Making the most of experiences

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Two books suggest how new literacies and children's responses to them can be explored in the classroom, says Myra Barrs

Literacy Moves On: Using popular culture, new technologies and critical literacy in the primary classroom Edited by Janet Evans David Fulton Pounds 19

Literate Classroom

Edited by Prue Goodwin David Fulton pound;17.50

"I make my Batman toy fly ... he's funny, but he's a baddy and I punch him."

Literacy Moves On begins with children's voices: in a short introduction, children aged three to 11 tell what they like to do and play with at home.

Their replies mention film and video, television programmes, computer games and toys with film or TV links.

Most of the contributors to this book argue, incontrovertibly, that children's home literacies today are being fundamentally shaped by new media and new technology, and that school literacy needs to take account of this.

Their chapters on multi-modal texts, digital film-making, narrative computer games, interactive email, critical literacy and using children's out-of-school narrative experiences in the literacy classroom demonstrate the breadth of the phenomenon that the book sets out to explore.

The editor of this volume has urged her contributors to draw implications for practice out of their articles, but some of these chapters are more helpful to teachers than others. Teachers are too often the baddies in this book -excluding popular culture from the classroom, ignoring children's home experiences, hostile to computer games and new technology. We urgently need to know how to include new literacies in the curriculum and the best articles give us a sense of this. Others remain at the level of classroom-based research.

Janet Evans's own chapter clearly models how to approach the study of popular culture with 10 and 11-year-olds. Through a series of discussions about Beanie Babies, their origins and appeal to children as consumers, and the way they are globally marketed, children moved towards increasingly mature and critically aware analysis of the money-making tactics involved in the Beanie Babies phenomenon. "I think we'd better stop this conversation," said one child, "or else we'll be going to the anti-capitalist riots in Seattle."

Other chapters helpfully document new, and not-so-new, practices in literacy. They include (despite its forbidding critical literacy preamble) Barbara Comber and Helen Nixon's account of children producing their own texts, such as Cooking Afghani Style, a short film based on lifestyle TV cookery shows, but focused on the local community.

One of the most thorough and thoughtful of the articles is Elaine Millard's "Writing about heroes and villains", which shows how explorations of a classic, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, can draw on texts that children know from video and TV. The texts are complementary, not competing.

What's interesting in turning to this new edition of Literate Classroom is to see how many of the contributors to this book take for granted that new literacies are part of the literacy classroom.

Margaret Perkins includes in her infant classroom "electronic texts of all types - talking books, web pages from the internet, emails and text messages, adventure games".

"Opening the wardrobe of voices", Michael Lockwood's account of developing language study in Year 5, concludes with references to using electronic corpuses and stored databases of language samples. Unfortunately, the ICT chapter is one of the least engaging in this compilation, being little more than a romp through the software.

At the heart of the book is Tony Martin's powerful account of "reader response theory": "Reader response is about reflection - thinking about what has been read."

He points out that the National Literacy Strategy accorded "response" low status: "There is a danger in literacy hours of works of literature being viewed as text types to be analysed. The focus is on the text, with the different feelings, thoughts and ideas of individual children barely getting a look in."

Martin proceeds to show how deeply children can go into a text when thoroughly engaged with it. As an example of this, the chapter I shall read over again is Catriona Nicholson's illuminating account of reading Rose Blanche, by Ian McEwan and Roberto Innocenti (published by Jonathan Cape), with a group of Year 5 children (reading it for the first time) and a pair of Year 6 children (returning to it a second time).

This is a fascinating study of reading a picture book, and of the insights gained through rereading. Anthony, in Year 5, says: "If the artist hadn't shown that flower bent over the barbed wire, I wouldn't have known Rose Blanche was dead. You've got to read the pictures for a long time to realise the meaning of things like that flower ... The pictures are the description."

We need more examples of how children's experiences of all kinds of texts, including media texts, can be deepened by this kind of reflective discussion.

Myra Barrs is a literacy consultant and former joint director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education

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