Play and language: the roots of literacy9 Replies
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.