1. Introduction!!!!!!! 6
2. Deﬁnitions and terms delimitations! ! !!!!!9
3. Aims and objectives of this review!!!!!!!13
4. Methods for the systematic and narrative literature review!!!!14
5. Deductive analysis!!!!!!!!!18
6, Key factors in studying children’s writing on screen!!!!!28
7. Implications and recommendations!!!!!!!36
This report aims to establish the current empirical evidence concerning writing on screen
by young children from birth to age eight through a literature review that examined studies
published between 2010-2017. Our deﬁnition of writing was deliberately broad and
included children’s multiple modalities of expression, that, as part of children’s digital
literacies, can involve ‘accessing, using and analysing texts in addition to their production
and dissemination’ (Sefton-Green et al., 2016, p.15). The methodology followed the
methods of a systematic literature review, which involved two steps. First, we deﬁned the
term ‘writing on screen’ on theoretical and practical grounds and established basic criteria
for inclusion/exclusion of studies concerned with this phenomenon. Second, we generated
a set of deductive codes and a framework for coding published studies and evaluating
their signiﬁcance and reliability. This methodological process led to the formulation of six
key conceptual categories that can be used in evaluating children’s writing on screen in
research and practice: Researchers’ epistemologies and perspectives; Study methods and
methodologies; Social and adult inﬂuence on the activity; Object and tool inﬂuence on the
activity; Child’s dispositions and characteristics observable outside the activity and Child’s
engagement and behaviours related to the activity. The six conceptual categories are
described, nested in published literature and applied to a set of representative studies to
illustrate their interpretative value. We conclude with recommendations for how the
categories can be used in future research.
To cite this paper:
Kucirkova, N., Wells Rowe, D., Oliver, L., Piestrzynski, L.E,(2017) Children’s Writing With and On
Screen(s): A Narrative Literature Review.COST ACTION ISI1410 DigiLitEY. [Accessed: http://digilitey.eu]
Photographs on front page and 5 by Natalia Kucirkova; photograph on page 8 and 12 by Deborah
Children’s writing on screen is one of the many multi-faceted activities that children engage
in on a daily basis. As a speciﬁc activity related to content production rather than content
consumption, children’s writing on screen is an emerging ﬁeld of study, still debating the
remit and role of e-writing in young children’s lives.
This review makes a methodological and conceptual contribution to this new ﬁeld. The
methodological contribution relates to the integrative approach that we adopted for the
review and that we present in full detail for future adoption and reﬁnement. Our
methodological approach combined the methods of a systematic review with a broader
narrative review and resulted in a deductive-coding framework. The framework can be
applied to interrogating extant published literature but also for prospective study design and
data analysis. The deductive codes in the framework direct attention to the macro, meso
and micro levels of analysis and consist of:
Researchers’ epistemologies and perspectives
Study methods and methodologies
Social and adult inﬂuence on the activity
Object and tool inﬂuence on the activity
Child’s dispositions and characteristics observable outside the activity
Child’s engagement and behaviours related to the activity
This report illustrates how the framework applies to a set of representative studies in the
ﬁeld and how it could be used for future literature reviews.
Our conceptual contribution relates to deﬁning ‘writing on screen’ in non-oppositional
terms, acknowledging that it carries several dualistic associations such as on-screen
versus off-screen and writing versus drawing.
In the past ten years, there has been a sharp increase in the access and use of digital
technologies (such as smartphones and tablets) by young children growing up in Anglo-
American countries but also in Europe, Asia and Africa (for an indication of numbers see
Common Sense Media, 2013 in the USA; Ofcom, 2014 in the UK; Australian Bureau of
Statistics, 2016, in Australia and Chaudron et al., 2015 in seven European countries).
Several explanatory frameworks have been developed to offer a view on the socio-
material, educational and cultural implications of children’s experiences with these new
digital devices. For example, the educational perspective seeks to understand the added
value of digital technologies in children’s learning to read (e.g., Bus, Takacs & Kegel, 2015),
experiment-based psychology and neuroscience research highlight the effects of digital
technologies on text processing (e.g., Wolf, 2007) and literary scholars call for increased
attention to embodied learning and physical engagement with digital texts (Mangen &
While early research aimed to provide insights into access and frequency of technology
use, more recent studies have begun to illuminate patterns of use in relation to speciﬁc
screen-based or screen-mediated activities. Some technology-mediated activities replicate
activities happening in the physical/non-digital world (e.g., card matching games), some
augment them (e.g., sharing digital books with an international network of friends) and
some limit them (e.g., constructing a castle with colourful building blocks on screen). The
activity we focus on here is writing and composing on and with screens. Following on the
pioneering work by Marie Clay (1987), the review is speciﬁcally concerned with the signs
and symbols that children produce on, and with, technologies. We aim to review the ﬁeld
in terms of its key research foci and directions in relation to this particular activity.
The report combines aspects of a traditional literature review (such as the documentation
of the methods and ﬁndings of the literature review process), with some less traditional
aspects (such as the detailed discussion of the key terms and evaluation criteria). The main
objective to critically evaluate the research studies conducted so far and make
recommendations for future research, practice and design in this area. The report was
produced as one of the outputs for the COST DigiLitEY Action, funded by the EU
Framework Programme Horizon 2020.
The COST DigiLitEY follows the EU High Level Literacy Group’s recommendations to
respond in a coordinated manner to the challenges and potentials of digital technologies
that affect children’s learning at home and school. The Action is an interdisciplinary
network of researchers who have joined forces to generate and openly share knowledge
about children’s use of technologies in their respective countries. The network aims to
address the challenge of data concentration in a few, often Anglo-American countries, and
produce research projects and publications that address global concerns about children’s
use of technologies at home and school.
COST DigiLitEY is divided into ﬁve Working Groups (WGs), and each WG is co-ordinated
by two chairs. This report is one of the outputs of Working Group no3, called Reading and
Writing on Screen, co-ordinated by Professor Adriana Bus (Free University, Netherlands)
and Dr Natalia Kucirkova (UCL Institute of Education, UK). The objectives of the WG3 are:
(i) To identify the current state of knowledge in the area across Europe and contextualise
this within the international arena. (ii) To develop a theoretical framework for understanding
young children’s engagement with multimodal texts. (iii) To identify key research questions
in the ﬁeld for future study. (iv) To identify key messages for policy makers. More
speciﬁcally, the WG aims to identify the current state of knowledge on young children's
reading and writing on screen by synthesising current available evidence and examine the
implications of this area for policy in relation to education, parenting and the media
As the name reveals, the Working Group3 has a dual remit – to study children’s reading
and writing on screen. We recognise that ‘reading and writing are both composing
acts’ (Graves & Hansen, 1983) and that in real life the two activities are interwoven rather
than neatly separated, especially when it comes to the development of children’s early
literacy skills. For pragmatic issues (clarity, timeframe and word limitations), this review
focuses selectively on children’s writing on screen.
Definitions and terms
The task of deﬁning and specifying children’s writing on screen is pursued throughout the
report, but it is important to establish, right at the beginning, what falls into the remit of our
review and what is meant by ‘writing’ and ‘screens’ in this context.
Writing on and with screens is adopted as an umbrella description to encompass the
diverse range of digital technologies that young children engage with when composing
their own contents. The technologies include mobile and tablet devices (IOS and/or
Android), also known as smartphones and tablets, as well as portable and stationary PCs,
laptops, Wiis, LeapReaders, Kindle and similar reading devices. Given that the review
focuses on studies published between 2010-2017, a signiﬁcant proportion of research is
concerned with portable, multimedia and touch-sensitive technologies, development of
which has been signiﬁcantly advanced and accelerated in the last decade. These
technologies merge texts with audio, pictures/photographs and drawings and have
become an important source of entertainment and education for pre- and primary school-
aged children. From a socio-cultural perspective, children’s engagement with these
technologies is not only a result of economic and design developments but also a
reﬂection of globalisation, multiculturalism and urbanism that affect children’s sense of self
and social relevance.
For young children and many researchers, the boundary between writing on screen and
off-screen is blurred, as they consider both being part of one continuum of meaning-
making. Composing on and with screens has been described by a range of terms,
including digital composing, creating, drawing, mark making and writing. When choosing
an appropriate term for describing this broad range of composing acts, we considered
other writing-related terms, including authoring, composing, art-making, sign-making, text
creation and story-making.
We adopt the term writing for this review and deﬁne it as ‘an active practice of producing
signs and symbols on paper or any other solid medium’ (Rowe, 2016). Writing can refer to
‘alphabetic meaning-making practices that are digitally mediated, whether those practices
involve the use of laptop or desktop computers, online or ofﬂine practices, word
processing or messaging software.’ (Merchant, 2008, p. 197, emphasis by authors).
Writing can also refer to children’s multiple modalities of expression, which in addition to
alphabetic composition (Selfe, 2009) include gestures, eye gaze, body positioning, sounds
(recorded and music), photography, exploratory play, drama, as well as creating pictures,
drawings, marks and symbols (Harste, Woodward & Burke, 1984).
Our focus on “writing” indicates our intention to proﬁle studies that focus on children’s
compositions that carry a linguistic message. As Sticht (1979) helpfully explained, thoughts
can be represented in a linguistic mode that uses speech and writing and in an iconic
mode that represents thoughts in pictures. We give more weight to the former
representation of thoughts. This means that single modes that do not carry a linguistic
component (e.g., a child’s photo of a house or a child’s drawing of a self-portrait) are not
considered writing as they do not represent the child’s attempt at a linguistic composition.
Conversely, writing is often used as a term in studies that have some component of print
Writing on and with screens is writing that is mediated by a digital device. This digital
device can be used by the child independently, with another child or with an adult. In this
deﬁnition, the composing act does not need to happen on the screen but it needs to be
mediated by the screen. For example, a child tracing a letter on the screen and then
copying the letter on paper is writing with the screen. This distinction is important as it
speciﬁes the context of the composing activity but does not constrain it to ‘digital
composing’ or ‘e-writing’.
Following our socio-cultural orientation we conceptualise writing as an activity that includes
a range of options and decisions that are socially- and culturally-bound. In the context of
writing on screen this means that: ‘the author of a digital text can usually select how to
express a meaning from a large palette of modal options: words (Which font? Which
size?); still images (WordArt, a personal photograph, an online image?); moving image (a
Youtube clip, a personal video?); colour (which background or font colour, which shade?)
etc. So the medium chosen to convey a message is also a cultural phenomenon: it is not
simply a question of technology but of social and cultural practice, and how modes have
come to be used in a given medium.’ (Sefton-Green et al., 2016, p.21).
Sefton-Greene et al.’s (2016) considerations are commensurate with our work in which we
aim to go beyond competence and skills-oriented view of early literacy. Our disciplinary
background and previous work in this area have further inﬂuenced our broad deﬁnition of
children’s writing on screen. Notably, Selfe’s (2009) work on multimodal composing and
detailed documentation of children’s actual composing acts in the classroom resonates
with our understanding of children’s writing: ‘I argue that our contemporary adherence to
alphabetic only composition constrains the semiotic efforts of individuals and groups who
value multiple modalities of expression’ (Selfe, 2009). Selfe also cautions that narrowly
deﬁned writing undermines children’s experiences in schools: ‘When teachers of
composition limit the bandwidth of composing modalities in our classrooms and
assignments, when we privilege print as the only acceptable way to make or exchange
meaning, we not only ignore the history of rhetoric and its intellectual inheritance, but we
also limit, unnecessarily, our scholarly understanding of semiotic system’ (Selfe, 2009).
In sum, then, we understand writing as a multimodal composing practice that includes all
modalities available to young children’s composing, including oral (audio), verbal, written,
and pictorial mode (which encompasses drawings, marks or digital photographs) and a
linguistic component. In our deﬁnition, both the multimodal and linguistic components
need to be present to count as ‘writing on screen’. We focus on the process and product
of children’s writing and perceive both as the means of communicating the child’s inner
world as well as reﬂecting the wider social forces that shape childhood.
2.3. “Early” writing
In alignment with the mission of DigiLitEY COST Action, our literature review focuses on
children aged 0 to 8. This age span is heavily targeted by children’s producers, publishers
and designers interested in developing programs and devices that would support
children’s learning. The early years are also a sensitive developmental period in childhood
and is of special interest to educators, policy-makers or health professionals. We reviewed
studies that have researched children’s writing from birth up to the age of eight (i.e. 7 years
11 months). We included studies concerned with children with special educational needs,
as long as the children’s abilities corresponded to the chronological age of 0-8-year olds
(as reported by the authors of the individual studies).
2.4. Writing environments
The context of writing is a key consideration in evaluating the impact of any writing-related
intervention. Writing mediated by mobile technologies often blurs the boundaries between
formal, non-formal and informal learning, as documented by previous research (e.g.,
Passey, 2010; Radović & Passey, 2016). In this review, we therefore included studies
concerned with writing in all learning environments, mediated by peers and family, at home
or in the classroom or in the “non-formal” space between the two.
Aims and objectives of this
This report has two key aims:
1, To provide a broad and narrative overview of the key conceptual and methodological
issues in studies concerned with children’s writing on screen and published between
2, To advance the ﬁeld and meaningfully advise practitioners and researchers interested in
the potential of digital technologies for children’s literacy, with a speciﬁc focus on children’s
writing on screen.
The two aims are interwoven given that there is a need for a critical synthesis of existing
evidence for both practice and research. As part of this objective we engaged in both a
systematic and narrative literature review. This report focuses on the narrative strand of the
literature review and includes all the practice literature as well as those articles we identiﬁed
as research studies.
Methods for the systematic
and narrative literature
In an effort to establish replicability and transparency but also to facilitate future studies
that might wish to build on our work, we describe our method for conducting the literature
review in detail and explain why and how we made decisions about including and
Following standard procedure of systematic literature reviews, we followed ﬁve key steps in
identifying the corpus of studies for the review: 1) deﬁning the focus of the review and
basic criteria for inclusion or exclusion of studies, 2) identifying keywords describing
research activity in the area 3) using electronic and hand-searching procedures to identify
potentially relevant publications; 4) developing, operationalising, and using a set of codes
to systematically analyse study features, and 5) synthesising the results of analysis of
relevant studies. The review included peer reviewed articles that were clearly written and
methodologically sound, conducted in any country, but published and reported in English.
4.1. Selection process for the systematic review
We included qualitative and quantitative studies and all studies needed to be completed
and published, given that unpublished studies do not have the sequential advantage of
published work (see Steblay et al., 2011). This criterion meant that journal articles,
conference proceedings, papers published in university depositories and book chapters (if
peer-reviewed) were included in the systematic review. The time span of publication was
articles published between 2010-2017 (inclusive), as per the date of publication by the
journal, book or other outlet.
We downloaded the full-texts of all reviewed articles and compiled them alphabetically in a
shared folder. For studies which we could not access through our universities library
subscription, we approached the individual authors directly with an email request for the
full text (all authors we approached have replied positively and sent their full texts). We
have also posted a message on the ResearchGate network asking for suggestions and
tips for relevant studies that we thought might be work in progress or perhaps not picked
up by the key databases.
Given the scope of the review and size of the research team, standard Spreadsheet
software (Microsofts Excel, Microsoft Corporation) was used for data extraction. Shared
Google drive, SPSS, Excel and Word documents were used for collecting data in a format
that is ready for summary and analyses. The combination of a shared online project space
meant that we could work on several strands of the project simultaneously (e.g., locating
full texts and updating the database), which was an important advantage in a project with
limited resources and timespan.
Through discussion and engagement with the relevant literature, we developed a
comprehensive codebook to categorise all published studies. The codebook contains
descriptors and examples and is fully reported in Section 4. The codebook was applied to
select relevant studies and categorise the selected studies for further analysis, either
following the methods of a systematic review or those of a narrative literature review. The
application of the framework therefore followed a set of rules of study inclusion and
For the systematic review database, the study inclusion parameters were:
- include seminal studies and meta-reviews published in the period 2010-2017;
- include studies drawing on any context but published in English;
- include peer reviewed articles and doctoral dissertations.
- include articles which are clear and robust and methodologically sound, so that the
conclusions drawn are warranted from the data as presented and analysed;
- include empirical investigations which connect to the age group of 0-8 years.
4.2. Selection process for the narrative review
For our initial literature review the study inclusion parameters were less stringent, which
produced a larger set of studies that included practice-based research or postgraduate
works such as doctoral and Masters dissertations. The latter were particularly helpful in
building our understanding of the key literature that informs nascent work in this area.
Our broader narrative review therefore includes research conducted from multiple research
perspectives with a range of approaches, including positivist empirical work and
constructivist qualitative studies. It includes studies that were written for a particular
audience in mind, notably studies carried out and written-up by educational professionals
for other educational professionals. This broad orientation could not be maintained for the
systematic review process that excluded pictures of practice and studies that do not
conform to the Anglo-American deﬁnition of what constitutes rigour and signiﬁcance in
4.3. Search process
The search process included keyword search of databases, snowball approach of
following up reference lists and manual searching of key journals and sources (e.g., ERIC,
PsychoINFO, BEI, AEI, BPLC, COPAC, Dissertations, ECO, Education Abs, Papers First).
In selecting the databases, we preserved the DigiLitEY COST Action’s orientation towards
interdisciplinary research and integrates literature from a number of disciplines: Applied
Linguistics; Childhood Studies; Children's Literature; Computer Science; Cultural Studies;
Early Childhood Education; Information Studies; Language and Literature; Media Studies;
Psychology; Sociological Studies.
We consulted our methodology with the subject librarians at the Vanderbilt and IOE
Universities, who directed us to the relevant library databases and helped us generate a list
of the most frequently used keywords for children’s early writing. The following list of
keywords (and their combination) was used for the initial search of databases:
emergent writing, writing; joint writing; drawing; conventional writing; name writing;
letter writing; spelling; alphabet knowledge; emergent writing skills; print motivation;
multisensory learning; letter-name recognition; young children; graphicacy;
designing; meaning making; graphic signs; ﬁnger painting; pre-school; iPads;
touchscreens, screens; Touch screen tablets; Apps; Emergent literacy; Home
Following initial broad searches, conversations among the authors and the subject
librarians, the keywords were condensed into a search phrase “digital AND writing AND
(children OR child)”. Five key databases were searched with this search phrase: ERIC,
Web of Science, PsychInfo, EBSCO and SCOPUS. Studies found through this search
were manually checked to accord with the above criteria, especially to ensure that the
authors’ deﬁnition of children corresponded to the 0-8 age bracket and that the writing
activity corresponded to one of the terms deﬁned earlier.
The coding process was facilitated with the use of a SPSS ﬁle that contained all the coding
categories with a quick pull-out menu for all sub-categories.
The initial search process resulted in a bank of 105 studies. Preliminary screening
using inclusion criteria established that 25 of these were not relevant either because
the age group was older, or they weren’t available in English or there was no meaning-
making involved. These studies needed to be further analysed and this analysis
occurred both inductively (with categories and criteria informed by the search process)
and deductively (with categories informed by previous literature). In this report, we
focus on the deductive analysis of the database, which was informed by a set of key
To conduct the deductive analysis, we selected some studies in the area that have
wide and current reviews of research in the ﬁeld. We were drawn to the reviews of
literature in these studies but some of them have also signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced the ﬁeld
of children’s writing on screen and off-screen either through a theoretical or conceptual
contribution or a rigorously designed study with important ﬁndings. We identiﬁed these
studies through conversation among us, authors, by looking at the papers’ citation rate
as well as the place of publication (journal name and type and its impact factor) and
the practice- or policy-related impact generated by these studies. The issues that that
were brought up in the larger literature about child composing are illustrated in these
studies, so we reﬂect on their key contributions within a structure of macro, meso and
micro-levels that represent the key elements that were addressed in the studies.
5.1. The Macro inﬂuences
The macro level is representative of the focus on theoretical frameworks and policy-
related perspectives that shape children’s actual practices at home or in the
classroom. The macro level reminds us about the importance of researchers’ own
epistemological stance and perspective when it comes to study design, data collection
and data analysis. It also alerts us to the importance of paying close attention to the
methods that are being used by the researchers and their qualitative or quantitative
As mentioned, our narrative review includes studies that were written by educational
professionals for other educational professionals. These studies tend to focus on the
implications for practice and the connection between data and school curriculum.
These studies are “pictures of practice” that offer classroom-based descriptive data
about what teachers and children did around composing, with a commentary around
this process but scant information about how the data were selected or interpreted.
There is rarely a systematic data analysis in these studies, but there is often rich
contextual detail that situates children’s writing on screen in their school/home life.
5.1.1. Multiplicity of research and practice perspectives
An example of a study that supported the review’s conceptualizations and
acknowledges these tensions in the ﬁeld of children’s writing on screen is Labbo and
Reinking’s (2003) study. The authors address the issue of what they refer to as ‘multiple
realities’ in interpreting children’s writing on screen and caution against the danger of
perceiving technology as either medium or message of children’s writing. The authors
present a framework ‘based on potential goals, motivations, or reasons for integrating
(or in some cases not integrating) new digital technologies with literacy instruction’ (p.
481). Labbo and Reinking (2003) consider past research from the multiple realities
perspectives and conclude that technology can support children’s literacy, including
writing, but it needs to be evaluated in terms of alternative educational goals.
Labbo and Reinking structure their review according to ﬁve alternative ways in which
technologies could be used in classrooms: 1, technologies should be made available
and 2, used to enhance the goals of instruction; 3, technologies should be used to
positively transform literacy instruction; 4, technologies should prepare students for the
literacy of the future and 5, empower them. These alternative goals help interpret the
research evidence but also reveal the diverse and complex realities implicated in the
study of children’s writing on and with screens. The study sends a strong message for
considering research from multiple and alternative perspectives.
5.1.2. The importance of “Pictures of Practice”
A recognition of multiple realities is closely tied to a recognition of diverse audiences
and recipients of research. Academics writing for other academics choose a different
language and method than professionals writing for other professionals. It is not so
much a matter of which method different stakeholders choose to document a practice
(a case study can be as empirically rigorous as a randomised controlled trial), but
rather the emphasis paid to methods during the study and their description after the
study. Studies that we considered to be pictures of practice carry a strong advocacy
message and proﬁle the contribution of action research and teacher-research to the
ﬁeld. The notion of Pictures of Practice draws attention to the authenticity of the context
in which the composing activity occurred as well as the methods used to evaluate the
products generated in this context. As such, it motivates questions around methods
and the robustness of conclusions drawn from the study. Clearly, conclusions based on
a quick snapshot/one-off observation cannot be as robust as those based on several
and prolonged observations.
5.1.3. Processes of children’s engagement in writing on screen
The theoretical orientation and perspective adopted in the study determine the
research questions and inﬂuence whether researchers focus on outputs or processes.
Some research reports describe in detail the process of children’s writing on screen.
For example, Andersson & Hashemi’s (2016) study was an illuminative piece of
empirical research that examined in detail how Swedish 7-8-year olds engage with
writing with and without screens. While recognising that the needs and purposes of
writing have not changed and remain fundamental in driving and structuring children’s
writing, the authors point out that there are some new activities that shape the nature of
early literacy. In their observations of Swedish primary school pupils it was the
possibility to Tweet and blog that opened up the doors to new kinds of children’s
writing engagement. Similarly, the focus of Davidson’s study (2009) was on children’
writing at home and the stark contrast that exists between children’s experiences of
writing at home and in schools. Using the case study method with two children and
conversation analysis, the author makes the argument that there is a signiﬁcant
disconnect between the writing practices children encounter in schools and those that
happen at home. She outlines the ways in which the use of Wikipedia and Google
Search informed the children’s learning at home but these paths of learning were not
valorised in the school environment. With the lens directed towards speciﬁc software
programs and individual children’s experiences, the study contains important practice-
related messages about children’s writing on screen.
5.2. The Meso- inﬂuences
In early childhood research, a typical research problem involves an interaction triangle
that consists of a child, adult and an object interacting together. Some studies,
especially those that follow a more socio-cultural orientation, tend to emphasise the
adult’s mediating role in the interaction while others focus on the role of the object or
technology. We locate our work in a socio-cultural perspective on children’s learning
(e.g., Vygotsky, 1980) that acknowledges the combined inﬂuence of society and
technology on children’s development and the socio-technological environment they
grow up in. This epistemological orientation has inﬂuenced our own work in this area
but also our approach to this literature review and interpretation of the studies included
in the review. It is, however, not the dominant orientation in the early childhood ﬁeld.
Indeed, when it comes to children’s writing on screen and the child-adult-object
triangle, the ﬁeld wrestles with several dichotomies.
A binary discourse that is particularly salient in relation to children’s writing on screen is
the tension that is known as the ‘print-based literacy’ versus ‘multiliteracies’ tension in
literacy studies (Mills, 2005). Drawing on work by Featherstone, Lash & Robertson,
1995, Mills (2005) rightly identiﬁes that ‘multiliteracies are tied to the plurality and
multicultural nature of local educational contexts, and of language and literacies as a
consequence of cultural globalisation’. The possibility to create texts with new
technologies creates ‘a fusion of linguistic, audio, iconic, spatial, and gestural
modes’ (Delany & Landow, 1993, cited in Mills, 2005, p.73), but many studies and
indeed school writing activities, are exclusively print-oriented. A focus on the
interaction around or with the writing tool can help address this tension as it redirects
the problem of ‘what’ (multi- versus print-literacies) to the question of ‘how’.
The question of how writing occurs and how it is mediated is often answered in terms
of the distinction between writing and drawing. Researchers who follow the
developmental psychology tradition are interested in the ways in which adults mediate
children’s writing, and what is being recognised as drawing or emergent writing. The
“traditional view” (Vygotsky, 1967) is that writing evolves from drawing, while a more
recent view (Levin & Bus, 2003, p.892) is that ‘drawing and writing are systems that
originate independently and that develop separately, neither one preceding the other’.
5.2.1. Adult mediation
A signiﬁcant study in this area was conducted by Aram & Levin (2001), which involved
forty-one 5-9-year olds from low socio-economic status families. The context for this
work was off-screen composing, but we were inspired by the study’s focus on adult
mediation. The researchers studied how mothers help their children write words and
names and then analysed the strategies mothers used during the interaction. They
found that the quality of mothers’ strategies was different for the individual children,
with some mothers supporting children within their zone of proximal development
(Vygotsky, 1978) and some stretching their understanding beyond their current level of
development. The researchers analysed mothers’ strategies in relation to the use of
grapho-phonemic and orthographic rules. They also evaluated mothers’ strategies with
a six-point scale and the following six behaviours: Mother writes down all the letters of
the word for the child; Mother writes down all the letters of the word as a model for
copying; Mother dictates a letter; Mother retrieves a phonological unit (syllable, sub-
syllable or phoneme) and immediately dictates the required letter name; Mother
retrieves a phonological unit (syllable, sub-syllable or phoneme); Mother encourages/
helps the child to retrieve a phonological unit (syllable, sub-syllable or phoneme) and
to link it with a letter name. Children of mothers who scored highest on the writing-
mediation techniques, had the highest scores on word writing, word recognition and
phonological awareness. Importantly, this predictive effect of mothers’ mediation was
present even after controlling for all sociocultural factors. This study was with Hebrew
speaking children so some of the mediating strategies might not apply to other
languages. Nevertheless, the relevance of adult mediation for children’s emergent
writing was strongly signalled by the study and therefore included in our evaluation
5.2.2. Tool mediation and the writing medium
There are not many literature reviews dedicated speciﬁcally to children’s writing with
screens. Professor Guy Merchant’s narrative reviews (published in 2005 and 2008 as
book chapters) have elucidated the importance of the writing medium from a socio-
cultural perspective. Merchant’s philosophical and historical analysis of writing and
technologies thus prompts reﬂection on the socio-historical forces shaping perceptions
of what counts as writing and how the writing medium affects these perceptions.
The author makes strong historical links between current and previous use of writing
tools and technologies by invoking mythology and archaeological records. He
considers the evolution of writing with reference to Marie Clay’s writing principles and
the changes that occurred with the advent of new technologies. In comparing Clay’s
principles developed for writing on paper with current writing on screen, Merchant
(2005) notes some key adaptations. For example, the recurring principle, ie the
principle that writing is made of letters that are being repeated in various recurrences
to build words and meaning, is affected by the computer-mediated possibility to hold
down a key, cut and paste. The generating principle, ie that writing signs are used in
different combinations to produce meaning, is not affected by the screen. The
directional principle, however, is strongly affected by the screen because word
processors for example restrict the direction of writing by using their own orthodox
principles (see Merchant, 2005, p. 197 for details). Merchant selectively but
strategically references literature that brings to fore new features of the digital medium
and its inﬂuence on children’s writing. For example, Matthewman and Triggs (2004)
argued that on-screen writing affords more integration and ﬂuidity to children’s writing
and Merchant’s own research found children’s increased attention on the visual
appearance of digital writing (i.e. focus on font size and colour, layout and use of
images). Children’s appreciation of the aesthetics of the digital text did not always align
with teachers’ view on writing and Merchant therefore calls for more professional
attention to the new characteristics of writing produced by new digital technologies.
5.3. The Micro-Level inﬂuences
The meso-level of inﬂuence illustrates that adults and tools mediate a child’s activity
and thus offer possibilities for the child’s engagement. However, the ways in which
these possibilities are taken up by individual children vary and are contingent not only
upon the wider context but also the individual differences among children. A theoretical
concept that ﬁttingly captures this complexity is that of a modal affordance, theorized
by Gibson (1979) and later by Norman (2013) and Kress (2010). Affordance captures
the inﬂuence of the object as well as that of the social context in which this object is or
has been used; it represents its socio-material nature that is revised and taken up
differently in different contexts. Affordances offer different possibilities for children’s
engagement, which in our focus on multimodal meaning-expression and linguistic
components, raised some detailed questions around the boundaries of children’s
composing on screen.
If we consider writing to carry a linguistic message, we need to also acknowledge that
there are some expressions that combine a linguistic and iconic representation. For
Sticht (1979) a schematic representation, such as a ﬂowchart, is an example of where
the boundaries between pictorial and linguistic signs become blurred. A contemporary
example could be a digital sticker (often used in messaging services) that combines a
picture and text, and that is used by the child in the composing process to
communicate an emotion to others. For example, this sticker (see Figure 1)
representing love combines an iconic and linguistic mode to communicate an affective
Figure1: This Viber sticker for love is from Next Games Store, freely available from
GooglePlay and APKPure stores.
Stickers are different from emojis- while emojis are purposefully designed to have a
standardized look across platforms (e.g., the same emoji of a smiley face is available
via Facebook messenger regardless of whether the messenger is accessed from a
tablet or PC), stickers are not platform-agnostic, they can be customised by the user
and have a different appearance on different devices. A sticker can be considered to
be a ready-made imagery that allows children to express their intentions in a polished
format, readily recognised by others. Just like in a traditional composing activity, the
purpose and intention of communication are part of the act of choosing and sending a
sticker to someone else. However, a sticker can be sent with a single tap thus
minimising the extent of child’s agency in its delivery. The pre-designed format of the
ﬁnal product raise questions of whether this kind of activity should count as writing on
Children’s use of stickers provides a convenient example of why the ﬁeld of children’s
writing on screen merits a careful consideration of individual units of analysis and
clarifying what we mean by writing and drawing, digital and physical and other terms.
It also challenges the notion of linear inﬂuences and brings to fore the affordances that
individual children might adopt, resist or subvert in their composing acts. In our own
work, we have spent a considerable amount of time clarifying our understandings of
these complex inter-relationships and this, inevitably, has brought a tendency to
evaluate them in others’ work too.
5.3.1. Child’s dispositions and possibilities to act
Rowe (2008)’s study and later studies led by Rowe (Rowe, & Neitzel, 2010) and (Rowe
& Miller, 2015) have been major contributions in understanding the importance of
children’s agency in interpreting their writing products and facilitating their writing in
schools. Rowe (2008) argued for the importance of recognising and validating the
‘social contracts’ that children negotiate in relation to their writing experiences. Drawing
on nine-months-long observations of the writing practices of eighteen two-year olds in
a US classroom, the author locates learner agency and power in three key instances:
when negotiating the physical properties of texts and where the boundaries of text
begin and end; when negotiating the boundaries between art (drawings) and writing
(letters) and when negotiating the ownership of texts created by children but often
claimed by adults. The importance of these negotiations is compelling and raises
questions about the attention paid by researchers and practitioners to children’s
agency and child attributes in the writing process. Children’s abilities, demographic
characteristics, language spoken by the child during the composing event and the
status of these languages in the given environment, socio-cultural background and
other markers of ‘self’ undoubtedly inﬂuence children’s ability to negotiate the complex
interplay among their writing products and adults’ response to them.
5.3.2. Features of children’s engagement
While substantial empirical and theoretical efforts are being pursued to clarify the role
of the digital medium, a signiﬁcant emerging literature looks at the features of children’s
engagement with technologies. Kucirkova, Littleton & Cremin (2016) theorized six such
features for children’s engagement with digital interactive books (also known as story
apps): affective, sustained, shared, interactive, personalized and creative
engagement. These features are implicated in reading and writing on and off screen,
but they are related to different modalities afforded by different media. For example,
Kucirkova (2014, 2016) has studied the different modalities of expression in relation to
personalized engagement and how personalized books inﬂuence children’s
understanding when represented in visual, audio or textual modes. For the visual
mode, non-digital toddlers’ books might include a small mirror surface, while digital
books can be linked to the touchscreen’s front camera so that children can see their
own face as part of the book pages. The different modalities carry different temporal,
spatial and social properties. While with a mirror, a child’s face is part of the book
temporarily and changes as soon as the child changes her facial expression, a digital
picture, or a selﬁe, stores and archives the child’s photograph in the cloud or on the
provider’s server. In terms of textual personalization, the level can range from simple
ownership markers (e.g., a child can add their name to the line ‘This Book Belongs To’
on the book’s cover) to digital books that automatically replace story characters with
the names of the child and his/her family members (e.g., the Mr Glue Stories app).
The emphasis on children’s engagement and the modes of this engagement has
begun to impact directly on the evaluation criteria of children’s digital products used by
teachers (e.g., the UKLA Children’s Digital Book Award) and parents (e.g, Literacy
Apps developed by the National Literacy Trust) and the meaning-making modes have
been also included in our evaluation framework of the published studies.
Key factors in studying
children’s writing on screen
These key studies allowed us to generate a set of deductive codes for interrogating main
issues in the published literature. We needed to condense them into a set of questions that
can be used to simplify but not oversimplify the key foci and contributions from published
research. Table1 summarises the key issues and the corresponding questions used in our
Table1: Deductive codes and questions for analysis
Was the study primarily concerned with outputs or processes?
What was the key research question?
What was the theoretical orientation and perspective adopted in the study?
Was the reported study a systematically conducted empirical study or a
practice snapshot or a literature review?
In which context did the composing activity occur?
Was the study a quick snapshot/one-off observation that lasted a few days
or was it a longitudinal study that lasted several years?
Does the study describe the adult composing with or around the child?
Which tools were used in the composing activity? Was the primary focus on
the hardware or the software program used by the child? Was the program
template-based or open-ended?
What are the child’s demographic characteristics?
Which languages were spoken by the child during the composing event and
what is the status of these languages in the given environment?
Which meaning-making modes were used by the children during the
6.1. Description of the coding framework
These deductive codes were incorporated into a coding framework, detailed in Table2.
Table 2: The coding framework for the published studies
Research question/ key focus
Study duration (Macro-inﬂuences)
(where the child is
If community, type
in type of
Select if applicable. If yes, type in: What digital spaces is the child
visiting to compose, share, etc.?
Select from the following categories
Preschool/kindergarten, Head Start/Sure Start, elementary/primary
school; other [type in]
Specify the descriptors of the program by selecting:
(dual immersion language program; public elementary school;
Creative Curriculum, afterschool program, other [type in], not
Child’s Composing Product/Process: What is the Child Composing or Doing?
Type in: Brief description of the child’s composing product or process
List the nation(s) where data were collected
(Categories include: UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand,
Europe and Other [list which other when selected]
Not speciﬁed (NS)
Sample Size (children;
[Type in total number of children; total number of classes, families,
or other units described]
Languages Spoken at
List languages spoken by the
children at home, as described
by the researchers. (categories
include English and other) [list
which other when selected]!
during the Composing
List languages spoken by the
children during the composing
Meaning-Making Modes Used by Children
but part of
Other Modes? [list] speech recognition is an example of other modes
6.2. Applying the coding framework
To illustrate the application of the framework, we outline the values we have assigned to
four representative studies. These four studies are a mixture of practice-oriented,
dissertation and purely empirical studies that we selected from the database of 105
Baker, E. B. A. (2017). Apps, iPads, and Literacy: Examining the Feasibility of Speech
Recognition in a First‐Grade Classroom.$Reading Research Quarterly,$52(3), 291-310.
Bigelow, E. (2013). iWrite: Digital message making practices of young children. Vanderbilt
University. Nashville, TN.
Dalton, B., & Grisham, L. D. 92013). Love That Book: Multimodal response to literature.
Reading Teacher, 67(3), 220-225.
Husbye, N. E., Buchholz, B., Coggin, L. S., Powell, C.W., & Wohlwend, K. E. (2012).
Critical lessons and playful literacies: Digital media in PK-2 classrooms. Language Arts,
Table 3: Coding applied to four representative studies
7.1. Research implications and future avenues
Our coding framework outlines a method that can be applied to future reviews of children’s
writing on screen. It can be also used to evaluate current practices in formal, non-formal or
informal contexts in which children compose with and on screens. The framework and the
method we followed allowed us to generate a database of studies that can be further
analysed with criteria of systematic reviews or with research questions characteristic of
broader literature reviews. In a traditional systematic review, studies that use less stringent
methods would be excluded in the search process. In our review, pictures of practice
would not be suitable for a systematic analysis of evidence, but we logged these studies
and kept them on ﬁle, because we consider them to be part of the rich spectrum of
research concerned with children’s writing on screen.
As a result, the ﬁnal database of studies can be interrogated with various research
questions and analysed from various theoretical perspectives. In Kucirkova, Rowe, Oliver &
Piestrzynski, (submitted), we focus on the following research questions:
-How has children’s writing on screen been deﬁned and measured in the research
conducted between 2010-2017?
-What was the purpose of the composing event and the modalities selected for children’s
writing on screen?
In our future work, we aim to address the following research questions:
-What is the content of children’s writing at this young age and which attributes
characterise children’s writing on screen?
-What is known from the existing literature about the effectiveness of early introduction to
writing on screen?
-To what extent does children’s writing on screen support their reading skills and broader
Although we aimed to be inclusive of research conducted in any country worldwide, we
limited our search to studies published in the English language. With a small team based in
the UK and USA this is perhaps an understandable limitation but we recognise that a truly
international review of literature would need to include studies published in any language.
For future reviews, we recommend that researchers include the cost of translation into their
budget. We also recommend that researchers engage in collaboration with international
research networks to locate literature published in different languages. There are different
research cultures and research traditions across the world and we caution that our search
strategy has strongly followed the Anglo-American tradition. Future work could address the
shortage of international evidence by using a shared analysis framework, but sourcing
studies from alternative and additional databases.
Another limitation of our review concerns the choice of the ﬁnal keywords used for mining
the literature. Although we started with a long list of keywords and related terms, we
needed to focus on one. The choice of the word ‘writing’ would have inevitably excluded
studies exclusively focused on multimodal composing and work that is located more in the
children’s art literature. We recommend using the verb ‘composing’ as a possible keyword
for future publications and literature searching and research interested in the multimodal
aspect of children’s writing.
6.3. Practical implications for designers
Some of the coding criteria, in particular those relevant for children’s engagement, could
be reﬁned and re-purposed for evaluating the quality of children’s software programs
developed for children’s multimodal writing. Current rubrics and criteria for evaluating the
quality of children’s media (e.g., Common Sense Media http://
www.commonsensemedia.org/; Digital Storytime http://digital-storytime.com), rely on
broad usability categories (e.g, is the app easy to operate) rather than what it affords for
children’s multimodal writing. Our coding criteria could be incorporated as additional
categories for more detailed and speciﬁc scoring of children’s digital technologies.
6.4. Practical implications for teaching professionals
This last section discusses the pedagogies that are needed to support the most
inspirational pedagogical practices, as deﬁned by the framework. The framework can be
used as a reference point for practitioners who plan for writing activities in the classroom
and who aim to offer a wide range of multimodal engagement possibilities in their
classrooms. For example, teachers and early years practitioners could consider the
availability and accessibility of diverse meaning-making modes for children. They could
consider how diverse modes for art-making (e.g., child drawing on screen, child drawing
off screen, child photography, selecting pre-made images) as well as dramatic play,
exploratory play and text production on and off screen are represented in their teaching
plans. We do not suggest that teachers provide opportunities for all meaning-making
modes in one session, but rather that they aim for an optimal balance of on- and off-
screen writing and the multiple forms these can take.
A broader deﬁnition of children’s writing on screen could inspire policy around what
constitutes appropriate assessment frameworks for children’s writing. The current national
assessment frameworks focus solely on children’s writing off-screen, which misrepresents
their abilities and daily out-of-school practices (see Twining et al., 2017). Unlike the majority
of papers included in our literature review, this report is written in an accessible language
and made freely available online. This dissemination channel could be leveraged to
communicate the key messages to a range of stakeholders and raise awareness about the
complex nature of children’s writing on screen.
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