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Pelletier, J., Reeve, R., & Halewood, C. (2006). Young children’s knowledge building and literacy development through Knowledge Forum{\textregistered}. Early Education and Development, 17(3), 323–346.



the literacy development of 4-year-old children in a laboratory school (p. 2)

Over the course of the year, children participated in a longitudinal photo journal project. With adult support, children posted their photo journals and ideas to KF® in the form of electronic “notes,” which allowed children to view each other’s work and to build on ideas by posting their responses and comments. A comparison group employed a paper-only format to write notes about their photos. Results showed that children were motivated to read others’ notes and to respond using invented spelling. There were gender differences in the number of notes posted. (p. 2)

We also know that young children can profit from specific competencies that are developed through familiarity with computer technology (Calvert, Rideout, Woolard, Barr, & Strousse, 2005; Haugland, 1992). (p. 3)

Some child advocates, however, are concerned that technology may be misused in early childhood classrooms, causing children to become bored or to experience actual decline in literacy learning (Lankshear & Knobel, 2002). Still others caution that introducing children to computer technology at a very young age may cause a decline in children’s imaginative play (Christensen & Kelly, 2003; Miller, 2005). (p. 3)

In referring to computer technology, we must go beyond just “having computers in the classroom” (Cohen, 2005) or using computers as a “benign addition” to the curriculum (Plowman & Stephen, 2003). Rather, we must begin using technology in innovative ways such as telecommunication exchanges among young children (Cohen, 2005) and the development of new literacies, such as the use of online tools, for the knowledge generation (Wood, 2004). These new literacies range from multimedia, interactive Web sites, information and communication technologies or digital literacy (Plowman & Stephen, 2003), to recording theories and connecting children’s ideas so that the product becomes new knowledge (Hewitt & Scardamalia, 1998). (p. 3)

Willett (2005) cautions us about oversimplifying both (i.e., children’s facility or lack of facility) of these positions. Facer et al. suggest that there is no evidence that children are natural born experts vis-à-vis computer technology and claim that adults and children have different strengths when it concerns computers. Children may more readily access information and fashion artifacts, but adults have better judgment about the validity and usefulness of information that is obtained through this medium. (p. 3)

Although these points are well-taken, this article is less concerned with children’s use of programs and information accessed on computers and is more concerned with children’s use of computers as a shared “headspace,” a forum for depositing and reworking ideas in a sustained and creative way. (p. 3)



The principle of knowledge building in early childhood does not differ from knowledge building in later childhood; that is, more sophisticated understandings about what is learned and how it is learned are “built” as children ask and answer authentic questions on a shared computer database. (p. 4)

The role of the teacher is critical in supporting, “scaffolding,” or helping children “build” thinking through language (Vygotsky, 1962). (p. 5)

teacher’s role (p. 5)

Teachers’ goals are to create a learning environment that allows for discussion and shared understanding. (p. 5)

Teachers and peers operate within what Vygotsky (1978) termed the zone of proximal development (ZPD), allowing the learner to be supported to understand more than he or she would on his or her own. (p. 5)


Teachers have observed that motivation is heightened when the creation of each view comes from student suggestions during class meetings (Reeve, Halewood, & Pelletier, 2004). (p. 6)

student agency (p. 6)


The impetus for this study was a photo journal project taking place in the kindergarten class at the ICS Laboratory School in Toronto. (p. 6)

The intent was to promote children’s writing in the context of reflecting about their own experiences, because children are more inclined to write about what is familiar to them (Haneda & Wells, 2000). The photographs also provided a way to include parents in the school experience, as young children do not always share what happens in a day with their parents. To that end, photo journals provide both documentation of writing and a record of what happens in a day. (p. 7)

However, the goal for the project remained the same: to promote early literacy in a way that was both meaningful and developmentally appropriate for young children. It is noteworthy that literacy is naturally associated with reading and writing skills that are taught in school; yet as Plowman and Stephen (2003) noted, traditional literacy skills may not be directly transferable to or from computer technology. (p. 7)

In Figure 1, four photographs are shown as examples of the experiences children wanted to put on the database as they first began their work on KF®. Taking the playground photograph as an example, children opened the database to the playground photograph and either posted a note about their own experience or else read (had read to them) the note of another child in the class and added on to the classmate’s note. Other children could in turn add on so that a large set of ideas was built about a playground question. Children were discussing a design for an ideal playground because the schoolyard was undergoing a renovation (p. 7)

pervasive KB, agency
it is interesting to see how children built from photo sharing to considering building an ideal playground. (p. 7)


we wanted to use the same measures used in the school-wide reading study to examine whether the KF® technology would provide a particular context for literacy development that differed from regular “print” reading and writing and whether it might be more motivating for the children. (p. 8)

A related question was based on the ICS teachers’ observations of boys and girls in the class. Boys, who in general were less likely to voluntarily take part in literacy activities in their play and free time activity, appeared to be interested in looking at what other children had written, and in writing on the KF® database. Given the boys’ preference for nonliteracy activity in class, the question of gender difference was explored in the research study. (p. 8)

We were interested to know whether knowledge building using photographs and classmates’ ideas might appeal to boys and whether they might make as many entries as girls on the database. (p. 8)

METHODS (p. 9)

As Hill and Nichols (2006) explained, there are changing theoretical perspectives in understanding emergent literacy, ranging from maturationist to emergent, to social constructivist, to critical perspectives, and it is important to draw from this wide range of perspectives. (p. 9)

This chapter draws on social constructivist theory but acknowledges the necessity of employing empiricist methods to answer specific questions related to change in children’s literacy development. (p. 9)

this chapter is limited to a report of the precomparison and postcomparison regarding literacy development of children in the KF® class and children in a regular class without KF®. (p. 9)

Child participants included twenty-two 4-year-old children in a full-day program from the ICS Laboratory School at the University of Toronto (mean age 52.1 months). A comparison group of twenty 5-year-old children from the Laboratory School at a top-ranked university in the United States (USLS–U.S. Laboratory School; mean age 63.4 months) employed the same measures to examine literacy development among the children who were using paper and pencil photo journals. (p. 9)

Children in both schools had access to computers and other forms of technology in the home. (p. 9)

Teachers were White and middle class, both with significant experience teaching kindergarten in a private university laboratory school. Both teachers were connected to and interested in classroom research. (p. 9)

Procedures (p. 10)

The children and teachers took photographs of events in the class, and, in some cases, brought in pertinent photographs from home. This part of the photo journal project engaged children through group discussion and actual taking of the photographs in the class. Teachers began the project by bringing in photographs of meaningful places or events in their own lives, and, by sharing those with the children, gave the children a sense of the purpose of the project. The children quickly grasped the idea of documenting their ideas through photographs. (p. 10)

The KF® photographs were scanned from hard copy or were entered electronically depending on the source of the photograph. At USLS, photographs were pasted into the children’s journals; children then wrote journal entries about the photographs, using regular pencils or markers. (p. 10)

Every day, children had access to their electronic journals during their free activity periods in both the morning and the afternoon. (p. 11)

Children chose to go to the computer voluntarily, or were encouraged by an adult if they had not gone there for a few days. (p. 11)

Measures (p. 12)

Early literacy measures included a standardized early reading test and a developmental writing task. The Test of Early Reading Ability–2 (TERA–2; Reid, Hresko, & Hammill, 1989) measures early reading in children between the ages of 3 years, 6 months and 8 years, 6 months. (p. 12)

we now use the TERA–3 (Reid, Hresko, & Hammill, 2001) in research (p. 12)

The developmental writing task measures English language children’s early writing development along a continuum and provides insight into children’s emerging ability to use letters to represent sounds in contrast to using letters to represent objects (Pelletier, 2002; Pelletier & Lasenby, in press). (p. 12)

In addition to the pre-assessments and postassessments, children’s entries in either the KF® database or in the paper journals were counted to provide a quantitative account of writing. (p. 12)

RESULTS (p. 12)

For example, Figure 2 shows a photograph of a science experiment that Heather carried out with the help of an adult (the “pink eruption”). Heather posted a note about her experiment and other children contributed their ideas about the “eruption” (see Figure 2). (p. 13)

Links to Early Literacy (p. 13)

Many children were motivated to make entries themselves using whatever strategies they had available, including use of invented spelling. That is, children’s authentic purpose in contributing ideas to the database required use of written communication. (p. 13)

they applied their literacy learning toward the goal of building knowledge about science, about the school playground, about mathematical constructions, and about many other natural experiences that were a regular part of classroom life. (p. 13)

Thus literacy was used authentically in the pursuit of knowledge building. (p. 14)

Results for Early Reading (p. 14)

Analyses of the posttest scores on the TERA–2 showed that children in both classes made impressive gains in reading, actually showing increases in reading quotients. Of note was that the ICS children who used KF® had even higher standard scores at posttest than the USLS children who used the paper format alone (ICS Mean standard score = 128.2; USLS Mean standard score = 117.2). The difference between the two classes in change in standard reading scores from pretest to posttest represents a significant difference (p < .05; see Figure 4). (p. 14)

Results for Early Writing (p. 14)

The scoring system captures the developmental transition in early writing from scribble, to drawing, to letter-like forms, to alphabetic writing, and includes children’s representation of number (Pelletier & Lasenby, in press). For example, when children are asked to write “two horses”, a drawing of two horses receives a score of 1 for the representation of number (i.e., 2), and a score of 3 for drawing that resembles the object (see Figure 5). (p. 14)

As children develop, writing increasingly employs conventional letters and phonetic principles. Using the “two horses” example, if a child wrote “2 hors,” she received a score of 2 for representing the correct number in numeral format and a score of 11 for phonological spelling even when some words may not be com- (p. 15)

pletely correctly spelled (see Figure 6). The scoring system for the writing component ranges from 0 to 12. (p. 16)

The children at USLS had higher scores on the early writing task at pretest than the ICS children. They likewise had higher scores at posttest. However, if we examine the change in writing over time, the ICS children had greater gain scores in early writing development; the difference in gain scores in writing did not reach statistical significance with this small number of participants (see Table 1). (p. 16)

Gender Differences in Reading (p. 16)

on the pretest and posttest reading scores revealed that girls’ scores were significantly higher at both time points (p < .05; see Table 2). (p. 16)

Gender Differences in Writing (p. 17)

Analyses of children’s performance at pretests and posttests on the developmental writing task showed that girls were further along the developmental writing continuum than boys, but this difference was not significant. (p. 17)

Qualitative Differences in the Knowledge Forum® and Paper Journal (p. 18)

Across all boys and girls in both contexts, girls made more entries in the paper format of the photo journals than they did in the KF®format. That is, girls appeared to use the paper format more than the electronic format. Girls made more entries than boys in the paper format; that is, boys did not seem to use the paper format as often as did girls. However, when boys’ and girls’ entries were compared on the paper journals and KF®, boys made the same number of entries as girls on the KF® database. (p. 18)

This suggests that the electronic format may have been more motivating for boys and prompted them to do more writing (see Figure 8). (p. 18)


The unique feature of KF® technology is that children view each others’ ideas, posted as electronic notes, and build on to those ideas by linking to another’s note and adding their theories to the database. This knowledge building environment, from a social constructivist perspective, puts ideas, in contrast to activities, at the center of children’s experiences at school (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2003a). (p. 19)

role of technology (p. 19)

That is, rather than taking part in literacy activities that require drill and rehearsal, children used their emerging literacy skills to develop ideas and to form concepts. The shared virtual space enables children to construct an understanding of own and other, to see how individual ideas are brought to bear on the collective. This notion of socially constructed computer experience that addresses issues related to self and other has been considered from a transactional perspective in an ethnographic study of children in a Grade 1 classroom (Wang & Ching, 2003). (p. 19)

Support for Technology in the School (p. 19)

An important consideration in making this form of technology use successful in an early childhood environment is the level of support in the school and in the class. (p. 19)

Teacher training and follow-up support have also been associated with effective technology implementation (Epstein, 1993). In keeping with Carroll’s (2001) findings, in the study reported here, the teacher’s beliefs and training and the level of school support in the KF® school were consistent with a positive philosophy and goal-orientation vis-à-vis knowledge building with computer technology. Thus, results achieved in this context may not be replicable in a less supportive environment. (p. 19)

Do Children Learn Literacy From Technology in Kindergarten? (p. 19)

Results of the analyses revealed that children who participated in the KF® learning environment made greater gains in early reading over the course of the year. They also made greater gains in early writing development, although the difference did not reach statistical significance. (p. 20)

Other research reports are consistent with our findings that children appear to benefit from high quality computer technology. For example, Haugland (1992) has shown that children who use computers as part of their early childhood program have significantly greater developmental gains in knowledge, skills, and dexterity than children without this experience. Similarly a qualitative study carried out in six southern California school districts reported that kindergarten students who used the Writing to Read computer program achieved at least two grade levels higher than similar classes of kindergarten students who did not use this technology (Casey, 2001). (p. 20)

Gender Differences (p. 20)

An important finding was that although girls made more entries in the paper journals than they did in the electronic format and made more entries than boys, both boys and girls made a similar number of entries on the KF® database. (p. 20)

Implications of the Study (p. 20)

Children benefit from the shared knowledge building environment in a number of ways. Conceptual knowledge is “constructed” in an authentic social–constructivist fashion (Vygotsky, 1978). Children become the holders not only of their own theories, but also of those of the group. The database allows them to view theory construction and to have the written archives as “objects of reflection” and further inquiry (Olson, 1994). Literacy learning is fundamental to engaging with this technology, but is also a beneficial by-product. (p. 21)

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