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In this paper, we discuss how iPads offer innovative opportunities for early literacy learning but also present challenges for teachers and children. We lent iPads to a Children’s Centre nursery (3- to 4-year-olds), a primary school reception class (4- to 5-year-olds) and a Special School (7- to 13-year-olds), discussed their potential uses with staff in pre- and post-interviews and observed how they were integrated into practice over a two-month period. We found variability in the ways iPads were used across the settings, but a commonality was that well-planned; iPad-based literacy activities stimulated children’s motivation and concentration. They also offered rich opportunities for communication, collaborative interaction, independent learning, and for children to achieve high levels of accomplishment. In some cases, this led teachers favourably to re-evaluate the children’s literacy competence, and enabled children to construct positive images of themselves in the literacy classroom. Practitioners particularly valued the opportunities iPads afforded to deliver curriculum guidelines in new ways, and to familiarise all students with touch-screen technologies.
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Journal of Early Childhood Literacy
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/1468798414533560
published online 20 May 2014Journal of Early Childhood Literacy
Rosie Flewitt, David Messer and Natalia Kucirkova
New directions for early literacy in a digital age: The iPad
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DOI: 10.1177/1468798414533560
New directions for early
literacy in a digital age:
The iPad
Rosie Flewitt
Institute of Education, University of London, UK
David Messer
The Open University, UK
Natalia Kucirkova
The Open University, UK
In this paper, we discuss how iPads offer innovative opportunities for early literacy
learning but also present challenges for teachers and children. We lent iPads to
a Children’s Centre nursery (3- to 4-year-olds), a primary school reception class
(4- to 5-year-olds) and a Special School (7- to 13-year-olds), discussed their potential
uses with staff in pre- and post-interviews and observed how they were integrated into
practice over a two-month period. We found variability in the ways iPads were used
across the settings, but a commonality was that well-planned; iPad-based literacy activ-
ities stimulated children’s motivation and concentration. They also offered rich oppor-
tunities for communication, collaborative interaction, independent learning, and for
children to achieve high levels of accomplishment. In some cases, this led teachers
favourably to re-evaluate the children’s literacy competence, and enabled children to
construct positive images of themselves in the literacy classroom. Practitioners particu-
larly valued the opportunities iPads afforded to deliver curriculum guidelines in new
ways, and to familiarise all students with touch-screen technologies.
Early literacy, iPad, digital, touch screen, apps, figured worlds, learning disabilities
Corresponding author:
Rosie Flewitt, Early Years and Primary Education Institute of Education, University of London, 20 Bedford
Way, London WC1H 0AL, UK
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The literacy practices of young children and their families are currently char-
acterised by the everyday use of an array of digital technologies, which over
the past decade have become increasingly portable, affordable and efficient
(Lynch and Redpath, 2014). Together with these new and powerful cultural
tools ‘we all create and shape the learning environments in which our chil-
dren grow up’ (Kucirkova, 2013), so it is hardly surprising that young chil-
dren are keen to master their use. Yet research evidence has consistently
shown there is ambivalence towards the incorporation of new technologies
into early literacy education. While some enthusiastically embrace new media
(e.g. Galloway, 2009), others argue vociferously that they have no place in
early learning (House, 2012), that they are developmentally inappropriate
and risk exposing children to unsuitable content and uncritical engagement
with information (Miller, 2005). Many early-years practitioners have found it
difficult to integrate digital technology into their literacy planning and prac-
tice due to several constraining factors, including a curriculum focus on lit-
eracy as primarily paper-based, lack of time to explore available digital
resources, absence of guidance about the potential of new technologies to
promote early literacy and low confidence in using digital devices effectively
in the classroom (Carrington, 2005; Lankshear et al., 1996; Turbill, 2001).
In the meantime, technological invention has continued apace, with a step
change in functionality following the development and widespread use of
mobile touch-screen devices such as the Apple iPad.
We therefore devised this study with the aim of enabling education
practitioners to explore the potential of iPads for supporting classroom-
based early literacy learning. We were interested in how the affordances of
these portable devices (with touch screen sensitivity and a multiplicity of
‘apps’) might open up new possibilities for learning and teaching early liter-
acy in diverse educational settings, including mainstream nursery and early
primary classrooms, and also in special education where teachers support the
early literacy development of young and older children with learning
Early literacy, digital devices, power and identity
A growing body of research evidences how integral digital devices have
become to early experiences of literacy in homes and communities
(Flewitt, 2011; Plowman et al., 2010; Wohlwend, 2010; Wolfe and
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Flewitt, 2010). Much of the emerging research in this field is founded on
sociocultural conceptualisations of learning (Vygotsky, 1978), where by
mental processes are viewed as social in origin and mediated through inter-
action using symbolic representations such as language and cultural artefacts
that have evolved over time (Wertsch, 2007). In the communication practices
of contemporary culture, these artefacts include an array of digital devices,
including iPads. New terms have been coined, such as ‘Digital Natives’
(Prensky, 2001) and ‘the Net Generation’ (Tapscott, 1998) to describe the
first generation of children growing up in Westernised societies surrounded
by increasingly ubiquitous and powerful digital media.
Children’s immersion in digital communication occurs at a critical period
in their lives when their emerging literacy skills (speaking, listening, reading
and writing) and identities as effective and competent learners are being
moulded by the conventions of the social and cultural worlds in which
they live. As part of a larger theory of self and identity, Holland et al.
(1998) discuss how children ‘figure’ whom they are through the ‘worlds’
they participate in, through the cultural tools they use in those worlds, and
through their relationships with others. They coined the term ‘figured worlds’
to describe a ‘realm of interpretation in which a particular set of characters
and actors are recognized, significance is assigned to certain acts, and particu-
lar outcomes are valued over others’ (Holland et al., 1998: 52). That is,
through action and interaction with human and physical resources in particu-
lar social worlds, individuals engage in collective imaginings of themselves as
‘competent’, ‘smart’, ‘incompetent’, ‘delinquent’, etc. As mediating artefacts,
we posit that iPads are one of many cutting-edge, culturally powerful yet enig-
matic technological tools with the potential to invoke empowering ‘figured
worlds’ for young learners concerning themselves and their attitudes towards
literacy. This important issue is one that we return to in the discussion.
Research suggests that the potential of new technologies for young children’s
literacy development remains largely untapped in educational settings, with a
‘digital divide’ such that some children develop considerable digital skills and
knowledge by participating in supported activities at home, whilst others have
little or no opportunity to engage with new media at home and even less so in
education (van Dijk and Hacker, 2003; Wolfe and Flewitt, 2010). As Burnett
(2009) discusses, there is a growing call from education researchers for curri-
cula to incorporate digital media into literacy teaching programmes and to
reflect children’s interests and the profound and extensive changes in con-
temporary literacy practices (Hisrich and Blanchard, 2009; Kalantzis et al.,
2010; Underatuin, 2011). Yet in the UK, government-sponsored evaluations
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of early years, primary and secondary education report that technology has only
erratically been integrated into learning (Office for Standards in Education,
2008). Although educational curricula may nod towards the need for the
innovative use of technologies in the literacy classroom (Department for
Education, 2012), there remains a dominant focus on print-based alphabetic
skills. Recently, in England, this focus has narrowed even further with an insist-
ence on the teaching of synthetic phonics, which is portrayed in policy docu-
mentation as the key to early reading and writing (Flewitt, 2013). Even in
classrooms where new technologies are used, there is a tendency to replicate
existing pedagogical approaches rather than realise their potential to transform
learning and teaching (Burnett, 2009). This is partly due to a lack of curriculum
guidance, whole school support and ICT teacher training, but also because
many teachers and practitioners need time to build their familiarity, confidence
and expertise with new media before they can begin to change their practice in
ways that will raise the quality of pupils’ experience of learning with a range of
technologies (Moss et al., 2007).
Empirical research has begun to piece together evidence regarding the teach-
ing/learning potential of new technologies, including phonological awareness,
vocabulary learning, reading comprehension and language development
(Burnett, 2010; Burnett and Merchant, 2012). The potential of specific
media has been studied, including interactive whiteboards (IWBs) (Moss
et al., 2007; Smith et al., 2005; Twiner et al., 2010; Warwick et al., 2010),
computers (Flewitt, 2012; Plowmanet al., 2010), digital games (Apperley and
Walsh, 2012), digital texts (Labbo et al., 2002; Thoermer and Williams, 2012)
and diverse new media (Burnett and Merchant, 2012; Calvert and Wilson,
2008; Carrington and Robinson, 2009; Wohlwend, 2010). With regard to
iPads, research has found that their user-friendly design presents very few
technical challenges for young children, who quickly become enthusiastic
and competent users (Lynch and Redpath, 2014) although some encounter
difficulties, such as unintentionally deleting their own work (Hutchison et al.,
2012). With older children, iPads have been found to encourage intuitive
participation in open-ended games (Verenikina and Kervin, 2011). However,
to date, very little is known about how touch-screen technologies can be used
to enhance classroom-based early literacy learning.
Early literacy as embedded in everyday practices
Rather than adhering to approaches to literacy that focus on the decoding and
encoding of meaning in paper-based texts, we draw on sociocultural
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conceptualisations of learning processes (Vygotsky, 1978) and broader defin-
itions of literacy as embedded in social practice (Street, 1995) and mediated
through action and interaction using cultural artefacts. These artefacts evolve
over time as societies develop; and in the current era, literate activity is
characterised by the use of both print and digital media, where meanings
are often expressed through multiple modes of symbolic representation, such
as combinations of spoken and written language, images, icons, sounds,
layout and animation (Flewitt, 2013). As Zammit and Downes (2002)
argue, an understanding of literacy in the current era must include a diverse
set of texts and technologies.
In our study, we therefore aimed to investigate the potential of a specific
media device, the iPad, in order to investigate the opportunities created by its
affordances for early literacy learning. We were interested in the views of
practitioners working in nursery, early primary and special education, par-
ticularly regarding their experiences with iPads, the possibilities they felt that
iPads provided for early literacy, and whether using iPads in the classroom
might change their perceptions of individual children’s literacy competence.
The methods chosen for this study and the processes of data interpretation
reflect our sociocultural perspective that children’s learning is defined by
interpersonal, institutional and socio-political circumstances (Vygotsky,
1978). The methods also reflect our aim to gain insights into how children’s
literacy learning is mediated through the use of one contemporary literacy
artefact – the iPad – across a range of settings delivering early literacy. We
therefore observed episodes of interaction around iPads, conducted interviews
with staff to explore attitudes towards new technologies before and after
using the iPads in class, and we talked with some of the child participants
about iPads. The participating schools were sent a preliminary research report
and were invited to comment on it.
The sites for study were chosen purposefully, as they represented variation
in local provision for early literacy in terms of the ages of the children and
types of setting. The three chosen sites were located relatively close to each
other, in central England, and had responded positively to our initial enquiries
about using new technologies to support learning. They included: a city
suburb Sure Start nursery with places for 16 three- to four-year-olds (with
variable attendance) led by a practice manager, lead practitioner and support
workers; a primary school reception class for 4- to 5-year-olds on the outskirts
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of a city (class size 30 children) led by a class teacher, teaching assistant and
volunteer teaching assistant; and children aged 7–13 with learning disabilities
in a special school on the outskirts of a nearby town, led by a class teacher and
three teaching assistants. At the outset of the study, none of the settings had
any iPad for classroom use, but all regularly used digital cameras and com-
puters. IWBs were used daily in the primary and special school, but were not
available in the nursery. This project therefore offered an opportunity for staff
to explore the potential of a new device for a limited period of time, sup-
ported by our team.
The research followed the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA,
2011) ethical guidelines and approval for the study was obtained from the
Open University Ethics Committee. In line with the research team’s estab-
lished ethical practice (Flewitt, 2005), once initial consent had been granted
by the lead practitioner in each setting, we asked all practitioners for opt-in
written consent, and all parents were offered opt-out consent for their chil-
dren to participate. During the study observations, we gained the verbal, and
in some cases non-verbal, assent of participating children, and all participants
were made aware they could withdraw from the study at any time.
Pseudonyms are used in research write-ups, and each setting was given a
full final report of the study findings.
We conducted pre- and post-study semi-structured interviews with practi-
tioners about their beliefs and practices regarding early literacy and new
technologies, using ‘responsive interviewing’ (Rubin and Rubin, 2005:
79), whereby the researcher and interviewee establish a conversational part-
nership which facilitates discussion (see Appendix 1 for an outline of inter-
view questions). We also video-recorded interactions during diverse literacy
activities with new and traditional technologies (books/comics/computers/
alternative and augmentative communication systems), discussed with staff
the possible uses of iPad in their setting, and lent each setting an iPad for two
months. To give staff a starting point, each device was pre-loaded with a
research-based, multi-media app Our Story
(developed by us and colleagues
at the Open University to promote early story writing), and we encouraged
staff to download and use further apps as they deemed them appropriate to
their particular educational context. Throughout the study, we offered support
for any queries or problems.
We conducted a second round of video-recorded observations after a fur-
ther three to four weeks, and conducted a second round of interviews with
staff regarding their experiences of using an iPad to support early literacy.
Finally, we contacted staff during the following term to see if they had
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integrated iPads into their longer term literacy practice. Limited funds did not
permit us to gift iPads to the settings, only to allow practitioners to experi-
ment with them prior to deciding on their longer term usefulness (see Flewitt
et al., 2014).
The interviews were transcribed, and after multiple viewings of the video
observations and data discussions, patterns were recognised and categories
agreed by the research team. The interpretive framework and systematic
coding were supported by Atlas.ti, a computer-assisted qualitative data ana-
lysis software package. Overarching conceptual themes emerged through a
process of inductive and deductive coding and theme development, constantly
comparing across the data sets (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane, 2008).
We begin by reporting on practitioners’ views about classroom uses of new
technologies, which set the context for the key themes in our findings. These
include: how iPads offered scope for adults and children to be regarded as
experts in the classroom; how different apps shaped teaching/learning oppor-
tunities; how iPads contributed to children’s motivation and concentration,
enriched the communicative environment and facilitated collaborative, cre-
ative and independent learning in playful ways that slotted into curriculum
delivery, yet also presented practical challenges.
Practitioners’ views on new technologies in the classroom
At the beginning of the study, all practitioners recognised the potential of new
technologies for learning, yet many also voiced concerns about their potential
harm. Some were wary of the addictive and ‘over-stimulating’ nature of digital
gaming and felt children were spending ‘not enough time outside... too
much time sitting down’. They were also concerned about children being
denied early language learning opportunities as their carers/parents spent
time ‘texting rather than talking’ to their children. Others feared that the
fast-moving pace of digital games would ill prepare young learners for the
patient perseverance needed when learning to read and write. The cost of
digital equipment was a further issue, along with concerns about technical
problems, a lack of confidence in their ability to overcome these and a lack of
technical support in the classroom.
Despite their concerns, there was a strong consensus amongst practitioners
that, in order to help prepare children for life in a digital world, schools
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should ‘make sure they’re ready for all the other things that are happening so
quickly’, ‘keeping a balance’ between learning activities with traditional and
new media, and making the most of technology ‘to enhance teaching’;
as expressed by one nursery practitioner: of the things we’re supposed to teach them in the new EYFS is about the
world as a whole and how those children are going to be able to move into that
world and technology that is there for them in the future and it’s forever
evolving ...introducing it to them is one of those key skills.
After they had been using iPads in the classrooms for a few weeks, most fears
began to subside, and through our analysis of the interview and observation
data, we began to identify themes which we elaborate upon below.
Experts and novices in the classroom
Through interviews and observations, we identified a progression of shifts
in practitioners’ attitudes towards using iPads in class, with most staff
initially adopting the role of either ‘expert’ or ‘novice’ user. When asked
about their confidence as computer users before using iPads in class, staff
responses fell into three categories: (1) ‘confident, regular users’ of com-
puters and/or touch screen devices (primarily iPhones) at work and home,
including social networking, (2) ‘less confident but keen’ and (3) ‘lacking
confidence and fearful’, or as one early years practitioner put it, ‘frigh-
tened of breaking it’. In each class, one self-identified ‘confident’ adult
technology user was assigned or assumed the role of iPad expert. Although
less confident staff initially steered clear of responsibility for the iPad,
towards the end of the study many had been drawn to the devices by
the children’s enthusiasm.
Yet adults were not the only experts: staff commented on how some
children were familiar with touch-screen devices at home, particularly
smartphones, whilst ‘novice’ children were keen to learn and ‘picked it
up really well’. Some were considered to be ‘ahead’ of staff with new
technologies, ‘brilliant at computers’ and able to ‘teach the teacher’. Our
findings suggest that using these popular new cultural artefacts in the class-
room creates opportunities to redress the knowledge/power imbalance
between teachers and children, offering young learners empowering
‘expert’ roles, whilst at the same time increasing their knowledge and
skills with digital devices.
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How ‘open’ and ‘closed’ apps shape learning
Throughout the study, we heard how the adult technology ‘experts’ dedicated
hours of personal time searching for suitable apps to include in their literacy
planning. They found a surfeit of commercially available ‘edutainment’ apps
(purporting to combine education with entertainment), which had interactive
yet repetitive game formats with ‘closed’ content, i.e. the content could not be
changed or extended by the user. As Lynch and Redpath (2014) discuss,
whilst commercially produced apps may use state-of-the-art imagery, they
are mostly based on outmoded behaviourist and/or transmission theories of
learning, where the user practises particular skills and is rewarded with tokens
of accomplishment and progress. We observed how these games were some-
times used effectively to develop learners’ vocabulary or phonics, yet they
positioned children as recipients of narrowly defined literacy knowledge,
rather than as creative producers of original materials, and some children
soon tired of their repetitive format. The most effective use of these
‘closed’ content apps was when they were introduced strategically by teachers
to offer alternative routes for children to master particular skills through
practice, such as processes related to letter recognition and spelling.
By contrast, ‘open content’ apps, where users could personalise activities,
engaged children more deeply and creatively in learning tasks. For example,
while using the Our Story app, children collaboratively created their own
stories, initially by selecting a sequence of photographs which they or their
teacher had taken, then developed this by adding voice recordings and/or
typed text (Kucirkova et al., 2013). In the special setting, Our Story was
developed into a drama project, with children collaboratively writing, plan-
ning and acting out a play based on a school outing. Across the settings, the
flexibility offered by open content apps permitted all children and adults with
the opportunity and motivation to develop digital expertise whilst also enga-
ging in the creation of personal stories in multiple media.
In interviews, teachers commented on ‘the magical awe and wonder’ engen-
dered by iPad activities, and how this motivated children to learn. Our obser-
vations confirmed that children particularly enjoyed the facility to undo and
review stages of their work, which reduced the perceived consequences of
making mistakes and appeared to increase confidence. As one of many
observed examples across the settings, we noted how 13-year-old Robert,
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who had limited fine motor control, became engrossed in using ‘My Colouring
Book Free
app to colour in animal-related scenes. Although this had
‘closed’ content, it promoted fine motor control, offered a wide range of
colouring template options and allowed users a degree of creative expression
by selecting colours from an on-screen palette, tapping the chosen colour and
then the chosen section which coloured in automatically (see Figure 1).
Robert’s attentive teacher supported him by verbalising his actions, for
example, when he pointed to the cow’s legs, the teacher responded: ‘his
legs, you could colour his legs in’. When he took time to choose a colour
and tap precisely on a small section to colour it in, his teacher smiled at his
accomplishment, gently congratulating him. Throughout, both teacher and
app were responsive to Robert’s choices and rewarded the considerable effort
he expended in controlling his hand movements. This was a highly satisfac-
tory learning and teaching episode, whereby Robert was motivated to reflect
carefully on his colour choices, to reverse his decisions if he did not like the
result, to try out new ideas, to take pleasure in the successfully accomplished
process and product of colouring in – something which he could not achieve
with traditional pencils or pens. As Underatuin (2011) discusses with regard
to online literacy practices, we observed how the flexibility and responsive-
ness of digital media offer students new hybridised activities that combine
some of the characteristics of traditional literacy resources with the speed and
feedback of oral literacy.
Figure 1. Colouring activity which motivated independent activity.
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Children in all the settings relished the responsive nature of iPad activities
and the immediacy of the results they produced. For example, reception class
children used the iPad to take photographs of their outdoor activities and
imported them to ‘Our Story’ as the basis for story creation – just moments
after the photographs had been taken. These instant products were much
appreciated by teachers, who valued the way they motivated children’s
engagement, and they could also be used to print out displays of classroom
work with comparative ease. Children’s motivation to succeed in iPad activ-
ities sometimes led them to display more advanced literacy skills than staff had
previously given them credit for. For example, the reception class teacher was
‘blown away’ by the quality of some children’s iPad work, including those
who were not keen on conventional writing activities:
what they really like is ...filming activities they’ve done ...putting together
little plays ...based on what we’ve been doing ...certain children who if it
was a written exercise they would do nothing but they are in the fore-
front ...children who do lots of writing are also at the forefront.
For some children, the iPad offered gateways into revealing their true reading
potential. For example, the reception teacher was taken aback by 5-year-old
Harry’s spelling when using the app ‘Doodlefind
he’s been reading Level 7 reading books and all of a sudden he could read every
single word that flashed up and get really high scores and I sat down with him
with the reading books and we’ve moved him up 7 reading levels because
I didn’t realise show them the reading books and they think ‘oh that’s
boring I don’t want to read that’ but then because he could read these words
(on the screen) we went back to the reading books and he was zooming away
with his reading so we’ve moved him on now.
These examples evidence how the combination of immediate feedback with
tangible and satisfying end products motivated children to engage with and
commit to iPad-based literacy activities, and to be drawn to them like ‘bees to
a honeypot’ (nursery practitioner).
A key contributory factor to the children’s motivation appeared to be the
possibilities offered by the iPad for independent work. In the special setting,
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the device’s mobility enabled students’ independence, and their touch screens
were more accessible than computer keyboards, which require precise touch
and pressure on each key. The iPads also enabled students with limited mobil-
ity to access the IWBs, where the issue of their inaccessible height was over-
come by connecting the iPad to the IWB.
As one of many observed examples of independent learning, Figure 2
shows a series of video stills where 11-year-old Matthew is tapping screen
icons to progress through the app ‘English Alphabet for kids
’. In the initial
two frames, the teacher helps Matthew to make a pointing gesture, and then
gently supports the weight of Matthew’s hand as he taps the screen. In the
third video still, we can see how the teacher continues to support Matthew’s
hand near the screen as he watches the story activity unfold on-screen, so he is
able independently (and with comparative ease) to point to and tap the rele-
vant on-screen icon to make the story progress.
This setting developed purpose-made devices to secure an iPad to the arm
of a wheelchair, hence the small size and portability of the iPads opened up
multiple new independent spaces for learning.
Linked to children’s motivation and independence, staff in all settings com-
mented on how iPads heightened children’s concentration levels, describing
iPads as ‘a good way of engaging the children in the work you’re trying to get
them to concentrate on’. Part of the reason for this may have been the novelty
of the apps, but we have subsequently observed similar effects after iPads had
been available for a longer period of time (Flewitt et al., 2014). Children were
willing to go through multiple levels of planning with iPads: writing, acting
out their writing and then making recordings ‘because at the end they get to
use a camera or to film it, that’s their goal and they’re quite willing to do all
Figure 2. Supporting Matthew’s iPad use.
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the work that leads up to it... (that’s a) huge factor and relevant to their lives’
(Reception Class Teacher). Across the settings, staff noted how children with
usually short attention spans persisted for extended periods with the iPad,
possibly due to the interactive nature of certain apps which helped focus their
Enriched communication and creative collaboration
Staff in all settings commented on the children’s collaboration around the
iPad: they frequently and patiently shared activities, took turns, supported
each other’s learning and rejoiced in each other’s successes. Teachers were
able to build on this spirit of collaborative endeavour by sharing their achieve-
ments as a class (see Figure 3).
We observed how more knowledgeable children frequently supported their
peers during iPad use, and staff commented on the value of iPads in stimulat-
ing and enhancing language and communication. Nursery staff in particular
noted how children with English as an additional language were able to name
things on apps, and shy children started talking more:
...even the quiet ones were gaining an awful lot out of it was making the
noisier ones be quiet because they were concentrating and the quiet ones use
more language.
Figure 3. Sharing an iPad activity in reception class.
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We observed many instances of teachers using iPad apps to extend and embed
new vocabulary that had been introduced during other activities. In line with
official guidance on using new technology for creative and independent work
(OFSTED, 2008), iPads offered rich opportunities to work creatively across
modes and media and diversified communicative possibilities by offering
pictures and icons alongside or instead of words. This enabled quiet children,
children with English as an additional language and children with motor
difficulties to communicate and collaborate more effectively in whole class
and small group activities.
Furthermore, teachers found that iPads offered new ways to deliver the
curriculum: ‘to do the (same) thing over and over again but to engage them
as well as...get more work out of them’. For example, as part of a class project,
the reception teacher used a jigsaw app to make a jigsaw image from a digital
photo and uploaded this to the classroom IWB. Together, the class then com-
pleted the puzzle, providing a rich platform for language and communication,
collaborative problem-solving, negotiating meanings and sharing experiences.
Challenges of using iPads in class
Despite the many advantages described above, there were drawbacks. Notably,
teachers had to spend many out-of-school hours searching for appropriate
apps to support learning objectives, and they dedicated considerable effort and
time in planning activities around apps. Teachers also encountered technical
difficulties which sometimes disrupted the flow of learning–teaching epi-
sodes. Nevertheless, they were hopeful this would improve as they gained
more confidence and expertise in using iPads.
Furthermore, rich learning outcomes for children were not always assured.
In the nursery setting in particular, we observed children becoming frustrated
if they did not know how to complete activities. Unsupervised children often
vied for possession of the iPad, causing considerable friction, and too many
fingers on the screen led to apps not functioning as intended or content being
lost, causing frustration for the children who had produced it (see Figure 4).
In line with a growing body of research into technology and literacy, our
findings suggest that incorporating touch-screen devices in the repertoire of
classroom-based activities offers promising opportunities for early literacy
education. The portability of iPads and their touch-responsive interface
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make them particularly conducive to stimulating children’s concentration and
engagement with early literacy activities in both independent and collabora-
tive learning environments. Yet for learning/teaching episodes to be reward-
ing, careful planning and sensitive support are needed by confident
practitioners, with clear learning goals so that the use of iPads is embedded
within the broader context of children’s learning. Unless ‘new’ digital devices
are woven innovatively into the fabric of classroom practice, then their poten-
tial could all too easily be reduced to being no more than a device for deliver-
ing repetitive curriculum content, albeit with added interactive multimedia
appeal. As Parette et al. (2010) observe, substantial changes are needed to
professional training so that practitioners are supported in their endeavours to
integrate new media creatively and effectively in the literacy classroom.
Hall (2008) suggests that the ‘contexts and histories of participation, in this
case (teachers’) digital histories, are highly relevant to how they support their
learners’ digital literacies’. In this study, practitioners’ own experiences and
expertise in using digital technologies inevitably shaped how they and the
children used the iPad in each classroom. Initially, more experienced and
confident staff more readily embraced the possibilities of the technology
Figure 4. Unsupervised use of the iPad in the nursery class.
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and they were more familiar with the ways of operating the iPads, whilst less
confident adults stood back. Over time, we saw small but significant shifts in
how less-confident practitioners began to respond to the children’s enthusi-
asm and encouragement, and ultimately engaged actively in creating
iPad-based learning activities.
The children, seemingly regardless of their expertise, were all keen to use
iPads. Their interest may be partly attributable to the kudos associated with
new media, the novelty of using iPads in school and the iPad’s easy-to-use
interface, which children were soon able to master, even if they experienced
technical glitches and frustration if their work was lost. A significant point
here is that motivation was present, and this could be harnessed to enable
more autonomous forms of learning which involved both independent and
collaborative activities, along with sustained concentration and opportunities
for communication and creative endeavours across diverse expressive modes
and media.
All in all, the iPads enabled children and practitioners to experience enjoy-
able and flexible learning episodes that enhanced literacy learning. At the
outset of this study, practitioners in all the settings were somewhat reticent
about using iPads in the literacy classroom. Certainly, as Lynch and Redpath
(2014) identify, the broader policy and curriculum context for early literacy
provide ambiguous encouragement for meaningful engagement with new
media. However, with just a little support from our team and a lot of teacher
dedicated time – spurred on by the children’s enthusiasm – the practitioners
discovered creative uses for the iPads in their classrooms, and recognised
benefits for children’s self-esteem and enthusiastic engagement with a range
of reading and writing activities. In addition, creative tasks, such as the Our
Story picture-based narratives, corresponded to the outcome-based teaching
and statutory responsibilities for which the teachers were accountable.
Whilst there may well have been a certain novelty value to staff and chil-
dren’s initial responses to the ‘borrowed’ iPads, we have found sustained
interest during our continued contact with these settings, particularly in the
primary and special schools. For children with learning and physical difficul-
ties, iPads offer more affordable and more flexible learning opportunities than
some static, highly expensive devices. This school subsequently purchased
multiple iPads for each classroom, and these have been incorporated creatively
into daily classroom practice (Flewitt et al., 2014). The primary school has
purchased and begun to use iPads across age ranges, but due to staff changes
in the nursery, the iPad project has been interrupted – this points to the key
role played by enthusiastic ‘expert’ individuals in educational settings.
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The study further evidenced how these new media devices were valued as
highly desirable artefacts by young learners, whose ardent enthusiasm to use
them suggested a nascent awareness of their power, prestige and gratification.
In this respect, we argue that digital technologies have a role to play in
developing children’s identity as effective learners in the classroom, through
their potential to offer not only stimulating and varied pathways into literacy
but also ‘figured worlds’ (Holland et al., 1998) that are empowering for
young learners in mainstream and special education. Children’s engagement
in iPad-based literacy activities sometimes brought about changes in the ways
they were perceived by their peers and teachers in the classroom, which in
turn offered the potential for them to form new identities as ‘good spellers’
and/or more able readers (as in the case of Harry), or as ‘good drawers’ (as in
the case of Matthew) or being seen as ‘talkers’ rather than ‘quiet’ children (as
mentioned by the reception and nursery teachers). Furthermore, introducing
new media into the classroom enabled practitioners and children to develop
digital skills and move towards being expert users. This in turn could help to
bridge the differential access experienced by many children, due to a lack of
material access to physical devices and a lack of support to develop digital
skills (Flewitt, 2010; van Dijk and Hacker, 2003).
For children growing up in today’s world, digital technologies are ‘as
unremarkable and ubiquitous as electricity was for our generation, becom-
ing visible only in their absence’ (Carrington, 2007: 105). Yet, integrating
iPads (or any new device) into classroom literacy practice requires a great
deal of thought and commitment from teaching staff. This includes not just
finding and selecting appropriate software, but also developing a local cur-
riculum and pedagogy that supports their creative use. As Reinking et al.
(2000) perceptively argue, new technology is often merely assimilated to
existing teaching practices, yet greater use can be made of its potential if
practitioners are supported in its creative use. Our study was exploratory, we
had no particular agenda other than enquiry. However, having completed the
study and maintained contact with the participants, we stand convinced that
if innovative uses of new technologies continue to remain absent from the
school curriculum and from pedagogy, then we risk failing to turn on a
powerful switch that can light up this generation’s learning.
We would like to thank all the children and staff for their enthusiastic participation in
this research, and the Open University for pump-priming funding for this research
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1. The Our Story app is picture-based and allows children, their parents and/or
carers to create, record and share their own digital stories (see ¼Z76jcP-np60).
2. My Colouring Book App is a free app for iPhones, iPads and iPod touch which allows
children to colour various pictures with a simple finger tap. There are several tem-
plates which can be coloured in, e.g. animals, flowers, popular scenes, etc.
3. Doodlefind is a ‘closed’ content app designed to promote accurate word spelling.
It is free and based on a social hidden object game where users can play alone or
compete against their friends connected via social networks. This latter feature was
not explored in the present study.
4. English Alphabet for kids for iPad
is an app developed by Capitan Media Ltd. It
offers 26 cartoons, verselets and pages of an audiobook for each letter of the
English alphabet.
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Appendix 1. Semi-structured staff interview schedules
Pre-interview schedule
1. What are your views and feelings on the role of new technology in your setting
and young children’s lives?
2. What do you think ‘literacy’ means these days for young children?
3. What do you see as the advantages/disadvantages of providing children with a
computer and digital technologies?
4. Would you describe yourself as a confident computer user? How often do you use
a computer?
5. How confident do you feel using new technologies like the iPad and other touch-
screen devices?
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6. How do you view your role in facilitating the use of new technologies in your
Post-interview schedule
1. What activities did you carry out with the iPad? What was good/less good?
2. Did you find the children needed to work alone or was it possible to have group
3. How did you help the children use the iPads?
4. Did you have any difficulties using the iPad, if so, how did you overcome them?
5. Do you think iPad activities help the literacy provision in your setting?
6. What are, in your view, the challenges and opportunities of iPads in your setting?
7. How useful would you say the iPad has been for educational purposes?
8. How much did you/the children like having the iPad in the classroom?
9. Are there any other differences the iPad made or more general comments that you
would like to make?
10. Did you use the Our Story app? Did you/the children enjoy it/find it useful?
Why/why not? Any problems?
11. What other applications did you use? How did the children enjoy these? What
learning opportunities did they offer?
12. What are your views and feelings on the role of new technology in an early years/
primary/special school classroom?
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... This turn highlights the need to consider "what [the device] enables or affords as it mediates the relationship between its user[s] and other individuals" (Hutchby & Moran-Ellis, 2001, p. 13). Some studies have found that young students engage in positive and creative collaboration when playing with literacy-based iPad applications, demonstrating joint problem-solving, encouraging talk, and collaborative touch work to complete shared tasks (Flewitt et al., 2015;Lawrence, 2018;Simpson et al., 2013;Wohlwend, 2015). Additionally, Santori and Smith (2018) and Flewitt et al. (2015) reported that collaborative iPad activities can restructure typical expert/novice relationships in the classroom, with shy students participating more, and students with technological expertise taking on new roles as leaders. ...
... Some studies have found that young students engage in positive and creative collaboration when playing with literacy-based iPad applications, demonstrating joint problem-solving, encouraging talk, and collaborative touch work to complete shared tasks (Flewitt et al., 2015;Lawrence, 2018;Simpson et al., 2013;Wohlwend, 2015). Additionally, Santori and Smith (2018) and Flewitt et al. (2015) reported that collaborative iPad activities can restructure typical expert/novice relationships in the classroom, with shy students participating more, and students with technological expertise taking on new roles as leaders. In contrast, various studies with both K-12 and college students have shown that collaboration is mediated by physical and visual access to the iPad itself (e.g. ...
... iPads and technological devices are often positioned as high-interest tools that may facilitate deeper and more creative learning in early childhood and elementary classrooms (Flewitt et al., 2015), and in particular provide access for EBs to bring their linguistic repertoires to learning (e.g., Ollerhead, 2019). It is important to remember that the objectives of this activity were connected to a translanguaging orientation, which seeks to leverage and empower EBs' linguistic abilities beyond their use for English acquisition, resisting monolingual norms in the classroom. ...
... Further, they have not used technology effectively in their classrooms because of their pedagogical beliefs (Tondeur et al., 2016). However, motivation is important for increasing learner engagement, which can be done with multimedia such as images, graphics and text with attractive colors and shapes (Mayer, 2014) as well as technology like iPads (Flewitt et al., 2015), interactive whiteboards (Uluyol & Şahin, 2016), digital storytelling devices (Chan et al., 2017) and web-based applications (Fatimah & Santiana, 2017). Multimedia also allows students to access multiple information sources, which may promote deep learning (Amadieu et al., 2017) and better learning outcomes. ...
... Many researchers have investigated how different languages are being taught, but they were not specific to Arabic (Zainuddin et al., 2018). Moreover, research has been unclear on the effects of incorporating technology in classrooms (Flewitt et al., 2015). Additionally, there is a lack of knowledge of the educational advantages of mobile devices as learning tools. ...
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The employment of instructional technology in teaching and learning has becoming a crucial requirement among teachers and educator especially in the 21stcentury education. Moreover, the current global emergence situation of COVID-19 pandemic has been forcing the educators towards using various online platforms and technologies In Malaysia, universities have scrambled to move the program to an electronic platform to tackle the proliferation of COVID-19 under the national Movement Control Order (MCO). Malaysia’s 20 public universities including Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia was to encourage or mandate online learning for various major languages including Arabic. During this difficult period, Arabic lecturers might need more training to allow them to have an in-depth understanding of how technology can improve learning and motivate their students to learn. The researchers employed responsive semi-structured interviews, which allowed the respondents to share about their teaching practices and how technology motivated them to be more creative in their teaching practices during MCO. The result indicates that online learning can be a solution for the Arabic language educators and practitioners to share their knowledge by using e-Learning or other platforms as education needs to be conducted during MCO. One of the online learning benefits is lecturers become motivated and students become active when they learn using online learning as they are the one who take responsibility of their learning.
... Parents do not consider didactic games educational using the "active co-playing mediation" strategy. Flewitt et al. (2015) emphasized in their study that most of the mobile apps that claim to be educational consist of didactic worksheets or puzzles. At this point, let us return to the second track of the study, namely, the examination of the content of the digital games children play in terms of STEM and educational value. ...
This book brings together a collection of work from around the world in order to consider effective STEM, robotics, and mobile apps education from a range of perspectives. It presents valuable perspectives—both practical and theoretical—that enrich the current STEM, robotics, and mobile apps education agenda. As such, the book makes a substantial contribution to the literature and outlines the key challenges in research, policy, and practice for STEM education, from early childhood through to the first school-age education. The audience for the book includes college students, teachers of young children, college and university faculty, and professionals from fields other than education who are unified by their commitment to the care and education of young children.
... Skiada et al. (2014) found that students with learning disabilities would rather take tests on mobile devices than on paper, and their teachers credited the use of the mobile devices with improved student attention. Flewitt et al. (2015) observed the use of tablets for literacy instruction in special schools for learning disabilities. Their teacher participants commented on their use of the tablet for engaging children in their work and on the use of interactive apps to heighten their concentration levels and create enjoyable and flexible learning experiences. ...
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The aim of this study is to understand how mobile devices are being used to support students’ learning (i.e., mobile learning) in specialist schools, and in specialist support units within mainstream schools. A validated survey instrument is used to examine these practices through the lens of a sociocultural digital framework that highlights distinctive mobile learning approaches. One hundred and twenty-six teachers responded to the survey. The findings provide a nuanced understanding of teachers’ current digital pedagogical approaches, and show potential benefits for students, including increased agency. Possible directions for the development of special education teachers’ digital practices are also provided.
... The positive results from this study with Korean American children align with previous studies for online literacy instruction for DLLs (e.g., Flewitt et al., 2015). However, this study extended previous research on RIA for DLLs (Duran et al., 2016) by embedding visual cues for vocabulary and phonological awareness lessons as well as repeated book readings. ...
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English language development is a critical component for young children’s school readiness. In this study, we examined the effect of Read it again-Pre-K! (Justice and McGinty in Read it again!-Prek: a preschool curriculum supplement to promote language and literacy foundations, Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, Columbus, 2013), a literacy curriculum designed to prepare young children’s school readiness on the English literacy skills of Korean dual language learners in general education. Using a multiple probe design, eight 4- to 5-year-old Korean dual language learners (1 female, 7 males) received 1:1 online synchronous daily instruction over 2 months during the summer before entering their kindergarten programs. Through the intervention, all eight children demonstrated increases in the use of English vocabulary, story comprehension, and oral fluency. Post-intervention data on vocabulary and reading fluency through three standardized tests, Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, and Expressive Vocabulary Test, showed improvement over baseline for most children. Discussion and implications for future research were provided.
... Specifically, technology in the classroom enhances cognitive and social development (Gottschalk, 2019). Studies have shown that technological integration can facilitate collaboration (Martín et al., 2018) by encouraging children to cooperate when attempting to solve problems (Beschorner & Hutchison, 2013;Lee, 2015) and enhancing discussion and communication with teachers and peers (Goodreau, 2013;Flewitt et al., 2015;Lee, 2015). Additionally, it can enhance the development of academic skills such as reading, writing, and mathematics (González-González et al., 2019). ...
Full-text available
This study aims to explore kindergarten student teachers’ readiness to integrate technology into their future classrooms and factors affect their integration. A mixed-methods, sequential explanatory design was utilized to achieve the research purposes. There were two phases. The first phase conducted a survey to assess technical and pedagogical readiness levels as well as participants’ pedagogical attitude and opinion toward technology integration. The second phase conducted follow-up interviews to understand how participants intended to transfer their intentions into practice and factors affect their technology integration. The first-phase results showed that participants were ready to implement technologies while having positive attitudes toward technology integration. The second-phase results confirmed all participants were able to transfer their technical skills into professional practice. However, few were ready to practically apply their pedagogies. The results indicate three main factors, including technological resources, the school infrastructure, and the number of students in their classrooms. It is recommended to improve teacher preparation program to develop teacher technology readiness.
... To enhance children's development, teachers must have a conscious educational strategy in mind (Bers, 2018;Falloon, 2013;Kjällander & Riddersporre, 2019;Nilsen, 2018;Otterborn et al., 2019Otterborn et al., , 2020. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that educators are aware of the necessity to be present, offer support, and challenge the children during this work (Flewitt et al., 2015;Nilsen, 2018;Palmér, 2015). Petersen (2015) stresses that children's agency is enhanced when working with teachers. ...
Preschool curriculum policies around the world emphasize the role of digital tools in educational practice. At the same time, the availability of tools such as tablets has increased significantly in the last decade. Although preschools have worked with these tools during the last years, little is known about what actual activities teachers implement and perform in practice and how digital tablets can be effectively integrated. In contributing to filling this gap, we used online surveys to probe approximately 500 teachers’ use of digital tablets in their practice. Results showed that teachers believe that tablets increase both collaboration and participation. In connection with the subject of technology, many creative ideas and solutions evolved. Computer programming activities also emerged saliently, which the teachers saw as a means to foster generic skills and subject knowledge. The findings point to digital tablets being associated with preschool teachers’ implementation of meaningful, engaging, self-generated, and rich activities. In helping to integrate emerging digital tools in educational practice, teachers are encouraged to consult online forums, web resources, available online courses, and articles. Teachers are also advised to allocate the necessary time required to plan and implement the work.
This study aimed to examine digital games with STEM content played by children aged 60–72 months from an educational point of view and determine how parents use the active co-playing strategy in playing these games. The study was carried out using a basic qualitative research design due to the nature of qualitative research. The participants in the study were volunteers and were selected according to specific criteria using purposeful sampling. The survey and questionnaire forms developed by (Gözüm and Kandır in Educ Inf Technol 26:3293–3326, 2021) were used in the study. Data on digital games were collected using the document analysis technique. Content analysis was used to determine the content of digital games. In contrast, descriptive analysis was used for the parents’ data for the active co-playing strategy. Expert review was used to assess the reliability of the themes obtained from descriptive and content analysis. Themes were determined using the codes and categories derived from content analysis and expert review. According to the study results, it was concluded that the children of the parents who use the active co-playing strategy played at least one STEM game. These results also show which digital games with STEM content support the development of children’s skills and explain how parents use the active co-playing strategy. Due to the nature of qualitative research, there are limitations to making generalizations in this study. Important suggestions have been made for parents, researchers, and digital game developers.
Previous studies have presented discrepant findings of e-stories’ contribution to children’s narrative comprehension, which can be attributed to not only the variation of multimedia features among studies but also to learner and text features. The main goal of the present study was to expand understanding of the effect of e-stories on children’s narrative skills and reading attitudes for poor and good story comprehenders. A quasi-experimental factorial design was employed to explore the effect of book type and group level on children’s narrative skills and reading attitudes. The participating children were pre-readers. The printed version of The Red Winged Owl was read aloud to small groups of 4–5 children. Participants included 41 good and 40 poor comprehenders (age range 59–68 months) who were identified based on narrative comprehension scores. The experimental group was exposed to four e-stories on an iPad, while the control group listened to readings of the printed versions of the same storybooks. Data were collected by administering pre- and post-tests and the preschool reading attitudes scale and by asking narrative comprehension questions. Children’s retellings were audio-recorded. The findings revealed that (a) the poor and good comprehender groups had higher narrative comprehension in the short text e-story condition, (b) there was a significant interaction effect for the narrative comprehension of poor and good comprehenders in longer texts and (c) children’s post-reading attitude scores did not differ by group level.
Literacy lies at the heart of education and has been formally enshrined as a basic human right since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. For centuries, acquiring literacy has been associated with children needing to acquire knowledge about the alphabetic code in order to read and write, but broader understandings of what literacy is have developed over recent decades. Internationally, literacy is now defined as ?the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts? (UNESCO, 2013). It is recognised as the foundation for lifelong learning, and as ?fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one?s health, one?s income, and one?s relationship with the world? (UNESCO, 2013). In this broader vision, literacy is a platform for individuals to develop their knowledge and to participate fully in society through diverse oral, written, printed and digital media.
Mediation is a theme that runs throughout the writings of Lev Semënovich Vygotsky. In his view, a hallmark of human consciousness is that it is associated with the use of tools, especially “psychological tools” or “signs.” Instead of acting in a direct, unmediated way in the social and physical world, our contact with the world is indirect or mediated by signs. This means that understanding the emergence and the definition of higher mental processes must be grounded in the notion of mediation. Mediation also provides the foundation for another of Vygotsky's theoretical goals, namely, building a link between social and historical processes, on the one hand, and individuals' mental processes, on the other. It is because humans internalize forms of mediation provided by particular cultural, historical, and institutional forces that their mental functioning sociohistorically situated. The importance that Vygotsky attached to mediation is reflected in a lecture he delivered near the end of his life, where he asserted, “A central fact of our psychology is the fact of mediation [oposredovanie]” (Vygotsky, 1982, p. 166). But this is an issue that concerned him from the beginning of his career onward. In a 1930 report on “The Instrumental Method in Psychology,” for example, he focused on the importance of signs as “artificial formations… [that] are social, not organic or individual” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 137) and he included under this heading: “language; various systems for counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps, and mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 137).
L. S. Vygotsky was an early twentieth century Russian social theorist whose writing exerts a significant influence on the development of social theory in the early twenty first century. His non-deterministic, non-reductionist account of the formation of mind provides current theorietical developments with a broadly drawn yet very powerful sketch of the ways in which humans shape and are shaped by social, cultural, and historical conditions. The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky is a comprehensive text that provides students, academics, and practioners with a critical perspective on Vygotsky and his work.