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5.1.5 Case Study 5. Developing Digital Literacies in the Early Years

51 childs photo of flowersThis case study looks at how digital technologies, including digital cameras, blogs and iPads, can be used in a nursery school. The project aimed to use digital technologies imaginatively in order to promote young children’s oral language and encourage children’s participation in reading and writing activities. Two teachers, from the nursery, Alice and Zubida, worked together on the project.

5.1.5 Case Study 5.... Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private) Context

5151 childs picture of a rabbit from the farmSharrow Nursery is attached to Sharrow Primary School a larger than average primary school in Sheffield with 495 pupils, including 52 places for children in the Nursery. 38% of children are eligible for free School meals, twice the national average, and there is a high proportion of children 17%  with SEN. The school serves a diverse catchment area that includes families with Pakistani, Yemeni and Somalian heritages in addition to African Caribbean and white English and Irish communities. Nine out of ten children are from ethnic minority backgrounds and approximately 35 languages are spoken. According to the DfE Schools and Local statistics data for 84% of children, English is not the first language. This rich multilingual environment offers opportunities for children to learn about each other’s cultural backgrounds. The latest Ofsted report rated the school as satisfactory stating it made ‘an outstanding contribution to community cohesion’ and had ‘excellent engagement with parents’ who played a ‘constructive role in children’s education’. Since 2007, nursery and school have occupied a new building that provides a stimulating context for the pupils and the community.

Alice has been teaching for five years and has worked at Sharrow Nursery for two years. Zubida trained two years ago and has been employed at the nursery since that time; she is currently completing a Masters programme. Both teachers wanted to participate in this project because they wished to use digital technologies to promote oral language, reading and writing, with a particular focus on talk, to meet the needs of the nursery’s bilingual pupils. Context Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private) Digital Literacy Practice

The project focused on a topic about farms. Children attending the nursery live in the inner city and rarely have opportunities to see farm animals. One of the central activities in the project, therefore, was to visit a local inner-city farm, where children had the opportunity to see goats, horses, pigs and a variety of other small animals. Alice and Zubida chose a range of picture books to read to the children throughout the project. These included Mrs Wishy-Washy, a story of a woman farmer who is dismayed to find a group of animals that have become dirty playing in the mud and so washes them in a bath. The language is simple and repetitive, ideal for young bilingual learners.

5152 Sharrow nursery blogThe teachers decided on the target language they wanted to promote through the project, including key words such as the names of specific animals. They also identified the digital technologies they wanted the children to use – digital cameras, iPads, and desktop computers. While the children had access to computers on a daily basis at the nursery, they had not used digital cameras or iPads in the curriculum. Alice and Zubida also set up a project blog.

Blogs are now used widely in schools. They are easy to use and allow a range of material, including photographs, videos and written text, to be posted online and made available to external audiences. A key audience for this blog was the parents of children at the nursery. Alice and Zubida therefore ensured that all entries posted to the blog were tagged with the names of the individual children, which would enable parents to click on their child’s name to access their work.

Photographs including the faces of children were not placed on the blog to protect pupils’ identity [Data Protection: ICO Guidance for schools].

5152 small world farmThe project began with children having plenty of opportunities to play with toy farm animals at the nursery. During some of these play episodes, the children were given digital cameras to take photographs and films of the toy animals. The teachers uploaded these to the blog, where the children had the opportunity to view them.

The competence shown by these three- and four-year-old children in using digital cameras will be of no surprise to those who are aware of children’s extensive access to digital technologies in homes and communities. For example, from a very young age, many children are able to use the still and video camera facilities on their parents’ mobile phones, (Blanchard and Moore 2010; Marsh et al, 2005). In this project, placing the photographs on the blog enabled the children to extend their understanding of how they might communicate with external audiences through technology. An adult left a message for the children using the comments facility on the blog.

The potential of social networking sites, such as blogs, can be seen in this example, enabling children to disseminate their work to external audiences, known and unknown, and to receive feedback. In a previous project using blogs at this nursery, the children and teachers were delighted to find comments posted by children’s families from distant places such as London and Bangladesh.

5152 comments on the blogA further benefit of blogs is the opportunity to post podcasts. Alice and Zubida worked with the children to create a range of podcasts, to help them retell the story of Mrs Wishy Washy and add commentary to photographs the children had taken on their visit to the farm. Children also made podcasts using their first language. In cases where children did not choose to make an oral podcast, the teachers recorded the children’s comments in writing.

Finally, Alice and Zubida introduced the children to iPads as a drawing tool, and chose the app Brushes for its ease of use. The children spent time both in the nursery and on the trip to the farm drawing pictures of animals.

5152 childs iPad drawing of a mouseThe children needed little introduction to the iPad and they were able to use its features almost intuitively. This has been found to be the case in other studies of the use of this technology with young children (Verenikina and Kervin, 2012).

On completion of the project, Alice and Zubida shared the children’s work with the parents during a parents’ meeting at the nursery to develop and enhance the parents’ understanding of digital literacies and how they had been used in school.

The work of the case study was shared via the blog with parents and at a school staff meeting. Digital Literacy... Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private) Reflections on Teaching

The new EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) framework identifies seven areas of learning and development that must shape educational programmes in early years settings. All are important and inter-connected. The three prime areas have been identified as being ‘crucial in igniting children’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning and for building their capacity to learn’:

  • communication and language;
  • physical development and
  • personal, social and emotional development

From the outset this was part of the part of the case study’ aim as Alice explains:

Before starting the project our aim was to develop the nursery children’s language skills through using digital equipment. The nursery did use cameras but mainly for adults to record children’s progress. Children had limited experiences of using camera’s, iPads and voice recorders in nursery. All children were very keen to use the equipment and had varying levels of skills, depending on their home experiences.

5153 child and iPadAlice and Zubida drew on very young children’s current engagement with interactive and screen-based technologies and built on this experience to introduce new technologies that supported specific EYFS areas of learning: literacy, knowledge and understanding of the world and expressive arts and design. This enhanced the children’s learning and provided opportunities for language development:

Children have loved using the iPads, voice recorders and digital cameras and the equipment has been used successfully as a motivator for communication. Some children who are normally very quiet have come alive when using the equipment and have build relationships with each other through talking about shared experiences captured on digital photographs. 

Although the project had been successful in terms of the children’s learning, there were aspects of the project that Zubida and Alison felt they needed to deal with:

So far it has been quite adult led and in order to fulfil our aim of embedding the use of digital equipment into our practice, nursery children need to know how to look after the equipment and have the skills to use the equipment independently in a purposeful way. This is our next challenge; we are ordering more cameras for the children to use and want them to share and talk about their photographs on the PCs that we have in nursery. We are hoping this will become part of our everyday practice rather than a separate adult directed activity.

There are also some initial barriers to address:

One barrier to achieving this is ensuring all nursery staff are themselves confident at using the equipment as currently it has been the two nursery teachers who have been doing all the digital work. The next step is training for all nursery staff to embed the work into our everyday practice.

5153 childs photo of a chicken on the farmOn a professional level both teachers felt they had benefitted in terms of their knowledge of digital literacy and the effect on their pedagogy. They had been able to approach the revised EYFS expectations successfully and creatively and overall their aim to enhance children’s digital literacy skills had exceeded their expectations. They felt that the support received from the DeFT team as part of the project had been vital in helping them to embed practices into the school’s approach to learning and they hope to continue this ethos of sharing good practice through a nursery blog. Reflections on... Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private) Reflections on Learning

5154 childs picture of a shire horse at the farmThe children in the case study had opportunities to experiment with digital cameras and iPads – equipment they had not used before and were encouraged to take photos independently and make sketches using the iPad during the farm visit. They very quickly learnt how to use the equipment and this gave them ownership and control of the photos they were taking and the sketches that they made. Empowering children in this way gave them confidence and encouragement to have conversations with the adults around them and so the aim to improve children’s oral skills was met in a natural and purposeful way. As they had control over the pace and content of their learning, they were more engaged and motivated as learners. Risk-taking [using a new form of technology in this case] leads to experimentation and creativity, both important in the development of literacy skills, knowledge and understanding. (See Chapter 3.7)

The children thoroughly enjoyed taking photos during the farm visit and these were used to support the development of speaking and listening skills back in the nursery using audio clips to record the children’s experiences (see the blog).

Alice and Zubida set up the blog to store the children’s reflections. Speaking and listening were further developed as the children recorded their versions of the story Mrs Wishy Washy while looking through the book with an adult helper.

The children’s reluctance to speak is apparent at first but in all cases, with adult support their enthusiasm and interest grows, evident from the confidence in their voices. It is also nice to hear the interest of other children in the background!  By recording the children’s stories and conversation, language is reinforced as the children are able to listen to their ‘own’ recorded stories which they find very exciting and motivating

With the aim of sharing what the children are doing in nursery with their families, Alice and Zubida arranged an event for parents to see the blog and they were shown how to access it at home. The parents enjoyed seeing the children’s work; particularly enjoyed hearing them talk and retell stories.

This has been a good way to show the parents the work we do on language development and sharing with them the strategies used to extend and develop the children’s language skills. 

5154 childs picture of the miniture farmThe school is committed to community partnership and as Ofsted stated it has ‘excellent engagement with parents’. Alice and Zubida felt that it was important to engage partners as partners in their children’s learning throughout the project. Reflections on... Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private) Reflections on Digital Literacy

This project focussed using technology to promote children’s language skills. It illustrates a number of successful strategies employed by Alice and Zubida to achieve their aims. Their pedagogical approaches were underpinned by what can be conceptualised as the ‘five C’s’:

5155 childs iPad drawing of a chickenCollaboration: This is important in any approach to learning and teaching based on social-constructivist principles. Pedagogical approaches should enable pupils to collaborate in dyads, small groups and large groups, both mixed ability and same ability, in friendship groups and mixed friendship groups, mixed gender and same gender groups. Using these various group structures across contexts and having a flexible approach to suit different purposes enables teachers to address specific learning outcomes. In the case study, children worked individually and in small groups to complete tasks, depending on the activity and its aims. With a particular focus on language, collaboration is key to learning for young bilingual pupils.

Co-construction: Linked to having opportunities to collaborate, co-construction of learning enables pupils to engage in situations in which they are cognitively stretched and in which teachers can offer the ‘just in time’ scaffolding and inter-subjectivity that leads to effective learning. Alice and Zubida intervened as necessary to extend children’s understanding of the multimodal texts they encountered.

Choice: Enabling pupils to choose the direction they want their work to go provides them with opportunities to make informed decisions and deploy skills such as the ability to prioritise, sequence tasks effectively and solve problems. Children at Sharrow Nursery were free to choose whether or not they wished to participate in various activities and many demonstrated enthusiasm for working with new technologies in the choices they made.

Control: This is linked to the previous category. When children have more choice and control over the pace and content of their learning, they are more engaged and motivated as learners. Risk-taking leads to experimentation and creativity, both important in the development of literacy skills, knowledge and understanding. Children in the case study had opportunities to experiment with digital cameras and iPads and were thus able to develop confidence in their use.

Community engagement: Opening out the classroom to the external community is a powerful means of developing authentic purposes for readings and writing. Advances in social networking, using sites such as Blogger and Twitter, mean that it is much easier to engage outside audiences in the curriculum. Through publishing children’s work on the blog, Alice and Zubida enabled them to communicate directly with an audience external to the nursery, providing an authentic context for reading and writing.

5155 childs picture of a horse on the farmOne of the key questions for the future developments in this field is how to assess this kind of work. We need to develop new criteria for literacy assessment, given that criteria based on written language are no longer sufficient in the digital age. The areas of learning and development for Early Years in the UK’s revised curriculum framework for the Foundation Stage) cover the knowledge and skills that are the fundamentals for children’s school readiness and future progress. The children at Sharrow have shown that they are developing multimodal communicative practices in readiness for a digital future but assessing this within the revised framework for Early Years  needs clarification and further guidance.

We would therefore suggest that the following be embedded within the Early Years practice:

  • Children enjoy interacting with and responding to multimodal texts
  • Children know that modes can carry meaning
  • They are able to distinguish between different modes in texts (e.g. image, writing, sound)
  • They can use their knowledge of different modes to construct multimodal texts across a range of media
  • They attempt to construct multimodal texts for different purposes and audiences.

[Marsh and Dylan Yamada-Rice date, no date]

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but offers a starting point for considering the kinds of skills, knowledge and understanding that children are developing in the digital age.

Underpinning much of the work described here is a distinction between seeing ICT as a medium for literacy – a new literacy in its own right (Lankshear and Knobel, 2003a) and as a means for achieving literacy (Torgerson and Zhu, 2004). Bigum (2002) presents a curriculum model that embeds new technology in authentic meaning-making practices (Merchant 200 In advocating a view of digital literacy as a social practice (Merchant 2006) and this would seem the way forward. Reflections on... Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private) References/Links to Further Information


Blanchard J and Moore T (2010) The digital world of young children: impact on emergent literacy [Pearson Foundation white paper]. Available at: www.pearsonfoundation.org/PDF/EmergentLiteracy-WhitePaper.pdf (Last accessed 1 September 2012)

Bigum, C. (2002). Managing New Relationships: design sensibilities, the new information and communication technologies and schools. Paper given to the APAPDC Online Conference, Retrieved February 23, 2005 from http://www.apapdc.edu.au?2002/archive/ASPA/2000/paapers/art429.html

Marsh, J., and Yamada-Rice D. [no date]  Digital literacies in the early years to be published in D Barone and M Mallette (eds). Best practices in early literacy. Portsmouth: NH: Heinemann.

Torgerson, C and and Zhu, D2004) Evidence for the effectiveness of ICT on literacy learning in Andrews, R. (Ed) The Impact of ICT on Literacy, London. Routledge Falmer

Verenikina I and Kervin L (2011). ‘iPads, digital play and preschoolers’. He Kupu, 2(5): 4–19.

Merchant, G (2006) Digital writing in the Early Years, Retrieved  3/11/12


Links to Further Resources

Flewitt, Rosie (2005). Conducting research with young children: some ethical considerations. Early Child Development and Care, 175(6), pp. 553–565. http://oro.open.ac.uk/2720/2/Flewitt(1).pdf

Learning with iPads (2012) http://www.learningwithipads.co.uk/

Managing iPads in Early Years http://www.scoop.it/t/managing-ipads-in-early-years-ks1-and-ks2

To develop a blog for a similar project, see guidance here  http://bit.ly/UPyXEa. References/Links to... Tags COMMENTS (public) ANNOTATIONS (private)