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date: 24 March 2018

Digital Literacies in Early Childhood

Summary and Keywords

The study of digital literacies in early childhood (0–8 years) is an emergent and fast-growing area of scholarship. Young children’s communicative practices are today more complex and diverse in scope than ever before, encompassing both “traditional” reading and writing and a growing range of “new” communicative competencies across multiple digital media contexts. Scholars are increasingly interested in children’s literacy practices outside traditional print-based texts, and the theory of multimodality helps them to understand children’s communicative practices in relation to a range of modes, including those present in digital technology. At the same time, the boundaries between what constitutes “digital” and “traditional” literacies are themselves blurred. Multiple academic disciplines have contributed to our understanding of children’s digital literacy practices. Numerous definitions for digital literacy or literacies exist, and scholars have proposed a range of theoretical approaches to the topic. Bill Green’s “3D model” of literacy provides a useful starting point for understanding the different dimensions of children’s digital literacy: operational, cultural, and critical.

It is acknowledged that children’s digital literacy practices are specific to particular social and cultural contexts. In particular, scholars have identified important differences between accepted literacy practices in schools and early years’ settings (“school literacies”) and children’s literacy practices in a socioculturally diverse range of home settings (“home literacies”). A growing field of research is explicitly concerned with the unique skills developed at home, as children learn to produce and interpret a range of “new” digital and multimodal texts. At the same time, numerous scholars have suggested that there is still a general lack of progress with regard to early years’ practitioners’ use of technology in the curriculum. Gaps and absences in knowledge still exist, and it will be important for scholars over the coming years to continue research into young children’s digital literacy practices, both in homes and communities and across early years’ settings.

Keywords: digital literacies, early childhood, home literacies, school literacies, multimodality, digital media, 3D model, communication, digital technology


Though young children’s knowledge of, and learning with, written language has been an object of academic inquiry for well over a century (Gillen & Hall, 2013), their communicative practices are today more complex and diverse in scope than ever before, encompassing both “traditional” reading and writing and a growing range of “new” communicative competencies across multiple digital media contexts. There is thus a vital need for research that continues to investigate very young children’s communicative practices as these practices endure and evolve over the course of the 21st century. At present, however, there are recognised knowledge gaps with regards to the digital literacies of the very youngest children in our societies (Sefton-Green, Marsh, Erstad, & Flewitt, 2016). Current knowledge on young children’s digital literacies is examined. Much research on the topic is still emergent, however, as the field attracts “talented and reflective researchers whose work is going to shape our understanding of this area further in the years ahead” (Marsh, 2016a).

It is important to acknowledge that digital literacies and early childhood are, themselves, contested terms. The phrase “digital literacies” is used here to refer to the diversity of young children’s literacy practices across a wide range of media (Sefton-Green et al., 2016). Similarly, there is no universally accepted definition for the term “early childhood,” though many adopt the term as applicable to children aged between 0 and 8 years (Farrell, Kagan, & Tisdall, 2015).

In studying the role of the “digital” in early childhood, there is perhaps a temptation to fixate on the newest digital phenomena in children’s lives. However, it is also essential to pay attention to the diverse contexts of contemporary childhoods within which children engage with texts. These are, themselves, continuously changing, not just technologically, but also socially and culturally, altering the nature of both “traditional” and “new” literacy practices; “contemporary childhoods are shaped by and, in turn, shape the changing communicative practices of the twenty-first century” (Marsh, 2005, p. 1). While something of a “paradigm shift” (Marsh, 2005, p. 1) has taken place with regards to young children’s contemporary communicative practices, it is also important to acknowledge that the boundaries between what constitutes “digital” and “traditional” literacies are themselves blurred. As Guy Merchant cautions, attempts to map and theorize “the changing landscape of new communications technology” (2007, p. 241) can result in the construction of arbitrary and unhelpful binaries such as “new” versus “traditional” (print) literacies.

Digital Literacies: Definitions and Theories

Just as the contexts of contemporary childhoods are subject to change, so too are the ways in which scholars define, theorize, and study children’s communicative practices within them. The study of digital literacy or literacies in early childhood is an emerging field (Sefton-Green, Marsh, Erstad, & Flewitt, 2016) and one that is currently in the process of being defined and theorized. In recent years, myriad definitions, theorizations, and areas of inquiry have emerged, making “digital literacies” a complex and contested site.

Since making its first appearance in print in 1883 (Gillen & Hall, 2013), the term “literacy” has been primarily associated with people and written language, taking the lettered representation as the primary mode through which we, as human beings, make sense of the world. Historically, then, research into early childhood literacy has defined the topic in terms of language-based texts, focusing on the processes and practices of young children learning to interpret and create them (i.e., to read and write). Existing literature presents several slightly different (though inter-related) accounts or definitions of the term “digital literacy(/ies) in early childhood.” Disagreement persists over whether “literacy” is truly singular or plural (Kalantzis, Cope, & Harvey, 2003) and whether so-called “metaphorical” uses of the term (Barton, 1994) are helpful or misleading (Merchant, 2007). While Buckingham (2006) suggests that the use of terms such as “digital literacy” and “new literacies” are already widely accepted, Kress (2003) argues that “literacy” specifically refers to “lettered representation” and, as such, we must find another way to talk about the encoding and decoding practices used in relation to other media. Street (1997) offers the use of the term “communicative practices” to cover those practices excluded by Kress’s definition. Marsh, meanwhile, addresses the issue by talking about both the “literacy practices which are related to digital technologies” and “the wider range of communicative practices which are mediated through new technologies and acknowledge the multimodal nature of young children’s meaning-making” (2005, p. 4).

A variety of theoretical frameworks have been used to theorize early childhood literacy in the past, two notable examples being the “four resources model” (Freebody & Luke, 1990) and the “3D model” (Green, 1988). Green’s model suggested three dimensions of children’s literacy: operational, cultural, and critical. Green and Beavis (2012) argue that the “3D model” can be adapted to include an emphasis on communication in a digital age. Latterly, Colvert (2015) has adapted Green’s model to identify the way in which the processes involved in meaning-making can be inflected by all three dimensions of digital literacy. Thus, the “operational” dimension of digital literacy can be seen to relate to the skills and competencies required to interpret and create and make meaning across a diverse range of media. This includes both the “technical” skills required to operate digital technologies and cognitive skills required to become a competent communicator. The “cultural” dimension relates to the understandings and practices derived from engaging with digital literacy practices in specific social and cultural contexts. Finally, the “critical” dimension speaks to the comments of Buckingham (2006) and other media scholars who highlight the importance of children’s ability to critically interrogate digital texts with regard to issues such as power, voice, and agency. To date, such skills and competencies–based models have been applied predominantly in literacies work within formal educative contexts (explored in greater detail below) rather than to assess and value child and family digital communicative practices in homes and communities. Kazakoff (2015) offers an alternative theoretical framework for digital literacy in early childhood, identifying, comprising six components: understanding and utilizing digital interfaces, nonlinear navigation, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in digital domains, cooperative learning and play afforded by digital tools in early childhood, creative design afforded by digital tools in early childhood, and digitally enhanced communications in early childhood.

Early childhood literacies are considered here as a social practice (Street, 1995), and the role of the “digital” is but one part of young children’s range of literacy experiences, increasingly difficult to separate from the “traditional” aspects of literacies (Merchant, 2007). Readers may wish to consider the broader range of approaches that have been adopted in both historical and contemporary literature. Gillen and Hall (2013) describe the emergence of early childhood literacy as an object of inquiry, from its origins within the emerging modern discipline of psychology at the end of the 19th century (e.g., Catell, 1886), through its gradual transition from mainstream psychological study and into an established field in its own right, drawing on “a rich range of research and theoretical perspectives [. . .] in ways that often overlapped or were inextricably intertwined” (Gillen & Hall, 2013, p. 7). In the study of young children’s engagement with the digital, a diversity of disciplinary approaches still proliferates. Edwards and Bird (2017), for example, employ Vygotskian ideas about tool mediation to great effect in their study of young children’s digital play in early childhood settings. Wartella et al. propose a sociocultural positioning of “media and interactive technology” as “more knowledgeable others” (2016, p. 13) in their own extension of Vygotskian scaffolding. However, two core developments in the study of “digital literacies” in early childhood have distanced and defined the field as it stands today from its origins within mainstream psychological study.

Firstly, unlike their developmental psychological contemporaries, literacies scholars of the 1970s and 1980s began to radically change their methodologies to reflect a new, wider conceptualization of the “social” contexts of children’s literacy learning, to include families, homes, and broader communities, drawing on diverse approaches such as ethnography (e.g., Heath, 1983) and anthropology (e.g., Taylor, 1983). This conceptualization of the social has been pivotal in advancing understanding of the differences in literacy practices specific to particular social groups and the potential inequalities these differences may produce or amplify. In particular, scholars have focused on unpacking the differences between accepted literacy practices in school (Spencer, Knobel, & Lankshear, 2013) and children’s literacy practices in a socioculturally diverse range of home settings. Studies have considered the socio-communicative practices of particular minority ethnic groups (Fisher, 2003) and families from across the social class spectrum (Campano & Carpenter, 2005). This move to a broader conceptualization of the social contexts of children’s literacy learning has been commonly referred to as the “New Literacy Studies,” described as a field of study that aims to “provide a language of description for viewing literacy as a social practice in its social environments” (Kress & Street, 2006, p. vii). Developments in the study of the material (Miller, 2008), the post-structural (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988), and the post-human (Prout, 2008) have also begun to offer new possibilities for conceptualizing physical objects and spaces as playing a social role in children’s lives (Chimirri, 2014).

Secondly, literacies scholars became increasingly interested in social semiotics as a means of conceptualizing children’s literacy practices outside of traditional print-based texts (Rowe, 1994). Kress’s seminal work highlights the notion that human meaning-making is more than language based; “language is no longer the only or even the central semiotic mode” (2000, p. 149). Kress and Street (2006) contend that multimodal theory aims to “redress the emphasis on writing and speech as the central, salient modes of representation” (p. vii). Parry, for example, demonstrates how, through drawing film scenes visually, rather than articulating them in words, children can express their “rich understandings of narrative” (2013, p. 20), even though they have not yet mastered the necessary specialized vocabulary. Her data illustrate the idea that “children have rich repertoires of understanding of media language and narrative” (2013, p. 21), but that the specific barrier of technical language can prevent them from demonstrating this knowledge.

As with much early childhood research (Nutbrown, 2011), there has been a determined shift in the study of digital literacy toward participatory methodologies that encourage children’s involvement in research that affects their lives. Digital literacies scholars have also prioritized ecological and ethnographic techniques that consider children’s practices with the digital both holistically and in naturally occurring contexts (Gillen & Cameron, 2010). Scholars in this field are currently experimenting with methodologies that allow them to account for and assess the multimodal aspects of human communication (Dicks, Flewitt, Lancaster, & Pahl, 2011). Groups of scholars such as the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology)-funded DigiLitEY network are currently working to identify current practice and new methodologies for working with young children to capture the digital literacy experiences of the whole child. As work in this area continues, literacies scholars must pay close attention to the appropriateness of emerging methodologies with regard to both insightfulness and research ethics.

Digital Literacies in Homes and Communities

Various large-scale sources (e.g., Holloway, Green, & Livingstone, 2013) provide useful overviews of recent trends in children’s engagement with digital media and texts at home. Chronological review exposes some surprising continuities and discontinuities in children’s digital lives. For example, Ofcom (2016) reports continued rises in the tablet use of the very youngest U.K. children, with 55% of children aged three to four and 67% of those aged five to seven being reported to use a tablet at home in 2016. At the same time, children in these age ranges in the United Kingdom still spend more time watching television on a TV set than using any other form of media, although their relationships with television and related media are now arguably more complex than ever (Mackey, 2016). As technology changes, so too do aspects of young children’s lives at home, for example the relationship between play and technology. In 2014, Marsh reflected on how a proportionate reduction in the cost of televisions over time has given children more control and agency over their own viewing, as families became much more likely to own multiple television sets. Similarly, the technological advances that have granted tablet ownership to 25% of those aged zero to two years old and 36% of three-to-five year olds (Marsh et al., 2015) are changing children’s lives in other ways. Because very young children now engage with media texts across multiple platforms, including tablets, computers, and smartphones, they can exert control over their viewing to an even greater extent. Such devices enable children to watch short clips and instantly stop or repeat them, for example via YouTube. They can access content related to a live television show before, during, or after its live transmission via the numerous associated websites and apps. The unique affordances of digital platforms also enable very young children to curate (Potter, 2012) and create their own digital texts (Marsh, 2014).

At the same time, there are still knowledge gaps with regards to the digital literacy practices of very young children in homes and communities. How “traditional” home and community literacy practices have historically been addressed is explored, and some key developments in the most recent literature on young children’s digital literacy practices at home are reviewed, using Green’s 3D model (1988) as a heuristic device.

The Operational Domain

Historically, the study of early childhood literacy in homes and communities has tended to focus on its similarity to or divergence from formal literacy learning “in school” (or early childhood education [ECE] settings). Spencer, Knobel, and Lankshear highlight two primary traditions of study with regard to literacies that are not school-based. The first focuses on “any literacy practice—including school-like or school-centric literacies—occurring in contexts outside formal school settings” (Spencer et al., 2013, p. 133). Cairney and Ruge, for example, note that that while literacy practices in the home are more diverse than in school, such practices are inevitably heavily influenced by “school literacy” (1998, p. 36). Certainly, some recent work considers the potential of digital devices for “traditional” literacy development at home. Neumann and Neumann (2017) review existing literature, suggesting that there is evidence that tablets have the potential to foster emergent writing and letter knowledge. The authors helpfully bring together a number of studies focused on the lesser-researched younger end of the preschool spectrum (under-threes). However, the competences required to become digitally literate encompass not only “traditional” literacy skills, but also the physical abilities required to engage meaningfully with texts across a range of technologies and the skills specific to the production and interpretation of “new” digital and multimodal texts.

Some recent work in the operational domain attends to young children’s growing understandings of how literacies and digital technologies work. Pahl (2005) describes children’s textual explorations of console games in home settings. Geist (2012) pays close attention to young children working with digital devices, highlighting very young children’s spontaneous interactions with touch-screen devices. Marsh (2015) details the results of a parent survey relating to preschool (aged zero to five) children’s digital skills in the operational domain. The latter reports on 23 operational competences relating to tablet devices, including: swiping the screen (65% of this age group were reported to be able to do this unassisted); tracing shapes with their fingers (60% could do this unassisted); and dragging items across the screen (60% were able to do this unassisted).

A growing field is also explicitly concerned with the unique skills developed at home as children learn to produce and interpret a range of “new” digital and multimodal texts. Lewis (2011) observes a mother (Larnee) and son (Gerard) making meaning together through the latter’s interest in comics. Building on an interest in existing texts, Gerard makes his own comics both by hand and using his computer. The study highlights “the significance that semiotic modes” play “in his communicating and interacting” (Lewis, 2011, p. 85). Gerard and his mother communicate with one another “through gestures and interactions beyond language” (Lewis, 2011, p. 86). The case study is an example of how “various modes carry different kinds of information and meaning making that contribute to how individuals learn” (Lewis, 2011, p. 86). Harrison and McTavish similarly consider a wide range of modes in their 2016 study of infants’ and toddlers’ emergent language and literacy development in relation to digital devices at home. The authors conclude that digital devices have become one of the semiotic tools through which a child engages in meaning making every day, suggesting great potential for language and literacy development. Carrington & Dowdall (2013) carry out “object ethnography” of a child’s home. The study looks at the whole range of cultural meanings associated with the LEGO, from what the brand is attempting to do with it, the narrative around encouraging creativity and the builders and innovators of the future, to the role it plays in the children’s lives. The authors consider the “biography” of the bricks and mini-figures. The authors draw from “new material studies,” working on the basis that children’s artifacts play a key role in their constructions of “lifeworlds and dispositions” (Carrington & Dowdall, 2013, p. 97).

Recent studies in the area indicate that scholars are beginning to document and theorize the digital literacy practices of very young children in the operational domain within homes and communities. There are, however, some noticeable gaps, particularly in relation to the Global South, where understanding of young children’s digital practices still needs to be developed.

Although a number are identified here, there is still a deficit in studies considering the digital literacy practices of the youngest preschoolers (under-threes) in homes and communities.

The Cultural Domain

Spencer et al. (2013) identify a second type of “out-of-school” literacy study, one that is explicitly that which is outside the scope of literacy as accepted within the institution: “literacies that are not—or up until recently have not been—permitted or tolerated (and are not necessarily even practiced as ‘literacies’) in school” (p. 133). Studies in the latter tradition tend to adopt terms such as “everyday” (Prinsloo & Breier, 1996), “vernacular” (Camitta, 1993), or “alternative” (Cook-Gumperz & Keller-Cohen, 1993) to describe this literacy learning. The implication of such terms is an acknowledgement that most children engage competently in a range of communicative practices outside of school and “formal” literacy learning that are nevertheless not explicitly invited or rewarded in formal educative spaces.

As Spencer et al. point out, formal educative settings tend to “privilege particular and normative language and literacy uses” (2013, p. 138). Proponents of the New Literacy Studies have suggested that teachers should acknowledge the literacy learning that takes place at home (Heath, 1983). However, there has been a suggestion that teachers might not simply acknowledge but also actively use the learning that takes place at home within the classroom (Marsh & Millard, 2000). Inability to do so may result in a disconnect between children’s already well-established literacy practices and those that they are required to conform to in the classroom. Such exclusion is likely to impact on marginalized and disadvantaged groups disproportionately (Campano & Carpenter, 2005).

“Traditional” literacy researchers have long considered children’s home literacy as an inherently social practice (Hicks, 2002). Scholars were already focusing in detail on the importance of parental interaction as a part of the literacy development process. Cairney and Ruge (1998) observed parents engaging with children in a style imitative of a school teaching approach:

Mrs Haynes did not “read” the text of the story, but questioned the children about specific objects in the illustrations, and attributes of these objects. Like the homework sessions in many other families in this study, the interaction between Mrs Haynes and her children closely resembled typical classroom interactions. (p. 35)

Weinberger (1993) stresses the important role played by parents, suggesting that parents sharing books with preschoolers predicts later literacy achievements. Importantly, despite the negative correlation between literacy and low socioeconomic status (see Duncan & Seymour, 2000), Dorsey-Gaines & Taylor (1988) observe that many children growing up in situations of extreme economic hardship still grow up literate. Again, the interaction with parents emerges as important, the writers concluding that the family’s personal biographies and individual educative styles can make a difference to the literacy of children regardless of social class.

Arguably, then, many existing “home literacy” studies fall into Green’s “cultural domain” (Green, 1988). However, while traditional literacy scholars have considered the role that social and cultural factors play in children’s literacy development at home, much less is written about social and cultural dynamics in relation to digital media. This gap in the literature is perhaps symptomatic of a persistent perception of digital texts as “less social” than their traditional counterparts. Many such studies were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, when “technological advances were transforming the way in which societies communicated, but the effects on children’s communicative practices were less well understood” (Marsh, 2006, p. 19). A review of the “home literacies” literature of the period suggests that digital texts were largely excluded from the debate, because they were conceptualized as solitary and socially isolating. For example, Heath’s work is seminal in its approach to literacy and social class but falls back on certain assumptions with regards to digital media. In her 2012 study, she observes that “faces on screens of electronic toys could not chat with toddlers, narrate their fantasy play, or join them in block-building projects” (p. 117), reflecting a now-outdated assumption that parents do not engage with children in their play with digital objects and that digital devices cannot, in themselves, be considered “social.”

In recent years, more examples of studies considering the social and cultural contexts of digital literacies in early childhood can be found. Notably, Dezuanni, Beavis, and O’Mara (2015) harness Butler’s theories of performativity and recognition to explore identity work within affinity groups across the home-school divide. Davidson (2009) provides a carefully observed example of a social literacy learning experience in which two young children researching lizards at home use both the Internet and a traditional book about lizards in collaboration with their father. Given et al. (2016) use observational video recordings to document young children’s use of technology in their homes, highlighting the rich interaction of parents.

Despite this, specific gaps exist. It is still hard to find examples relating specifically to home contexts and to television, arguably because it is still broadly perceived as something preschoolers do alone. This is an unfortunate but prevalent misconception. Firstly, as others have pointed out, “television” now encompasses a wide range of media that go beyond the static set, and it is increasingly difficult to separate “television” as a unique measure from other media engagement (Marsh, 2006). Secondly, engagement with television is not, nor has it ever been, an asocial practice. Children’s engagement with television in front of the set is more often than not social, and their television-based play during and after watching television is also social (Buckingham, 1993). Perry and Moses provide a notable exception in their 2011 study featuring Sudanese refugee families living in the United States. In their case study, television viewing is associated with a diverse range of social practices within the family—discussing shows, drawing characters, and researching the shows further using library books and websites. The children in the study can make connections with their families and wider culture through this shared interest in television and to engage with language learning. Scott (2016) employs Bourdieusian notions of habitus and social capital to theorize how preschool children’s practices with television and related media at home are socially classed.

While consideration of the social contexts of children’s digital consumption is thankfully now commonplace in terms of parents (Lim, 2016), many writers are still limiting the “social” to parents and limiting “parents” to a narrow conceptualization of their roles as interventionists and mediators (e.g., Nevski & Siibak, 2016). Parental interaction is far from the only meaningful way in which children can develop literacy prior to school, given that other family members, peers, and the wider community can contribute to this process. Marsh, Hannon, Lewis, and Ritchie (2017) explore whole family digital literacy practices at home, pointing out that interaction with digital technologies is undertaken with a broad range of family members, including siblings, grandparents, and many others. The authors illustrate how two-year-old Sohail’s regular video calls with family members, including his aunt, have helped to scaffold his learning with regard to the affordances of video call technology. Marsh (2014) explores peer play inspired and influenced by televisual and other media texts. Her examples are playground-based, but it is equally likely that these child-child interactions occur in the home prior to the start of formal education. Finally, while maintaining a focus on the home and community, it is now possible to broaden the definition of social literacy events and practices. Drawing on Latour, Prout points out that every “device, machine, technology is neither pure nature nor pure culture, but a net-worked set of natural and social associations” (2008, p. 31). This expanded definition of emergent literacy paves the way for considering how digital media and texts contribute to a preschool child’s habitus, socially or socio-materially. Marsh (2016b) shows how young children draw on their social cultural contexts when engaging with and producing new texts at home, noting that their unique cultural landscapes consist of a complex array of influences, including popular cultural artifacts and texts, such as Disney princesses.

In relation to the cultural domain, recent studies in the area indicate broad gaps in coverage of the Global South, although a number of international studies provide an interesting starting point for cross-cultural comparison of family digital practices, for example Cheng and Tsai’s (2014) study on children and parents’ reading of an augmented reality picture book in Taiwan and Korat, Shamir, and Heibal’s (2013) study on parent-child reading in Israel. Specific gaps also exist world-wide in relation to the social contexts of digital engagement at home, in particular those outside parent-child interactions.

The Critical Domain

Children must develop a complex set of critical competencies to masterfully negotiate digital texts, as with their “traditional” counterparts, reflecting critical understanding, agency, preference, and intent in a digital environment. It is clear from Spencer et al.’s 2013 summary of home literacy studies that studies specifically focusing on the critical domain of literacy are less common than those exploring the operational and cultural domains, even within “traditional” literacy studies. Livingstone, Marsh, Plowman, Ottovordemgentschenfelde, and Fletcher-Watson identify a need for further research on how best to develop parents’ understanding and practices specifically in relation to the development of their children’s “critical digital literacy” (2015, p. 5), noting that parents in their U.K. study tended to infer more skill from observing their children’s interactions with digital devices than was warranted: “functional skill in using a device should not be confused with depth of understanding or critical skill” (Livingstone et al., 2015, p. 24). Marsh (2015) reaffirms the notion that young children in U.K. studies exhibit less critical skill with texts than in the other two dimensions of digital literacy, while pointing out that the children were not asked questions that may have allowed them to demonstrate their critical awareness.

Overly simplistic readings of children’s reactions to television have long been used as evidence that television can cause harm, whether it is said to stimulate violent impulses or promote racist or sexist attitudes (Maccoby, 1951). Media scholars such as Tobin (2000) and Kinder (1991) provide some more nuanced counter arguments to the dominant discourses of “effects,” which uncover examples of young children’s critical literacy skills at home. Using multiple, complex examples of real children’s responses to television and film, Tobin argues that children’s worlds are more complicated and distinctive than they have previously been credited with, drawing attention to (and reacting against) the often “sloppy” and unthinking use of the Althusserian concept of cultural interpellation by those studying children and the media. Drawing on Barthes, Kinder theorizes very young children’s engagements with media texts at home as a form of agential play. In the watching and re-watching of his first “favorite” film, The Empire Strikes Back, her participant is able to get closer and closer to understanding through a process of assimilation and accommodation; “this stage of obsessive repetitions through various signifying systems seemed to provide Victor with models for generating his own sentences and stories about events in his own life” (Kinder, 1991, p. 33).

Indeed, Marsh (2014) and Kinder both bring attention to the critical agency demonstrated by very young children at home in their curation and re-appropriation of existing media texts, the latter describing a “dual spectator/player position” (Kinder, 1991, p. 12) that children now play in their media lives. Similarly, Carrington and Dowdal note that children make their own meanings from physical objects, despite complex commercial back stories (e.g., in the case of LEGO mini-figures): “they are taken up differentially by children and often repurposed” (2013, p. 105). Winters & Vratulis (2012) describe how their six-year-old participant imports the semiotic resources and past critical positions that he has encountered in school into his play with a virtual game at home.

Pangrazio’s reconceptualization of critical digital literacy adds nuance to the debate, noting that critical digital literacy must extend to critical self-reflection as a means of exploring “the relationship between personal, affective responses to digital texts and broader ideological concerns” (2016, p. 171). As Marsh concurs, critical digital literacy is not only about texts (e.g., how far texts embed, or have been shaped by, power relations), encompassing “an understanding that knowledge production and transformation involves some level of criticality, as the selection of modes and media in the creation of texts requires critical engagement and reflection” (2015, p. 208). The latter notion of critical thinking is, indeed, evidenced in Marsh’s 2015 study, which shows children making informed decisions about the mode or media they choose for specific communicative acts.

In relation to the critical domain, recent studies in the field indicate that young children’s critical digital literacy in homes and communities is still an area that requires further empirical research.

The detailed study of children’s digital literacy practices at home is still an emergent field, but recent work evidences very clearly that young children are already demonstrating a wide range of sophisticated digital literacy skills and knowledge as part of their everyday interactions with digital texts and devices in their homes and communities.

Digital Literacies in Early Years’ Settings

Given the significant changes in young children’s lives due to technological developments, one would anticipate that early years’ settings (including play groups, baby and child care facilities, nurseries, and schools) would have developed their curricula and pedagogy accordingly. However, numerous scholars have suggested that this is not the case and that, conversely, there is still a general lack of progress with regard to early years’ practitioners’ use of technology in the curriculum (Thorpe et al., 2015). Successive reviews of research in this area have identified that studies that demonstrate productive and meaningful uses of digital technology in early years’ settings are limited in number (Burnett & Merchant, 2012). In light of these previous reviews, which identify research in the field that was conducted up until 2014, the focus here is on studies conducted in 2015 and 2016 and the key developments that have taken place during this period.

Green (1988) offered a framework that emphasizes three domains—the operational, cultural, and critical. Colvert (2015), in her conceptualization of the “ludic literacies” that occur in learners’ engagement with alternate reality games, adapted Green’s model to identify the way in which the processes involved in meaning-making (design, production, dissemination, and reception) can be inflected by all three dimensions. When designing, for example, the designer must understand what modes and media mean in a specific cultural context if he or she is to communicate effectively with the audience. The producer requires a range of operational skills if he or she is to create a text or artifact effectively. In the reception stage, the audience brings their own critical understandings to the text or artifact. These processes are embedded in young children’s engagement with digital texts and are, therefore, important to trace.

This narrative review of recent research in this area draws on Colvert’s and Green’s work to consider how far the studies considered are focused upon the operational, cultural, and critical domains, and whether they address all four stages of text production and reception, or just some of these. The studies reviewed are mapped across these domains and processes in Table 1.

Table 1. Recent Research on Digital Literacy in Early Years’ Settings: Domains and Processes






  • Laidlaw and Wong (2016)

  • Petersen (2015)

  • Rhoades (2016)

  • Rowe and Miller (2016)

  • Rowsell and Harwood (2015)

  • Laidlaw and Wong (2016)

  • Petersen (2015)

  • Rhoades (2016)

  • Rowe and Miller (2016)

  • Rowsell and Harwood (2015)

  • Price, Jewitt, and Crescenzi (2015)

  • Archard and Archard (2015)

  • Rhoades (2016)

  • Rowe and Miller (2016)

Kucirkova, Littleton, and Cremin (2017)


  • Daniels (2016)

  • Rowe and Miller (2016)

  • Rowsell and Harwood (2015)

  • Archard and Archard (2015)

  • Daniels (2016)

  • Rowe and Miller (2016)

  • Rowsell and Harwood (2015)

  • Zhao and Li (2015)

  • Khoo, Merry, Bennett, and MacMillan (2015)

Kucirkova, Littleton, and Cremin (2017)


  • Laidlaw and Wong (2016)

  • Rowsell and Harwood (2015)

  • Laidlaw and Wong (2016)

  • Rowsell and Harwood (2015)

Kucirkova, Littleton, and Cremin (2017)

Each of the domains will now be considered in turn.

The Operational Domain

The skills and knowledge required to become digitally literate encompass both “traditional” literacy skills (such as decoding and encoding letters and words) and competences related to multimodal text production and analysis using a range of technologies.

Recent studies have focused primarily on touchscreen technologies and have identified the skills and knowledge required to use these effectively. It is of little surprise that tablets should be the focus of much of this work, given their affordances for young children, as identified in early studies of this technology (Verenikina & Kervin , 2011; Yelland & Gilbert, 2013). They enable children to open and operate apps independently without having to learn how to use a mouse, and their physical dimensions mean that it is possible for more than one child to use them at once, thus fostering collaborative play and work (Neumann & Neumann, 2014).

Petersen (2015) conducted a study in three different preschools in Sweden involving children aged between 18 months and five years. She noted that children’s engagement with the tablet depended upon a number of factors, including the ease of use of the apps and the kinds of support offered by the teacher. Peterson focuses on the skills and knowledge developed as children design and produce multimodal texts, for example, a film using a stop-motion application. This is also the case in Laidlaw and Wong’s study of four kindergarten classes (children aged 4.5–6 years old) in Canada (Laidlaw & Wong, 2016). They demonstrate how children could independently use a range of photography, filmmaking, and story creation apps to design and produce complex, multimodal narratives that drew on specific features of the apps, such as the special effects filters.

The skills developed using tablets in these studies thus expand on the skills developed in more traditional meaning-making practices using pens and paper. Price, Jewitt, and Crescenzi argue that there are both gains and losses in this process (2015). Drawing on data from a study of seven children aged between 27 and 37 months in a London nursery, in which they were observed mark-making using both iPads and physical paper and paint, they suggest that the use of the tablet developed increased mark-making capacity, but note that this practice lacked the sensory experiences fostered by the use of paint and paper. This study does not focus on motivation, but it may be the case that the use of tablets motivates some children to engage in mark-making who might not otherwise be drawn to the activity. This is certainly suggested in Laidlaw and Wong’s study. There, the iPads were seen to promote children’s agency, giving them confidence and enabling them to see themselves as independent multimodal designers and producers.

This was also the case in Rowsell and Harwood’s two-year study of young children’s use of iPads across five early years’ classrooms in Canada (2015), which noted the ability of young children to create meaningful texts from whatever semiotic resources are at hand when using apps for design and production of multimodal texts. They also develop, as Rhoades argues in her analysis of a two-month preschool project in the United States (in which children engaged in arts-based meaning-making practices in response to the children’s book classic The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf), the ability to develop transmedia navigation skills (Rhoades, 2016). In her study, children moved fluidly across analogue and digital domains in their creation of digital animations of the traditional tale as they drew on and cut out paper and used these shapes and characters to re-tell the stories in a digital format.

It may be that the age-appropriate design of some of the apps now available for young children is fostering this move to independence. A number of the apps identified in these studies enable children to integrate print with audio and still and moving image with relative ease, which Rowe and Miller (2016) suggest supports the digital literacy development of young, emergent bilinguals. In their design-based two-year research study, they worked in a pre-kindergarten classroom (with four-year-olds) in a low-income area of the United States. All of the children were emergent bilinguals or biliterates. Children created e-books using iPads and digital cameras. Children were able to take photographs in homes and community settings, import these into an e-book app, and add text (emergent writing) and audio. The latter feature enabled children to use their heritage languages in addition to their developing English.

Rowe and Miller did not just focus on design and production but also demonstrated how children were able to disseminate their e-books to each other. This was important for the bilingual children because, as they note, “Even when the teacher did not speak all of her students’ heritage languages, sharing multilingual eBooks valued translanguaging as part of official classroom instruction” (Rowe & Miller, 2016, p. 456). Archard and Archard (2015) also focus on dissemination skills in their report of a study undertaken in a privately owned kindergarten for children aged 3.5 years to school age in Hamilton, New Zealand. They document how one child, Jessica, took photographs at home of a wooden birdhouse that she had built at the kindergarten, and she brought the photographs to school on a USB drive in order to share them with kindergarten staff. Further, Rhoades, 2016, notes how teachers saved children’s digital animations of the Three Little Pigs tale onto CD-ROMs, which they distributed to families. The kindergarten also posted the films on its website. In these practices, young children learn important skills about how the multimodal texts can be shared with others.

In a systematic review of literature relating to the impact of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) on children’s learning, Hsin, Li, and Tsai (2014, p. 85) suggested that “while most studies viewed children as consumers of technology, their role as creators has been understudied and deserves more research attention.” As the studies reviewed so far have demonstrated, the landscape has changed in that many of the more recent studies have identified children’s role as digital content creators, and the work on skills and knowledge related to the reception of digital texts appears to be located primarily in studies of children’s responses to e-books.

E-books offer a range of opportunities for engaging young children in the reading process. Kucirkova, Littleton, and Cremin (2017), following a review of literature on children’s engagement with e-books, identify six key facets of digital reading for pleasure and engagement: affective, creative, interactive, personalized, sustained, and shared. These facets can be fostered by early years’ practitioners who understand the potential role of digital texts in young children’s digital lives.

In relation to the operational domain, therefore, it is clear that recent studies in the area indicate that young children can develop a wide range of digital literacy skills and knowledge when they experience early years’ classrooms that provide opportunities for multimodal and multimedia text design, production, dissemination, and analysis. There are noticeable gaps in the literature, in particular with regard to the Global South. A number of studies outside the Global North have discussed the positive role digital devices may play in the classroom, but these tend to focus on foreign language learning specifically, and on slightly older children, as in Tsou, Wang, and Tzeng’s study on elementary schools using a multimedia storytelling website in Taiwan (2006).

The Cultural Domain

The social and cultural context in which children develop as digitally literate individuals inevitably shapes their experiences. The studies outlined above by Rowsell and Harwood (2015) and Rowe and Miller (2016) demonstrate in detail how children mobilize their out-of-school knowledge as they design and produce multimodal, digital texts, a process that Archard and Archard characterize as drawing on “digital habitus” (2015, p. 30).

The cultural lenses that frame children’s engagement with digital texts are various, ranging from the cultural practices of their particular communities, to global franchises that constitute children’s popular culture, and including what might be seen as children’s folk cultural practices, that is, the peer culture developed on streets and playgrounds. Daniels, in a close observation of four- and five year-olds in a year-long ethnographic study of a classroom in the United Kingdom, suggests that children present as “confident cultural agents” (2016, p. 23) when engaged in play and multimodal meaning-making, drawing on their cultural repertoires as they weave together popular culture texts with their own narratives and inventions.

Moving beyond design and production, a few studies consider the cultural dimensions of disseminating digital texts. Zhao and Li (2015) report on a study in which Finnish and Chinese children aged four to five in kindergartens in each country contributed to a shared blog. The children shared aspects of their cultural lives with each other in their blog posts. The children found it highly motivating, and both the Finnish and Chinese teachers felt that the blog provided children with an opportunity to engage in global communication with others outside of the kindergarten. Similarly, in a study based at one of the early childhood education and care centers situated in Hamilton, New Zealand, practitioners used Facetime to enable children in two different preschool centers to communicate with each other (Khoo, Merry, Bennett, & MacMillan, 2015). They showed each other their toys and shared ideas and experiences, helping to develop cultural awareness of others as well as themselves.

In disseminating their work and ideas in this way, young children develop communication skills important for the 21st century. There is now a range of social media sites that make this process relatively easy for early years’ settings. Knauf (2016) undertook a case study of a U.S. class of five- to six-year-olds who used a range of social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to communicate with others. These tools became second nature to the children and allowed them to extend the classroom beyond the physical walls. One child even used Twitter to communicate with his class when he was sick at home. For the parents, these tools were important in helping their children to become digital citizens.

In relation to reception of texts, Kucirkova, Littleton, and Cremin (2017) identify that personalization is important when considering the appeal of digital books. Children can draw upon their own cultural experiences when responding to text, and some digital books enable personalized content, such as inserting children’s “selfies” into the text. Drawing on children’s own social and cultural understandings and practices, therefore, is a means of engaging children in digital reading for pleasure.

In relation to the cultural domain, recent studies in the area indicate that popular culture texts provide rich opportunities for young children to express their own cultural experiences in early years’ classrooms. Zhao and Li provide a particularly interesting cross-cultural case study, although little work originates in the Global South. There is also a lack of empirical work addressing the cultural domain of digital literacy for under-threes.

The Critical Domain

All texts are socially constructed and by nature perspectival and selective of specific knowledge. As Comber suggests, “the operational and cultural dimensions work to enculturate or socialize the learner into dominant forms of cultures” (Comber, 2016, p. 12). Critical skills enable children to deconstruct texts and artifacts in order to recognize and understand these dominant forms. It is clear from Table 1 that that the majority of studies focus largely on the operational and cultural domains of young children’s digital literacy learning. Of course, children’s critical practices can be discerned in the descriptions of children designing and producing multimodal and multimedia texts in these studies, but the authors generally do not pay explicit attention to the critical dimension.

Three of the studies reviewed mention specifically the way in which critical judgements are made when either producing or responding to digital texts. Kucirkova, Littleton, and Cremin point to the way in which reading texts can promote critical reflection and creative thinking. They suggest that the opportunity when engaging with digital books to, “innovate, create new reading content and remixes with others’” stories is an important affordance, and that this involves critical skills (Kucirkova, Littleton, & Cremin, 2017, p. 9).

For Rowsell and Harwood, the child as producer and inventor is closely bound up with the child as consumer. They document how children remixed, blended, and transformed the Disney film Frozen into a range of multimodal and multimedia texts, subverting the dominant readings to produce critical responses of their own (Rowsell & Harwood, 2015). Laidlaw and Wong (2016) report on a study in which data were collected in four kindergarten classes in Canada over a two-year period. Children aged between 4.5 and 6 years used a wide range of digital tools to create multimodal texts. Laidlaw and Wong document how children became “active and critical viewers of video and photographed images” (p. 36). They, drawing on Kress’s notion that digital texts require new dispositions, as text can no longer be seen as linear and stable (Kress, 2005), suggest that “new disposition text, as emergent, adaptive and recursive, might be otherwise framed as what we understand to represent complexity thinking” (Laidlaw & Wong, 2016, p. 38). This kind of complex thinking requires critical digital literacy skills that can be fostered from the first years of education and care by creative and innovative early years’ practitioners (Vasquez & Felderman, 2013).

Recent studies in the area indicate that young children employ sophisticated critical skills in their engagements with digital texts and platforms in early years’ classrooms. However, the majority of studies identified focus on the Global North and on children aged four and above.


An overview has been provided of recent research in the area of digital literacies in early childhood. It is clear that this is a fast-growing area of scholarship, particularly given recent moves to create international networks of scholars active in the field (Sefton-Green, Marsh, Erstad, & Flewitt, 2016). Given the limited research in this area in recent decades (Holloway, Green, & Livingstone, 2013), it is important that this momentum continues to build, in order that informed knowledge of young children’s digital literacy practices across homes, communities, and early years’ settings can be developed.

There are particular gaps, silences, and absences in relation to knowledge. First, much of the work to date has been conducted in the Global North; research networks need to be extended to the Global South in order that collective understanding can be developed of young children’s digital practices across the world. Second, although we have a growing understanding of children’s engagement with digital technologies in homes and communities, much of the research has been undertaken with children aged three and over. It will be important to extend this research to under-threes in the future. Finally, with regard to the development of digital literacies in early years’ settings, there appears to be a limited number of studies that examine young children’s development of critical digital literacy skills. This clearly needs addressing if we are to enable children to become critical and engaged digital citizens who are able to navigate the complex online terrain of “false” news and disinformation that appears to characterize the contemporary media landscape (Tavernise, 2016). This is a task that is imperative for researchers and educators to address in order that future generations may deal effectively with some of the “wicked problems” they are, it seems, destined to inherit from their ancestors.


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