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Investigating children’s early literacy skills through digital drum talk

The challenge for school leaders, teachers and parents to ensure that children achieve literacy proficiency early, hinges heavily on the design of learning environments, experiences and modes of literacy practice that empower all children academically, socially and culturally. Research has shown that the traditional culture of American schools, which restricts physical movement and favors learning impassively, is disadvantageous to many children who inherit a rich tradition of using expressive movement as part of their every day social or communicative behavior. This study aims to determine how pedagogical strategies and cultural tools based on cultural systems of non–European or non-European-American ethnic groups can be used to transform the learning ecology and experience of students, and thereby positively impact children’s early achievement. Building on recent work in applied developmental psychology, multimodality and embodied learning, the Drumball digital orality system was designed as an example of culturally-grounded embodied learning environments which blend rhythmic movement and computer interaction, allowing drum patterns to be turned into and used as letters, words and phrases in order to mediate learning across a wide variety of subjects. In this context, literacy is not only written, but oral, visual and also realized in other modes, including the rhythmic, kinesthetic or performative.

The study employs a mixed methods exploratory approach to investigate how this digital drum talk mode can be leveraged by parents to teach children about reading, writing and communication in the digital age. The study examines the following central research question and sub-questions:

What are the impacts of culturally-grounded, embodied learning environments and activities mediated by the Drumball approach to multimodal experiences on children’s (ages 3-6) literacy skills?

1. What are specific contributions of this approach for children’s early aural/visual literacy skills related to letter naming and picture naming?

2. What are potential contributions of the intervention on children’s family relations?

The settings for the study are out-of-school community spaces (cultural centers, parks) as well as the digital learning environment used for the workshops. The intervention consists of a 4-week family workshop aimed at accelerating children’s literacy acquisition and development. Based on a review of the literature on early childhood multiliteracies learning and theories of embodiment, an online survey questionnaire involving an inventory of children’s prior multi-literacies skills was administered to all prospective parents. Children were randomly divided into two cohorts (intervention and control/waitlist) and invited to participate in one of two 4-week sessions offered sequentially. Pre- and posttest data of children’s literacy development (alphabetic literacy, picture naming), participant observation data of children during the workshops recorded via ethnographic, multimedia and telemetric techniques, as well as parent interview and focus group data, were collected. In the analysis, the outcomes of both intervention and control cohorts were compared in order to assess the impact of the Drumball embodied learning environment on children’s alphabetic literacy and vocabulary development. Further research is needed to identify other areas that could be strengthened by the affordances of a digital drum talk learning mode.

Keywords: Drum language; Embodied learning; Literacy development; Tangible user interfaces; Human-computer interaction; Culturally-relevant pedagogy