Play and language: the roots of literacy

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Dr Carol Westby was a preschool play and language guru back when I was an undergraduate, but I don’t work with preschoolers these days, so haven’t kept track of her recent work. However, lots of people ask me how to prepare preschoolers for literacy success at school.

My usual answer goes something like, “Once a child turns four, you can start developing their phonological awareness and letter knowledge, but the main priority in preschool should be lots of pretend play and social interaction, to develop children’s oral language, thinking and social-emotional skills. So get down to their level, follow their lead, and play and talk a lot with preschoolers.”

Sydney Speech Pathologist David Kinnane has just circulated the link below to a recent, fabulous YouTube video of The Journal of Child Language Teaching and Therapy‘s Summer (in the US) Lecture by Dr Westby in which she talks about how play and language are the roots of literacy (thanks, David!). It gives a clear, succinct summary of the importance of early play and language for later literacy skills.

Play is isn’t just leisure for children, it’s vital for their social-emotional, language and later literacy skill development.

Pretend play, which develops from about age 18 months, involves acting out scenarios a child has seen others do, and requires a sense of one’s own thoughts and feelings (intrapersonal theory of mind).

In the kind of pretend play known as symbolic play, children pretend something is something else (e.g. use a banana as a phone), play with absent objects or attributes (e.g. pour pretend tea, and tell you to be careful, because it’s hot), and use toys as agents (e.g. have a doll serve some cakes). Symbolic play has four dimensions:

  • Theory of Mind, where roles are assigned to self and others,
  • Thematic content, with different scripts and schemas,
  • Decontextualisation, using props or mental images to set the scene,
  • Organisation, with increasingly coherent cause-effect or time sequences.

Each of the four dimensions usually develop in predictable ways and interact with a child’s language development and ability to use language for social interaction. These skills all develop abilities that will later be important for literacy, e.g. being able to think about the thoughts and feelings of characters in stories, link themes, imagine scenes and organise ideas logically.

My adorable two-year-old neighbour (who calls me ‘Aunty Alison’, gah) is interested in letters, and the early phonics apps on my ipad and phone, but I’d rather dance to Wiggles videos, pretend to be vets with toy animals, savour the delicious meals he makes in our hallway play kitchen, look at picture books, do puzzles and play trains on our playdates.

Learning phonemic awareness and letters can wait. In preschool, developing children’s play and language is the best way to set them up for literacy success, and continues to matter well into the school years, and arguably beyond. In her conclusion, Dr Westby quotes George Bernard Shaw: ‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing’.

PS Sorry that my website mistakenly sent out the beginnings of a draft post yesterday, it seems to have been a technical error.


9 responses to “Play and language: the roots of literacy”

  1. I think everyone is scared to dare to mention letters in preschool it’s like a taboo. I have taught a nursery class and they had loads of great play and letter sound learning/emergent writing opportunities with feedback etc. Some kids are more interested than others but maybe we could tempt those who are wary by making it fun? Play dough letters, sand letters and letters in the water tray that stick on the tiled wall adjacent. I really don’t think we should try to ban letter sound learning from preschool. No one has the same issues with counting everyone seems to think counting and numbers are fine to do in preschool! Warm Regards Jacqui Daniels-Gillen

    • alison says:

      Hi Jacqui, wow, that’s a very different impression from what I get from people who contact me about preschoolers. They always seem to want to get cracking on phonemic awareness and phonics, and need information about the importance and value of early language and play. I guess I’m always on about phonemic awareness and phonics so that’s what people contact me about! It really frustrates me that in preschool, children learn things that aren’t the most helpful things for early literacy e.g. the blasted alphabet song (useful for when you’re filing, and it’s music, but really?) and letter names, which can really confuse many struggling beginners, especially letter names like like H and Y. The sounds are what matter most! All the best, Alison

      • Julie Rowe says:

        Jacqui’s unfortunately right Alison. In NZ at least the preschool curriculum (Te Whariki) is very play focused, which is fabulous but I think there needs to be some explicit mentions of fostering pre reading skills as well as language development. I was so devoted to learning through play with my oldest that I interpreted it as do nothing, that’s the school’s job. Poor her, she goes to a BL school and is dyslexic. With my third, I’m actively teaching him letters and sounds. I think he’s dyslexic too but I’ve already opened his world up to words. So I think the people who contact you are people like me who know better and want to do better.

        • Elspeth says:

          Having spent quite a few years supporting children at child care and kinder, I think that some centres have a tendency to concentrate on one of the pre-reading domains to the exclusion of others. I have seen some work on letters and forget to explore the important pre-reading skill of oral language, and others that work on the language aspects and don’t talk about sounds/letters. Fortunately I have also seen many centres that plan for all the domains well, so it is possible. If I had to choose between working on letter/sound knowledge or oral language before school (not that we do have to choose), my preference would be to build the foundations of language and imagination. There are often more opportunities for extended two-way conversations at child care and kinder than there will be at school. Language is also a pre-reading skill 🙂

          • alison says:

            Yes, I agree, great oral language is the priority in preschool, learning to read and write can wait till school begins. However, since so many schools still use balanced literacy (a mixture of things that work and things that don’t) many parents want to give their preschoolers a head start in understanding how our writing system works, and that’s understandable. Once all schools are teaching early literacy in accordance with the best scientific evidence, parents and others will be able to relax and just enjoy lots of interesting conversations and imaginative play with their preschoolers.

  2. Tanya Serry says:

    What a great refresher, thanks Alison and thanks David.

  3. Thanks so much! I LOVED the links between play and reading comprehension. I also found it really insightful to be able to link ToM to reading comprehension/play with the context of ASD students in mind. Lots of dots joined for me!

  4. Sue McCandlish says:

    Thanks Alison (and David) I was so excited to see your post about this. I did my Masters under Dr Westby and she has been a tremendous influence on my work as a speech pathologist. The Australian classroom in the training was the one I worked in and Dr Westby had our play program videoed as you see. The road to the code is built on a firm basis of oral language and play is so important in this. Thanks for posting!

  5. Louise says:

    Thankyou, Alison (and David). We continue to need to hear about the complexities of the importance of oral language and play – especially early childhood educators (and parents). So important to highlight the connections between play skills, oral language and later reading/ cognitive development. Sadly, I don’t think many primary schools in Australia have play in the curriculum up to Second Grade – wouldn’t that be nice….

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