The study was part of a larger European study (Kontovourki and Tafa, 2019) that took place as part of the work of an EU Cost Action funded network, The digital literacy and multimodal practices of young children (DigiLitEY funded by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology), which aimed to advance understandings of young children’s digital literacy practices (see http://digilitey.eu/). In the strand of the project reported here, a team of eight interviewers collected data from ten participants in England using semi-structured interviews over a period of 6 months in 2017. The purposive sample was selected from practising teachers identified through the research team’s personal and professional networks; eight women and two men whose teaching experience ranged from six to thirty-six years. At the time of data collection the teachers were working with children aged two to eight years old in a range of settings: an Early Years centre, a private nursery and 8 primary schools. The study utilised an interview schedule devised as part of the wider European project. This addressed: participants’ own use of digital literacies in everyday life, their views on children’s use, and the ways in which these were used in their classrooms. Interview questions were organised under the following headings: teachers’ perceptions and own use of digital literacies outside educational settings; teachers’ perceptions and use of digital literacies in educational settings; and connections with broader conceptualisations of teachers’ role and professional practice/identity. The study was given ethical approval by the Sheffield Hallam University Research Ethics Committee.
Interviews were recorded, transcribed and reviewed by participants prior to analysis. Analysis was approached thematically, with NVivo qualitative data analysis software used to record inductive codes and to identify emerging themes and patterns in the data. In order to maximise inter-rater reliability, the process began with a period of collaborative coding by the whole team, during which selected interviews were discussed and coded. This was followed by coding of remaining transcripts by pairs of researchers. Codes were then reviewed by the whole team, and collapsed or expanded as appropriate. The transcripts were then revisited for a final time with particular reference to emerging themes.
Analysis and findings: The task of the early years teachers and the tensions between digital technology and traditional literacy
The work of teachers is situated within a socio-historical matrix (Gee et al. 1992) and their cultural, political, economic, political and social positions and experiences may shape the ways in which they talk about and make sense of their work in the classroom. As teachers described their experiences and talked about their aims and practices, they drew on a number of interrelated discourses.
In what Selwyn (2003) terms the information age, the discursive construction of childhood intersects with understandings of digital technology. According to Selwyn (2003), in such discourses, the child may be positioned as naturally competent, dangerous, victimized, or needy, portrayals that have permeated debates for over 20 years (Selwyn 2003). Like Selwyn (2003) and Mertala (2019) we noted that our teachers drew on similar discourses when asked about their pupils’ use of digital technologies at home and in school. Our teachers were both alarmed and intrigued by the skill and confidence of some children. Simultaneously, they were concerned about what might be age appropriate ‘play’ activity for young children. These concerns intersected with national imperatives around safeguarding, e-safety, health and obesity. In addition, and as we were interested in the ways in which technologies mediate literacy practices, we were particularly cognisant of the way in which England’s current educational climate, with its emphasis on print literacy standards, appeared to add another layer of complexity for our teachers. This drew our focus towards the ways in which power structures, such as policy and testing arrangements, created a more demanding challenge for our teachers. This additional layer suggests that the conceptualisation of literacy in the statutory curriculum further amplified teachers’ difficulties in rationalising the use of digital technologies to enhance children’s digital literacy practices in early years classrooms. However, despite their concerns over children’s print literacy skills our teachers also questioned the long-term value of print literacy skills, with an eye on the future literate adult, and the competencies they may need for adult life. Jason commented:
We had a big debate. There is nowhere in the curriculum yet that suggests an opportunity to write a formal email, but yes we still all write formal letters. It is a nice thing to do, a handwritten letter, but we teach the children where to put the address and here to put the contact details and every child will leave the junior school knowing how to write a formal letter by hand…. I have never handwritten a letter but I write several emails a day. So- I don’t know, are we giving them the right skills?
In our analysis, we also noted how teachers’ comments often mentioned the device associated with digital technology, such as the camera, iPad, or computer. Digital technology then was often positioned as a ‘thing’ or ‘object’. Often, digital technology was presented as a ‘tool’ to help pupils meet pre-determined print literacy goals. At other times it was seen as in opposition to those goals. Only rarely did our early years teachers refer to digital technology in ways that moved away from seeing it as more than a ‘resource’, and referring to its mobility and potential for generating and enhancing young children’s communicative practices.
When teachers brought together the topics of digital technology and early literacy pedagogy, they tended to do so in one or more of the following ways:
positioning digital technology as a pedagogical tool or resource to be utilised in service of existing print literacy goals;
positioning digital technology use as activity that stands in opposition to print literacy goals;
emphasising the pedagogical goal of ‘balancing’ digital practices and print literacy competencies.
Digital technology as a pedagogical tool to be utilised in service of existing print literacy goals
This section considers instances where teachers discussed the ways in which they saw digital technology as a way of supporting their delivery of the curriculum and pedagogical goals for print literacy, particularly with reference to those children who found print literacy challenging some way.
Emilie described how phonic iPad apps can reinforce early phonics instruction:
We use it a lot- I’ve got one here. We use it a lot for phonics because it helps, you know, when the children are trying to do a phonics activity…. There’s hairy phonics that the children have been on that just helps to re-inforce their letter sounds.
Carly identified children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) as a group who could potentially benefit from the affordances of digital literacies most. She described her observations of a child with autism for whom it was helpful to use a keyboard as he found it difficult to manipulate a pencil. Emilie commented that digitally mediated literacies can help children with dyspraxia, hypermobility or those who struggle with fine motor skills to write by using a keyboard, as they did not have to resort to handwriting. In a similar account of affordances of the digital, Hannah described a child who is imaginative (`has great ideas’) and verbally proficient, but who struggles to write. For this child, voice recording ideas and thoughts provided an opportunity to participate. Karine meanwhile reflected on technology as a tool that could support `higher achievers or support lower achievers that are struggling to write for example. It can record what they’re saying and convert it into sentences.’
Some participants also stated that they felt technology benefitted children who they judged to struggle with reading. Carly, for example, described six-year-old children in her class who found interactive books more accessible as they provide additional clues while reading. She also described how one girl liked reading from an iPad because it was not possible for other children to identify her as having ‘lower ability’ in reading as `no one could see it was a pink book when she had the iPad out’. Print literacy when mediated by digital technology was seen as more appealing to children’s interest and therefore motivating. For example, Hannah described how the affordances of digital technology allowed her to be more flexible in her lesson delivery whilst providing children with the opportunity to participate; she noted how children ‘seem to be more willing to write if it is digital’.
Digital technology as activity that stands in opposition to print literacy goals
At other times, teachers’ ideas about appropriate experiences played out in their reflections on the kinds of activities that could be considered as early literacy, and the potential negative impact on print literacy skills. Emilie stated:
I think that from a very young age the children are exposed to, particularly mobile phones and tablets and iPads, a lot of the children either have their own or they’ve got one at home, like a family one. They play a lot of computer games as well and its really big part of their life. They spend a lot more time with technology and I think it has- it seems to have affected the motor skills and things because they’re all really confident on iPads and tablets, but in terms of writing, they’re not as confident as we’d expected.
Likewise, Josie, stated that `these advancements in technology are perhaps detracting from children’s basic skills’ and Emilie raised concerns about how engagement with digital technologies might impact on established and traditional understandings of social, language and literacy development:
I've got children who are 22-36 months developmentally who can use an iPad, yet can't recognise their name or hold a pencil and a lot of the time I find that I do all the speech and language.[…]I see children who have no social interaction, they have not been spoken to.
In the following example Katy describes a child as responding passively to the multimodal affordances offered by multimodal texts (perhaps becoming lazy in the process), seeing this response as at odds with traditional print literacies:
Sometimes it can help support the children because if it's digital then they press the button and it makes a sound. Whether that means that it reads it to them or whether that means that it's- rather than just looking at a picture you've got the sound of an animal, so it's more interactive. [...] So it's more interactive than just printed text. But then I also don't want becoming over-reliant on always thinking that they can press a button and then it will do it for them.
The examples above summarise a prevalent concern by most of the participants; the use of digital technology meant that children’s print literacy skills and proficiency in oral language were suffering.
The pedagogical goal of balancing digital practices and print literacy competencies
Often, the school curriculum was seen as providing a ‘balance’ between children’s home experiences (perceived as mostly digitally mediated) and school experiences (print literacies). Children’s engagement with digital technologies in the home often raised concern and was seen as counter to teachers’ curricular aims sometimes standing in the way of established trajectories of developmental learning. In an attempt to reconcile the resulting tensions, teachers often presented a notion of ‘balance’. Here is an example extract from Karine’s interview:
So story time is always protected. It doesn’t matter what happens within that day, story time occurs. It might be an audio book, it might be a real book that we use, it might be one of the bed time stories from CBeebies, or a story online, or it might just be us sat with a puppet retelling a story, and I think it’s important that they have a mixture on it. The children do like the fact that when they go home, whereas some of our kids won’t have any access to stories, now they know that they can go on to CBeebies and find some stories that they can listen to.
In a similar way, Emilie reconciled the dissonance between print literacies and digital literacies, referring to each separately:
They need both, they need to be able to see the value in both of them and not just think that having a phone is the be all and end all, but actually take price in the fact that you can write your name and you can write a sentence, you can have a go at writing letters and sounds, because that is still using text. Get a stick. Go and write it out in the mud, but just making sure that actually they have those experiences.
Ultimately, Emilie justifies digital literacy with a reference to print texts, and then drawing on a discourse of childhood, contrasts this with a child playing, presumably outdoors, making marks (an early literacy writing goal) in the mud. The notion of ‘balance’ is an interesting concept as it is representative of teachers’ beliefs that print literacy competencies and digital practices are very different things, rather than collectively constituting a broad range of children’s literacy practices.