Academic journal article Childhood Education

Playing with Literacy in Preschool Classrooms

Academic journal article Childhood Education

Playing with Literacy in Preschool Classrooms

Article excerpt

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. …

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