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Shifting the frame? Reflections on assessment

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Cathy Burnett is Professor of Literacy and Education at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research focuses on new technologies and literacies with a particular interest in relationships between literacies within and beyond educational contexts. Cathy has published widely for academic and professional readerships on themes including digital literacies, literacy and identity, and on/offline space. Her most recent book, New Literacies around the Globe (published by Routledge and co-edited with Julia Davies, Guy Merchant and Jennifer Rowsell), draws on cutting-edge research to argue for new conceptualisations of literacy in pedagogy and policy. Cathy is co-editor for the journal Literacy .

We know from experience that assessment frameworks influence practice in schools and that the scope of new tests in English are likely to shape priorities for literacy provision. Of course when working with the new National Curriculum in England, we can make strong arguments for using digitally mediated - including moving image - texts to support children’s learning in relation to the things that have been traditionally valued in literacy assessment frameworks, but this risks positioning media texts as just the stimulus for  reading and writing paper-based texts or as the enjoyable add-on to the more serious business of learning to decode words and write in standard English. The working party for the English Curriculum Review and Planning Tool has integrated references to ‘21st Century texts…including digital, online and moving image media’ into guidelines on interpretation of the new English curriculum. This is a helpful and appropriate development. However, there are difficulties associated with seeing these kinds of texts as extra to and distinct from the kinds of reading and writing that children have more traditionally engaged in at school and in early years settings. As many parents will know, and researchers have documented (Mackey, 2002: Robinson and Turnbull, 2005), children play with and around media texts alongside other texts and toys, inter-mingling words, image, moving image and other stuff.

A New Media Literacy Nexus

It is interesting then to read Karen Wohlwend and Beth Buchholz’s account of literacies in an early years classroom in the American mid-West (Wohlwend and Buchholz, 2014). Like other educators and researchers in the US, they are exploring ways to interpret the new Common Core State Standards for English and Language Arts, and are facing many of the same challenges as teachers in England in deciding how to interpret new directives in ways that are meaningful to the children they work with.

Karen and Beth describe young children’s storymaking using film and a range of found and made objects as part of a project that combines collaborative play, storying, and media production through what they call Literacy Playshops (Wohlwend, et al, 2013). In their analysis, Karen and Beth articulate what the children did in terms of the Common Core requirements and demonstrate how film-making works as a productive and valuable activity in supporting children’s narrative production. They also, however, take an alternate stance towards the children’s storying, seeing this within what they call a ‘New Media Literacies Nexus’ which recognises use of a variety of media - paper-based as well as digital – and includes a focus on collaboration, play and action. This perspective highlights how the children’s films - of pterodactyls and paper puppets – evolved as the children shifted between technologies, texts and embodied play in a process reminiscent of that Becky Parry noted when exploring how older children created animations (Parry, 2011). This focus on improvisation contrasts with the linear process often associated with a more ordered and structured approach to writing narrative, and indeed often applied in units of work on film-making (e.g. through storyboarding, making, scripting, rehearsing to filming). It emphasises the significance of process as well as product.

Viewing the children’s playful storying from this perspective allows a much richer recognition of what the children achieved and the resources and opportunities that enabled this. Karen and Beth emphasise the role of established early years resources (scissors, card, crayons and toys) and note how the introduction of cameras enabled children to generate rich narratives that may have been neglected in what they call the ‘School Literacy Nexus’. Karen and Beth therefore argue that schools should shift the literacies frame to value and support diverse production-based activities.

Challenges for assessment frameworks

The place and status of media in education in England will perhaps only be settled once we have assessment frameworks that recognise the value of children’s media. However, Karen and Beth’s proposals for seeing teaching, learning and assessment within ‘a New Media Literacies Nexus’ provide a useful point of reference at a time when schools are working out the practical implications of the new assessment requirements in England. They remind us that measures of attainment and progress aren’t objective and are always selective, and that shifting the frame can open up new insights into how children make meanings and how we can most effectively provide the resources, opportunities and support for them to do so.


Mackey, M. (2002). Literacies across Media: Playing the Text. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Parry, R. (2011).Cowboy Mutant Golfers and Dreamcatcher Dogs: Making Space for Popular Culture in Animation Production with Children’, International Journal of Learning and Media, vol.3, no.3, pp.43-53.

Robinson, M. And Turnbull, B. (2005). Verónica - an asset model of becoming literate. In: J.Marsh (Ed). Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood. London: RoutledgeFalmer

Wohlwend, K. E., Buchholz, B. A., Wessel-Powell, C., Coggin, L. S., & Husbye, N. E. (2013). Literacy playshop: Playing with new literacies and popular media in the early childhood classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wohlwend, K. & Buchholz, B. (2014).Paper Pterodactyls And Popsicle Sticks: Expanding School Literacy Through Filmmaking And Toymaking. In: Burnett, C., Davies, J., Merchant, G. & Rowsell, J.(2014) (Eds.) New Literacies Around the Globe: Policy and Pedagogy. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.


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