Key Findings

Literacy policy: Whilst the Early Years curriculum in England has begun to recognise literacy development as embedded in social practice, national and local policy-derived documentation continues to focus on cognitive approaches, and theorised guidance on supporting literacy learning with new technologies is notably absent.

Practitioner beliefs and literacy practices: In the early years setting, there was an emphasis on the acquisition of traditional literacy skills, such as sharing stories, mark-making, phonics, rhyming etc, and staff supported children’s learning in joint shared attention episodes. Although the nursery had diverse electronic resources, their use was only occasionally integrated into pedagogic planning or supported by practitioners, with the exception of provision for children with learning difficulties where computers were recognised as offering choice and control.

Whilst most practitioners acknowledged the centrality of new technologies in the children’s future lives, many lacked confidence in their use, were uncertain about their pedagogic value and/or feared their potential harm to ‘childhood’. Some software and internet access to approved sites offered literacy-learning potential, but only those children who had developed computer skills at home accessed these, either alone or in collaborative participation frameworks with peers. These frameworks were characterised by motivated joint activity, where an ‘expert’ peer used talk and actions to direct and discuss game progression with less experienced peers.

Parental beliefs and literacy practices: At home, the young children experienced a range of everyday literacy practices with diverse media. Home ownership of mobile phones, TVs, satellite, computers and internet was widespread, although two families in the lowest income band (>£10,000 per annum) had no computer, with implications for social inclusion/equality. Whilst safeguarding against their over-use, most parents recognised the potential of new technologies for their children’s learning, but were less sure about how to support screen-based literacy activities. Some children were not allowed computer access at home, but did use mobile phones, TV/videos, and ‘smart’ toys which converged new and traditional technologies (e.g. talking books, interactive toys). We therefore found a ‘digital divide’ where some children in the nursery displayed strategic, meta-level literacy knowledge with new technologies derived principally from participation in supported activity at home, whilst children with less experience only participated in low-level activities or did not use them at all.

Multimodal literacies: Analysis of the children’s engagement with a range of media revealed that becoming ‘literate’ in today’s world involves mastery of diverse practices and technical skills, along with the ability to adapt, improvise, identify relevant features in static and dynamic texts and to navigate around them. It was clear that reading on-screen was profoundly different to reading print. It involved the use and interpretation of multiple modes (images, sounds, movement, layout, spoken and written language), which appeared in non-linear, hyperlinked formats with diverse possible pathways. We are developing a theorised framework for supporting literacy learning in diverse media through ‘collaborative multimodal dialogue’ (defined as the inter-subjective, multimodal meaning-making processes that occur through joint engagement in activity) to enable educators to help all children achieve their full potential as members of a society in which knowledge and communication in both traditional and new technologies are highly prized.

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