Integrating Thematic-Fantasy Play and Phonological Awareness Activities in a Speech-Language Preschool Environment

Integrating Thematic-Fantasy Play and Phonological Awareness Activities in a Speech-Language Preschool Environment

Joseph L. Constantine

This report describes the experimental integration of two selected intervention strategies for children with speech articulation/phonological disorders in a preschool setting: 1) thematic-fantasy play (TFP) and 2) phonological awareness instruction. The treatment philosophy is based upon tenets of phonological development and the anticipated positive effects of play training on learning. Intervention was performed over a ten-week period in a self-contained phonology preschool group of four, four-year-old children. Effects of combining thematic-fantasy play and activities targeting discrimination and production of rhyming words were examined. Findings suggested positive gains in phonological awareness across the group. Potential benefit for generalization of metaphonological skills to other contexts was also pointed out.

The University of South Florida Communication Disorders Center (USF-CDC) has established ongoing speech-language intervention programs for children with delays in communication skills development. At our Center, clients are served in small, self-contained preschool environments which provide treatment to groups of four-to-eight children simultaneously. In order to address individual client needs, children are typically grouped with others who have similar intervention goals. This study focuses on a group of children in a phonology group that specifically targets speech production and phonological awareness.

Recent research has suggested that critical levels of phonological awareness can be improved through skilled instruction (Chard & Dickson, 1999). These findings have significant clinical implications for children with phonological disorders given the relationship between expressive phonology/ speech articulation and phonological awareness. Moreover, decreased phonological processing abilities at the preschool level have been found to hinder early reading development for both children with and without communication disorders (Fletcher et al., 1994). Therefore, basic instruction in phonological awareness, such as rhyming activities, with preschool children has been indicated. It has been suggested that the use of highly engaging, developmentally appropriate activities for teaching early phonological awareness facilitates subsequent acquisition of reading skills (Smith, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1998).

However, many so-called “highly engaging” activities currently employed with young children involve highly structured practice using direct word repetition, colored word cards, and pictures (Chard & Dickson, 1999). Such practices fall short of developmentally appropriate and increase the risk of numerous pitfalls for learners including decreased attention, fatigue, frustration, and lack of generalization to other contexts. One aim of the present study was to introduce more developmentally appropriate procedures for teaching phonological awareness to children under the age of five. It is also clearly in the interest of language and literacy development to provide preschool children with dramatic play experiences that draw from familiar thematic contexts (Ferguson, 1999). To be sure, the advantages of having children actively involved in expressive role-play should be self-evident in comparison to structured drill and practice. However, it was outside the scope of this experiment to compare instructional methods using a sample group and a control group. As a pilot project, the following procedures were applied using an experimental group of children who had previously shown little or no progress with rhyme discrimination and rhyme production skills even after eight weeks of traditional therapy.


Four, four-year-old male subjects with phonological disorders received experimental intervention integrating thematic-fantasy play (TFP) and phonological awareness instruction in a speech-language preschool environment. Five graduate clinicians in speech-language pathology alternated the responsibility of leading group activities with the children. The phonology group met twice weekly for 90 minute sessions although the activities described here typically lasted 45 minutes to one hour per session. Play training was based upon procedures outlined by Saltz and Johnson (1974, in Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1999) including: 1) reading and discussion, 2) use of props, 3) preliminary enactment, and 4) repeated enactments. Stories were selected that lended themselves to rhyming activities and child role-play. During preliminary and repeated enactments of the story, clinicians referred to a flannel board version of the story that highlighted core story events and rhyming word pairs. Clinicians modeled character role-play for the children but quickly encouraged them to take on the roles themselves. As the children became more familiar with the play training process, they became increasingly assertive in requesting roles. Turn-taking was supported, for example, in the enactment of Three Little Pigs, in which each character was played by a different child in successive productions. If conflicts arose regarding choice of role, conflict resolution was facilitated through discussion and story elaboration. In this respect, the children were allowed freedom to make changes in assigned roles and story events, thus exercising creativity, problem-solving, and conflict resolution skills. In addition, elements of other familiar stories were utilized to scaffold creative combinations of story sequences and character roles. Over time, for example, the story Three Little Pigs could be changed to Goldilocks, the Two Pigs, and the Wolf. Play observation was completed in the categories of story elaboration and directives. Directives were defined as any verbal direction initiated by the child regarding the story. Directives included assignment of roles, commands, explanations, and story alterations. The following stories and word pairs were utilized. Rhyming words and names were added as needed to target phonological awareness, such as Dolf the wolf, etc.

Three Little Pigs: Word Pairs

pig-jig, huffed-puffed, no-blow, Yaw-straw, Nick’s-sticks, Rick’s-bricks, Dolf-wolf , way-hay, jaw-paw

Jack and the Beanstalk: Word Pairs

Jack-sack, bean-scene, throws-grows, high-sky, walk-stalk, sharp-harp, deep-sleep

Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Word Pairs

tree-bee, bear-pear, house-mouse, cold-fold, red-bed, hop-mop, chair-hair

The Big Pumpkin: Word Pairs

ghost-toast, bat-cat, thump-bump, snap-trap, vine-line, pie-bye, tug-bug

During reading and repeated enactments of the story, the graduate clinicians targeted and modeled discrimination and production of rhyming word pairs. Upon the first reading of Three Little Pigs, for example, the graduate clinician asked, “Huffed and puffed. Do those words sound the same?”. If the correct response was not elicited, the stimulus words were repeated and the children were given the correct response, “Yes, those sound the same, don’t they? Let’s listen … huffed-and puffed.” Color-coded print cues were also provided to begin exposing the children to print and to highlight word segments that “looked the same” and segments that “looked different”. For example, the -uffed segment was common to both words. Semantic cues were used to elicit responses as well but were seldom required by the end of the ten-week period. Visual and verbal cues were faded out over time as the children progressed and no longer needed such support.

During story enactments, the children were asked to listen carefully and were given numerous opportunities to identify and produce rhyming word pairs in the context of thematic-fantasy play. Sentence completion prompts such as, “He huffed and he –?” were used to elicit verbal productions repeatedly during re-enactments. During each session, the children were given at least ten opportunities to discriminate rhyming words and ten opportunities to produce rhyming words. Graduate clinicians were instructed to provide the appropriate level of support required to facilitate each child’s success with phonological awareness tasks.

Individual data was collected for each child to monitor his progress in developing improved phonological awareness. For each group session, a tally of correct responses per ten opportunities was kept for rhyme discrimination and rhyme production. A Phonological Thematic-Fantasy Play Inventory was created for each child to assist with observation of play interactions and phonological activities (attached).


Rhyme Discrimination: Each of the four children demonstrated substantial improvement with rhyme discrimination tasks during thematic-fantasy play over the ten-week period. Child A increased the number of occurrences of rhyme discrimination per session from zero to ten times by November. Child B’s performance increased from one to eight; Child C, two to eight; and Child D, zero to four (See Figure A). The group mean for rhyme discrimination accuracy increased from .75 in September to 4.75 in October. Again, the group mean increased from 4.75 in October to 7.5 in November, suggesting significant progress for the group as a whole (See Figure B).


Rhyme Production: Each of the four children also demonstrated substantial improvement with rhyme production tasks during thematic-fantasy play. Over the ten-week period, data revealed an increase from zero to six for Child A; one to 9 for Child B; zero to nine for Child C; and zero to five for Child D (See Figure C). The group mean for rhyme production accuracy increased from .25 in September to 2.75 in October. A large increase in the group mean from 2.75 in October to 7.25 in November suggested significant progress for the group as a whole (See Figure D).


Story Elaboration & Directives: During the ten-week period, quantitative data in this area was kept inconsistently since the primary intervention goals were phonological in nature. However, clinical observations suggested that the children involved became increasingly comfortable with dramatic role-play and improved their story elaboration and direction abilities considerably. Directives, in particular, required very little clinician guidance because the entire group was actively engaged in organizing scenes and enjoying the activity. Story elaboration, on the other hand, was seen as a higher-level cognitive skill that required more support from clinicians in terms of modeling and offering suggested changes in the story.


These results suggested that integrating thematic-fantasy play and phonological awareness activities was effective toward improving awareness of rhyme in a phonology preschool group. Substantial gains were made in both rhyme discrimination and rhyme production abilities over the ten-week intervention period. This was especially noteworthy given the previous lack of progress with such tasks for each of the children involved. The positive effect might be partially explained by the potential for greater instructional time devoted to phonological awareness concepts using this method. A contrast might be made in comparison to more structured traditional instructional approaches that engage preschool children for shorter amounts of time due to increased attentional demands. In addition, play interactions facilitated creativity and allowed for child-directed story elaboration. By conducting rhyming activities within a thematic-play framework a solid foundation is laid for generalization of learned metaphonological skills to other contexts.

Special thanks and acknowledgement to the graduate clinicians who participated in this study: Becky Ard, Mary Babers, Andrew Butters, Sharla Jefferson and Cori Shamas.


Chard, D., & Dickson, S. (1999). Phonological awareness: instructional and assessment guidelines. Intervention in School and Clinic, 34, 261-270.

Ferguson, C. (1999). Building literacy with child-constructed sociodramatic play centers. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 27, 23-29.

Fletcher, J.M., Shaywitz, S.E., S hankweiler, D.P., Katz, L., Liberman, I.Y., Stuebing, K.K., Francis, K.J., Fowler, A.E., & Shaywitz, B.A.. (1994). Cognitive profiles of reading disability: Comparisons of discrepancy and low achievement definitions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86, 6-23.

Saltz, E., & Johnson, J. (1974). Training for thematic-fantasy play in culturally disadvantaged children: Preliminary results. In J. Johnson, J. Christie, & T. Yawkey, (1999). Play and early childhood development (2nd ed., pp. 196-200). New York: Addison Wesley Longman.

Smith, B.K., Simmons, D.C., & Kameenui, E.J. (1998). Phonological awareness: Bases. In D.C. Simmons & E.J. Kameenui (Eds.), What reading research tells us about children with diverse learning needs: Bases and basics, (pp. 61-128). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Joseph L. Constantine, M.S., CCC-SLP, Clinical Instructor, Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, University of South Florida

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Joseph Constantine, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, 4204 East Fowler Avenue – BEH 255, Tampa, FL 33620-8150.

COPYRIGHT 2001 George Uhlig Publisher

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group