Desirable Literacies: Approaches to Language and Literacy in the Early Years


Edited by: Jackie Marsh & Elaine Hallet

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  • About UKLA

    UKLA is a registered charity, which has as its sole object the advancement of education in literacy. UKLA is concerned with literacy education in school and out-of-school settings, in all phases of education, and members include classroom teachers, teaching assistants, school literacy co-ordinators, LA literacy consultants, teacher educators, researchers, inspectors, advisers, publishers and librarians.

    The Association was founded in 1963 as the United Kingdom Reading Association. In 2003 it changed its name to the United Kingdom Literacy Association in order to reflect more accurately its wider range of concerns. Through the work of its various committees, Task Groups and Special Interest Groups, the Association is active in a wide variety of areas, both nationally and internationally. UKLA works with a range of government and non-governmental agencies on issues of national interest. The Association is also committed to the funding and dissemination of high-quality national and international research projects that include practitioner-researchers.

    UKLA provides a forum for discussion and debate, together with information and inspiration. It does this through its wide range of conferences - international, national, regional and local - and its publications, which include a professional magazine, English 4–11, and two journals, Literacy and the Journal of Research in Reading. This series of co-published titles with Sage Publications complements its range of in-house publications and provides a further opportunity to disseminate the high quality and vibrant work of the association. In order to find out more about UKLA, including details about membership, see its website:


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    We would like to thank all of the contributors to this volume for their wonderful contributions and professional approach to the task. We are also indebted to Helen Fairlie and Rachel Hendrick at Sage Publications for making the editorial process so smooth for us. Thanks also to those friends and colleagues who have supported us along the way: we very much appreciate your ongoing encouragement. Finally, we express our gratitude to all of those early years practitioners whose work informs this book; your good practice deserves to be widely disseminated in these pages.

    Notes on Contributors

    Viv Bird is an experienced adult and family literacy practitioner and former editor of Literacy Today magazine. Viv is also the author of several literacy guides and many articles. In 2002, she became director of the Literacy and Social Inclusion Project, a three-year Basic Skills Agency national support project delivered by the National Literacy Trust, UK, and was responsible for setting up a website ( With Rodie Akerman, she wrote a position paper, ‘Every which way we can’ launched at the Institute of Education in London in February 2005. Literacy and Social Inclusion: The Handbook, published in November 2005 by the National Literacy Trust Basic Skills Agency, describes how, working in partnership, policy makers can develop a community literacy strategy with positive outcomes for individuals, families and communities. Viv was Director of Reading Is Fundamental, UK, from 2005 to 2007, and was recently appointed as Director of Booktrust, an independent national charity that encourages people of all ages and cultures to discover and enjoy reading.

    Ann Browne works on the primary PGCE programme at the University of East Anglia. Her teaching and research interests are largely related to language and literacy learning in the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1. She has written a number of books of which the most recent is Teaching and Learning Communication, Language and Literacy which is published by Sage (2007).

    Julie Dunn is a senior lecturer within the Faculty of Education, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, where she has responsibility for a range of undergraduate and postgraduate teacher education and applied theatre programmes. Her research interests are diverse, but mostly focus on play and drama within real and virtual spaces. Julie's awarding winning text, Pretending to Learn (co-authored with John O'Toole) has been translated into both Mandarin and Danish, and is a major resource in supporting teachers’ education in primary drama. Julie was also the winner of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Dissertation Award in 2005 for her research that examined the dramatic play of pre-adolescent girls.

    Rosie Flewitt is a researcher in the Education Dialogue Research Unit, Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology, the Open University. She is engaged in a range of research projects relating to early years communication and learning in home and educational settings. She has a particular interest in literacy skills and practices in the early years, and in how different modes (such as text, images, layout, music and sounds), available in new and more traditional media, offer different learning potentials, reshaping young children's social and learning practices.

    Naomi Flynn is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Winchester. She works with student teachers on undergraduate and postgraduate initial teacher education programmes, and manages the part-time PGCE route into teaching. Prior to her career in higher education she was a primary school teacher for 18 years. She taught mostly in multi-ethnic and culturally diverse settings, and for four years she served as head teacher of an inner-city primary school. Her experiences with children from ethnic minorities and for whom English is an additional language gave her a fascination with and a practical understanding of support for second language acquisition; this has developed into her main research interest. She is also interested in effective pedagogy for literacy and in how secure teachers’ subject knowledge underpins positive classroom experiences for all children. This is explored in her book The Learning and Teaching Reading and Writing which she co-authored with Rhona Stainthorp (John Wiley, 2006.)

    Julia Gillen is a senior lecturer in Digital Literacies at the Literacy Research Centre, Lancaster University. She researches aspects of children's learning mainly in relation to new technologies in both formal and informal settings. She is also co-director (with Ann Cameron at the University of British Columbia) of the ‘A Day in the Life’ project investigating aspects of culture in the lives of two-year-old girls in diverse global communities. Her publications include, The Language of Children (Routledge, 2003) and she has written many journal articles and chapters on topics including the use of interactive whiteboards in primary classrooms and children's telephone talk. Julia is a co-editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.

    Elaine Hallet is a senior lecturer in Early Years and the Teaching Fellow for Foundation degrees within the Faculty of Education, Health and Sciences at the University of Derby. She teaches on a range of undergraduate and professional early years programmes. Her particular interest is work-based learning, Foundation degrees, the professional development of early years practitioners and early literacy development. She has a wide range of early years experience, having taught in nursery, infant, primary settings, the advisory service, and further and higher education settings. She has carried out research in early literacy and gender issues. Her current doctoral concerns the Early Years Foundation degrees as a professional higher education qualification. She has published in the field of Early Years and early literacy and has presented at local, regional, national and international conferences about early literacy development, early years, work-based learning and Foundation degrees.

    Jackie Marsh is Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield, where she directs the EdD programme. She also teaches on the MA New Literacies and MA Early Childhood Education programmes. Jackie is involved in research that examines the role and nature of popular culture, media and new technologies in early childhood literacy, both in- and out-of school contexts. Publications include Literacy and Social Inclusion: Closing the Gap (Trentham, 2007, co-edited with Eve Bearne) and Making Literacy Real (Sage, 2005, with Joanne Larson). She is a co-editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy.

    Jim McDonagh is a senior lecturer in the Division of Education at Sheffield Hallam University where he teaches language and literacy on ITE routes. His current interests include English as an additional language and teachers’ subject knowledge.

    Sue McDonagh has worked extensively in nursery and primary settings and is currently a specialist early years inclusion teacher, working with staff in nursery and reception classes in Sheffield to support children with additional needs and their families.

    Guy Merchant is a principal lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, where he coordinates the work of the Language and Literacy Research Group. He has published numerous articles and book chapters on digital literacy, and is co-editor of the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. His current research focuses on young children's uses of on-screen writing and how this can be incorporated into school curricula.

    Fran Paffard is a senior lecturer in early years at the University of Cumbria, based at the Tower Hamlets site in London. She has worked as a primary and early years teacher for many years, and more recently as an advisory teacher and Foundation Stage consultant with the National Primary Strategy. She also works as a freelance consultant with particular interests in bilingualism, birth to threes, schemas and early literacy.

    Kate Pahl is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield. She currently directs the EdD course in Literacy and Language and the Working with Communities masters programme. She also works on the Online MA in New Literacies at Sheffield. Kate is co-author, with Jennifer Rowsell, of Literacy and Education: The New Literacy Studies in the Classroom (Paul Chapman, 2005), and co-editor, with Jennifer Rowsell, of Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Instances of Practice (Multilingual Matters, 2006). She is currently doing a project that explores ways in which museums can enhance social inclusion and create family learning opportunities. She is also involved in a research project, funded by the Arts Council, with two artists who are using artefacts to look at identity narratives with teachers in schools in Leeds.

    Liz Stone began her teaching career almost ten years ago and has taught in Foundation Stage, Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Although she has enjoyed working with all age groups, she feels her real talent lies in teaching and nurturing the very young. She has always enjoyed ‘playing with words’, writing her own stories, poems and songs for use in the classroom. Liz's classroom-based research has led to publications on topics including improving boys’ attitudes to writing through design technology, and the use of spelling journals.

    Tim Waller is a reader in early years education at the University of Wolverhampton. He was formerly director of postgraduate studies in the Department of Childhood Studies at Swansea University. Previously, he taught in nursery, infant and primary schools in London and has also worked in the United States. His research interests include ICT and social justice, outdoor learning and equality. He has been investigating the use of computers by young children for over eight years and completed his doctoral thesis on scaffolding young children's learning and ICT. Since September 2003 he has been coordinating a research project designed to investigate the promotion of children's well-being through outdoor play. He has also helped to establish the Men in Childcare Network in Wales. Tim has recently edited a book with Margaret Clark entitled Early Childhood Education and Care: Policy and Practice, published by Sage in 2007.


    JackieMarsh and ElaineHallet

    It is nine years since the first edition of this book was published and so this second edition is both timely and necessary. In the intervening years, there have been many developments in the teaching and learning of language and literacy in the early years, and this edition, therefore, has been completely revised in order to reflect these changes. In this introduction, we offer an overview of the continuities and changes. Perhaps the first continuity we should attend to is the title of the book itself. Originally, the title was created to relate to the curriculum framework relevant in England at the time of the publication of Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education (DfEE/SCAA 1996). Whilst that framework is no longer in place, we decided to retain the title of Desirable Literacies because it does signal that what we hope to achieve in this book are reflections on and guidance for a language and literacy curriculum that is engaging and meaningful to learners, practitioners and families alike; truly desirable, in other words.

    The aim of this second edition remains the same as the first in that it is intended to be an introductory text on different aspects of the teaching and learning of literacy for both students on early years courses and newly qualified practitioners. However, there may be aspects of the book that will interest more experienced early years educators. In addition, the book continues to offer guidance on practice that will be applicable to a range of settings including schools, maintained and non-maintained nurseries, children's centres, and voluntary settings, although it is expected that readers will adapt the material and guidelines to meet the needs of their specific contexts.

    This second edition of Desirable Literacies remains concerned with the same issues that dominated the first edition: the need to offer a broad and rich language and literacy curriculum to young children, the importance of recognising literacy as a social and cultural practice, and, thus, ensure curricular links to the wider world, and the need to engage children as active participants in their learning. This is placed within a context in which it is recognised that successive rounds of neo-liberal policy-making across the globe over the last decade has led to an increasing emphasis on accountability and performance-management in many countries. This edition, like the first, stresses the need to ensure that all early years practitioners have the freedom to make informed decisions about children's language and literacy learning based on broad and deep subject knowledge and familiarity with how children learn. The emphasis, therefore, is on an incisive, research-informed review of best practice in a range of key areas. The subject matter of the majority of the chapters remains the same - you will find chapters here on oracy, reading, environmental print, writing, poetry, drama and planning and assessment, as in the first edition. In that edition, we were keen to emphasise the changing nature of literacy in a world in which technological changes were leading to profound social and cultural changes, and to explore the implications for early childhood educators. Again, this remains central to the work of the present volume. We continue to recognise the way in which the literacy curriculum needs to include multimodal texts and practices and to embrace the digital technologies which surround children from birth.

    So, what has changed? Well, firstly, the chapters have been revised and updated to ensure that they reflect recent research, theory, policy and practice. Whilst many of the chapters have the same subject matter as the first edition, you will find that some of the authors have changed, which has meant complete rewrites of those chapters. We hope that you agree that this brings refreshingly new perspectives to long-standing issues and debates. Secondly, we have added chapters in areas that have developed in significance since the first issue. For example, we have included chapters on multimodality, media literacy and creativity; all of which issues have dominated the early literacy agenda in recent years. As a result, the book reflects up-to-the-minute research and theory in key aspects of early literacy language and learning.

    In Chapter 1, Jim McDonagh and Sue McDonagh offer a succinct overview of language acquisition, exploring the key concepts, outlining the main theories in the field and offering guidance on practical ways of approaching the teaching and learning of oracy in early years settings. In Chapter 2, Naomi Flynn considers the needs of bilingual children and suggests ways in which we can value and build successfully upon children's linguistic repertoire. Both of these chapters recognise the value of a focus on language play in the early years, a theme which is extended in Liz Stone and Julia Gillen's chapter on the teaching and learning of poetry (Chapter 3). They consider a range of stimulating ideas that practitioners can use in their quest for promoting and extending children's language and literacy skills.

    In Chapter 4, Elaine Hallet moves on to consider the role that environmental print has to play in children's reading development and analyses the role of the adult in this process. The adult role is not specifically defined as there is a recognition that all of the adults a child encounters in the early years have a crucial role to play and are all, in their different ways, educators and collaborators in the process of acquiring reading skills, knowledge and understanding. In Chapter 5, Guy Merchant presents a helpful overview of the wide-ranging research into early reading development and brings us up to date with recent initiatives. His chapter provides an introduction to ways of developing children as readers in the early years, and stresses the need to provide children with rich and stimulating literacy environments.

    Children's reading and writing skills are inextricably linked and, in Chapter 6, Ann Browne presents a comprehensive overview of the nature of writing in the early years. She outlines a range of ideas for stimulating children's writing development in early years settings, nurseries and classrooms, and suggests ways in which we can support children's emergence as successful writers. In recent years, there has been a burgeoning of research in the area of multimodality, which has developed our understanding of how children's meaning-making encompasses a range of modes, not just alphabetic print. In Chapter 7, Rosie Flewitt offers an overview of this research and provides insights, through the use of engaging vignettes, into how early years practitioners can ensure that their curricula facilitate children's multimodal practices.

    Creativity has been high on the educational agenda for some time and early years settings have always been keen to ensure that they embrace creative approaches to teaching and learning, despite increasing pressure from government bodies in some countries to formalise the curriculum in the early years. Such pressure can be robustly resisted by recourse to theory and research that illustrates how children are able to develop the necessary skills, knowledge and understanding to become successful communicators through creative, child-centred approaches. In Chapter 8, Kate Pahl outlines a Creative Partnerships funded project in which a creative approach to learning was highly effective for all involved. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of role play and drama, and in Chapter 9, Julie Dunn outlines approaches to drama that are both creative and purposeful. She suggests that adults need to carefully scaffold dramatic play at appropriate points if children are to maximise the literate potential of this kind of play.

    In the nine years since the first edition, much has changed in the world of technology. In that edition, we included a chapter focused on the use of the computer, but the chapter that now replaces it, Chapter 10, written by Tim Waller, is focused on a much wider range of technologies. Tim reviews research in this field and offers insights into how children's digital literacy skills and knowledge, developed in the home from birth, can be extended in early years settings. In their interactions with digital technologies, children encounter media texts and there has been much interest in recent years in the concept of ‘media literacy’, the ability to access, use, analyse and create a range of media. In Chapter 11, Jackie Marsh outlines a range of practical approaches to the development of children's understanding of media texts, focusing in depth on moving image media.

    The recognition of the role of families in children's language and literacy development is crucial if we are to forge genuine partnerships and value the different strengths that each party brings to the task of facilitating children's oracy and literacy development. Partnerships with parents have been strengthened through some of the exciting work which has been carried out in family literacy projects. Chapter 12 outlines some exciting approaches to working with families and Viv Bird provides the reader with an overview of key developments in this field over the last decade. During this period, there has been increasing interest in how we can involve parents and families in the assessment of children, and in Chapter 13, Fran Paffard offers suggestions about how this can be achieved. The chapter outlines key principles which should underpin assessment and planning for language and literacy in the early years, and emphasises the need to build a holistic picture of a child's attainment.

    All of the authors in this volume acknowledge explicitly or implicitly the need to keep the vision of the child as a motivated individual, engaged in purposeful literacy practices, at the heart of our teaching. There is an implicit assumption in these pages that the language and literacy experiences and activities offered, negotiated with and initiated by children, need to be guided by educators who have a clear understanding of the very nature of oracy and literacy in current cultural landscapes. Here, authors have offered their road maps for this exciting and ever-changing terrain on the understanding that readers will want to venture into new pastures and unchartered territory. We hope that you will find in this second edition of Desirable Literacies inspiring material that will help you to chart your own path through the early language and literacy educational environment.

    Department for Education and Employment (DfEE)/School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) (1996) Desirable Outcomes for Children's Learning on Entering Compulsory Education. London: DfEE/SCAA.

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