What we might learn about young children’s language and literacy practices by starting with the everyday in communities?

This time last year, I was lucky to be invited to be part of a plenary panel (with Laura Trafi-Prats and Chris Schulte) at Reconceptualizing Early Childhood Education conference in Copenhagen. I talked about the research I was doing with young children and families in communities, and how I hoped it might reframe early childhood language and literacy. In this blog post, adapted from that plenary, I share some of the ideas I am developing from my British Academy fellowship on the Emergence of Literacy in Very Young Children.


At singing time, H picks a dead piece of leaf off the floor and pops it in his mouth, lightning fast. She sees it sitting on his bottom lip and, like a reflex, stretches her hand to grab it away. For a split second, she feels the softness of his bottom lip, a strange kind of inappropriate intimacy for a small boy she has just met. She wipes his saliva on her trousers as the group begins the nursery rhyme singing.


“Mothers live in a universe that has not been accurately described. The right words have not been coined. Using habitual vocabulary sends us straight down the same old much-trodden paths. But there are other paths to which these footpaths do not lead. There are whole stretches of motherhood that no one has explored.”

(Stadlen, 2005, p.12)


My British Academy fellowship research has allowed me to immerse myself in an (extra)ordinary world that is both surreal and deeply familiar; the world of everyday life with young children in communities. The fellowship has involved two years of ethnographic work in community spaces of early childhood; playgroups in particular, but also parks, shops, streets, day care, a local museum. It is concerned with ordinariness, the experiences of being and being with very young children. It asks what we might learn about language and literacy practices by starting with the everyday in communities.


This question is particularly pertinent at time of increasing global anxiety around young children, their families, their early experiences, the rate of their development and the implications for their future schooling and success. Young children’s language, vocabulary, and emergent literacy competencies sit near the heart of anxiety about young children’s development, believed by many to evidence their ability to rationalize, problem solve, make abstract connections, empathize with others or hold their own views. In such as context, academics (re)search for a model, a solution, to identify ‘what works’, and in doing so, it sometimes seems necessary to generalize, reduce, quantify and work with correlations (Jones et al, 2014). Intensifying interest in ‘the first 1000 days’ of young children’s lives leads to increasingly prescriptive, instructional and instrumental recommendations for parenting and pedagogy for children aged under three years. Yet parents, often, do not seem to do what they are told. (Goodness knows, I rarely did in the heady, crazy, intense years of parenting toddlers). Does something get lost in translation? Parents, particularly from marginalized communities, seem to refuse to ‘take the medicine’, to ‘follow the instructions’, to act in ways that ‘proven’ to most effectively socialize young children into a certain way of being, a certain kind of literate subject. What might this refusal, this insynchronicity (Tuck, 2010), have to tell us about the unfolding of young children’s literacy and language practices?


Lines of development and what gets erased

Lesley Gallacher (2017) describes how the metaphor of milestones in child development offers fixed points of orientation, which “enable development to be assessed according to their timekeeping within the universal developmental plan.” Line drawings commonly used to illustrate developmental milestones (for example in the ’red books’ new parents in the UK receive) offer a visual example of the kind of reducing, discarding and omitting that is necessary for a rationalised and universal account of child development. The kinds of children depicted in these images are individual, bounded, abstracted from their communities, separated from the more-than-human, free of emotion, performing various competencies such as stacking bricks or crawling in their preoccupation with moving competently through their milestones.


“The findings and discussion of developmental psychology can make oddly frustrating reading; they reflect the process of scientific observation and hence are illuminating, but they seem to have no apparent bearing on the rainbow experience we have all lost but of which we occasionally retrieve a brilliant glimpse……What seems most astonishing of all is that something of the reality of the moment survives this destructive freight of wisdom and rationality, firmly hitched to the physical world.” (Lively, 1994, p.2)


In the everyday, ordinary experience of parents, carers and practitioners who spend time with young children, there is much that seems to divert from, exceed and disrupt these lines of development. Yet the integrity of these lines must be maintained. In order to compare, to chart a generalized line of progress, it is essential to discard that which is deemed not relevant to the comparison (Jones et al, 2014). “Complexity, the ‘thick of things’, is not only lost, it becomes fundamentally threatening as it undermines the imposing edifices constructed from comparative data” (Jones et al, 2014, P.64). There is a politics, then, to what must be overlooked or reduced in order to maintain the integrity of the developmental line.


A line becomes what you have a duty to follow. A line becomes a bond, a line as direction and directive; a line that leads you to where you must go, who you must become.

Ahmed, S. (2017, May 21st) Snap! Retrieved from https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/05/21/snap/


Neat and ordered ways of describing young children’s development, what toddlers are like, what they need, how things might unfold, whilst not wrong, somehow seem to miss something crucial. Perhaps reading these descriptions at a desk in my office, they seem plausible, reasonable. Then I return to playgroup, swing open the door, step over some items on the floor, into a particular kind of soundscape, smellscape, some place filled with hopes and anxieties, humour and extreme sleep deprivation. And then, those neat, reduced, demystified accounts, no longer seem thinkable.


“They miss how someone’s ordinary can endure or can sag deflated…..how it can become a vague but compelling sense that something is happening, or harden into little mythic kernels” (Stewart,2007, p.4).


Somerville’s (2013) notion of place-learning points to a possible alternative way of knowing; residing in her proposition that knowing can occur through bodily practices, through the creation of body / place memories that remain in the body, and can never be fully articulated into words, may offer an account of young children that does not so quickly erase the ordinary (Stewart, 2007). Thus, my work seeks to begin with place and community, as a starting point for a different way of knowing. It does this by beginning with description, attending to and remaining with details and intensities of ordinary decisions and experiences, even when they seem unhelpful, illusive, uncodifiable. In addition, it acknowledges the political and resistant nature of an insistence on this kind of describing (Rautio, 2013; Tuck, 2010).


Concluding thoughts

The vision of the ideal child, the ideal parent, the ideal community, never matches the reality. That those without power are the ones blamed for this illustrates the incommensurability of sticking with the ‘ideal’ in the hope children and families will benefit from approximating it as closely as they are able. Stephanie Jones (2018) writes about the damage the dehumanization of education has caused.


“While we see the carnage produced in current conditions of schooling every single day all day long, we continue on and go to work. Perhaps with a grimace, or even complaints and protests, but no one is stopping to weep together with a soft and clean piece of fabric to tend to the wounded and disfigured.”

(Jones, 2018, p.109)


Rutted paths force us into seemingly non-negotiable accounts of early childhood as generalizable, measurable; accounts that do not serve children, families or communities well.


“There are gated communities, walled gardens, and, worryingly, mighty fortresses protected by walls of certainty. They are well connected by roads, drawing straight lines of causality from A to B.” (Jones et al, 2014, p.65)


I see the carnage described by Jones (2018) playing out every day. This is not just about material access to healthy food, heating, safe housing, ways to keep children entertained during the summer holidays, although in the current age of austerity in the UK, these issues are urgent and of the utmost importance in the communities I work in. It is also about entitlement, positioning, knowledge, power. It concerns how it feels to be in a space, to account for a child, to answer the questions, to feel the tension, shame, stress, apathy. There is plenty for early childhood academics to be angry about. Accounts of early childhood that dwell in the cuteness / competency / progress / learning of the child are no longer enough. They were never enough. Early childhood literacies are a deeply political project, playing out through the ordinariness of the more-than-human in communities.



Gallacher, L. (2017) From milestones to wayfaring: geographic metaphors and iconography of embodied growth and change in infancy and early childhood. GeoHumanities.

Jones, S. (2018) Diffracting: Human Limbs, Dead Birds, Active Books, and Bucking Horses: The Work to-be-Made of Literacies in the Present. In C. Kuby, J. Thiel and K. Spector (eds) Posthumanism and Literacy Education. Knowing / Becoming / Doing Literacies. New York: Routledge. P.108-113.

Jones, L. Osgood, J. Holmes, R. and MacLure, M. (2014) (Re)assembling, (Re)casting and (Re)aligning Lines of De- and Re-Territorialisation of Early Childhood. International Review of Qualitative Research 7 (1), 58.79.

Rautio, P. (2013) Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, 11(4), 394-408.

Somerville, M. (2013) Water in a Dry Land. Place-learning through Art and Story. New York: Routledge.

Stadlen, N. (2005) What Mothers Do especially when it looks like nothing. London: Piaktus.

Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects, Durham: Duke University Press.

Tuck, E. (2010) Breaking up with Deleuze: desire and valuing the irreconcilable, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23:5, 635-650.

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