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The Social and Cognitive Worlds of Young Children Reading Together


In classrooms each day children are crafting intricate social arrangements as they read in the company of their peers. This dissertation uses video ethnographic methods to reveal these children’s social and cognitive worlds, worlds which have remained largely hidden from researchers and teachers alike. Detailed analyses of children’s embodied language practices demonstrate that, for one, children overwhelmingly orient to achieving a mutually accountable reading framework. Sometimes these practices bear resemblance to adult activity: for example, a child who is reading closes a peer’s book that is distracting him from attending to her book. Other times these practices are child-like: a youngster overlaps a peer’s talk with nonsense sounds and demands her attention by putting his face nose-to-nose with hers.

Secondly, within these mutually accountable reading frameworks, children are observed apprenticing one another in learning to read. They help peers read a new word, work out the meanings of a passage, engage in word play, and more. These collaborative activities are made more complex, however, by their peer status, and thus children are working out power and status dynamics as they build their friendships through reading.

To examine children’s learning interactions, multiple theoretical frames are applied, including socio-cultural theory, John Dewey’s approach to experiential learning, and interactional sociolinguistics, as influenced by the work of Erving Goffman. Close observations of children’s activities are additionally contextualized with rich portraits of classroom life and instruction. The goal here is to better understand what gives rise and constitutes these positive learning interactions between children.

The portraits of children’s peer reading show how fluidly children move between reading and social interaction. Peer reading is not a disembodied school-based task occurring in an individual mind, or through the words on the page, or within a child’s talk alone. Rather, learning to read with a peer is intimately related to children’s social relations and, thus, to their development of an identity as someone who enjoys reading. This dissertation argues that more robust theories of children’s learning and development will come from analyses that consider the rich complexity of human sociality and interaction. Additionally, such an analyses will help guide teachers’ efforts in supporting peer learning.

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