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In this paper, based upon a longitudinal investigation of the domestic literacy

development a trilingual child, my daughter, Pia, aged 3-9 years, I postulate, and
critically review, a theory of mind which is both informed by recent findings in
cultural psychology (e.g. Valsiner, 2008a,b) and located within a sociocultural
approach to practice and mediated action (Wertsch, 1991).

This interdisciplinary theoretical framework is complemented by diachronic and

synchronic data analysis as a means of bringing to light potential variations between
long-term and short-term development. It also stresses the importance of time as a
complex variable in developmental issues in conjunction with a dialogical depiction
of social agents and it underlines the proactive, as opposed to reactive, nature of
social agents negotiating environmental cues at varying levels of consciousness.

Whilst conceding that we have yet to fully grasp how the human mind works, I am
nonetheless able to conclude that Pia’s writing development at home is both mindful
and social. It is a knotty jungle of dynamic a3nd stable elements, whose complexity
arises from the multitude of possible trajectories within and across each of the key
areas of interaction: psyche, time, signs and environment. I argue for a reassessment
of central notions regarding children’s learning and close the paper by proposing a
number of implications such reassessment may have for educational practice.

Key words: writing, child, development, cognition, home

For a more detailed analysis of children’s literacy development and practice:

Travers Simon, J. (2010) Mind the Gap: The Domestic Writings of a Child
Practitioner and their Implications for Educational Practice. Saarbrücken: Lambert
Academic Publishing.

This breathing house, whose doors go squeak, go bang or make no
noise at all: towards a theory of mind

Joan Travers Simon


In this paper, based on a trilingual child, my daughter, Pia, aged 3-9 years, I extend
previous idiographic research into literacy development as situated cultural practice
(e.g. Bursch 2006; Simon & Bursch, 2009). Drawing on recent observations in
cultural psychology, my conceptual aim here is to postulate a theory of mind located
within a sociocultural approach to practice and mediated action (Wertsch, 1991),
which foregrounds how flexible, equitable, implicit and holistic interactions
characteristic of informal settings structure this particular child’s learning.

To recapitulate, briefly, Pia is a trilingual (English, French, German) child, who lives
in Alsace, in the North East of France, with her Black-British mother-researcher, her
German father (an engineer), and a sister who is seventeen months her senior. Initial
research into how the environments of home and school shape this child’s
understandings and uses of writing was both quantitative, qualitative and comparative
in nature. I exposed the funds of knowledge instanced in the wide scope of unsolicited
texts Pia produced at home during the research period. I identified the developmental
issues which will be elaborated in the current paper, and analysed the linguistic
characteristics of her authoring. Pia’s domestic writing skills are, I demonstrate, in
advance of curricular expectations and thus more indicative of her true level of
competence. I argue, moreover, not only for the child’s sensitivity towards writing
and her skilful deployment it as situated cultural practice, but also that writing, and
therefore literacy practice, provide as a means for exploring the Self. I conclude that
the skills and strategies fostered at home prior to formal schooling are decisive in
shaping a child’s access - and success - with regard to reading and writing tasks
within institutional settings; an observation, which, though confirmed by other studies
(Czerniewska, 1992; Dyson, 2007), has unfortunately not made sufficient impact on
classroom practice.

In this paper, I draw upon current observations as upon the ‘syntax’ of cultural
psychology, notably upon the work of Jaan Valsiner (e.g. 2008a), paying attention to
the extent to which biological analogies prevalent in their field, but equally echoed in
psycholinguistic developmental research (e.g. Ferreiro, 2007), may successfully
transfer to my data.

The paper will be structured as follows. Having unpacked the title of the paper, I then
go on to outline the conceptual and theoretical framework within which the analysis is
set. As a next step, I present the data collected, expressing thereby critical reflections

on my own methodology. I then present and conduct a detailed analysis of my model
for the theory of mind. The analysis itself comprises three main sections. In the first
section, I explain the individual components of the model from a longitudinal
vantage, showing how cognitive and practical, how the mindful and social, bear upon
development. The second level of analysis comprises a more detailed investigation of
a single interaction, by means of which I reply to the critique of a ‘snapshot’ look at
development. The final level of analysis offers a critical appraisal, anchored in
reflections relating to the representation of and inherent tensions regarding human
development. The paper concludes with a recapitulation of the key findings, before
outlining the potential significance of these for educational practice.

The breathing house: a metaphor for the mind

Metaphors, like similes, serve to expand meaning in tacit directions (Cornejo, 2007).
The image of the toolbox is a popular one for depicting the strategies learners have
recourse to. For me, however and in the meantime, the toolbox evokes a
disorganised, over-laden container, eyed with a groan every time we open the lid, for
we know all too well that much of its contents should have been disposed of long ago.
One’s house, I concede, may not necessarily be much tidier. For a theory of mind,
however, the metaphor of the breathing house proves more compelling for a host of

• represents the construction aspects of learning and development - which only stand
if we build them
• draws attention to the transformation of the mind as something active, alive,
organic and even experiential
• comprises recognizable zones within which specific, though not prescriptive,
actions take place and which afford variegated opportunities for movement from one
location to another (i.e. the various developmental spaces of the learner)
• possesses a number of basic, identifiable attributes (i.e. whilst respecting the
individual nature of learning, we may attempt to establish regularities between
individual learners and across diverse learning scenarios)
• ‘squeak’: certain activities appear gradually or seem defect (and will need ‘oiling’)
• ‘bang’: certain activities are immediately apparent
• ‘no noise at all’: implicit activities
• more than one door may be opened at the same time and at different rates (multiple
and simultaneous scopes of learning)
• houses are built by a pool of expert craftsmen (i.e. interdisciplinary approach to
• houses are located within larger political macro social structures

The metaphor, naturally, also has its limitations. Physically, we may only be in one
room at a time, though we can, and do, leave traces of our passage throughout the
house. Mental processes, by contrast, reside in numerous ‘rooms’ simultaneously.
They are at one and the same time dialogical, dialectical, polysemous and, as I shall
later argue, even polychronic. Nor should we infer from the metaphor that the
complex structure of Western houses - in comparison, say, to the less elaborate mud
hut – be taken as indicative of a culturally contingent hierarchy with regard to the

development of mental skills. Although further reflection will no doubt alert one to
additional limitations of the metaphor, there is a strong case, given its interactive
poignancy, for privileging it over and above the more passive connotations of a
toolbox, where we put items in and take them out, without any allusion to the
presence or nature of activities within the toolbox itself.

Conceptual and theoretical framework

An interdisciplinary approach, drawing notably on cultural psychology and

sociocultural theory, provides the heuristic, interpretive framework for my analysis.
When they ‘talk’ to each other, the criteria and methods specific to each discipline
help us to refine our understandings, making us conscious of how crucial the
precision of interpretive coordinates are. Moreover, by identifying the concepts and
methods underpinning individual disciplines or paradigms, we may, via a compound
framework such as the one I propose, locate and compensate for the lacunae related to

Cultural psychology

Whilst psychology in general, given its traditional experimental and nomothetic

semantic/functional – as opposed to semiotic – bias (Venuelo, 2008), fails to access
the very type of data required to provide satisfactory answers to distinctions between
learning and development as basic psychological functions (Salvatore & Valsiner,
2008; Molenaar & Valsiner, 2008), or indeed to capture the ‘radically contingent and
infinitely pluralistic universe’ of human action (Garrison, 2004, p106; Valsiner, 2005,
p9), cultural psychology, from an idiographic perspective, sets its focus on
understanding and explaining the dynamism and regularity of individuals as active,
dialogical ‘speaking’, and ‘feeling’ - as opposed to merely ‘thinking’ subjects.
Drawing frequently on analogies from the biological world, it studies:

The extraordinary nature of the most ordinary aspects of daily human living at any
place on the planet. (Valsiner, 2007a, p18, cited in Madureira, 2008, p233)

Psychology is the science of the prediction of the unpredictable, of the control of the
uncontrollable, and of the detection of whatever ‘behaviour’ may be taken to mean.
(Valsiner, 2005, p9)

The latter quote bears such striking resemblance to one by Bronfenbrenner as to

possibly have been inspired by it:

Much of developmental psychology, as it now exists, is the science of the

strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the
briefest possible periods of time (Bronfenbrenner, 1979:19, cited in van Lier,

The syntax employed in the domain might at first appear foreign to researchers from
other disciplines, such as myself, who have predominantly remained, and thus read,
within the field of educational research from a sociocultural perspective1:

The inevitable task for the education agent is to find an opening in the self-
regulatory network of the developing system so as to create arenas for possible
impact. (Valsiner, 2008b, p134)

Once the ear becomes acclimatised, however, it is then able to recognise well-known
terms such as pupil/learner/individual, teacher and subject/agent behind the
unaccustomed ones of ‘developing/cognitive system’, ‘education agent’ and ‘social
organism’ respectively. It learns to tolerate the description of writing as a ‘semiotic
system’ with similar, if not equal, ease as a more familiar, analogous view of writing
as ‘urban furniture’. From this point on, many insights are to be gained.

Cultural psychology underlines the temporal dimension to learning and development,

thus to becoming as opposed to merely being, given our nature as intransitive, i.e.
open, and as ‘situated’ systems, that is, as cognitive systems whose development
relies upon a permanent exchange with the specificities, or catalytic features, of their
social environment. Unlike Unsworth (2001), who dismisses ‘being’ as
‘anachronistic’, or Valsiner, for whom ‘being’ is a useless momentary snapshot
(Valsiner, 2008a, p2), I nonetheless regard attention to being as indispensable for an
understanding of becoming, as I hope to demonstrate later in the paper.

Sociocultural theory

Central to a sociocultural perspective is the view of the individual not as a cognitive

isolate but firmly anchored and actively engaged in situated practice by means of
social – and inherently political – tools (Bakhtin 1986; Bourdieu 1991; Street, 2004),
of both symbolic (e.g. language) and material nature (e.g. computers). As a precursor
to evaluating the efficacy of situated practice, in which interactants either reproduce
or challenge dominant ideologies, attention is paid to close descriptions of social
contexts (Dyson, 2007; Kelly et al., 2001; Rogoff et al., 1998; Tharpe & Gallimore,

Acknowledging the situated nature of agency and practice yields a fluid,

heterogeneous, non-deterministic image of social agents interacting within and
negotiating the scope – the boundaries – between and beyond their various
psychological, semiotic and ecological environments (Bomer, 2003; Fairclough,
1989). This view, moreover, underscores political and critical aspects to learning in
that it sets social action within relations of power which extend beyond the notion of
‘resistance’ advocated within cultural psychology (e.g. Valsiner 2007). Such
‘zoniferous’ portrayal of heterogeneous individuals as members of multiple, and
Action research, or ‘kidwatching’ (Goodman& Martens 2007), conducted by Vivian Paley, for
example, never speaks of ‘systems’, ‘organisms’ ‘temporal-spatial dimensions’ or refers to points in
time as X+1, X+2, T1, T2, T3, yet beautifully, and convincingly, captures how, through situated and
distributed cognition, both the children’s and her own emergent understandings, their ‘wonderings and
wanderings’ (Merriam, 1991, cited in Goodman & Martens, 2007, p79), mutually transform the
elements of the learner+sign+environment triad.

simultaneous, social communities places emphasis on agency; on a sense of ‘out
there’, as opposed to the more abstract, internally focused related concept of

By blending the positions advocated by cultural psychology and sociocultural theory,

I effectuate a conceptual integration which highlights the various aspects I consider
germane to an investigation of learning and development. Both disciplines draw
attention as much to the presence as to the differences in the reflexivity of individuals
engaging in social interaction, and thus away from the view of the agent as a passive
learner. The strands of cultural psychology complement the picture by privileging a
developmental dimension which is less addressed by the sociocultural theory.
Sociocultural theory, for its part, promotes a critical dimension to meaning-making,
learning and social interaction that may often remain oblique from the psychological
vantage. The boundaries between the various perspectives is necessarily fluid, so that,
rather than being pidgeon-holed, a number of such perspectives may be
simultaneously ‘housed’ within diverse conceptual parameters (e.g. Ferreiro, 2007).


An ethnographic approach to data collection resulted in the gathering, and creation, of

data. In this section, I give an account of ethnographic methods then go on to specify
the primary and secondary sources of data collected at Pia’s home.

Ethnographic methods

Ethnography is a generic term for a set of research tools originating from

anthropology and used as a means to understand and describe other cultures.
Ethnographic methods, later adopted and adapted by sociology, were employed to
describe and analyse others within Western society. The aim of ethnographic research
is to get alongside, or close to the participants, to be ‘taught’ by them and to thereby
illuminate, acknowledge and ultimately understand the interactive processes between
social agents and their symbolic worlds.

Ethnographic studies aim to produce a ‘cultural grammar’, yielding as comprehensive

a picture as possible of ‘living man’ and our ‘full-blooded facts’ (Malinowski, 1967).
I choose to cast my statements in more modest a mould, admitting merely to wanting
to understand ‘something’, for although ethnographic methods are lengthy, data-rich
and well suited to unearthing the quality and complexities of social interaction which
may remain uncommented upon by research conducted in a positivist ethos, I still
consider it over-ambitious to claim to tell the ‘whole’ truth, however wide the range
of methods employed, and however deep we delve.

Following the ethnographic tradition, I collected various types of data, on the strength
of which I propound my theory and model of mind for learning in informal, domestic

Primary data

The term primary data refers to the unsolicited texts Pia had written at home between
the ages of 3-9 years and which constitute my main research data. These texts form a
corpus of approximately 800 items. They range beyond work produced on paper to
encompass multimodal ‘texts’ e.g. a self-made computer, sms texts and ephemeral
texts written in sand or with beads or other tools, or at least such ‘texts’ I was
fortunate enough to have seen before they were washed, wiped or cleared away. For
the large part, the items were brought to me by my daughter herself, with other items
retrieved from various sites around the house: the washroom, bedroom, hallway,
kitchen walls, doors, study, sometimes long after they had been produced, but always
with Pia’s consent.

Secondary data

Primary data is complemented by the range of secondary data comprising

conversational data, fieldnotes (FN) and a research diary (RD).

Conversational data

Observation of outcomes does not reveal the dynamic processes that enable and
maintain such seemingly smooth running of the social organism. (Valsiner,
2008b, p135)

An understanding of what Pia’s learning looks like and how it is ‘done’ can be
enhanced by also paying attention to what Pia is saying. To this end, data was
gathered not only on the talk taking place during authoring events, but equally on talk
‘around’ or ‘behind’ individual writing-related events themselves. Given the
spontaneous nature of much domestic interaction, which largely defies recording, and
taking into account my inability to observe my daughter around the clock, it proved
impossible, but also unnecessary, to supply transcripts of the interactions generating
all the primary data. A selection of a/typical family interactional routines, mostly
paraphrased and sometimes transcribed, would suffice to lend immediacy to the
semiotic texts.

Fieldnotes & Research diary

More than just an unsystematic, motley means of data collection driven by mere
hunches and whims, and in fact frequently cited from in ethnographic studies,
fieldnotes (FN) allow discoveries in all areas identified as relevant to the overall
research aims to be shared with the reader in a less conventional form.

The Research diary (RD), like my fieldnotes (FN), may justly be regarded as piece of
data in its own right. The central piece of data through which all other sources of
information are networked, it provides direct access to the messy business of
conducting research before this process is itself processed to become a coherent,
conventional text. Research is a creative process, thus we do not only collect, but also
generate data as much as understandings. Both fieldnotes and the research diary direct
attention to our responsibility as the author of our understanding, and thus remind us

that all knowledge, and the presentation thereof, is constructed in one form or
another. These generated understandings, offer an essential pathway back through my
reflective process, which I share in the following paragraphs.

Assessing methodology

The critical reflections about my representation of mind which were generated by the
analysis of the data naturally extended to my methodology in general, to its discourse
and to how it positions both myself and my daughter.

The current analysis of someone else’s experiences which I interpret, get alongside, as
it were, and re-present, or argue, in the hope of furthering general understanding of
the actions and processes researched, is a choice; an edifice, not a fact. At a certain
level, the truths are there, incontestably. Pia’s documents do exist. The conversations
and interactants are indeed authentic, yet at another level I have had to reconstruct
them, thereby imposing arbitrary boundaries to what is essentially an ongoing
process. Rather than claim a truth, I advocate a constructed understanding of
‘disabused knowledge’ (Robertson, 2004), which necessarily shapes, but has also
limited, my understanding of the data.

On my role as a researcher

The task, when striving to ‘disabuse knowledge’, is to foreground the limits of one’s
methodology and paradigms. There is a discrepancy, I believe, between the ‘full-
blooded’ intentions of qualitative research and the somewhat bloodless convention of
describing participants and their contributions as ‘data’. Likewise, I find the
neutralizing rhetoric prevalent in psychological research in general, and even in
studies in cultural psychology today, runs counter to the discipline’s aim to put full-
blooded ‘Man’, in a Malinowskian sense, back into the discipline:

Psychology has re-written its history in ways that justify its lack of connection
with basic human cultural phenomena – the complex intentional forms of
feeling, thinking and acting that characterize our everyday lives. Curiously, over
psychology’s formal history the basic reduction of human beings to be some
special cases of salivating dogs or industriously lever-pushing rodents – has
passed as if that guaranteed the ‘scientific status’ of the discipline. The ‘hard’
data on rewarding or punishing humans with tokens of consumables – food,
money, etc. – have led the way to our modern versions of explaining complexity
by way of simple elementary ‘effects’ of some variable. Active persons – soul-
searchers filled with curiosity – who create, perform, and feel about theatre,
poetry, music; who read novels, organize revolutions and political debates, and
worry about cholesterol levels, diets, prices, and marriages – are too ‘soft’ for an
‘objective’ study. (Valsiner, 2007, p254)

Increasingly conscious of the ideological nature of language, I also became

uncomfortable with my use of ‘I’. ‘I’, on the one hand, represents a conscious
decision to make myself transparent rather than hiding behind formulations in the
passive voice as though some neutral hand were at play. On the other, ‘I’ provokes

my growing sensitivity to ‘voice’ and the lack of opportunity for Pia to say ‘I’, her
perceptions always being filtered by my own understandings.

On the child

Children have been conceptualized as a person in the making, an inconclusive process

which continues in the adult, making it difficult for us to assure complete objectivity
or the epistemological rupture granting us the right of way from the naive to the
scientific (Mollo, 1975). The French word for child – enfant – sets off a series of
reflections which are not automatic when we consider the term in English. Enfant
originally means ‘a person who cannot talk’. Whilst a similar English term exists,
‘infant’ refers to the earlier part of childhood, up to three years (Schaffer, 1996). The
French enfant, however, covers the whole developmental period up to adolescence. If
we blend the notion of a person-in-process with that of one who cannot speak, we
easily slide into reflections on incompleteness and inability. These are etic, ‘outside’
perspectives, which incite us to question the extent to which we exploit or counter
invisibility/inaudibility vis-à-vis the child and her ‘voice’.

In reflecting upon questions of voice, we return to the emic-etic, inside-outside

debate. Attempts to redress potential imbalance, to accord Pia more voice, and indeed
to make myself transparent as researcher-mother-learner-editor, however, have been
undertaken in the paper, either via the use of direct citations of what Pia has to say
(e.g. Bursch & Simon, 2009) or else via excerpts from fieldnotes or the research

Now it is time to illuminate what Pia appears to be doing as she learns to write at

Pathway through learning: a longitudinal perspective

Pia’s basic pathway through learning to write at home may be charted as follows:

Diagram 1: pathway through learning in informal contexts

The model consists of three interdependent components;

- environmental (social and material)

- action/behaviour
- personal/intramental

Environmental cues or stimuli, which may be social and/or material in nature, trigger
thought processes or insights in the learner, which may translate into action. Such
thought processes take place in a cognitive ‘corridor’ between adjacent actions. It is
this thought process, often leading to what we call an A-ha effect, which opens the
door, as it were, to the next developmental level, and thus ‘drives’ Pia’s development
forward. Thought processes, as we shall see, need not translate into positive volition,
but may equally result in the decision not to perform a certain act, as when Pia
decides that she does not need any help anymore, a decision that will manifest itself in
her attempts to resist certain types of assistance. In keeping with a sociocultural
perspective on learning, I have positioned the intermental level above the intramental
one, despite my awareness of the fact that such a depiction, moving from the ‘outside’
to the ‘inside’, may be contested. My intention is to underline the social nature of
thought, which is stimulated by actions taking place in one’s social environment.
Later in the paper, I will elaborate upon the extent to which development may be
conceived of as an outside  inside process, or indeed vice versa.

The model aims to schematise not only the key stages of Pia’s developmental
pathway with regard to learning to write at home, but it equally seeks to draw
attention to the varying forms of autonomy and competence involved. I will go
through and exemplify each stage in turn.


Mother: Where can you see writing in your house?

Pia: In my Diddle book... one time Beate gave me some writing I stuck on the
bedroom door with blu-tack... in my writing book... (FN#1, Pia: 6yrs 1m)

Mother: Where can you see writing outside your house?

Pia: On the street signs. I see numbers on the houses and once at school I saw
writing with a pencil and there was a hole in the middle. (FN#2. Pia: 6yrs 1m)

The impetus for learning must come from the learner, who must want to learn,
either because of a natural human propensity to do so, or because of an interest
in the material. (van Lier, 1996, p13)

Interest in a phenomenon, in this case the A-ha in relation to writing, is aroused by the
environment: Pia is ‘sensitized’. Now aware, sensitized, or what Piaget, van Lier
recalls, would term ‘vigilant’ (van Lier, 1996, p51), Pia’s genuine interest in her new
discovery – her A-ha! - leads to action. Pia is born into a ‘signs-infested’ world
(Valsiner 2008a) and she is not insensitive to this. Interest in a phenomenon is

preceded by a heightened consciousness of that phenomenon: you cannot be
interested in something you remain unaware of. Intuitive interest, or ‘apprehension’2,
reacting to environmental cues, transforms to an analytical stance of ‘comprehension’
which structures further, I propose, conscious, development (van Lier, 1996).
Awareness coupled to volition translates into the thought: ‘I want to know how to do
that’. This thought translates into the next level of action, which manifests itself as
procedural play.

Procedural Play

In order to learn, a person must be active, and the activity must be partly familiar
and partly new, so that attention can be focused on useful changes and
knowledge can be increased (...) Learning takes place when the new is embedded
in the familiar, so that risks and security are in balance. (Marry & Trevarthen,
1985, cited in van Lier, 1996, p171)

New skills being based on previous competence, Pia’s initial writing leans on her
ability to draw, so that her writing often seems more like sketching. Still unaware of
the rules of writing, Pia first ‘pretends’ to write, or plays with the ‘procedure’ of
writing words, hence the term ‘procedural play’. Much writing related activity takes
place before Pia is able to independently produce comprehensible texts. Such activity
may involve the merger of script and drawing. Alternatively, they may entail stringing
letters together or writing squiggly lines as a precursor to joined-up handwriting:

illustr.1: Letter play, 4yrs 11m

The terms ‘apprehension’ and ‘comprehension’ may be seen to map onto what in cultural psychology
is respectively termed the axis of identification (AI) and the axis of development (AD) (e.g. Salvatore
& Valsiner, 2008, p14). Van Lier reminds us that, although the distinction has been discussed for
centuries in philosophy and psychology, it remains marginal to language, and therefore literacy,
learning theory (van Lier, 1996, p54)

illustr.2: Writing, 5yrs 4m

Procedural play, together with vigilance leads Pia to the discovery that there are rules.
This, in turn, triggers the next reflection: ‘I need to learn the rules’. It is time for Pia
to seek help.

Assisted Acquisition

Many people can help; my family and friends. Not only teachers, you know!
(Bursch & Simon, 2009, p39)

During this phase of Pia’s writing development, autocatalytic processes become auto-
allocatalytic ones: guided by oneself and by others, important others, acting as
‘guiding lights’ (Padmore, 1994). The result is a proliferation in the number of
collaborative writing activities, in which the whole family is sometimes involved.
Initially, Pia might dictate texts for her sister or mother to write down. Later, Pia
seeks help with her own handwriting, as in a bi-lingual letter to a classmate, Loïc,
begun in German, continued in French and written with the aid of her older sister,
who dictates the spelling, although it is Pia herself who decides to use dotted lines to
scaffold her own handwriting:

Dear Loic, I saw Keli on TV and it was super. You can win Batman with it.
illustr.3: Liebe Loïc, 5yrs 4m

One might, with reason, ask why Pia scaffolds herself via dotted lines, when she has
evidently progressed beyond the need of such scaffolding, as we see in illustr.2. Here,
different activities conjoin. On the one hand, Pia is genuinely writing a letter to her
friend, and seeks assistance in spelling, having understood the correlation between
sound and symbol. On the other hand, she uses this authentic activity to reposition
herself playfully as someone learning to write, using the dotted lines she has
encountered in her writing exercise books.

This collaborative phase is characterised by much talking as Pia negotiates the degree
of help sought. Assistance is given, but conscious teaching is not the uppermost
priority at home, where Pia’s interests and needs must jostle to find space alongside
the many other activities that make up daily family life:

I am busy at the computer. Papa brings the kids to bed. Pia rushes in and puts
this on my table. I push it aside and continue working.

Bringst du mich jetzt ins bett? Oui/non

Or have I got 5 minnits? OUI/NON
(will you tuck me in? Yes/No, or have I got 5 minutes? Yes/No. From Pia)

NB answers are in French. The questions are in German or English. This text
doesn’t have the desired effect in that I do not read it straight away. By the time I
read it and go upstairs, she is already asleep... (FN#3, Pia: 8yrs 5m)

The above text is a testimony of Pia’s skills as a writer and social agent, who has
progressed beyond the need for assistance and therefore seeks none: ‘I don’t need
help anymore’. From this point on, we can speak of her entering the phase of mastery.


Mastery is when learning becomes automized; progressively ‘energy-efficient’ by
means of heterogeneous practice (van Lier, 1996, p41). Once the rules – or principles
– of writing gradually become internalised, collaborative activities, in particular those
motivated by Pia’s need of assistance as opposed to situations in which she co-
constructs as a competent peer, begin to peter out. Concomitantly, the volume of
unassisted texts increases.

Pia is as an active member of the literate community from the moment she uses
writing and is able to produce texts which make sense to her. She masters writing to a
degree which legitimizes and reinforces her status as a member of the literate
community once she is able to interact with the conventional literate community via
texts which also make sense to others. Significant is also the fact that her membership
is acknowledged. Both her father (illustr.4) as well as her German teacher, Beate,
(illustr.5) take the time to reply:

illustr.4: Letter to papa, 6yrs 9m

Dear Beate, today I am ill. I have done hard maths for you… Dear Pia, thanks for your letter. You have
done maths from Year 2! Well done! Come back soon! Beate.
illustr.5: Letter to Beate, 6yrs 5m

In a sense, from this point on, Pia is already operating beyond her Zone of Proximal
Development. In the letter to her father, self-editing gives evidence of Pia’s awareness
of the difference between what she knows and what she does in the first instance. In
her letter to her German teacher, we sense a confident author, not someone positioned
as a novice in Year One, although literacy as ‘life experience writing’ (Kitagawa &
Kitagawa, 1987, cited in Moro, 1999, p172) is sometimes also fostered at schools3.
Such confidence, willingness and readiness evokes a new image of the child author;
not as a learner-apprentice, dependent upon others, but rather as a practitioner, using
whichever level of skills is at her disposal in order to interact with the world and the
people around her.

Pia’s first unassisted text is written in French:

compare Pia’s letter to Beate to an exchange in a First Grade Japanese class, in which the pupil wrote
the following: ‘I saw an earthworm the earthworm Suzuki grabbed the earthworm’. The teacher
replied: ‘I understood this composition because I happened to be there and to see her face at the time of
the event. But even if I did not, still I would want to read into it and to appreciate the mind of the child
who wants to express herself through writing’. The teacher’s reflective comments take on the quality of
fieldnotes rather than speak directly to the child, yet demonstrate Seiskatsu Tsuzurikata: writing as
social practice (Moro, 1999, p172)

illustr.6a : Ho ho! 5yrs 11m

illustr.6b: Ho ho! 5yrs 11m

This series of principled, that is to say, rule-governed texts, each consisting of 2-3
lines and each written in a different colour, is composed in a single writing session.
Conventional spacing and spelling would be as follows:

Ho ho, qui est est là? Ah, tu es là, Marie. Merci pour le joli cadeau d’Alissia pour
l’anniversaire d’Alissia (text a)
Hi hi qui peut vivil hahahahaha oh! Tu me visiteras (text b)
Toc toc toc, venez ici, c’est toi ! Où est le cadeau ? (text c)
Ho ho ho, qui est là ? Ah! Tu es là, Marie! Merci pour le joli cadeau (text d)
Toc toc toc! Ho Ho! Qui est là? Ha ha! Tu es là, Vivianna. Merci (text e)

Translated, these texts mean:

Ho ho, who’s there? Ah, you are there, Marie. Thanks for the lovely present for
Alissia’s birthday (text a)

Hi Hi who can (vivil is an invented word) hahahahaha, oh! You’ll visit me (text b)
Ding dong, come here, it’s you! Where’s the present? (text c)
Ho ho ho, who’s there? Ah, you are there, Marie. Thanks for the lovely present (text d)
Ding dong! Ho ho, who’s there? Ha ha! It’s you, Vivianna. Thanks (text e)

Pia’s understanding of the sound-sign correlation is made evident as she ‘writes

speech’ (Vygotsky, 1978):

Standard French Pia’s French at this developmental stage

Qui Ci
Est E
Merci Messi, mersi
Cadeau Kado
Venez vene
Ici Issi
Pour Puor
Anniversaire Aniverser
Ah A
Table 1: Appropriating French spelling

Authorship is ‘reflective generation of text’ (Jackson, 1993, p67), hence we need to

expose and understand such reflexivity for its capacity to indicate cognitive
development in preference to focusing on polished end results (Kress, 1994; Valsiner,
2008b, p135). It is in this sense, too, that attention to ‘being’ is an important reference
for charting ‘becoming’, for reflexivity is best understood by analysing instances of it
in the ‘here-and-now’. In the first text (illustr.6a), Pia begins to write on the right
hand side of the page then continues on the left hand side. The directionality of words
is correct and her use of colour guides the reader through the message. In the
subsequent texts (illustr. 6b), she exhibits control over letter size and directionality,
not only of the word, but of the page as a whole. Pia has appropriated the correct use
of exclamation marks. We note, however, that she does not use question marks at the
end of the questions:

Ho, ho who’s there? Oh! You are there, Marie

These Ho Ho texts differ to earlier texts exhibiting word as a concept, such as Liebe
Loïc, because the latter instantiates her sister’s knowledge of word and not her own.
Here, we see the first traces of Pia’s understanding of word, as shown by her spacing
on the first page of her text (illustr. 6a) but less so for the rest (illustr. 6b). In these
unassisted Ho Ho texts, Pia is not reproducing, but producing, thus she has
progressed, in her opinion, beyond the need to always have a model. Her texts are
meaningful, purpose-driven, rule-governed and embedded; Pia’s birthday in a
month’s time explaining her heightened interest in presents and birthdays. Her texts
are legible and, given the right contextual information and provided we are able to
refocus to her cognitive level, comprehensible. She possesses all the information she

needs in order to use writing in a transformative manner: ‘I can apply the rules for
new results’. The next step in her development entails, therefore, diversification.


Principled competence leads to further diversification4. Once the rules or abstract

concepts (C) have been internalised and reduced (R), they may be applied (A) to new

C  R  A1  A2  A3 etc

The child’s thoughts to the above 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 (Bursch, 2006). This is precisely what children do when they
approach writing (Kress, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978).

Moving backwards and forwards and in spurts through development

Children will continue to use techniques from the past in order to understand and
work out ways to live securely in the present (Paley, 1990, p142)

Progression through the depicted developmental stages is, however, not always linear.
The data has revealed that Pia’s writing development may entail recursive loops as
Pia re-engages with a developmental stage she has long since mastered. This is
evidenced when Pia, now a confident author, teaches Benni, a fictive pupil, how to
write and spell:

Development is said to entail over/hyper-production (Valsiner, 2008b). The idea is echoed in the view
of children’s overuse of particular linguistic/semiotic formulations as ‘surplus’ of meaning. I, however,
do not regard diversification as overproduction, but see the child as producing as much as is necessary
in order to consolidate his/her knowledge. See also Bruner (1999), who observes that children select
pieces of information to attend to that fit their capacity limits and then work within those limits, hence,
like all humans, they dislike banality and overload from the start.

illustr.7: Benni learns to write, 6yrs 11m

Almost seven years old, Pia returns to a developmental stage achieved at least a year
and a half earlier. Scaffolded letter formation is followed by the progression to sounds
incorporating the phoneme o : ponpon. New vowels are introduced: papion. One of
the new vowels is practised in conjunction with the starting consonant: Papa.
‘Ponpon’ and ‘papion’ are not real words but sound clusters, transformative exercises
aimed at learning the correlation between graphemes and phonemes, as used in the
early writing exercise books. Benni learns to spell in the same manner as Pia herself
did, that is to say, structurally, as at school, using what is already known as a starting
point for diversification. In her role as teacher, Pia also evaluates, crossing out badly
formed letters and giving Benni the overall grade of 1,5. We should note, however,
that Pia learns how to write (as opposed to spell) and is an active writer at home long
before formal schooling. More to the point, in her non-institutional context, Pia learns
to write holistically, not as a vehicle for knowledge display but as a means of
authentic social action.

A return to earlier stages of development, recast as play, as we see in Liebe Loic or

Benni learns to write, may serve to consolidate and confirm knowledge. Principled
and procedural learning blend in such transformative activities as learning becomes
playful teaching and nothing is at stake. Such practice invalidates a view of learning
as always, or automatically, synchronised with the original catalytic input, for it
reveals that learning may take place at alternative temporal and cognitive levels. We
can learn, therefore, not only by moving forwards, but equally by moving backwards.

A review of the production dates of Pia’s texts, further, demonstrate that writing at
home, guided not only by her developmental level, but also by her social and
emotional needs, is not produced ‘seamlessly’ and regularly, but may involve ‘spurts’,
contesting the smooth line view at the heart of much language and literacy pedagogy.
As Pia says in her own words:

Sometimes I don’t write anything at all… and sometimes I write loads and loads!
(Bursch & Simon, 2009, p38)

This last developmental phase is an open one in the sense that future adaptations or
transformations of writing (writing new words, genres, languages, etc) take place in
this part of the model, with the previous sections feeding this development, if needs
be. Pia might not seek assistance to write new words in French, for example, although
she will be sensitised to French spelling, become aware of its rule-bound nature and
of her need to acquire these rules. Nor need she go through procedural play,
‘pretending’ to write French. It seems, therefore, that certain phases of the model, I
propose, may be skipped if skills learnt in one area are easily transferable to another,
as is the case with writing.

Diversification is the motor which moves development forward, enabling the learner
or social organism to maintain the ability to adapt to new contexts. There is a
metacognitive dimension here, for Pia knows that she knows how to diversify. It is
this knowing about doing that enables her to transform knowledge and that is at the
heart of her autocatalytic processes, with their attendant changes to her environment.
Diversification, thus, is a cognitive tool, a cognitive semiotic, which she learns to use.

Diversification, moreover, is characteristic of each developmental level in the sense

that there are numerous ways to ‘perform’ at that level. Hence, awareness, for
example, may be expressed in several forms. Pia might first become aware of writing
in a specific context, but will then have heightened sensitivity to it in other contexts.
Procedural play, similarly, may take several forms, yielding many forms of text.
Regarding assisted acquisition, the type of assistance and the person assisting may be
diversified, and so on.

It has been said that ‘being’ is anachronistic for we are never ‘being’, always
‘becoming’ (Unsworth, 2001). At school, we note, children are often positioned as
‘becoming’ literate via an atomistic skills approach to instruction, as reflected in
Benni learns to write (illustr.7). Such means are not dynamic, as one would expect of
development, i.e. something in motion. The learner is ‘becoming’, yet there is a stasis
related to a contractual, structural model of language/literacy acquisition and practice
that exposes a tension between intentions. Is being, then, anachronistic? Let’s see. In
the next section, I pursue the analysis from a synchronic vantage, instantiating Pia’s
‘being’ at a given moment in relation her informal writing development in order to
ascertain whether such a ‘snapshot’ may in fact help us to generate a deeper
understanding of a theory of mind.

A single text is not an isolated text: a ‘snapshot’ perspective

In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards,
you invent them. (Miller, 1938, p11)

The data I have chosen to exemplify my theory of mind as evidenced by a single

event is entitled Natascha. At the time, Pia was 5yrs 6m. The text was produced on a
sheet of A4 paper, which Pia then folded in two to form a book. The text, begun at

school with a classmate, Natascha, was nonetheless, and more to the point, completed
by Pia at home. The text is a declaration of friendship: ‘Natascha, tu étais ma
meilleure copine aujourd’hui’ (Natascha, you were my best friend today). A picture
complements the text by depicting children in the playground, in the centre, Pia and
her best friend for the day arm-in-arm:

illustr.8: Natascha, 5yrs 6m

Whereas the writing is achieved with some deliberation and in silence, the drawing is
rattled off in stages and with ease, to the accompaniment of Pia’s running

Stage 1: Pia and Natascha arm-in arm

Stage 2: boy and girl below
Stage 3: heaven clouds and sun, later adds children and some school buildings.
The children in this section are cold, so she draws ‘freezing’ lines down the sides
of their bodies; it’s December. (FN#5)

The interaction lasts approximately thirty minutes. It is documented in detailed

fieldnotes, exposing the learning of both interactants5.

Pia, emphasizing the fact it is not a letter, but a book, told me what she wanted to
write. I then wrote the phrase on a piece of paper for her. She got lost quickly in the
jungle of letters, e.g. writing ‘p’ from ‘copine’ after ‘tu’. The result of this error, for
her, is frustration. The result for me: an a-ha! Pia’s slip revealed that the directionality
of her gaze did not move conventionally from left to right, but from up to down, since
I am learner and teacher in one, attempting to pitch my help at Pia’s level and learning from every
clue she reveals about her development. Pia, likewise, although less consciously, is both learner (how
signs look, how they are produced, and what they stand for) and teacher, assisting me to new levels of
competence regarding her writing development.

p was the letter on the line immediately below tu in the sample I had provided
(illustr.9). Learning from this cue, I suggested she crossed out each letter after having
copied it. She expanded this new task into a secondary activity of colouring the
letters. This way she was able to direct her gaze to the appropriate letter and integrate
an element of personal creativity rather than simply carry out an order6.

Illustr.9: Scaffolding

Similarly, when I explain that she can break up the word meilleure with a hyphen (for
she has run out of space), she applies this most recently acquired principle in a new,
in her eyes, appropriate situation when she once again runs out of space and cannot
put the words copine and aujourd’hui on the same line as on my draft, thus separates
them with a hyphen. Another a-ha! for me, as her action reveals that she associates
the hyphen with the concept of space, not the concept of word. If we return to the
formula presented above:
C  R  A1  A2  A3 etc

We see that Pia’s use of hyphen relates to the phases A1  A2  A3, so that her
thoughts may be: ‘if I can use a hyphen when I run out of space for meilleure (A1), I
can use it when I run out of space elsewhere… (A2). She has understood the concept
(C), yet her understanding is limited by the fact that she has not yet internalised the
relevant concept of word. This is made evident by the fact that, in spite of my clear
spacing, it is not easy to identify the start and the end of words in Pia’s text (illustr.8).

Pia does not simply take my meaning/recommendation, she re-interprets it. The
process of her letter formation is not always conventional, as can be seen by the

If anyone can be said to simply carry out an order, then it is I in as much as Pia tells me what to write
and I, dutifully, write it down, though even here, the original task is extended, transformed, for I break
it down into ‘manageable’ sub-activities (crossing out letters, using hyphens)

arrows in the illustrating below, denoting where her penstrokes go up and down, even
though the final product remains the same:

Illustr.10: Negotiating the directionality of letters

I observe, further, how she adds strokes to certain letters, much in the manner of
drawing/painting, e.g. letters m,a,e, thereby moving in and out of writing and drawing
as discrete visual representations.

Pia was uneasy about the straight line at the beginning of the letter ‘m’ because she
said she had not ‘learnt’ this letter yet. As I knew that she was familiar with it in the
cultural context of the sign MacDonald’s, her hesitancy drew my attention to a
discrepancy between what she knows and what she thinks she knows. Similarly, she
did not want to put an accent on the ‘e’ because, again, she said she has not ‘learnt’ it
yet, so insisted that I did it for her. Learning, thus, for her, seems to be something
which must be done explicitly. At home, however, and as she says, it is as if you learn
secretly (Bursch & Simon, 2009). In retrospect, I realise this activity is pitched above
her ZPD. I should have used capitals, as this is what she was writing at the time (cf
Ho Ho txts). I wrote in lower case because it was natural for me, but I see now that it
was demanding too much of Pia, who nonetheless rose to the challenge.

Pia, insisting that she has written a book not a letter, obviously has very concrete
ideas on the form of her text, thus she is the authority on her own authoring. On the
other hand, her unwillingness to attempt anything she has not yet ‘learnt’ at school
reveals her doubts about any such claim to authority. She oscillates between
know/don’t know; between positive volition and outright resistance. By the end of the
interaction, and despite her resistance, she has nonetheless attained a higher level of
writing competence thanks to the finely-tuned help of her mother. The
accomplishment exemplifies progress through the Zone of Proximal Development,
but is not based on an understanding of learning as an abstract, solitary activity aimed
at some future benefit. Rather, it is based on an understanding of learning as being
deeply anchored in a specific, here-and-now, authentic, socio-affective context,
instigated by a proactive child not primarily interested in the structural aspects of
learning in the classical, formal sense, but in using knowledge, in this case literacy, as
a tool to get something – a socially purposeful act - done.

To relate these findings to my model, we see how the social and material environment
impacts on Pia’s awareness, readiness and willingness. An allocatalytic incident with
a classmate and some writing material triggers off Pia’s willingness to create the text,
although she doubts her cognitive readiness to produce it on her own, thus she later
solicits the help of a more competent other. We note, nonetheless, the absence of
procedural play, yet the introduction of a new creative element as Pia colours in the
crossed out letters, thereby controlling, or learning to master, what initially appeared
to be a ‘jungle of letters’. This new creative element is set up by the allocatalytic
intervention of Pia’s mother. Environmental cues, thus, frame, but do not prescribe,
the direction of development, leaving Pia the room to appropriate the activity and give
it her own meaning as opposed to blindly copying7.

The text is prepared, (first with Natascha, then with Pia’s mother). It is co-constructed
(with Natascha and Pia’s mother). And it is redesigned (e.g. colouring and drawing
activities are added, unconventional directionality of certain penstrokes, picture
added). To need the help of others does not mean the child is wholly dependent upon
others, however, and at several points, Pia can be seen to exhibit independent action.
When analysing emergent activities or skills, therefore, attention must be paid not
only to how children are helped, but equally to how they help themselves.

A particular developmental level may give evidence of residual, emergent and

mastered or dominant skills/knowledge at one and the same time (Williams, 1977,
p132). Pia’s letter formation still has traces of drawing skills, for example, and
although she encounters difficulty with a number of letters, she has mastered how to
write, in this case, twice as many letters (a,m,l,r,c,o,p,j,d,h: N=10) as those we could
describe as being emergent (s,e,i,u,t: N=5). Pia not only transforms mastery of the
sequence of letters on her draft into a colouring activity, but she also transfers the
colouring activity to the writing of the text itself, each letter in the book for Natascha
being written in the same colour as the one used to control her gaze across her
mother’s model. Via the colouring/writing activity, therefore, we are given further
indications of simultaneous, yet divergent, levels of skill: emergent control over
reading a string letters in addition to writing others, and diversification as a
consequence of mastery, reflected the application of internalised rules for new results
(e.g. the use of hyphen in new situations). It is interesting to note that no comment is
made about Pia’s ‘emergent’ letters. She is not told that her way of writing them is
wrong in any way. Pia herself, more to the point, appears only to exhibit insecurity
with regard to the letter é, which she refuses to write, and the letter m. Hence, from
the child’s perspective, these letters alone are deemed new or emergent, so that
conclusions about a child’s level of competence must be deferred until we have a
solid understanding of what the child him/herself thinks or reveals about his/her own

The notion of copying appears frequently in discussions of literacy learning and practice. I embrace
the view posited by scholars such as Kress (1994, 1997, 2003a,b) or Rowe (2003), who recognise the
‘design’ and ‘recasting’ aspects to children’s reproductive writing. Anyone observing children closely
will discover how much they hate being copied (Travers, 2009). Paley (1990) however suggests that a
child’s eagerness to copy another child might be interpreted as an invitation to friendship and a means
to establish a bridge between their two worlds. As such, ‘copying’ may be an invitation to dialogue
(and dialogism) beyond the merely verbal plane.

The fact remains: a purely chronological depiction of development - from novice to
expert – is not unproblematic. Learning, it would seem, is not always a forward-
feeding, conscious process. In addition to the simultaneous presence of varying levels
of skill, the developmental pathway may also entail periods of un/awareness, by
which I do not mean a progression from unawareness to awareness, but equally a shift
from awareness to unawareness:

(5yrs 6m)
M: Has anyone in your family ever helped you to learn something about writing?
P: No…
(after much thinking....)
You helped me to read with the Mico book, but not to write. (FN#4)

(5yrs 9m)
M: Has anyone ever helped you with writing at home?
P: Yes. You! (FN#5)

(8yrs 2m)
M: Where did you learn to write?
P: At school. (FN#6)

Despite the confirmation given by the Natascha interaction that Pia’s writing skills,
learnt at home, are in advance of those transmitted in the classroom, she remains
largely unaware of how instrumental her home environment, and her mother in
particular, is in her writing development. It is as she says elsewhere: ‘at home, it’s as
if you learn secretly’ (Bursch & Simon, 2009). The shifts in her degree of awareness
mean that each developmental block represented in the diagram, therefore, should be
seen as containing within itself backward and forward moving sub/conscious
developmental activity in a general progression towards mastery.

If we embrace the dialogical – as opposed to merely dialectical - self, a central

problem becomes where to allocate learning, which is typically still spoken of
according to an underlying notion of a unified (ontological) self, even within the
paradigms of both sociocultural theory and cultural psychology. The ‘zoniferousness’
inherent in a dialogical perspective of the individual is further underscored by the
various semiotic ‘zones’ within the text (drawing, writing, words of different colours),
along with movement ‘in’ and ‘out’ at the psychological level (meaning making-
taking), linguistic level (the written text is in French, I speak English, hence the
overall interaction is bilingual), and ecological level (home, school). The combination
of a dialogical and plurilingual self alone magnifies the complexity of attempts, and
claims, to depict the nature of learning. Movement ‘in’ and ‘out’ can also be
established at the temporal level, being at times ‘quick’, as when Pia embellishes her
written text with the drawing, or indeed ‘slow’, when we think that it took Pia almost
half an hour to produce her one-sentence story, though here, once again, to judge her
efforts, and success, as ‘slow’ is an adult perspective, thus must be treated with a
certain caution.

Taking a ‘snapshot’ of Pia’s writing development, we see, enables us to move from

the general character of longitudinal development to the complex dynamics of
individual developmental stages when looked at more closely within a microgenetic

instance, thereby allowing us to become alert to nuances which otherwise run the risk
of being glossed over. In sum, we experience text and text production as a much
larger concept than placing words on a page, as a much more dynamic, ontopotential
communication ensemble (Kress, 2003a,b) in its own right. More than a ‘mere’
snapshot or empty statement in developmental terms, the text, as an instance of
‘being’ in which development is mirrored, has the potential to be an open system and
a ‘living agent’8 (Smorti, 2008).

The second half of the paper is currently under revision...

Cf however Wertsch’s comments on Bakhtinian authority in texts and their potential univocal
qualities (footnote 15)