Playing with literacy in preschool classrooms
In the professional literature on emergent literacy, substantial reports support the literacy-enhanced play center as a context in which young children may experiment with emergent writing (Neuman & Roskos, 1990; Schrader, 1989; Vukelich, 1991) and emergent reading and storytelling (Galda, 1984; Martinez, 1993; Martinez, Cheyney, & Teale, 1991; Morrow, 1989). Preschoolers observed by Neuman and Roskos (1990) developed three types of discourse, or talk, about literacy in their print-rich play centers. These children named literacy-related objects, negotiated the meaning of print, and assisted each other in using print to achieve desired outcomes in their play. Children with access to literacy supplies also experiment with writing in their play (Isenberg & Jacob, 1983; Morrow, 1990; Moss, 1986; Schrader, 1989; Vukelich, 1990), and they learn to identify context-specific environmental print in their play centers (Neuman & Roskos, 1990; Vukelich, 1994).
Play-based literacy offers a much-needed reasonable response to the increasing expectations placed on young children (and their teachers) for literacy achievement. While these experiences do not hinge on formal instruction, they are authentic and purposeful. In one study of kindergartners playing in their class grocery store (Klenk, in review), the children were observed writing grocery lists, producing orders for depleted stock, and making boldly lettered signs for the shelves. One youngster in the class assumed the role of the store manager, hiring people and working on a makeshift computer. One day, this “manager” caught an alleged shoplifter in the store and called for help from the police. A third child, a boy identified as developmentally delayed and who resisted every opportunity for writing, was occupied at another play center when he heard the call for help. He became so incensed at the alleged crime that he immediately began writing out a “shoplifting ticket,” a laborious process for him. This incident reveals the earnest spirit with which children enter dramatic play and the intense effort it inspires.
In addition to providing rich, authentic opportunities in which to acquire print-related skills, play-based literacy affords teachers a rich context for assessment. Observations of children engaged in play-based learning are often more valuable than those conducted under stressful or unreliable circumstances meant to document student learning, such as standardized tests. As children play with storybooks, dramatizing the plots or orally reenacting a text, teachers can note their comprehension and their use of storybook (or written) language (Sulzby, 1985). Written artifacts can be used to monitor children’s understanding of print direction, as well as their emerging understanding of spelling and other written conventions (Temple, Nathan, Temple, & Burris, 1993). All of these observations can become useful entries in a child’s school portfolio, as they show authentic use of print and the development of new understandings over time.
Despite the well-documented value of play-based literacy, many preschool teachers are not familiar with developmentally appropriate strategies for enhancing play centers with print. Two such teachers, Cheryl and Cynthia, enrolled in the author’s graduate course on literacy acquisition and instruction. These experienced preschool teachers understood the importance of reading storybooks to their young students, and both kept supplies of inviting books available to their students; neither of them, however, had considered just how much the children might learn if their play centers were stocked with a diversity of print material.
During the course of the semester, Cheryl and Cynthia observed their students and reflected on their daily routines. Both saw opportunities to enhance literacy engagement in their classrooms. Cheryl became intrigued with the notion of emergent writing; Cynthia wanted to foster more engagement with storybooks in her classroom as she introduced her students to multicultural literature. In this article, the two teachers share the thoughts and ideas they had as they planned and carried out their semester projects for the graduate course. The children they describe are all identified by pseudonyms.
Cheryl: Until this year, the terms “emergent literacy” and “emergent writing” were completely unfamiliar to me. Since its opening in 1970, the preschool in which I teach has been developmentally appropriate in many ways. There is an emphasis on stories and songs, movement, process-oriented art projects, and encouragement of play. Before last year, however, the only children’s writing one might see in the room was their names on papers. Pencils, markers, and paper were generally available only at art time, or by request. Last year, I gathered a box of supplies, including paper of various sizes, stamp pads and stamps, markers, pencils, crayons, pencils, and pens, and made it available at least once a week to each class of 3’s and 4’s. The box always drew several children at a time, and I did notice some writing along with drawing. I viewed it as an “art box,” however, and was not particularly looking for writing. More may have occurred than I noticed.
Through my attendance at professional conferences and from my graduate coursework, I began to gather information about placing writing and drawing materials in preschool classrooms. I decided to add open shelves stocked with writing materials, along with envelopes, stickers, old greeting cards, scissors and glue, and individual pocket folders for each child. Although I still did not see 3- and 4-year-olds as “writers,” I was eager to explore my role as a facilitator or “modeler” of literacy.
Cynthia: In the past years, I had fallen into the trap of teaching a somewhat “Hallmark curriculum,” revolving around holidays, primarily Christian holidays, and how they are celebrated. As I acquired a sensitivity to other cultures, I wanted the children in my program to do the same. At the same time, I became familiar with the process of reading acquisition from an emergent literacy perspective, and I wondered how I could increase the time the 4- and 5-year-old children in my class spent reading books. In my classroom, books were displayed near the circle area, and were available for the children to read after completing art activities, or while waiting for a friend to finish an activity. To encourage children to read at home, we also started a classroom lending library. Several children took advantage of this service regularly, and they even wanted to sign their names on the library list posted outside the classroom door. To encourage even more children to borrow books, I organized a class library in a loft above the housekeeping area, near the book display. It was a cozy setting, furnished with large pillows and a beanbag chair, several books, stuffed animals, and dolls. Because of space limitations, only two children were allowed to be in the library at any time. Unfortunately, I noticed that the children did not frequently visit this classroom library.
During the first two months of school, only 4 of the 19 children in this class used the loft area for reading– the same children who checked out books from the lending library. Very little social interaction took place in the loft, and the children initiated only a few instances of reading-like behavior (such as reading to a toy). On several occasions, at a child’s request, my student teacher or I entered the area to read a story. I began to realize that the library in the loft was being used more as a private sanctuary for the children. I understand and recognize the need for young children, especially those in full-day school situations, to find a place to be alone. Nevertheless, I seemed to have missed the mark in trying to create a specific purpose for the loft area. This realization became even more clear to me after the children were exposed to the new library center.
The Beginning Steps
As Cheryl and Cynthia pursued this reflective, self– evaluative process, both became intrigued by researchers whose work addressed their questions and described routines and activities that seemed appropriate for their purposes. In this section, Cheryl and Cynthia describe the initial steps they took to create change in their respective classrooms, as well as some of the sources of information that guided their efforts.
Cheryl: In order to investigate the effects of my acting as a facilitator during play, I wanted to set up at least two sociodramatic play centers. Schrader’s (1989) report was especially helpful because it diagrammed and described very simple settings. I decided to enhance the housekeeping center by adding note pads and pencils, Post-it notes, and play money. I also decided to set up a very basic veterinary hospital for the 4-yearolds. Using the piano bench (pulled out perpendicular to the piano) and the closed piano cover, I set out a variety of medical supplies. These included two small surgical shirts (scrubs), adhesive and gauze, toy medical implements, note pads and pencils, and empty prescription medicine containers.
Cynthia: I knew that I wanted the children’s story reenactments to be spontaneous and creative rather than teacher-directed, so I decided to create a new library and listening center for this project. This “literacy center” was quite different from the library in the loft. I selected a variety of multicultural books, many of which came with an audiotape or record. I added a tape recorder and a record player that the children could operate independently as they followed along with the books. I also gathered brightly colored dressup clothes, a variety of cloth and stick puppets, a flannel board with story pieces, and a box of musical instruments. To accommodate and encourage the participation of more children, I moved the rocking boat into an open space in front of the new center. Finally, in keeping with the multicultural theme, I added posters of children and adults from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Cheryl and Cynthia were ready to introduce their young students to these new play-based literacy activities. The children responded enthusiastically in both classes, incorporating their own particular background experiences into new play routines. As they describe the children’s engagement in these new play areas– some of whom had been reluctant players up to this point-Cheryl and Cynthia also note the changes in their own participation.
Cheryl: On the first day of my intervention with the 3-year-olds, I entered the housekeeping area armed with notepads, pencils, and a grocery store ad. I sat at the table, opened the ad, and asked, “I need to make a grocery list. What do I need to buy today?” I pointed to words and pictures in the ad, began to name them aloud, and wrote them down. Within seconds, several children had gathered around to watch. As soon as I put down my pencil, they began to make their own lists. I asked the children to read their lists back to me. After I looked in a cookbook for a recipe, Rebecca wrote directions for the chicken noodle soup she was cooking. I used the play telephone to order a pizza, and later Melissa wrote a phone message. All of the writing produced by the children resembled scribble-like forms, but it was all done very seriously and most of the children participated at least briefly.
The next day, I added Post-itTM notes to the writing supplies and reenacted this scene with my class of 4year-olds. I received curious looks from the children– this was new behavior on my part. Ricky asked, “What are you doing?” I continued making my list. Within minutes, a “writing explosion” began. Interestingly, while the 3-year-old girls had been more interested in writing the day before, the 4-year-old boys now took over the housekeeping area. Many of the children began writing grocery lists. Nicholas wrote “The store is empty” on a Post-it note and stuck it on a play food stand-which then became a store. Several children wrote prices on food containers. Ricky, a child who preferred outdoor activities and who seldom engaged in imaginative play, was delighted by the Post-its, which he had never used. He made dollar signs on the notes and stuck them on the food stand. He also wrote, “Food, food, food. You love food.” Three boys stopped playing with action figures and joined the play. Yellow notes appeared everywhere, and I observed some great symbolic play. I remained available to comment positively on children’s writing, to ask them to read what they had written, and to show interest in what they were doing.
The following week, I set up the veterinary center. Anxious to see what type of play and writing would develop, I situated myself at a table with a stuffed dog, telephone, note pad, and paper. Ricky questioned me, “What are you doing with that dog?” Once again, this was new behavior from me-and they noticed. I dialed the phone, spoke to the “vet,” and wrote down an appointment time. Immediately, two boys hurried over to say, “I’ll be the doctor, I’ll be the doctor! Where’s the animal hospital?” I took my dog to the piano bench and they came along. I explained that my dog had not been eating and I was worried that he might be sick. The boys immediately began an examination. Then they discovered the gauze and tape. “Is this real?” they asked. A “cut” was noticed and bandaged. I asked for a bill, and for written instructions on how to care for my dog at home. I received a note reminding me to “come back next week.” Suddenly, several more animals were in need of medical attention. I stepped back to observe. The children took turns wearing the surgical shirts; several wrote out prescriptions and instructions for the dog’s care. The children did not write as much as they had in the housekeeping center, although they did a lot of bandaging.
To maintain interest, I introduced something new into the veterinary center each day, such as a clipboard with paper and a receipt book, which also served as a checkbook and a prescription pad. The day I brought Band-Aids(TM), a large number of animals suddenly needed prompt attention. Carla, the doctor on duty at that point, pulled a chair over to the examining table and became busy, quietly writing. Suddenly, the table was crowded with animals. Taking her job seriously, and frustrated with this rush of activity, Carla called out, “Mrs. B., there’s too many people needing help!” I suggested she ask them to make an appointment or form a line. She insisted her clients get into a line, which they did. Carla then efficiently examined their pets, writing notes and prescriptions. Meanwhile, I enjoyed listening to the “doctor’s” running commentary:
“What do you have here? He gots a ear infection… Next! He has a sore throat… Next! … You know what’s the problem? He has growing pains. He’s growing up to be a big dog … Everybody, please stay in line!”
At one point, when a new team of doctors had taken over, I noticed small tufts of fur on the floor under the examining table. Cody, Twila, and Kristy had been “prepping” the animals before bandaging their cuts. I knew that, in reality, Twila’s dog had undergone surgery recently and had been shaved in the area of the sutures. Although the children assured me they were only cutting off a little fur, I explained that they would have to just pretend to cut the fur, since it would not grow back on these animals.
Cheryl was thrilled with the children’s response to the new play contexts. She carefully noted individual children’s engagement in the activities, using a stamp and ink pad to date each written piece. Table One describes samples of writing produced by the children in Cheryl’s class. The left column contains information about the visual appearance, or form, of writing produced. These forms can be considered strategies employed by children who have not yet been taught conventional printing, or who have not yet mastered it. Youngsters who have not yet had formal writing instruction rely on their existing knowledge and individual perceptions of writing. For example, several children produced scribbles that mimic the fast, fluent writing of adults. Other children relied on well-rehearsed, known words (such as names of family members), while others used the letters in their own names, not necessarily in order, to signify words and phrases. This strategy can be called using “name elements,” and is a common phenomenon in early writing.
Of equal importance, Cheryl began to recognize her own influence as a subtle, yet highly effective model in the children’s play. Many early childhood teachers struggle with their own role in children’s play, but Cheryl soon discovered that she did not need to play an overt “teacher role.” She understood that her mere presence was enough to entice children to participate.
Cheryl: My decision to take on the role of facilitator in two thematic play settings, and to model some functions of writing in those situations, has produced changes that have amazed me. I have seen thematic play sustained for much longer periods than earlier in the year, and play with greater purpose, intensity, and energy. I have seen more cooperative play. I have seen writing activity grow from only one or two children producing a few pieces, to at least two-thirds of the class becoming involved at one time or another. I know much more about the children as writers now: what forms they are using, what principles of writing they understand. I see them as writers, and it seems as though they are beginning to see themselves that way also. just as Cheryl was drawn into the writing process by observing her students, and reflecting on her role in these play-based activities, Cynthia continued learning from the children in her class-not only about their growing interest in and development of storybook dramatizations, but also about her own role inthe classroom.
Cynthia: I introduced the new library center during a Monday circle time. I explained that I would be reading stories about children and people from different places in the world, and that, if they liked these stories, they could listen to them again in the new center. I encouraged the children to “be the characters” in the story, too, and formally introduced them to all of the new materials. The stories I read in the following weeks included, among others: Abiyoyo (Seeger, 1986), Mama, Do You Love Me? (Joose, 1991), Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Steptoe, 1987), On Mother’s Lap (Scott, 1992), The Story About Ping (Flack, 1933)-an old favorite– and Tikki Tikki Tembo (Mosel, 1992).
As the children began to dramatize the stories they heard me read and that they listened to in the new literacy center, I observed evidence of “narrative competence” (Heath, in Vukelich, 1991). Narrative competence is defined by Heath as “the ability to comprehend and produce characters’ actions, motives, goals, and language [that] is consistent with the story line.” The story of Ping was repeatedly reenacted. Martin wanted to be the “boat man.” Theresa looked for a duck in the puppet basket and found a bird. “This could be the duck,” she stated. Garrett, playing nearby, remembered having seen rubber ducks in another classroom; he went off to borrow them for the play. Then Nicky joined the group and all four climbed into the rocking boat, from which one proceeded to fall overboard “just like in the story.” Together, the children called for the boat man: “LA LA LA LA LA LAIEE!” Then, they pled with the boat man not to spank Ping for being late! Surely these actors found empathy for the character of this story.
Along with improved narrative competence, I observed more cooperation, sharing, and collaboration as the children dramatized the stories. One day, five of the children joined together for a spontaneous reenactment of The Little Band (Sage, 1991). As the illustrations for this story depict children wearing brightly colored outfits, the actors found costumes for themselves in the dress-up basket. They all chose instruments from the available selection, and they asked me to flip the rocking boat over to use as a bridge. They paraded around the classroom, playing to their hearts’ content and stopping occasionally to exchange instruments. Other children, playing in different areas of the classroom, waved to the band as it passed by-just as onlookers in a busy town had done in the story.
In another example, the entire class became involved in a dramatization of Tikki Tikki Tembo, a story that became the class favorite. This story was being reenacted by a boy and a girl using stick puppets that represented family members of various ethnic groups. Other children sat nearby as the audience, chiming in on the repetitive chant: “Tikki tikki tembo no sa rembo chari bari ruci pip pari pembo!” Before long, children playing independently throughout the class joined in the chorus. This sense of unity in the room pointed to the children’s increased literacy involvement. As the children gained a continued sense of “mastery of the underlying conventions which govern the exchange between author and audience” (Applebee, 1978), they were truly absorbing the messages and values within the story.
It is clear from Cynthia’s account that she was able to recognize many areas of student competence and achievement during these playful literacy-based activities. She was able to note instances in which the children employed features of written language-features that many of us take for granted, ignoring the important developmental shifts that are signified by the use of such features. For example, children may begin using dialogue carriers to convey information about who is speaking. Or they may assume the role of different characters, demonstrating their sophistication in understanding multiple points of view. They may begin to incorporate, to a greater extent than before, the syntax of the written language intheir favorite storybooks. All of these behaviors represent normal developmental progression for youngsters who are being raised in literacy-rich environments, and their presence indicates that the child should easily acquire conventional literacy skills in kindergarten and 1st grade.
Table Two summarizes language and literacyrelated skills that can be developed and observed as children are engaged in the types of storybook reenactments and dramatizations described by Cynthia. This summary is based on the work of Sulzby (1985,1991), Doake (1985), Martinez (1993), and other scholars whose work illuminates the development of language and literacy in early childhood.
Although Cheryl’s and Cynthia’s experiences, as described to this point, had gone very well, not all of their students responded with equal enthusiasm to these new literacy activities. Here, the teachers describe special circumstances that arose in their classes.
Cheryl: A few children did not join in playing at the veterinary center, but continued with writing in the housekeeping area. Ricky is still not interested in imaginary play, but he spends time at the writing center every day. He wrote several notes to his father, who would go away on business trips; he put these notes in a folder and saved them for his father’s return. When his father came in as the parent helper, Ricky proudly handed over all the notes. His father promised they would read them together at home. I have begun to provide information to interested parents on enriching the home literacy environment by explaining what I am trying to do in the classroom. One parent has decided to build some shelves, modeled after our writing center, to hold her daughter’s writing and drawing supplies.
Cynthia: At times, reenacting stories took on more of a personal, than a group, meaning. Jamal, a child who did not generally choose to play in the literacy center, was drawn to a dramatic reenactment of Abiyoyo. He alternated playing the threatening giant and the father who uses a magic wand to make the giant disappear. As the giant, Jamal pounded a drum with a rhythm stick to create the sound of the giant’s approaching footsteps. The drum beats grew louder and faster as the giant danced closer and closer. Then Jamal took another rhythm stick and, switching to the role of the father, waved his “magic wand” to make the giant disappear. Within this literal interpretation of Abiyoyo, an emotional component arose for Jamal, who got to sort out his feelings about only seeing his father once a month. Jamal told his classmates about his dad who “lives far away but could still make a giant disappear.” Similarly, Lisa was drawn to two Native Alaskan stories about mother-child relationships: Mama, Do You Love Me? and On Mother’s Lap. Lisa, who had a baby brother at home, had been experiencing separation anxiety when her mom dropped her off in the morning.
Although Cheryl and Cynthia worked independently on their projects, similarities appeared in their work. Both found themselves taking on new roles in the classroom, learning to facilitate reading and writing in ways that were previously unfamiliar to them. Both had taken deliberate measures to introduce new opportunities: Cheryl through “inside intervention”-by entering the play centers and assuming, very subtly, appropriate play roles; Cynthia through “outside” intervention-by introducing new stories, and deliberately and formally sharing with children the new props available for those who wished to “be the characters.” Both observed substantial increases in children’s engagement in literacy, and both reported evidence of collaboration, cooperation, and sharing. Children in Cheryl’s class wrote for a variety of purposes. Children in Cynthia’s class found numerous ways to dramatize new stories.
The reading and writing that sprang from the special centers spread to other parts of their classrooms. Both teachers began to consider additional changes they want to make.
Cheryl: I plan to continue modeling various functions of writing, such as story writing, and I want to try more thematic play centers. A visit from a veterinarian or veterinary technician will serve to extend the play in that setting. Barbara Schafer (in Strickland & Morrow, 1989) has said that one of her goals is for the children in her class to have fun with the written and spoken word. My hope as a teacher-facilitator is that I will be able to encourage the enjoyment of writing I have seen emerge during this project, and that the classroom will become a place of discovery and excitement about literacy.
Cynthia: Martinez, Cheyney, and Teale (1991) describe two types of adult intervention in children’s play activities: directive and facilitative. Although I began the new center with a more directive approach, I became more facilitative as time passed. If children asked me to enter their play, I would do so. I supported their efforts and, if asked, responded to their needs. The children heard new stories and were encouraged to listen to the recordings again and again. They had the freedom to use the materials in any way they chose. What I found most striking was that all of the materials were used to reconstruct and dramatize the stories. In fact, when we shared free time with two other classes, my students “taught” children from the other classroom to use the props and materials to reenact stories.
The question I posed at the outset of this project was, “Does a child’s participation in story dramatization or reenactment enhance their emergent literacy behaviors?” Based on the examples provided above, I say that the more opportunities children have to reenact and dramatize the stories they have heard, then the greater propensity there is for language and literate behavior. Vygotsky (1978) tells us that children learn higher-order cognitive functions as they internalize social interactions. The types of interactions I observed in the new center never took place in my traditional library area. At first, I wondered if the children would be confused because, under normal circumstances, libraries are quiet places. But I truly wanted these experiences with books to be much more than they had been, and this is exactly what happened. In fact, before starting this project, only a few children had checked out books to take home. Now, all but one of the children have checked out at least one book.
This experience has encouraged me to pause and reevaluate my goals for the children with whom I work. The results I observed far surpassed my expectations. Creating awareness of other cultures was an important focus of this project. The other was watching for examples of literate behaviors that demonstrate the ability to comprehend, recall, and reconstruct stories, along with the cultivation of creativity in play. I saw evidence of this every day. This project has heightened my awareness of my students, as well as my ability to enhance a literature-based program through the use of multicultural books.
The changes created by Cheryl and Cynthia required little expense and effort. Yet these changes resulted in significantly increased levels of literacy engagement for the children in their classrooms. We encourage other early childhood teachers to take stock of the opportunities their students have for engagement in developmentally appropriate literacy learning activities and to make even small changes where necessary. The result will be remarkable development of language and literacy.
Note: The author is indebted to Cheryl Beuchi and Cynthia Fofi for their contributions to this article.
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Children’s Books Referenced
Flack, M. (1933). The story about Ping. Ill. by K. Wiess. Viking. Joose, B. (1991). Mama, do you love me? Ill. by B. Lavalee. Chronicle.
Sage, J. (1991). The little band. Ill. by K. Narahashi. Simon & Schuster.
Scott, A. (1992). On mother’s lap. Ill. by G. Coalson. Clarion. Seeger, P. (1986). Abiyoyo. Ill. by M. Hays. Simon & Schuster. Steptoe, J. (1987). Mufaro’s beautiful daughters. Ill. by
Mosel, A. (1992). Tikki Tikki Tembo. Ill. by B. Lent. Holt.
Laura Klenk is Assistant
Laura Klenk is Assor, Reading, The State University of New York, Reading, The State University of New York, University at Buffalo.
Copyright Association for Childhood Education Spring 2001
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