Making visible literacy as social practice in early childhood centres
Martin, Colwyn Deborah
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This study problematises early childhood teachers’ dominant discourses of literacy as social practice through a Foucauldian genealogical approach to discourse analysis. Consequently, the study is situated at the intersection of three main research areas: understandings of early childhood teachers’ discourses of literacy as social practice, understandings of how these discourses inform early literacy practice and understandings of what is affected by the construction of literacy in particular ways. The study drew on two complementary theoretical frameworks: New Literacy Studies and Foucauldian discourse theory. The concepts of literacy events and literacy practices made visible how meanings, intentions and actions around an event were constructed and the kinds of social and cultural models that the early childhood teachers drew on in different social situations at the early childhood centres. Foucault’s theory of discourse was used to make salient the influence of these interpretative frames of references on the understandings and practice of literacy. Concepts of power/knowledge and subjectivity served as a theoretical lens to make sense of how constructing literacy in particular ways worked to produce normalising regimes for the construction and regulation of both the early childhood teacher and children. The study was situated within a qualitative research approach and drew on post-structural conceptions of literacy as social practice. A purposive sample of two early childhood teachers, teaching children between the ages of 3-4 years of age in two early childhood centres was used. Using ethnographic data generation techniques such as observation and interviews and Foucault’s genealogical tools of discourse, power/knowledge and subjectivity, enabled ‘new’ ways of thinking about why certain literacy practices become normalised, whilst others are marginalised or silenced. From the analysis of the early childhood teachers’ utterances in the semi-structured interviews, four ‘definitional’ discourses that related to literacy as social practice were identified. The genealogical methods employed reduced the data to find that early childhood teachers produced literacy as social practice in how they constructed literacy, children, themselves as literacy teachers and parental involvement in literacy development. The four ‘definitional’ discourses included literacy as skill, the good teacher, the becoming child and the good parent. A significant insight into the study showed how the discourse of literacy as skill converged and intersected to produce the subjectivity of the good teacher, the becoming child and the good parent. The discourses that informed literacy as social practice gave direction to what and how the teachers did what they did in their classrooms. By means of particular temporal and spatial arrangements, children’s behaviours, bodies and minds were highly regulated and subjected to intensive training to bring the becoming child into effect. Additionally, children were also regulated by the universal pre-determined discourse of child development discourse and school readiness as their performances at different times and in different spaces enabled assessment of children and their learning against these milestones. The teachers at the two centres used different literacy pedagogical practices that were either teacher-directed or child-initiated. These practices were highly ritualised and formed part of the daily routines and transitions in both the early childhood classrooms. Classroom observations revealed that child-initiated and teacher-directed play were highly panoptic spaces that were closely aligned to curriculum content of child development and school readiness. With child development and school readiness discourse as a benchmark for the development of the becoming child, assessment and observation became normalising pedagogic practices during child-initiated and teacher-directed play. A significant insight into the study showed how in constructing the child as becoming, children’s engagement and participation were relegated to the learning of specific autonomous skills required to become school ready. The constructions of the becoming child, silenced children’s agency and participation in terms of their own meaning-making processes and capacity to construct their own learning in teacher-created learning spaces. This conceptualisation of literacy and children is problematic as these constructions position children as deficit and their capacities and cultural capital are silenced. However, the study did reveal that whilst children were subjected to intense regulation and normalisation during different classroom literacy practices at different times and in different spaces, they began to regulate themselves, their peers and teachers, thereby showing a form of individual agency and autonomy. This study opens up spaces to deepen understandings into literacy as social practice in early childhood centres by drawing the theoretical, the methodological and the empirical study together. Theoretically, it provides insights into how making use of concepts drawn from New Literacy Studies and Foucault’s theory of discourse, power/knowledge, disciplinary techniques of power and subjectivity enables ‘new’ understandings of how discourse, power/knowledge intersect to construct children, teaching and learning in different ways within the South African context. In addition, the findings of the study suggest that combining ethnographic tools of semi-structured interviews and observations that focus on everyday classroom literacy practices with post structural theoretical tools provides a ‘new’ way of thinking historically and geographically about how discourse, power and knowledge intersect to construct the subjectivity of the early literate child. A further insight of this study suggests that current policy debates and reform initiatives should extend discussions and debates from what is, can and should be learnt in early literacy classrooms to include discussions around how children learn in as well as what they learn about school through different literacy pedagogical practices.