New literacies, old identities: Girls’ experiences of literacy and new technologies at home and school

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New literacies, old identities: Girls’ experiences of literacy and

new technologies at home and school
Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield

Paper presented at ESRC-funded Seminar Series:

Girls and Education 3-16: Old Concerns, New Agendas
Seminar 2: Girls’ experience of school life

Goldsmiths College, London, 9th March 2006

This paper examines issues arising from a number of research projects conducted over the last three years in which I have explored young children’s (aged 0-6) use of popular culture, media and digital literacies at home and in early years settings. In recent years, the issue of boys’ underachievement in literacy has dominated the agenda for literacy educators and early years practitioners. This emphasis has masked the complexities of the situation for girls, as assumptions about the alleged ease with which girls become literate are embedded in many of the analyses. In this paper, I challenge normative discourses about girls and literacy in the early years through a close reading of data that indicate that for some girls, the transition from home to early years settings is not seamless. Instead, expectations in early years settings are often based on traditional approaches to the communications, language and literacy curriculum and fail to take account of the changes that have taken place in socio-cultural constructions of literacy due to technological advances. When such changes are acknowledged, it is often boys’ experiences with digital literacies that are privileged. The paper will examine critically current discourses with regard to ‘new literacies’ and will consider how far the experiences of young girls are drawn upon in conceptualisations of new literacy practices in early years settings and schools.


Since the late 1990’s, there have been persistent concerns about boys’ achievement in literacy. These concerns have been linked to boys’ and girls’ different performances in national tests in reading, writing and English. Analysis of national tests reveals differences in attainment of boys and girls in the early years of education, as indicated in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Foundation Stage Profile Results for Communications, Language and Literacy, England, 2005: Children working securely within the Early Learning Goals (attaining 6 or more points)1





Language for communication and thinking




Linking sounds and letters












Table 2: National Curriculum Assessments of 7-year-olds in England in Reading and Writing, 2005 (Provisional): Pupils reaching Level 2 or above2












There are, as indicated here, clear differences between boys’ and girls’ performance in these tests. This overview masks complexities in the situation, however, as ‘race’ and class impact upon attainment, which means that some groups of girls attain lower results than some groups of boys (Connolly, 2006; Gillborn and Mirza, 2000; Gorard, 2000; Gorard, Rees, Salisbury, 2001). In addition, the move to teacher assessment in the change from Baseline Assessments to the Foundation Stage Profile has resulted in lower results for Black and Minority Ethnic pupils, a situation which indicates racist assumptions about attainment on the part of early years teachers (Gillborn, 2005). However, despite these cautionary warnings, educationalists have seized on the ‘underachievement of boys in literacy’ issue with gusto. An analysis of the website of the National Literacy Trust, a key source of information on literacy for many schools and teachers, indicates the extent of the problem. On the page dedicated to providing links to resources concerning gender and literacy, 25 references are focused on projects relating to boys and literacy and only one on girls and literacy3. This ‘backlash blockbuster’ (Mills, 2000) has led to an increased focus on intervention projects in the early years in which emphasis has been placed on boys’ experiences of literacy. An assumption in much of this work is that girls’ experiences of the communications, language and literacy curriculum in the early years is unproblematic. However, in this paper, I argue that this overlooks the discontinuities in practices for many girls between home and early years settings. These discontinuities relate to literacy practices that are embedded in new technologies. Whilst these have been referred to variously as ‘new’ literacy practices (Lankshear and Knobel, 2003), it is important to recognise that literacy practices mediated by electronic technologies have a long history. Nevertheless, the term currently indicates literacy practices related to digital technologies and, given the profound nature of the changes in literacy due to technological developments (Kress, 2003), the phrase will be used throughout this paper to refer to literacy practices embedded in the use of computers, television, mobile phones and console games.

This paper draws on data arising from a number of studies conducted over the past three years in which young children’s (aged from birth to six) use of popular culture, media and new technologies in homes and early years settings and schools has been traced (Marsh 2004a, 2004b; Marsh et al., 2005). The primary source of data is a recent study, Digital Beginnings4, which involved a survey of 1,852 parents of 0-6 year olds in ten local authorities in England (Marsh et al., 2005), along with a survey of 524 early years practitioners who worked in the early years settings these children attended. This study also involved interviews with 60 parents and carers and 12 practitioners (for full details of methodology, see Marsh et al., 2005). These studies have focused on the practices of children from a diverse group of families in relation to socio-economic status, ‘race’, language and geographical location.

New Literacies, Old Identities

New kinds of readers and writers are emerging from the current proliferation of digitextual practices in which children, young people and adults read and write using a range of technologies (Kress, 2003). Lankshear and Knobel (2004) identify four roles that they suggest characterise the practices people engage in as they produce, distribute and exchange texts in a new media age. Using the phrase the ‘digitally at home’ to describe a generation comfortable with and competent in the use of new technologies, the roles they outline for the digitally fluent are: a ‘designer’ of texts; a text ‘mediator’ or ‘broker’; a text ‘bricoleur’ and a text ‘jammer’ (Lankshear and Knobel, 2004). The roles of ‘bricoeur’ and ‘designer’ are of most relevance to this paper, but all four roles will be outlined briefly here. A text mediator is someone who plays a role in summarising or presenting specific aspects texts for others and Lankshear and Knobel offer the example of the practice of blogging and commenting on blogs to illustrate this. A text jammer is someone who presents a critical statement about a text by re-presenting it in some way, perhaps by adding a new phrase to an image in order to subvert the original meaning. A text bricoleur draws from a range of texts in order to create new ones. The fourth role is ‘text designer’ and Lankshear and Knobel (2004) emphasise that the concept of design, rather than traditional conceptions of authorship, is important in the production of multimodal, digital texts.

Girls’ engagement in a range of digi-textual practices from birth means that many of them are already competent text bricoleurs and designers by the time they attend pre-school settings, able to orchestrate and remake resources in the production of multi-media, multimodal texts. The data from the ‘Digital Beginnings’ Project (Marsh et al., 2005) indicate that many girls were creating texts using print and images on their computers and producing still and moving images on mobile telephones in their homes from a young age. For example, the mother of 4- year-old Emma reported that her daughter used a computer at home about four times a week, developing quite independent skills in using the internet and playing games:
Interviewer: Is she quite independent at using a computer? Would she be able to, say, load a disc in and click on the right…?

Mother: Yes, well, they’ve got the ‘Art Attack’ disc as well and she will

put that on and draw pictures and print them off herself and

things like that.

Interviewer: Okay, and what kind of things do you think she learns from computers, if anything?

Mother: Well, it’s just mainly games and things but she, like, learns how
to work it and load it and save things and print them off and

that kind of [thing]…

Emma was also developing competence with a mobile phone:

Mother …she’s got, like, my old phone.

Interviewer …So what sort of things does she do with that, then?

Mother Oh, she spends ages playing. She’ll put the different tunes on

and pretend to ring people and pretend that people are ringing

her. I mean she takes it everywhere with her. When we go out

she’ll put it on the table.

Interviewer …And is she aware of text messaging at all?

Mother Yeah… I mean sometimes I put a little bit of money on it just

for her to play with her friend because she goes away to the

caravan with my mum, her grandma sometimes on a weekend

so she will text little pictures to us and things.

However, when Emma attended her nursery class, she had little access to computers or other ICTs, as the interview with the Head of the nursery she attended indicated.

Teacher The computer that nursery uses is a very, very old computer,

we are not networked and we have no internet access in this

building, but we do have computer suites over in the main


Interviewer So you go over there to do it?

Teacher Well, nursery don’t because of the time slot at the moment…

This was also the case with Tanya, whose mother outlined how her daughter used the computer at home independently to play games and access websites, but suggested that this was not the case in the early years setting she attended:

Interviewer Is she quite independent on the computer?

Mother She’s quite good, yeah, she knows how to use the mouse, she

can sit and move that around and sort of see what she’s got to


Interviewer And does she use one anywhere else?

Mother No not yet. I think they are getting one at play school, but they

don’t use it there yet.

Their experiences were not isolated. Children in the study as a whole were more likely to have used a computer at home in the week prior to the survey than in the early years settings they attended (Marsh et al., 2005).

The social nature of girls’ media use was emphasised by parents and carers. For example, for four-year-old Sameena, watching Hindi films and Indian television programmes on a satellite channel with her family was a way of participating in established family rituals, distinct from her time watching children’s programming, as indicated by Sameena’s mother:

….in the daytime she watch most of the CBeebies or programmes like that and after that ‘Spider-man’ and evening times she watches our Indian programmes with me and her family.

These ritualised acts often served the purpose of both maintaining family relationships and, in the case of children from Black and Minority Ethnic families, celebrating the cultural heritage of the family, made possible in many homes by the use of satellite television (Kenner, 2005). In addition, young children were frequently engaged in media use with younger and older siblings. However, these social and cultural uses of media were not widely reflected in the technological practices reported by early years settings, which primarily consisted of individuals’ use of single computers and the predominant use of English language programs.

The data from the studies referred to in this paper therefore offer a picture of technologically-mediated childhoods in which the majority of children have daily encounters with a range of hardware and software. Television, DVD/ video player and mobile phone ownership was almost universal, but the data also indicate that 84% of 0 -6 year olds live in households that contain at least one computer and 70% have access to the internet (Marsh et al., 2005). These technologies generated a wide range of digit-textual practices. Young girls were reported engaging in a range of activities, detailed in Table 3.

Table 3: Young girls’ use of media and new technologies in the home

Using TVs and DVDS

Using computers

Using console games

Using mobile phones

Other technologies

  • Watching television

  • Watching films

  • Using the remote control to change channels

  • Rewinding and forwarding DVD/ video players

  • Playing games on interactive TV using the red button

  • Playing computer games

  • Using art packages

  • Using word processing packages

  • Using desktop publishing packages

  • Surfing the internet

  • Playing games on the internet

  • Printing off pages (e.g. pictures to colour in)

  • Using chat room and MSN (with adult as scribe)

  • Playing a range of console games e.g. Rugrats, Sonic the Hedgehog

  • Using PlayStation2 EyeToy, which projects children’s images on the screen

  • Playing with toy or discarded mobile phones to conduct ‘pretend’ conversations

  • Using real mobile phones to speak to relatives (with adult support)

  • Pretending to send text messages

  • Sending text messages with adults acting as scribes

  • Using the camera feature of mobile phones

  • Using dance mats

  • Using karaoke machines

  • Using handheld computers to play games

  • Using electronic laptops

  • Using electronic keyboards

  • Reading electronic books

  • Playing with robot pets

  • Listening to radios and CD players

  • Using digital cameras – both still and video

  • Playing with electronic toys (e.g. PDAs, microwaves, bar scanners)

Technological artefacts were precious objects for many girls. In Marsh (2004b), 23 four-year old girls and boys were given a digital camera and asked to take photographs of the things they liked doing best in their homes. The largest category of artefacts taken by both boys and girls was related to technology. Figure 1 offers examples of some of the girls’ choices, which included computers, televisions and CD players.

Figure 1: Photographs of favourite activities/ artefacts taken by four-year-old girls