New book: More-Than-Human Literacies in Early Childhood

I have a new book out this month! ‘More-Than-Human Literacies in Early Childhood’ is published now with Bloomsbury, as part of Osgood and Pacini-Ketchabaw’s book series ‘Feminist Thought in Childhood Research’.

The book is a key outcome of long-term ethnographic research into the role of place, materiality and the body in the literacies of young children, funded by The British Academy. I spent three years researching with families and young children in everyday community contexts. I wanted to do this because, in order to understand the role and potential of early childhood education in young children’s lives, I firmly believe we need more research about the other places, people and things that make up young children’s worlds. I spent my time with children aged between 12 and 36 months and their families, in playgroups, but also in parks, outside spaces, classrooms, a farm and a museum.

Throughout the book, recognised understandings of young children are decentred in favour of experiential knowing of parents and communities, body-place knowing and ordinary affects. I aimed to build a picture of how children participate in, or become caught up in, literacies and language in the contexts of their everyday lives. I argue that young children’s literacies are always more-than-human, involving sounds, gestures and movements between humans and nonhuman places and things.

The book has three sections. The first is called ‘Starting with Community and Place’, in which I set the scene for why I think this work is important, why I think asking the question “what we might learn about language and literacy practices in early childhood by starting with the everyday in communities?” might yield some interesting and disruptive answers. The ideas in the book have a particular genealogy; they are rooted in a community in northern England where the research was carried out. This is important because all ideas are rooted somewhere. In this first section, I describe the how and where of the research and try to give a sense of the energy, the care, the atmosphere of this particular part of the world, and why hegemonic ideas such a progress, linear child development and language as purely human, seemed to falter and become muddied. Notions of affect, place/body knowing and the more-than-human guide a lot of my thinking in the book, and in chapter 1 I show and explain why I think they are helpful. Finally, section 1 of the book positions literacies and language development as fully political entities; arguing that there is no neutral, apolitical version of conceptualising the when, how and what of young children’s meaning making.

Section two of the book is called Re-Conceptualizing Early Childhood Literacies as More-Than-Human’ and contains the heart of the empirical examples I have been working with to rethink language and literacies as more-than-human. Chapter five introduces the idea of ‘wild literacies’, that is, literacies that unfold in the moment and have an unpredictability about them and, in addition, have a certain kind of instability. Meanings can be more or less transparent, can flicker in and out of view. In nature, emergence requires this randomness in order to operate, so I argue that this wildness is not an undesirable glitch, but actually essential and central to the unfolding of emergent literacies. Thus, I also introduce the concept of ‘not literacies’ in this section, arguing that events that do not quite tip in representational meanings are closely connected to those that do, and need to be deeply involved in any analysis of the emergence of literacies. The following three chapters each take a different aspect of young children’s multimodal meaning making (moving bodies, objects, vocalisations) in order to look at examples from the fieldwork and consider the role of place, movement, atmosphere, intent, design and transparency (amongst other things) in what is unfolding.

The third section of the book is called ‘Where did we get to?’ and asks some speculative questions about what all this might mean for how we conceptualise literacies, and also how we support families and young children. Chapter 9 is probably my favorite chapter – it considers literacy and language beyond a progress narrative, prompted firstly by a conversation with two of the mums at a playgroup, and secondly by a question from a 2001 paper by Radhika Viruru; “what is lost when language is gained?”. Understanding emergent literacies as messy, conflicted and compromised processes of change, rather than an apolitical acquisition of more and more skills / words / competencies to be ‘banked’, radically changes what and how we might pay attention when we are with young children in places. This final section of the book invites a continuing conversation about how we might imagine literacies, and what the implications of this might be for the lives of families, the construction of childhood and the future of literacies. 

You can view more information about the book here; and read the contents and first chapter of the book here;

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