had a profound impact on her personality and school experiences. She was medicated daily, and became depressed and withdrawn at home and school. She also suffered from physical side effects from the medication that plagued her at school: ‘I don’t feel so good ‘cause them dumb pills make my stomach hurt’ (2002: 64). She increasingly resisted participating in literacy lessons (e.g. tuning out, shrugging sulkily in response to a teacher’s question), but at the same time wanted to be a well-behaved student. (Hicks associated Laurie’s wish to be well behaved with attempts to compensate for not being a ‘good’ reader, and as a bid for some degree of power and agency in a setting in which Laurie found herself increasingly powerless and helpless.) Despite Hicks’ best efforts, Laurie quickly became a ‘disabled reader’ at school where reading was defined according to ‘grade level expectations’ (2002: 75).

Jake’s at-home practices showed him as keenly involved in a wide range of literacy practices, and his family regarded him as a ‘gifted learner.’ Hicks’ study of Jake’s school literacy practices, however, reveal deep ‘dissonances between institutional practices of schooling and working-class values’ (2002: 99). At home, Jake moved freely and confidently between a range of literacy-related activities that involved learning by doing (‘rather than by talking about parts of a task’; 2002: 99), linking texts to three-dimensional objects (e.g. car racing magazines with his model cars), working collaboratively with his father in building or fixing things needed by the family, being read to by his grandmother, reading or recalling facts from information texts (e.g. on US presidents), and the like. His home was filled with books and magazines. Jake’s grandmother and mother were avid readers of novels, and his father was a self-described voracious reader of information texts. Jake had a large collection of children’s books (some with supplementary sight word flashcards), along with racing car magazines, and a range of action-oriented video games which he used regularly.

Jake—like his father—was constantly in motion at home and his literacy practices generally involved loud sound effects and whole-body engagement (especially when playing video games). He was also capable of sustained attention to stories, or to engaging in an activity that interested him. Jake’s father was particularly influential in his life: a self-taught man who had dropped out of school in grade 9, but who had subsequently—through reading and apprenticeships—become a successful mechanical contractor and a gifted carpenter. Jake was used to working alongside his father (he even had his own powersaw and workspace in his father’s home workshop). His father had a huge collection of miniature replicas of racing cars. Jake also had a growing collection. As ‘early as his kindergarten year Jake could identify each NASCAR vehicle and its driver by reading such details as racing colors and insignia, the shape of different cars and print’ (2002: 103). Halfway through the study, Jake was named vice-president of the family’s new business and role-played for Hicks how he spoke with clients over the phone.

Jake, however, increasingly experienced troubles with school literacies in grades 1 and 2. He was required to remain seated for long periods of time to complete segmented tasks (e.g. putting spelling words into sentences), to discuss or explain tasks already completed, to engage in abstract, two-dimensional pencil and paper exercises, and so on. These differed greatly from how he accomplished things at home. Hicks watched as Jake increasingly tuned out of lessons—especially reading lessons—and became more and more angrily frustrated with the lockstepped nature of the school’s reading programme and the tasks required of him. As one example among many, Hicks recounts Jake’s response to a story mapping exercise where he was required to plot information from a story onto a worksheet:

Jake seemed perplexed. ‘I’m not sure what it is,’ he commented in frustration. ‘What what is?’ I asked, trying to figure out how he was responding to the story map activity. ‘This paper,’ he said. (Hicks, 2002: 118, original emphases)

For Jake, tasks needed to be meaningful. However, he found many school tasks to be, in his words, just plain ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ (2002: 104).

Jake—like Laurie—fared somewhat better in the increased reading and writing freedom available in grade 2 and began to write more and longer narratives across the year. These texts invariably dealt with a range of boyhood identities—from playing baseball with his baby brother ‘just like the big boys’ (2002: 127), to car racing, through to family events such as trips away and outings in a boat. Jake seemed to find space in this classroom to connect his out-of-school ‘life worlds’ and the discourses of masculinity he was apprenticed to in his everyday life at home with school-valued writing practices (2002: 131). In grade 3, however, he was not allowed to work at his own pace in reading and writing, and—like Laurie—fell further and further behind his classmates. As Jake moved through primary school, he became increasingly resistant to what he perceived as ‘dumb’ school literacies practised in his classroom.

A key theme running through Hicks’ study is ‘the ways in which material relations and attachments with others shape early practices of reading’ (2002: 41). The cases of Laurie and Jake clearly show the importance and influence of home-based relationships and experiences in these young children’s lives. For example, Laurie’s need for stable and unconditional relationships in her life translated into utopian stories about family and friends (especially fictional stories that cast her as a flowergirl at her mother’s wedding). Jake’s out-of-school experiences translated into a preference for reading information texts like his father did at home, and for writing factual recounts about his family. For Hicks, understanding children’s literacy practices and abilities at home and school cannot discount the importance of family and class values, parent-child relationships, and the ways in which these are taken up, made room for, or excluded in classrooms.


Our summaries have not done justice to the detailed descriptions and analyses of the young children and their literacy practices presented in the four studies. They do, however, indicate the significant contributions such studies can make to understanding the rich and complex literacy practices in which children engage within their everyday lives: notably, children regarded officially as ‘literacy failures,’ or as not having ‘literacy’ at home. These studies demonstrate ways in which literacy practices are always deeply social: embedded in and constituting an array of familial, community and school relationships.

Our personal interest in and commitment to the kinds of studies falling within quadrant 3 of our matrix in Table 5.1 stem from their potential to challenge narrow scholastic conceptions of literacies that become a basis for allocating and withholding school success in inequitable ways. We also find hope in these studies for informing classroom practice by alerting teachers to young children’s existing understandings of and facility with roles and effects of literacy in social contexts, and for suggesting how best to build on these understandings and capabilities in classrooms. This is especially important with regard to studies documenting everyday literacy practices of marginalized children—whether this marginalization is in terms of class, academic performance, gender, behaviour, religion, home language, ethnicity, and so on. Out-of-school studies of young children’s literacy practices can also alert researchers and educators to the complexities associated with becoming ‘school literate’ and fluent in school discourses—as exemplified by Laurie’s diagnosed ‘attention deficit’ in Hicks’ study, and by the siblings and their mediation-initiation roles studied by Volk and de Acosta.

We are particularly interested in the ways such studies can make young children’s ‘invisible literacies’ visible. Pahl’s study of ephemeral texts is a case in point. So is Hicks’ account of Jake’s information text reading at home. Church-related literacies clearly impact on children’s conceptions of texts and meaning making, as Heath’s and Volk and de Acosta’s respective studies show. Heath’s (1983) accounts of Lem’s poetic ways with words remain a research exemplar in the way they document what would otherwise be hidden to Lem’s white, middle-class teachers when he began school. Lem was a young African-American boy living in Trackton who had been successfully apprenticed to clever word plays and oral language uses of his community. At two and one-half years of age, Lem drew on his church-going experiences in response to hearing a distant bell ring while playing on the front verandah of his house:

  • Way Far
  • Now
  • It a church bell
  • Ringin’
  • Dey singin’
  • ringin’
  • You hear it?
  • I hear it
  • Far
  • Now
  • (1983: 170)

At three years of age he responded to his mother’s playful threat to tie him to the railway tracks if he did not keep his shoes on by saying:

  • Railroad track
  • Train all big ’n black
  • On dat track, on dat track, on dat track
  • Ain’t no way I can’t get back
  • Back from dat track
  • Back from dat train
  • Big ‘n black, I be back
  • (1983: 110)

Making such language and practices visible may encourage teachers to reconsider the ways ‘literacy’ is defined in their classrooms, and their own roles in sustaining these definitions. Teachers may also thereby be encouraged to rethink deficit theories that readily associate poor or ethnically marginal children with school literacy failure.

Given the value of these studies, we are left wondering why there is a relative absence of ethnographic-type out-of-school investigations of young children’s everyday literacy practices (cf Hull and Schultz, 2001). Perhaps the answer lies in difficulties regularly encountered in researching young children’s practices. Hicks, for example, recounts problems associated with interviewing kindergarten children: ‘A few children expressed their response to our request that they reflect on their kindergarten learning experiences by breaking out into song and dance. Others sat stiffly, responding as though they were on a television talk show’ (2002: 107). Another difficulty lies in the need for conducting relatively long-term studies in order to better capture the complexities of young children’s literacies (Hicks, 2002; Pahl, 2002).

Nonetheless, we detect an increase over the past few years in published out-of-school studies of young children’s literacy practices. We hope this indicates an informed and critical response by researchers to the increasingly constricted and test-based conceptions of literacy evident in schools in the US, England, Australia and elsewhere: that researchers are turning to detailed and contextualized accounts of young children’s literacies in order to challenge what counts as literacy ‘success’ and ‘failure’ at school.


Out-of-school literacy studies relying on ethnographic investigation of young children’s everyday practices cannot be generalized to wider populations. This, however, is not to deny their theoretical and pedagogical value beyond the scope set by each study. Quite the reverse. Out-of-school studies have enormous value through their resonances with other researchers’ findings, with teachers’ in-class experiences with particular students, and with families’ experiences of school-home relationships.

For example, the resonances between Jake in Deborah Hicks’ (2002) study and the case of Jacques mentioned previously (see Knobel, 1999; 2001) are uncanny, notwithstanding differences in age (Jake was aged five to seven years during the span of Hicks’ study, while Jacques was 13 at the start of Knobel’s study), location and citizenship (Jake was North American, Jacques Australian), and schooling (Jake was at the start of his formal primary school, Jacques at the end of his). Both boys shared painful histories of literacy failure and resistance at school (interestingly enough, both feigned sleep during lessons that made no sense to them). Both were extremely independent, active and capable outside school—sharing particularly close ‘working’ and family relationships with their fathers who each owned his own trades-based business. And both demonstrated they were highly competent in diverse literacy practices out of school.

Other patterns of resonance can be found in the ‘synergistic’ and ephemeral texts produced by Fatih and his mother—and which were tied to the identities of both—in Pahl’s (2002) study and in Loukia Sarroub’s (2002) study of the ‘in-between literacies’ that devout Muslim, Yemeni-American teenage girls used in negotiating home and school worlds. The identity work carried out by Laurie in her textual practices and resistances (Hicks, 2002) resonates with the identity work that young, female, middle-school students call into play via their language use at home and school in Margaret Finder’s (1997) study of gender, literacy and adolescence.

Such patterns and similarities across out-of-school studies sound a call to action for researchers and educators alike to pay close attention to students’ out-of-school lives. This will help educators build on students’ literacy strengths in meaningful and ultimately successful ways, to minimize school experiences such as those endured by children like Laurie and Jake, and to recognize that complex, synergistic relationships exist among home and school discourses—such that one cannot be considered without the other when access to equitable literacy education is at stake.