The idea of ‘a third space’ or an in-between space provides one way of imagining how aspects of home, community and school can creatively converge to support children’s literacy learning. “Third Space Theory” has been applied in a number of contexts but here it has been used to think how the different forms of literacy children experience can be mutually enriching.1 School is, therefore, not considered to be the only domain for children to learn literacy. It comes from recognizing that each and every home is characterized by its stories, memories, languages and distinctive cultural resources and that these can enrich a child’s literacy learning at school.
When children start school they bring a wealth of knowledge about language, relationships and the environment but so often these young ‘knowers’ are treated as empty vessels waiting to be filled or alternatively full vessels that need to be emptied. How can schools bridge the transition from home to school so that children can be supported to build on what they know? Can children generate their own texts to learn literacy? Can the children’s knowledge of their own homes, food, health and clothing be a starting point to further explore the world? Can children’s observations of the natural world be the basis for expanding their knowledge about animal and plant life? Can an understanding of history begin with a sense of the child’s own roots and connections in the primary world of home and family? It is not just a one way passage because the other challenge is to think about how children can take literacy and ways of looking and learning from school to home?
By the age of three or four, children become adept apprentices at a number of ways of representing their own experiences and interpreting others’. Children soon learn how to make meaning from sensory experience and “read” faces, pictures, moods and patterns in nature. These multimodal forms – spoken words, images, gestures and make-believe play need to be integrated as they learn how to express themselves through the written word.
For some children there is a comfortable alignment between the culture and language of home and that of the school but for many children stepping into school is an alienating experience. Ways of using language may be unfamiliar, the forms and pronunciation of language used at home may not be acceptable in the school setting and increasingly the language itself may be very different, as more children are enrolled in English medium schools. All children need to be enabled to master standard forms of language but it is important that teachers accept the child’s home language as a vital form of his or her identity and find ways of valuing it. Further, teachers need to understand that the shift from home language to standard language or another language is a gradual one and excessive demands for correctness can be disempowering.
In addition the information provided by a textbook may not be relevant to the child’s experience or concerns. In the 1930s Sylvia Ashton Warner was a pioneer in developing ways of teaching literacy that came out of children’s own particular lives.2 The prescribed texts used in New Zealand at that time had little meaning for the Maori children that Sylvia Ashton Warner was teaching. The texts reflected a middle-class, Euro-centric, urban life style and culture that was totally alien for the indigenous people of New Zealand. In response Ashton Warner evolved what she called Organic Reading and Writing programmes. It was called organic because it grew naturally from what the children know and wanted to know. For example, she would ask each child to choose a word that they wanted to write and these were shared in the class. This was the beginning of children writing their own texts for each other to read. The texts were in the words that the children spoke and the stories were about the things that were closest to the children’s fears and hopes, delights and troubles. These were very different texts from the sanitized, colourless stories of an idealized privileged conventional family.
Many schools encourage children to share news verbally and this can lead to keeping individual diaries through pictures and words. Another possibility is to support children to make a wall newspaper where significant or memorable local happenings can be shared.
Examples of a diary and a newspaper
As children grow they are expected to produce longer compositions but very often these are on topics that are of scant interest to their aspirations. Teachers need to give children opportunities to write about what matters to them and not standardized accounts of events that have little personal significance. The children’s work can be one of the valuable resources to support their peers or younger children’s reading.
Further children can draw on the multimodal, multilingual and multicultural resources and diverse forms of communication from home and community that are often invisible in the school setting. Each one has “cultural capital” that needs to be valued and these may be linked to a family or community’s fund of stories, memories and particular ways of using or playing with languages such as rhymes, jokes and proverbs.
The author has taught in an alternative school for many years and has written a number of books about how children can be encouraged to write and draw their experiences both inside and outside the school contexts. She is presently engaged in working with children and teachers within the mainstream. She can be reached at email@example.com.