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Child’s Play: Writing the Self in a Multilayered Context

Joan Travers


Educational practitioners are increasingly encouraged to build upon the knowledge

young writers bring with them from the home to the classroom. Children’s domestic
literacy practices, however, is a field which remains extremely under-researched.
This paper focuses on a sample of domestic writing produced by an 8-year-old child
in French, German and English. It shows how skills are networked and meaning co-
constructed via writing as a multifaceted social tool. This paper confirms not only the
wide scope of literacy-related skills acquired at home, but also the extent to which a
text is deeply embedded in the particular sociocultural contexts we negotiate as part
of our identity construction. The paper concludes by encouraging authentic literacy
activities and dynamics within the classroom which may draw upon the child’s
previously acquired funds of knowledge.

Keywords: literacy, trilingualism, home learning, intertextuality, identity

Introduction: The Domestic Context

I am in my study, playing the treble recorder. Hardly have I begun this treat, a reward
that I accord myself after a good stint of work, then along scuttles my daughter, Pia,
bursting breathlessly into the room.

We exchange glances. I bow her a ‘bienvenue!’. She responds with a smile. Pia’s
glance falls on my paper-strewn desk - a mess, to the untrained eye, but for me, my
desk is organic; the evidence of my mental webbing, the musical score for the
melody of a particular activity of mind. And Pia knows better than to touch anything

on it without my say-so. On the bookshelf is a sturdy plastic folder crammed full with
old paper her father brings home from work for his girls. Pia plucks out a sheet, flips it
onto the clean side and reaches for a nearby felt tip pen. Although I am concentrating
on a decent rendition of Telemann, I also take in the fact that, like me, every fibre of
her is involved in her graphical act. In no time, she has filled the page and holds it
beneath my nose. I nod. Satisfied, she places it on my table and skips off.

So much has been said between the two of us, though not a single word exchanged.

Telemann over, I take a look at Pia’s offering. Questions, questions, questions:

- Tu mapprend a Jouer la flute? (will you teach me to play the (descant)
- Warum samelst du alles vas ich mache? (why do you collect everything I
- Kann i doo some BasckdtBoll?

For each question, an allocated box:

- oui non
- Ja nein
- Jess No

To round off, the text is embellished by the drawing of a woman playing the recorder.

‘Pia?’ I call her back. ‘Number one...’ I let her wait and her grin gets wider,
´yes. Number two...’ I hook this in the air, just out of her reach.
She takes up the posture of someone about to catch a ball; knees dipped, hands at
the ready...
‘... because I learn a lot from you. And I´ve told you that a hundred times
A little hop of delight.
‘And number three...’
She waddles with her hips and rubs her hands. On your marks... get set...
‘Of course you can.’

‘Oué!’ she is off and out the door, whilst I hesitate, trying to grasp the wealth of
the preceding effortless minutes.

The fleeting, initially silent nature of the interaction belies the extreme complexity of
what is actually taking place. We may probe further with the following questions:

- What is happening here?

- How?
- Where is the control located?
- What does the interaction mean to the participants?
- What are the values transmitted?

- What does the interaction appear to tell us about identity and knowledge
- How can insight into the funds of domestic literacy inform classroom

Theoretical Background

In order to unpick the picture of literacy emerging here, it is useful to relate it to a

number of theoretical perspectives from the field. Hence, after a brief sketch of
general trends in literacy research, I shall move on to review the relevant literature on
domestic interactional patterns, outline the educational policies which bear upon
Pia’s literacy acquisition and conclude by presenting the essential findings on
multilingualism. A review of the research on discourse analysis, trilingualism or
home-school interactional dynamics, however, all extend beyond the purview of this
present paper (Bursch, 2005).

General Trends in Literacy Research

The overall trend has moved beyond the search for universal cognitive tendencies in
experimental or classroom-based settings (typical up to the 1970s), towards a more
context sensitive approach, acknowledging the significance of social, personal and
affective variables such as culture, class, site, language, motivation, and
interpersonal dynamics. This development has been triggered by the availability and
dissemination of Vygotsky’s theories from the 1970s onwards (Vygotsky, 1978, 1994;
Wertsch, 1985). Despite the decidedly academic position adopted in Vygotskian
theory, his work has been instrumental in redirecting the focus of research beyond
the classroom to the analysis of learning in real settings.

Literacy Domains
Home environment
Literacy activities taking place beyond the school-gate have been referred to by a
number of terms, most frequently ‘home’ or ‘domestic’ literacy. Other terms employed

include ‘out-of-school literacy’ (Gregory & Kenner, 2003), ‘unofficial literacy’ (Gregory
& Williams, 2000), ‘family literacy’ (Hannon, 2003), ‘community literacy’ (Cairney &
Ruge, 1996), ‘vernacular’, ‘everyday’, ‘alternative’, ‘hidden’ or indeed ‘in-between’
(Knobel & Lankshear 2003:54). There are, thus, many potential ways of viewing, and
contextualizing, the home.

The home environment is typified as a variegated, holistic, informal cultural context,

or learning biotope, fostering the inductive, even subconscious, yet early acquisition
of skills as social processes in the daily landscape (e.g. Taylor, 1983; Hall, 1994;
Kendrick, 2003:40).

Suggestions, hints and warnings, conversation, practical tasks shared, family

reminiscences and the like, all provide contexts within which the developing
child’s learning and understanding are orchestrated and extended through social
interaction. Often, as we shall see, the formative influences of such interactions
on the child’s mentality are not intentional outcomes of what we seek to
communicate to the child. Rather, they are products of implicit features of social
practices within which communication and attempts to teach take place.
(Wood, 1998)

It is absurd to imagine that four- or five-year-old children growing up in an urban

environment that displays print everywhere (...) do not develop any ideas about
this cultural object until they find themselves sitting before a teacher at the age of
(Ferreiro & Teberosky, 1979:12)

Children, thus, are exposed to and engage with writing well before formal instruction.
At home, children are generally accorded more ´space´ to bridge and compare their
personal experiences, discourses and ‘texts’ gained in various areas in a manner that
is not as easily possible when an adult attempts to consciously teach and evaluate

A number of studies go on to make the claim that the child’s willingness to participate
in and benefit from certain classroom activities appears to relate to experience of
these activities beyond the school-gate (e.g. Heath, 1982; Volk & de Acosta 2002).
Notions of right or wrong, of the appropriate interactive or indeed teaching style are
all culturally transmitted, thus room must be made for the potential diversity of
stances imported into the classroom by children from different backgrounds.

Parental belief systems,

Parental belief systems are shaped by parental values and personal experiences
which together form an ‘educational agenda’ (Leichter, 1984:38), however implicit.
This agenda transmits what counts as literacy (e.g. Kendrick, 2003) and will channel
how parents interact with their children. Such belief systems, however, are not simply
a pill to be swallowed and digested by the child. Rather, children actively try to make
sense of the signals being sent their way (Valsiner, 1997).

Class-contingency, home-school dichotomy and ´deficiency´

The idea that interactional style is an indicator of social class membership is a matter
of some dispute. A number of studies establish class sensitive patterns of interaction
(e.g. Mardle & Walker, 1980:98). A correlation between purchasing power and
interactional style has equally been established (Dyson, 2001) and contested
(Gibson, 1989).

It appears that the functions of literacy may also be class-sensitive. Hannon (1995)
points to the discrepancy between the potential and actual patterns of literacy across
classes, whilst Gregory & Williams (2000) highlight community as opposed to a class-
sensitive uses of literacy.

Even if we side-step the issue of the fluid nature of class membership and the even
more fluid nature of community membership in multicultural households, it is clear
that distinctions according to class or domain may easily harbour notions of
deficiency implicitly reinforcing the supposed infallibility of schools and middle-class
environments (Fairclough, 1989) to the displacement of the validity of other contexts
as valuable learning environments (Amanti, 1995). For Rogoff et al (1998), the
polarisation of a specific style to a particular domain downplays the true degree of
overlap, since a ‘good’ interactive style is neither monolithic nor the prerogative of a
particular domain, activity or social group. This view is supported by two decades of
research (e.g. Ferreiro, 1984; Gauvain, 2001), which increasingly responds to the call
for greater bottom-up alignment between the home and school contexts. The starting
point for any such alignment must be the child’s demonstrated competence, (Cope &
Kalantzis, 2000:18; Gregory & Kenner, 2003). If one is to effectuate such alignment,
much more research needs to be conducted in out-of-school contexts.

Institutional environment
The general character of institutional practice, conventionally typified by structured
atomistic as opposed to holistic encounters of an interactive style exhibiting more
trenchant asymmetry than usually encountered at home, has been well-documented
(e.g. Woods, 1980; Hall 1994:22-3; Faulkner et al, 1998). As the institutional context
merely provides peripheral data to support my focus on home interactions, my review
is accordingly brief and limited to the literacy stances adopted up by the governing
bodies at Pia’s French-German nursery-primary school.

The French curriculum is centralised (for a summary of the French education system
and the relevant official organs, see e.g. Rayna & Plaisance, 1998). Publications by
the Ministry of Education encourage practitioners to build upon the competencies
children bring to school (Cycles de l´Ecole Primaire, Ministère de l’ éducation
nationale,1992). Writing is described as ‘urban furniture’; an integral part of urban
space and a meeting point of communication. It is this furniture which permits the
initiation into various functions of writing.

French policy adopts a structuralist, stage-oriented view of literacy acquisition. For

each of the three years of nursery school, detailed attainment guidelines are laid
down. Literacy instruction begins with ‘sensitizing’ to handwriting skills as part of the
‘pre-alphabet stage’: lines are drawn, circles and loops as the precursor to alphabetic
writing. Nursery-school children later use writing models to move on to print and
finally to joined up writing, which they are expected to master before entry to Year
One. Parents are encouraged to support their children´s literacy acquisition and
development in order to additionally secure a smooth transition from the home to the
school. There is a wide variety of material for sale in supermarkets and bookstores to
this end. This type of alignment, however, is ‘top-down’.

Unlike centralist France, in Germany each federal state is responsible for its own
educational agenda (Bildungsplan). Pia’s bi-lingual school not only adopts the
curricular guidelines of the neighbouring German federal state of Baden-Württemberg
but also employs native speakers as teachers.

In Germany, a different position is taken up concerning early literacy acquisition.
Nursery school – Kindergarten – is predominantly viewed as a site of play and
discovery. Indeed, nursery education, unlike formal schooling, does not always fall
under the purview of the Ministry of Education, but sometimes under that of the
Ministry of Social Affairs. The growing critique of the lack of concrete teaching
objectives in German nursery schools (Otto & Spiewak, 2004; OECD ECEC) has
motivated individual federal states to commit themselves to transparent and
appropriate pedagogic programmes.

Multilingualism and Multilingual Writing

Whilst definitions of bi- and multilingualism abound (Hamers & Blanc, 1989;
Romaine, 1995; Baker & Jones, 1998; Hoffmann & Ytsma, 2004; Aronin & O´Laoire,
2004; Helot, 2005) and stage theories on bilingual writing development have been
established (Ferreiro & Teberosky (1979;1982;1996), replicated (cf review by Bauer,
2004), and contested (see Kendrick, 2003:41 for an extended review), there still
remains a dearth of information on the products, as opposed to mere processes, of
early literacy (Kendrick 2003). Research on young bilingual children’s writing
development across both languages is quite limited (Saunders, 1988; Kenner, 2000;
Bauer, 2004:208; Maneva, 2004). Research encompassing both the domestic
environment and biliteracy is even more sparse (e.g. Pahl, 1999). Research on
domestic triliteracy, such as I conduct here, is, to my knowledge, practically non-

From this review of the relevant literature we see that studies on multilingual
domestic writing practices address a significant lacuna both in the fields of literacy
and multilingualism in addition to responding to the call for more bottom-up research.
We may now turn to the analytical framework employed to interpret the sample of
domestic triliteracy presented in this paper.

Data Collection and Analysis

The primary data comprises the text written by Pia in addition to the field notes made
immediately after the event and presented here in an abridged version as the

‘domestic context’. In order to ´place’ this document in Pia’s writing development her
text was then compared to over five hundred other samples of her writing collected
over the past five years. Finally, Pia was questioned informally about the text at
different intervals and the dialogues were transcribed. The entire data collection
period extended over six months.

A compound analytical framework has successfully informed studies on the

negotiation of identity in multilingual contexts (e.g. Maguire, 2001; Pavlenko &
Blackledge, 2003). In a similar vein, I shall draw upon a range of theoretical and
analytical stances within both the post-structuralist and the socio-cultural/historical
frameworks which, together, enable me to ‘sieve’ this example of domestic literacy in
order to retrieve a plethora of indices.

The premise central to this paradigm is that the individual (learner or agent) is
essentially a social being, whose discourse, behaviour, meaning making and thus
identity, is contingent upon a number of things. Upon the context. Upon the available
resources which mediate the expression of identity in interaction and negotiation with
co-actors. Upon the social tools, both symbolic (e.g. language) and material (e.g.
books, paper, computers etc) which the interactants resource and endow with a
particular immediate meaning, but which are also invested with social (and therefore
cultural or historical) meanings or prescriptions; ‘affordances’ extending beyond the
interactants’ immediate use (Bakhtin, 1986; Vygotsky, 1994; Gee, 2002). As such,
the present is inextricably intertwined with the past, the individual firmly embedded in
cultural parameters, with language constituting a constant potential site of struggle, or
negotiation, over meaning (Bakhtin, 1986; Bourdieu, 1993) and its inherent power.
Viewed from this perspective, writing, thus, is not a neutral act of reproduction,
shedding dead matter like dandruff. Its potential for reflectivity makes it an inherently
political undertaking, even for young writers (Maquire, 2001).

Identity, like language, rather than being monolithic, is permanently renegotiated

according to the given context. It is a dynamic, political concept deployed skilfully for
the conduct of business within the distinguishable characteristics and loci of our
social markets. Having said this, our identity need not be completely reconstructed
every time, since our experience as social actors provides us with a base, with

habitus or the requisite funds of basic information supplying the ‘currency’ for us to go
about the business of our daily lives (Bourdieu 1991, 1993; Hall 1995:224).

This compound analytical framework provides the ‘lens’, then, that shall calibrate my
investigation of the social affordances of writing.

Levels of analysis
Analysis is conducted at three levels. The first level of analysis views the interaction
from the social vantage. By this is meant the deployment of writing as a social tool to
construct a tangible text – defined below - which is then redeployed as the
cornerstone of the social interaction under investigation. At this ‘social’ level, I look at
the written text, embedded within the overall interactional ‘text’, at the levels of
graphics (or sign), form and function.

The second level of analysis addresses the wealth of data yielded on mother-child
dynamics. Here, I expose how the event extends beyond the ecological context of
the home and is networked to wider ´ecosystems’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Kendrick

The final analytical level is a psychological one focussing on textual indices for the
construction of knowledge, identity and meaning.

In an analysis of writing as socially embedded practice, it is important to bring some
clarity to the central terms being used. My definition of intertextuality recognises any
manner in which a text is inter-related, or networked, in the agent’s mind to other
texts, either at the horizontal level of genre, or indeed at the deeper, ‘vertical’ level of
wider personal experience, including non-written/verbal texts, behaviour or even
objects. This interpretation resembles the concept of ‘coordinations’ propounded by
Gee (2002), or that of ‘knotted relevancies’ proposed by Bateson (1979) (in Kendrick,
2003:159). Every new encounter, physical or mental, each a ‘text’ in its own right,
creates a new node or knot which is then linked to one’s existing knowledge. Such
‘intertextuality’ does not, however, merely lean on previous experiences, but may
also establish links to future events in as far as these are already present in some

form one’s mind. It is precisely because intertextuality, as an innate feature of every
thought act, not only exists at every interpretive level, but is an intra- as much as an
interpsychological phenomenon and spans temporal boundaries that I equally
propose, and employ, the terms ‘networking’ or ‘webbing’.

Approaches to Writing
Behind every statement lies a theory, a concept or ideology, which to foreground,
enables a more transparent comparison of the stances taken up in research and
practice (e.g. Baynham, 2004).

Numerous studies identify the characteristics of various approaches to literacy (e.g.

Street, 2004; Kress, 1997; Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2003) which may broadly be
regrouped into two camps. One camp adopts an intrapsychological approach
regarding learning as an internal mental, stage-oriented process (e.g. Ferreiro &
Teberosky, 1979). The other adopts an interpsychological approach, acknowledging
the social, culturally contingent origins of learning and the role of critical awareness
or multimodality in knowledge acquisition and identity formation (e.g. Kress, 1997;
Pahl, 1999; Dyson, 2001). Other studies establish a typology of literacy approaches
which enable one to see the multiplicity of stances which may be adopted in any
single writing event (Ivanic, 2004).

Whether at an academic or domestic, everyday level, implicit or explicit concepts

determine what ‘counts’, that is, both what we choose to ‘see’ and our approach.

The product of authoring is a text. I identify three levels of construction:

1. the tangible written, or semiotic text (T1)
2. the linguistic text, or accompanying dialogue (T2)
3. the literacy ‘event’ (Heath 1982:93) or interaction as a whole (T3), as a
multimodal phenomenon comprising not only the semiotic and linguistic
texts, but also other non-verbal elements

In my aim to highlight the meaning-making aspects of writing in a specific social

context, I consciously distance myself from the portrayal of writing as an abstract

technical skill, producing dead data suspended from all contextual reality. My
analysis is further motivated by the view of writing as a process rather than a
polished end result, and by the view of the child being a writer rather than becoming
a writer. I acknowledge skills rather than pick at mistakes, for authors are an authority
on their work and they know what they want to achieve (Robinson et al, 1990). Let us
now take a closer look at Pia’s text to see what it reveals about her being a writer in
the context of her home.

Level One: Textual analysis. The Deployment of Social Tools

Graphical level : code-contingent handwriting

Pia attends a French-German nursery-primary school in which the curricular
guidelines of both countries are applied. By the end of nursery school, the French
curriculum, like certain others in Continental Europe has ‘taught’ children not only to
write their name in small and capital letters, but also to copy rudimentary texts in
joined up writing (e.g. Cotton, 1991). By contrast, the German literacy programme
starts a whole school year later. Moreover, the two languages teach completely
different scripts, the French being ‘curlier’, as Pia explains.

Kenner (2003) describes differences in script styles according to their analytic or

synthetic properties. Analytic script involves separate pen strokes, whereas in
synthetic scripts, the pen stroke remains continuous. The German practice, then,
trains an analytic script, whereas the French practice trains a synthetic one. Ferreiro
(1984) distinguishes between the figurative aspects of script on the one hand, that is
to say, the quality of the shapes, spacing etc, and the constructive elements on the
other, i.e. the links between the graphemes or letters, and the rules of their
production. Pia is not familiar with terms such as analytic or synthetic, figurative or
constructive, yet she learns to sharpen her awareness of what such words describe,
and she must faithfully reproduce such distinctions when she writes.

Her writing, however, does not exhibit a high level of graphical contingency; she does
not write in German the German way, or in French the French way. She writes
primarily, and tellingly, according to the French fashion. Throughout the text (T1),
there is also evidence of code-switching at the calligraphic level (see Table One):

Question/ Code Script

Q1 French Mixed
Q2 German Mixed
Q3 English Mixed
A1 French German
A2 German French
A3 English Mixed

Table One. Code and script distribution in relation to questions and answers

The answers to Question One are written according to the German fashion; the Oui
in print and the Non in German capital letters. The German question ‘Warum samelst
du alles vas ich mache?’ (why do you collect everything I do?) is written using both
scripts; the ‘looped’ l, or the h in ‘mache’ clearly come from the French script. The h
in ‘ich’ is written in German script on the other hand. The word ‘Basckd(t)Boll’,
similarly, bears the hallmarks of French calligraphy; the b, the k, the l, though the d(t)
is clearly German and the use of capital letters derives from the German practice of
writing nouns with capital letters, which French, like English does not (with the
exception of proper names). It is important to point out here that Pia has not been
taught to write the English way. This mixing of styles continues with regard to the
answers. The French question is answered in German script; first print, then capitals.
The German question is answered in French script. The English question is
answered using mixed scripts; the French capital j joined to the e, the rest in German

With all this mixing going on, would it be fair to surmise that Pia has not learnt her
handwriting lesson well?

Consistency in Pia’s ‘writing’ is present at other semiotic levels. The circle drawn
around Question 2 and Answer 2 is, in both cases, bigger than the one drawn around
Question 1. The consistent encasement of Question 3 and Answer 3 is certainly not
coincidental. If we turn our attention to ‘writing’ of music, we notice that the musical
notes are accurately reproduced in the ‘speech bubble’, whose conventional function
Pia recognises, and logically ‘transposes’, for it is not words she hears coming from
her mother’s mouth, but music. Finally, calligraphic consistency may be noted with
regard to the multiple choice answers. Each response begins with a capital letter,
with the correction in Answer Two, from a small n to a capital N, illustrating the
conscious act of such consistency.

English being Pia’s least proficient language, it is the one in which she exhibits the
most orthographic resourcefulness.

She spells ‘can’ according to her knowledge of German; Kann. Pia correctly spells ‘I’,
but, as in French and German, not using capitals. Given that the French and German
pronunciation of the letter i – pronounced /i/ - differs to its pronunciation in English –
pronounced /ai/ - Pia is not accessing her knowledge of French or German
phonology but probably her previous exposure to this English word in print.

The word ‘doo’, similarly, reveals sensitivity to English spelling whilst making a
certain degree of cognitive conflict transparent. The word is initially spelled correctly:
‘do’. It seems, however, that Pia is possibly recruiting French or German phonology,
according to which sound of the vowel here is ‘short’. The word, nonetheless, should
sound longer: doo. It is clearly not German orthography, for in Question 2 Pia
correctly spells the German homophone for this: du, meaning ‘you’. She is thus
aware that the same sound can be spelled differently according to the language

What she is doing is to ‘draw speech’ (Vygotsky, 1978:115), or draw sounds (Kress
1997:124). There is logic behind her spelling, based on the application (A) of an
abstract concept (C) once understood, internalised and reduced (R) (Stern, in
Kerstan, 2003). If I reduce this verbal analysis even further, I arrive at the formula:

C  R  A1  A2  A3 etc

The child’s thoughts to this formula might read as follows: once I’ve understood it (C),
that is, the basic idea (R), then I can use it in lots of different ways (A1, A2, A3), try it
out. This is precisely what children do when they approach writing.

‘Some’ is spelled correctly despite the potential for confusion due to the silent e and
the possible replacement of the o by the letter u. The only plausible explanation for
me is that Pia has ‘picked up’ this word in its entirety from frequent exposure to it and
is not attempting to work out how to spell it.

In the case of ‘Basckd(t)Boll’ we see that, conceptually, for Pia, basketball comprises
two discrete notions: basket, and ball, both of which, as nouns in German, are written
using capital letters. Her d is also a t, and this is no coincidence, for in French, the
word is pronounced ending with a d, whilst in English, the word ends with a t: she is
unsure which spelling is the correct one, so literally blends both. Pia knows the
German word Ball, yet seems unaware that the English word is written the same way,
i.e. that we are dealing with a homograph. It seems that the use of /a/ in Basckd(t)
misleads her to expect a different spelling at the end of the word. She is, after all,
making two completely different sounds. To verify my interpretation, I questioned her
when the text was out of view:

Mother: Pia, do you know how to write the word ball in English?
Pia: Ball? I think so: b-a-l.
(Research Diary 17.05.04)

Hence, she does know how to spell ball in English, one could say, and is being
mislead by the different pronunciation of the a in the first part of the word ‘basketball’.
Notice, furthermore, that her spelling of ‘Doo’, ‘Boll’ and ‘No’, demonstrate that Pia is
indeed aware that the same letter may represent different sounds.

Pia’s trilingual text (T1) is untypical as it is intentional. The second question starts off
in French: the P-o-u, subsequently crossed out, is the beginning of the French
question Pourqoui. I therefore venture to suggest that Pia is possibly making a

conscious effort at knowledge display arising out of her awareness of my academic
interest in her development.

Form and Function

Pia’s written text derives from the multiple choice paper she is familiar with from
school. Her text is not a replication but a modification. She discards the conventional
question-answer layout. She favours, instead, to group the answers into a category of
their own. A further deviation is her inclusion of a picture, which leans more on the
narrative genre.

The function of this format can be better understood intertextually. My longitudinal

analysis of Pia’s writing practices demonstrate that she typically uses such questions
and answers for games and requests.

The function of this written text is nonetheless still related to that of the multiple
choice paper, whose goal is to make the learner’s knowledge transparent whilst
limiting the options available. Here, it is less the case that the reader, myself, is being
invited to display my knowledge. It is more so the case that Pia uses the activity to
display her own knowledge. And yet, this is not a test; it is much more of a game - it
is not work, as at school, it is play. It is not an academic exercise imposed upon her,
it is a real life social skill which she herself selects as appropriate form for the
immediate context of getting her requests across without disturbing her mother’s
musical interlude. In addition to being polysemous and multilingual, the text is,
therefore, equally multifunctional; it is a document of extreme yet subtle complexity in
view of the fact that it is rattled off with such apparent ease.

Level Two: Interactional analysis. Ecological frames

We have seen how Pia appropriates the multiple choice format more readily
associated with school and blends it with the narrative genre, thereby investing the
whole with a particular characteristic tailored to her immediate purpose. In a sense, it
is as if she opens her toolbox and deftly whips out those utensils that are available
and good enough to get the job done (Wood, 1998; Kress, 1997). Tools are made for

specific purposes, they have ‘affordances’, but may also be implemented,
‘coordinated’, to achieve different, novel ends. Some tools Pia is able to handle well.
Others are less familiar, having been used less frequently. Toolboxes have
compartments which help us to order their contents and facilitate retrieval so we
become more efficient. Two central compartments of a child’s social world and
development are home and school (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Valsiner, 1997). It is to
these compartments and their affordances in relation to the literacy event, to which I
would now like to turn.

Parental literacy indices

The literacy event (T3) yields key information about Pia’s household. She comes
from a highly literate family. Her (British-Caribbean) mother is a researcher, whose
desk is ‘paper-strewn’; ‘littered with the accoutrements of learning’.

Pia’s father is German. His work entails such high exposure to print that he brings
home pages full of texts, the reverse side of which serves as writing material for ‘his
girls’. Literacy skills thus play a central role in both Pia’s parents’ lives.

Domestic ecosystem
The event provides insights into a number of the values transmitted in this household
which inform Pia’s developmental pathway, or ‘chreods’ (Valsiner, 1997).

The mother ‘treats’ herself to a musical interlude: ‘ a reward that I accord myself after
a good stint of work.’ First one must work, then one may play. Glances are
exchanged. Words not. Pia knows that there are times when her mother is not to be
interrupted, but she knows it is alright for her to enter the room right now, for the
bienvenue bowed her way tells her so. She is careful to be as unobtrusive as
possible. She also leaves the room without a word, but with the nodded
acknowledgement of her mother, who then calls her back at a suitable moment. She
knows what she may touch and what not; she knows that she cannot just go and help
herself to ‘clean’ paper, but must take the used paper brought from her father’s
workplace and which she must share with her sister, there being only one folder for
the two of them. She is a competent social actor in her home ‘market’ which operates
according to dynamics that do not necessarily overlap with those enforced at school.

Institutional ecosystem
Although Pia’s text (T1) exemplifies French and German institutional writing
practices, the values couched behind these ecosystems cannot be foregrounded
purely by reference to the text. Information presented as part of the theoretical review
and later during the graphical analysis help us to identify the values at work here.
Again, we see that it is essential to look beyond the immediacy of the event as
beyond the individual item of data in order to fully contextualize and retrieve a
maximum of meaning.

What can be said here is that, at the institutional level, variegated, if not conflicting,
signals are being sent regarding both writing competence and strategy. Such
discrepancy must, nonetheless, be bridged in the individual child. In the text (T1), we
see Pia negotiating these values.

Interactional dynamics: Valsiner

Valsiner’s re-conceptualization of the Vygotskian notion of the Zone of Proximal
Development (ZPD) provides an accessible, cogent framework for the analysis of
interactional dynamics in learning environments of the developing child (Valsiner,
1997). He proposes a theoretical framework combining three abstract concepts
which may have particular real-life illustrations whilst remaining theoretical. These

1. the Zone of Free Movement (ZFM)

2. the Zone of Promoted Action (ZPA)
3. the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Zone of Free Movement (ZFM)

The ZFM structures access to a particular environment, the availability of objects
therein and the child’s way of acting with these available objects. Access to the ZFM,
which may be physical as much as emotional or cognitive, is externally controlled by
an adult or gatekeeper. The construction of this zone may be proactive or reactive;
initiated by the child, by the adult, or by both. Often, the ZFM is delineated by the
adults’ evaluation of child competence, based on past experience. It is a means to

channel the child’s development and is dispensed with when no longer relevant,
much like a playpen or a car seat.

Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA)

Unlike the ZFM, which is conceived of as an ‘inhibitory psychological mechanism’
(Valsiner, op.cit.p192) – think back to the play pen – activities within its counterpart,
the ZPA, are geared towards promoting new competencies to extend the child’s
development. The salient characteristic of this zone is its non-binding nature. The
ZFM and the ZPA work together to canalise the child’s development by delineating
and promoting specific areas of activity. The Zone of Promoted Activity is not a

The only options available to children are those they can choose among, and as
long as it does not matter to the parents which option is chosen, no ZPA need be
(Valsiner, p195)

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

Valsiner makes use of this Vygotskian concept (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978), which he
characterizes as entailing:

The set of possible next states of the developing system’s relationship with the
environment, given the current state of the ZFM/ZPA complex and the system.
The ZPD helps us to capture those aspects of child development that have not
yet moved from the sphere of the possible into that of the actual, but are currently
in the process of becoming actualised.
(Valsiner, p200)

The ZPD forms a link to the ZFM and the ZPA in as much as it sets the parameters
for free movement and promoted activity: a promoted activity which lies beyond the
range of the child’s developmental level will fail whereas a promoted activity
coinciding with the child’s developmental level has the best chances of success.

Valsiner’s tripartite framework may be applied to any instance of learning in any zone
of learning. As such, it does not succumb to the polarised depiction of interactive
strategies. One may, nonetheless, anticipate that the proportionate parameters of the
ZFM, ZPA and ZPD relate to the domain or ecosystem in question. If we look back at
the activities taking place in Pia’s nursery school, we see that literacy occupies more

‘space’ as a promoted (and binding) activity in the French curriculum than in the
German, which is not to say that the German curriculum provides more room for free
movement; it simply accords more ‘space’ to the promotion of other activities which
are equally structured and binding: song, physical activity, cutting and pasting etc,
and which may be regarded as equally bound up with the move into literacy (Pahl,
1999). Valsiner’s model can be seen to relate to and complement other
conceptualizations of adult child interaction within the socio-cultural paradigm,
notably Rogoff et al’s ‘guided participation’ analysing mother-toddler interactions
(Rogoff et al, 1998), Wood’s control levels charting the escalating levels of adult
contingent intervention in collaborative activities (Wood, 1998), and perhaps the most
successful, though not uncritical, depiction of ‘scaffolding’ by Jerome Bruner (e.g.
Bruner, 1994, 1996 ; Hoogsteder et al, 1998).

Valsiner’s interactional model can be directly applied to the literacy event under
investigation here. Literacy is clearly a Zone of Promoted Activity within this
household. It occupies a large ‘space’ in Pia’s development, yet, unlike school, is of a
non-binding nature. She is not coerced into a particular behaviour. On the contrary,
the interaction is initiated by her. The Zone of her Free Movement is limited by the ‘in-
house’ rules she has internalised as part of her enculturation into her family ‘space’:
which paper to take, when to speak, when to enter the room – what type of behaviour
would be out of bounds. She is not only at the receiving end of such ‘inhibitory
psychological mechanism’, but sets up a play pen of her own in the form of her
multiple choice questions and their capacity for limiting the scope of her mother’s
responses. She is, therefore, proactive as well as reactive. She is, above all, creative,
for within the limitations set up by her environment and by herself, she still
manoeuvres room for play. She has a perfect ‘feel for the game’, to return to
Bourdieu’s dispositions. And she plays to win. This typical domestic interaction is
less likely to take place in the classroom where Pia must occupy a different role in a
different space with its own affordances, where the asymmetry between the child and
the adult is more extenuated, and where she would have to compete with many other
children for the attention of the teacher. In this concrete sense, too, she has less
‘space’ in the institutional context, with the ZPA and the ZFM in a different
constellation to each other than at home.

The notion of ‘space’ or ‘zone’, elsewhere encountered as ‘fields’, ‘domains’,
‘spheres’ or ‘levels’ can be difficult to grasp at first. Table Two presents a bifurcated
regrouping of ‘space’ for greater clarity:

Group 1: Concrete Spaces Group 2: Abstract Spaces

Ecological (geographical) domains Linguistic codes spoken/heard

Materials/tools Identity formation, (un)endorsed social roles
Forms/products of literacy Meaning negotiation
Directionality Research paradigms, implicit theories
Social actors Intertextuality

Table Two. Concrete and abstract spaces

However, and as Valsiner explains, the concept of zones is not a straightjacket

intended to render static a procedure which is of an inherently fluid, ‘semipermeable’
nature. I argue that such fluidity, such zoniferousness, is the result of the multiplicity
of spaces, roles and networking behind every instance of social interaction.

Level Three: Psychological Analysis. The Mosaic of Meaning and


This interaction presents a new ‘knot’ in the chain of events which constitutes Pia’s
knowledge. It cannot be fully appreciated if left in a vacuum. Rather, it must be
related to the ‘web’ of her experience. In order to unveil this, I must step outside the
text (T3) and resource my knowledge as the child’s mother. Bearing in mind the
general consensus that knowledge, irrespective of methodology, is more subjectively
taken or socially co-constructed than it is an objectively given phenomenon, the
trustworthiness of my investigation is not undermined by this approach which allows
me to strengthen the case for the contextual contingency of development and

Upon closer inspection, then, the text (T3) throws a wide net of ‘knotted relevancies’
(Bateson, 1979). It links Pia to her mother, building upon the skills, the ‘dispositions’
or ‘common sense’ she has acquired over time for successful interaction with her
mother in particular and for community appropriate behaviour in general (Bourdieu,
1993; Gauvain, 2001). It links her with her father, indirectly, with his workplace his
professional materials. Central to the understanding of this interaction is also the fact
that Pia receives piano tuition. She is therefore familiar with the musical score
although not yet required to ‘write’ music herself. Pia knows that her mother received
intensive music tuition from a very early age. The text thus links Pia with not only with
her own music tuition, but forges a bridge between her mother playing the treble
recorder and Pia herself learning to play the piano, a bridge also, between her
mother as a child musician and Pia as a child musician. The interaction provides Pia
with a vehicle for webbing her knowledge of different forms of codification and layout,
e.g. French/German handwriting and music. It links the multiple choice and narrative
formats via the drawing. The speech bubble establishes a further node between
narrative presentation encountered at home and school, and the comic, regularly
borrowed from the local mediathèque. At the communicative level, this interaction is
inter-related to all previous speechless encounters between mother and child,
involving writing or not, and contributing to the growth of the interactants’
intersubjectivity as a ‘lifelong conversation’ (Mercer, 1995). At the level of function,
the text is part of the larger network of both games on the one hand, and requests on
the other. The interaction makes links projected into the future as into the past; it
makes room for a new type of interaction between mother and child, a new ‘tool’;
learning to play the recorder, yet not so new, as it builds upon similar interactions
elswhere such as learning to write, and whose skills may be ‘transposed’ to facilitate
the new activity (Bourdieu, 1993). As such, the text also makes a link between her
mother-as-teacher and her piano teacher. It is perhaps no coincidence that the
request to learn to play the recorder is formulated in French, for Pia has music
lessons in French. Pia furthermore knows that her mother can teach children: her
mother taught English to children for several years. She thus transposes her mother’s
teaching skills from one domain to another. The text makes of Pia the teacher and of
her mother the learner; her mother’s contextual notes written on the reverse side, her
role as pupil completing a multiple choice paper, and her mother’s response to the
question why do you collect everything I do demonstrate the reversed positions. This

latter link clearly wanders beyond the home to Pia’s school and to her mother’s
‘school’; her working environment, so that both parents’ professional activities are
enmeshed in the event. The text makes a link to Pia’s sister, who is already learning
to play the descant recorder at school. Thus, a further home-school node involving a
further family member is established, and docking tenuously onto ongoing sibling
rivalry, for the necessity of sharing the folder of paper can be a highly contentious
issue when supplies are running low. The text, finally, projects Pia not only beyond
the home and its members out into the wider community of her parents’ workplaces
and their alternative non-domestic roles, it also quite concretely creates links to Pia’s
school, to herself as a pupil, to the dynamics and formats encountered at school, and
beyond; to her position in a much larger community as a speaker of that community’s
language: a speaker of English, a speaker of French, a speaker of German. And,
yes, a ‘speaker’ of music. The text, I conclude, can be seen as an expression and
negotiation of the many facets contributing to identity and citizenship.

And if I were to try to visualise what I have needed a page and a half to express in
words, the image that would transpire would be... a web; a network of interlinked
texts of experience.

Intertextuality such as I have detailed above underscores the notion of ‘zones’

occupied by individuals as they negotiate their positions within culturally sensitive
scenarios (Valsiner, 1997; Maquire, 2001) at the various levels of their ecological
systems; the microsystem of family or school, the mesosystem of family-school links,
the exosystem of parental employment and the macrosystem of governmental or
national policies (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). For the polyglot, the number of potential
spaces occupied are, evidently, multiplied.

The construction of meaning & identity

If we accept that literacy, as a social tool, is deployed for the joint construction of
meaning, and that the meaning constructed reflects the negotiation of a particular
identity, the question which now presses is; what does this literacy event mean for
the individual interactants?

There is no direct verbal exchange between mother and child during the writing act.
Meaning is not co-constructed in the first, but in the second instance, as Pia’s mother
subtly answers her daughter’s questions. For Pia, it is clear what her own intentions
are; what she means. She wants to interrupt her mother without making her angry.
She wants to have her requests heard, and granted. If she ‘plays her cards right’, she
will get what she wants. She has internalised the mother’s rule of work before play.
Pia’s knowledge display supplies the proof that she has worked. And now it is time to
play. The request – it is not a demand – is transformed into a game. A teaching game
in one sense, since her mother has to fill out the correct boxes in the way Pia has
herself learnt to do at school. In another sense, it is not quite a teaching game
because Pia does not have the answers nor can she anticipate how her mother will

For her mother, at the surface level, the meaning of the text (T1) appears clear, too.
The question ‘why do you collect everything I do?’ cannot be answered by yes or no.
Pia appears to be on ‘automatic pilot’ in the yes/no game. Her mother does not point
out to her the mistake but simply provides the correct answer as she knows what her
daughter means: meaning takes precedence over instruction right now.

Meaning is tied up with legitimacy and ultimately, with power, which is more than an
oppressive tool for it is also productive and malleable. Whilst it is true to say that the
mother, as the more competent agent, sets up the over-arching parameters via her
belief systems which Pia acknowledges (and uses to her advantage), the reverse is
equally true. By delineating the Zone of Free Movement of her mother’s responses,
Pia reverses the conventional adult-child asymmetry. She takes up the classical
subject role of the teacher and thereby invests herself with power. Her mother,
however, may choose between more than the foreseen responses and by providing
alternatives, she indirectly points out the inappropriateness of the options given.
Although teaching is not the primary goal here, Pia’s mother does not let the
opportunity to instruct escape her. She is teaching although it is not immediately clear
if Pia has chosen to understand the lesson. In any case, a subtle tug-of-war over
power is taking place, and it is inextricable from the roles negotiated between the

Meaning, thus, is constructed in the ‘space’ between the utterances and behaviour of
interactants and to the degree to which each acknowledges the rights and intentions
of the other.

A salient feature of Pia’s identity which does not figure at all in the encounter is race.
I attribute the omission to the fact that my analysis of hundreds of Pia’s texts reveals
that race is an issue she refers to in her drawings rather than in her writings. Her
racial identity is essentially a visual matter, hence she selects the correct mode of
representation: the colour brown. Pia does not draw herself at all in the current
literacy event. She draws her mother, yet she does not colour her mother in...
Respondent validation is crucial so that meanings may be reconstructed as opposed
to fabricated:

Mother: this is a lovely drawing, Pia.

(Pia smiles)
Mother: why didn’t you put yourself in the picture?
Pia: eh ben, je dessine ce que je vois et c’est sûr que je ne vois pas moi même –
à moins que j’aie un miroir. Et je n’ en ai pas! (well, I draw what I see, and of
course I can’t see myself – unless I’ve got a mirror. Which I haven’t!)
Mother: what about this drawing of me. Do you want to change anything? Colour
me in or anything?
Pia: Non. C’est terminé. (No, it’s finished)

NB should I have pointed out to her that I am not white, or would she take this to
be nitpicking and break down in tears at the criticism? Better keep my mouth
shut. I am black and she knows it. She has the right to resist my mediational

(from Research Diary, 17.05.04)

A piece of writing acts as a snapshot of one’s identity, in which any combination of
the different layers of embeddedness may be unearthed (Kearney, 2001; Bourne,
2002; Street, 2004). It can reveal who we think we are in the given context, or our
views about the intended audience. It can reveal how we feel and, particularly for
emergent writing, how we learn to write. It may provide indices for all the important
questions: who/where/how/why/when. The enormous scope of potential cultural
‘spaces’/roles highlight the shifting, almost indefinite nature of one’s ‘possibilities for
selfhood’ (Ivanic, 1998, in Maquire, 2001), regarded as mosaic or as a hybrid,
conjectural process (Clifford, 1988). Pia is doing much more than asking a handful of
questions and seeking their answers. Essentially, she is navigating the central
question: who am I, and exploring the outlets for the expression of the Self.

Knowledge acquisition
Pia is not being taught in any overt sense, yet it would be wrong to assume that
social skills are purely being deployed without any true gains to the level of

The interaction provides her with the opportunity to consolidate and verify her social
competence. The behavioural blueprints acquired during socialisation are guides, not
guarantees. This means that every time we enter into an interaction, there is always
the risk of failure. If the interaction succeeds, then we are strengthened in our faith in
what we have learnt – in our repertoire - so far. This is also learning: it is practice
followed by confirmation. The fact that this encounter achieves the desired goal
teaches Pia that her strategy is still an effective one which she may resort to in future
under similar circumstances.

The fact that her mother files everything away, collects ‘everything I do’ instead of
awaiting an auspicious moment to dispose of the child’s writing, teaches Pia that her
work ‘counts’; she has a particular value in this respect.

Pia’s attempts to spell in English constitute a further learning experience. She can be
seen to trawl her knowledge of phonology and orthography across three languages in
order to spell in a language in which she has received no formal instruction. It does
not matter that her mother does not correct her spelling. It is perhaps even better that
she has not done so in this context. Learning may take place in the absence of
instruction. It may take place on the periphery (Taylor, 1983:7). Indeed, this is one of
the salient characteristics of learning situations in a non-institutional context.

The ease with which Pia conducts this performance legitimises the question of what it
is she is learning. The fact that she requires no help whatsoever lends strength to the
conclusion that she is not operating within her Zone of Promixal Development (ZPD)
at the levels of genre and function. Regarding orthography, Pia is still operating
within the ZPD across all three languages, with English clearly at a lower stage of
development than her French and German. At the calligraphic level, too, one could
conclude that Pia is still in the learning phase and has not yet successfully
internalised the distinctions made between the French and German styles of
handwriting. Alternatively, one could argue that she simply chooses not to adhere to
the distinctions made at school, after all, she is not at school but at home.
Furthermore, this is not binding work. This is play, where she may give her
inclinations full reign.

Summary and implications for educational practice

The ‘text’ (T3), despite its fleeting nature, is nonetheless a complex polysemous,
multilingual, multifunctional zoniferous encounter, which, when analysed at different
levels on the socio-semiotic, ecological and psychological planes, yields a wealth of
data about the overt and covert literacy values and strategies expressed within this
child’s home environment and the ability of this child to resource and web such
knowledge. The text provides a ‘space’ used to explore and negotiate possible
expressions of self for both interactants, who occupy a plethora of roles; controller,
reminder, expert, novice, teacher, co/author, daughter, player etc, with each role
conferring new shades of meaning to the overall interaction. We see how both
mother and daughter are actively engaged in the co-construction of knowledge and
how the child, as an active meaning maker-taker-shaper, draws from the wealth of
her social and linguistic skills in a literacy event which is everything but a solitary,
neutral performance. The intertextual indices testify to the text’s deep embeddedness
in the contingencies of the child’s community at every ecological level, from the micro

unit of the home to the macro unit of a nation. Hence, her trilingual authoring reflects
not only her domestic linguistic constellation and multiple cultural identities, it also
reflects her formal learning and the wider cultural political context in which she lives.
Pia’s toolbox is well-equipped. We see how it contains everything she needs so that
she may use un/conventional paths to meet her own ‘truths’. Sieving the interaction
to get down to the level of the stitch, and now standing back to take in the full picture,
we see a child who does much more than to absorb and enact endorsed literate
behaviour. We see the picture of a reflective child who negotiates and secures her
own position and identity within the multiple layers of her literate environment.

The implications of the current paper for educational practice are manifold, and I
would like to propose a small number which immediately come to mind. The wide
scope of literacy-related skills demonstrated by the child certainly lends weight to
calls to encourage children to engage in writing practices similar to those at home.
Developments in this direction are being made, as evidenced by the increased
practice of ‘home corners’ in the classroom. The findings, further, foreground
sensitivity and willingness to engage in literacy which takes on meaning as soon as it
has a genuine social purpose as opposed to being reduced to a purely academic skill
disregarding both emotional component and the exploration of the self inherent in
every act of learning (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000). Acknowledgement of the need for
and benefits of authentic writing practices should ideally motivate literacy
policymaking and be borne in mind when curricula and teaching materials are being
designed. Child meaning-making strategies, finally, should not be disregarded, hence
wherever possible, a pedagogical approach which is bottom-up should be applied,
the impetus being the child’s capacities, intentions and motivations. Every classroom
is as unique as the individuals who animate the activities taking place therein. The
present paper offers insights into the particular which, it is hoped, can make a
valuable contribution to endeavours to make the general literate climate of the
classroom a more enriching one.

Dr. Joan Travers

Faculté des Lettres, des Sciences Humaines, des Arts et des Sciences de l'Education
Campus Walferdange
(Route de Diekirch) BP 2 L-7201 Walferdange
T +352 46 66 44 9670 F +352 36 66 44 6513
Email: joan.travers@uni.liu

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