The mouse is not a toy : Young children s interactions with e-games

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Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp The mouse is not a toy : Young children s interactions with e-games n Susan Roberts Macquarie University
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Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp The mouse is not a toy : Young children s interactions with e-games n Susan Roberts Macquarie University Emilia Djonov University of Wollongong Jane Torr Macquarie University Little is known about how children under 5 years respond to electronic texts. Traditional methods of transcription can record spoken language and paralinguistic features, but not the relations between children s non-verbal behaviour (e.g. gaze, gesture, facial expressions) and the visual elements which are the focus of their attention. In this paper, drawing on naturalistic videotaped data from 4 children aged 4 5 years interacting with I Spy CD-ROMs (Scholastic), we offer an innovative method of transcription which may be used to help us understand children s responses in depth. The method captures each child s language, body posture, facial expressions and gestures, in relation to the visual image and game sounds they are currently attending to. Our detailed observations suggest that the manner in which young children engage with e-games varies according to the social context, the textual features of the e-game and their proficiency in using computer hardware and software. Several implications for educators are then discussed, including the need for teachers to be sensitive to the affordances offered by various kinds of software and different genres. The composition of the social grouping using multimodal texts is another important consideration for educators who wish to support children s multiliteracy development. 242 Volume 31 Number 3 October 2008 Introduction Recent research has drawn attention to the fact that very young children, who may not yet be able to read and write in conventional terms, are engaging with electronic media and digital technologies in the years prior to school (Karchmer, Malette, & Leu, 2003; Marsh, 2005a, 2005b). Gillen and Hall (2003) define literacy as an all-embracing concept for a range of authorial and responsive practices using a variety of media and modalities (p. 9). With the new tech- nological developments has come an awareness of the prominence of visual images and other non-verbal resources as vehicles for representing and exchanging meanings in electronic texts. Unlike picture books, which have been the focus of research attention for several decades, little is known about the types of electronic texts which young children encounter, how they engage with them, and how this engagement contributes to their emerging literacy development. Early childhood educators are increasingly being called upon to take into account the digital literacy behaviours and understandings as well as the multiple literacies which children bring with them when they commence formal schooling (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1996). While there are many detailed analyses of children s emerging language and literacy development, there are very few which investigate their emerging visual literacy and their engagement with digital texts. Recent audience studies have shed light on the duration of children s engagement with multimedia, the type of multimedia young children use, and the variety in adults views on the benefits and dangers of children s interaction with multimedia (cf. Arthur, 2005; Buckingham, 2004; Marsh, 2005a; Marsh et al., 2005; Wartella, Lee, & Caplovitz, 2000, 2002). Several studies have focused on comparisons between children s engagement with print-based and electronic versions of the same basic narrative text (De Jong & Bus, 2003; De Jong & Bus, 2004; Lefever-Davis & Pearman, 2005). These studies, however, are yet to be complemented with detailed observations of the relationship between young children s behaviour during such interactions and the design of texts with which they interact. While much recent research has provided valuable analyses of various kinds of multimodal texts (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001; Unsworth, 2006; van Leeuwen, 2005; Zammit & Callow, 1999), it is essential to avoid the assumption that the meaning of a text resides solely within it. Much work on multimodal texts does not take into account the fact that the meaning of any text is socially constructed and negotiated between the reader/viewer and the author/creator, and is dependent on the background knowledge and previous experiences of the viewer. As Meek (1988), Nodelman (1988), Doonan (1993) and others point out in relation to the visual images in picture books, children must learn to read pictures just as they learn to read written texts: Even representational pictures the ones we call realistic exist within systems of learned codes, and thus make little sense to anyone without a previous knowledge of those systems (Nodelman, 1996, p. 217). This view of meaning carries particular resonance when considering the relationship between children and new media texts like e-games. We cannot assume that children and adults read digital texts in the same way. To understand how young children engage with e-games, it is necessary to observe their responses and behaviours in fine detail, in relation to the visual and aural features of the texts Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp Australian Journal of Language and Literacy Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp Volume 31 Number 3 October 2008 themselves, and the surrounding interactions with adults and other children. In this study, we have aimed to provide a detailed analysis of the responses of 4 young children while interacting with e-texts, in order to identify those responses, verbal and non-verbal, which indicate intense engagement with the e-texts. In doing so, we have also analysed some stand-out features of the e-games which appear to have stimulated this engagement. In order to achieve these aims, it was necessary to develop a transcription method which would enable us to observe the relationship between the child viewer and the text in a detailed manner. It is worth emphasising that our research approach is qualitative and designed to enable an exploration of the terms and contexts in which certain responses occur, rather than how frequently they occur. The aim of this exploration is thus not to arrive at statistical statements about the distribution or probability of particular responses, partly because such statements are unlikely to be meaningful with a small sample. Finally, the exploration was motivated by a desire to determine the implications for early childhood educators and parents. The e-games Software for children prior to school is one of the fastest growing markets, so there is a wide variety of games available, ranging from those which are marketed with an explicitly instructional purpose to those which are focused more on entertainment. For this study, we looked for games which would be sufficiently challenging for the more experienced children, yet entertaining enough for the less experienced children. The game chosen, I Spy, has well-known real world variants. I Spy games have long been popular in children s culture, both orally and in print (see Coles Funny Picture Books, first published in 1879). Although the game does indirectly teach children about sound-symbol correspondence, it is oriented more towards being playful and visually attractive, rather than overtly pedagogical. This is evident from the text on the package: I Spy School Days challenges you with lots of brain-teasing activities. Solve tricky picture riddles by searching for objects hidden in plain sight! (River Hillsoft Inc., 2000) I Spy games are well suited to CD-ROM technology, as their affordances make it possible for the child to be rewarded instantly for solving riddles (with applause and fanfare) and enable the child to search with a cursor for objects which quiver and shake. Print materials, by contrast, cannot offer the child audio and animation (cf. Carrington, 2005). The I Spy games differ from electronic books (De John & Bus, 2003; Unsworth, 2006) in that they are not intended to provide children with an ongoing narrative thread which may, or may not, have a print version. Theoretical underpinnings As stated above, a rich account of young children s engagement with multimodal texts calls for a multidimensional analysis. Social semiotic theory (Halliday, 1978; Hodge & Kress, 1988; van Leeuwen, 2005) provides a model for studying meaning-making as a social process that is always multimodal. It also offers us tools for interpreting the participants verbal interactions and the use of language in the e-games (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2004) as well as a grammar for analysing the visual design and imagery of e-games (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2006 (1996)). An important distinction for this study is the difference between narrative and conceptual imagery. A narrative image presents, amongst other things unfolding actions and events while conceptual images represent participants in terms of their more generalized and more or less stable and timeless essence, in terms of class, or structure or meaning (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2006 (1996), p. 79). Whilst the theorists above have provided an interpretive framework for analysing language and the visual elements of the e-texts, it is also necessary to analyse children s non-verbal responses, as they convey important information about children s engagement with multimodal texts. Drawing on the concept of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997) and indicators of intense engagement in young children (Laevers, 1996), as well as the work of Roberts and Howard (2005) on toddlers responses to a popular television program, we have developed a framework for identifying behavioural indicators of engagement in young children. This framework is detailed below. Methodology Participants Four children participated in this study, Bill (4.1 years of age), Nicholas (5.0 years of age), Annabel (4.0 years of age) and Millie (5.1 years of age). All had some experience with computers and with e-games at home and at preschool. All children came from white, monolingual, English-speaking middle-class backgrounds. Two children, Bill and Annabel, were recruited by word of mouth, and contact with the other two children, Nicholas and Millie, was initially gained through a local preschool. Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp Data collection All participants were invited to play an I Spy game in their own home or at their preschool (only one child, Nicholas, played in both contexts). They could choose to play I Spy School Days (River Hillsoft Inc., 2000), I Spy Spooky Mansion (Topics Entertainment, 2004) or I Spy Fantasy (Topics Entertainment, 2003). In order to create as natural an environment as possible, the participating children were encouraged to choose whether they wanted to play either with other children or with adults, or by themselves. Bill and Annabel played with siblings and friends, while Millie played with school-friends, and Nicholas chose to 245 Australian Journal of Language and Literacy Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp play by himself, with the adults around him providing occasional assistance when Nicholas asked them questions. The aim here was not so much to control for different groupings as to make it possible to observe children in a range of different interpersonal contexts. Each child s interaction with the game was video-recorded. With the camera variously focused on the young player(s) and the computer screen, we were able to record each child s behaviour and speech while playing. Each tape thus captures the child s facial expressions, movements, gestures, language and attention to the screen or elsewhere. By cutting away to the computer screen at crucial moments, we were also able to record the screen or part of the game that the child was focusing on and the elements of the game s design that the child was responding to. This allowed us to achieve an exact match between the video-recorded responses of the participants and the corresponding game screens and sounds in transcribing the interactions. Admittedly, however, future studies may facilitate the transcription process through more time- and labour-efficient technology, where available. We collected audio and videodata on seven different occasions during November 2005, both in homes and at preschool. The table below shows the names, location of recording and nature of the group relationships for each child on each occasion. (We had planned to tape Millie at home but were denied permission.) Focus child/ren Table 1. Name, location and nature of group. Gender of group Location Relationships Boys only Girls only Mixed Home Preschool Adult/ child dyad Peers Siblings Nicholas 4 4 Nicholas Millie Bill & Annabel Bill & Owen Annabel Annabel Volume 31 Number 3 October 2008 Drawing on Csikszentmihalyi s (1997) concept of flow and Laevers (1996) signals of involvement in the task, we selected key segments where observable children s responses suggested emotional engagement (e.g. laughter, surprise, pleasure), concentration (e.g. focused gaze, frowning), playfulness (e.g. talking to or imitating game characters) and physical investment (e.g. touching or moving closer to the screen). The beginning and end of such strong engagement in the activity defined the boundaries of each of these segments. These segments were then subjected to more fine-grained analysis. The segments were transcribed using a transcription template which set out the data using columns to record the responses of the children while simultaneously showing the screen which the children were viewing and/or interacting with (see Figure 1 for a transcription excerpt). Each column of the transcript represents one of the dimensions described in Table 2. A new row is introduced in the transcription table when there is a shift in either (a) the screens that the children are attending to or (b) the behaviour of the children or others around them (e.g. when the mother enters or leaves the interaction in Bill s case). Dimension time Figure 1. Transcription excerpt. Table 2. Dimensions of each row included in the transcription. Description the beginning of each row within the key segment in video record in hours: minutes: seconds format Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp video still screen capture game sounds behaviour language a video still representing the children s behaviour at that time the screen from the e-game at that time verbal description of any sounds and a record of the narrator s words (in italics) verbal description of the interactants behaviour transcript of participants verbal interaction 247 Australian Journal of Language and Literacy Roberts, Djonov & Torr Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp In order to show the temporal relation between features of each I Spy text and the participants verbal and non-verbal behaviour during their interaction with it, the symbols presented in Table 3 were used. Table 3. Temporal relationships symbols. Symbols Meaning Example 1, 2, 3, These numbers identify the order of (1) you re in for a scare game sound/narration sequences within (2) music tune a row. i, ii, iii, These numbers identify the order of non-verbal behavioural elements within a row. This symbol follows an utterance, a game sound number, or a non-verbal behaviour number to show that one of these features of the interaction precedes the feature after the sign. (i) O lifting his head and smiling (ii) O reaches for mouse (iii) B pushes O s hand away and pulls mouse closer to himself. (1) (i) = O: You went inside (2) B: Now what do you do? O: C mon I ll show you. = (ii) Pass. (iii) = This symbol follows the number of either a game sound or a non-verbal behaviour to show it coincides with a (1) (i) = O: You went inside (2) B: Now what do you do? O: C mon I ll show you. = (ii) feature of a different kind, which may be Pass. (iii) a non-verbal behaviour or an utterance. == This symbol signifies the beginning of overlap between verbal utterances. This symbol signifies inaudible speech. O: (i) I ve made all six of them but you need to == B: == Which is button number one? Like every transcription method, the one presented here reflects the purpose of the study for which it has been developed (cf. Baldry, 2005; Baldry & Thibault, 2006; Norris, 2002, 2004a, 2004b; Thibault, 2000). As the transcription relies both on images and on language to capture the interaction between images and sound in each CD-ROM and the children s non-verbal and verbal behaviour, it is a multimodal transcription. Moreover, as it juxtaposes images and sounds from the CD-ROMs with stills from the video records of the children s interactions with these texts, it allows one to compare two texts: i) an I Spy text and ii) children s interaction with it, and can therefore be described as a comparative multimodal transcription (Baldry, 2005). 248 Volume 31 Number 3 October 2008 Framework for analysing children s verbal and non-verbal engagement with e-games A number of response categories were evident in the segments we had identified as suggesting emotional engagement, concentration, playfulness or physical investment in the activity of interacting with the e-game texts. The categories were based loosely on the protocol of categories used in an observational study of very young children s mainly nonverbal responses to television programs (Howard & Roberts, 2002; Roberts & Howard, 2005). This protocol was devised by early childhood researchers in an analysis of young children s intense engagement with electronic texts. We believe that it suits the early childhood context and our specific purposes within it better than more general protocols (cf. Norris, 2002, 2004a). The final set of seven categories was decided after intensive viewing and discussion amongst ourselves and our research assistants. It should be acknowledged that these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Behavioural data rarely present neat categories for the researcher, but in agreement with Flewitt (2006), it is important to look for patterns or categories nonetheless. 1. Attention level was based on the concept of viewing intensity (Cupitt & Jenkinson, 1998). Children s attention may range from watches with great concentration (rapt attention) to diminished level of attention and engagement (associated with slouched/drooped sitting posture). 2. Parasocial response constituted behaviour that was indicated by interactants joining in with what was happening in the game. The children s responses could be physical (imitating onscreen actions and associated sounds) or verbal (joining in by answering questions, talking to characters, etc.). 3. Computer/game skill response reflects interactants engagement with computers themselves (understanding icons, using the mouse and keyboard) and with games (understanding how to start a new game, how to navigate to different parts of the game). 4. Cognitive response describes behaviours suggesting that the interactants are actively trying to make sense of the content of the game and their purpose within it. It is indicated by signs of puzzlement, surprise, and deep concentration, amongst other categories. 5. Pleasure responses are probably the easiest to identify. They often occur alongside other responses (e.g. sharing with companion(s)) and are realised through facial and other physical expressions, like smiling and laughing, as well as verbally (e.g. This is so funny! ). 6. Action around the computer serves to describe physical action around or focused on the computer screen, keyboard and mouse. It includes actions such as thumping on the table, moving closer to or further away from th
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