Applied Psychology OPUS

Teachers' Support of Preschoolers' Emergent Literacy through Play

Cassie Wuest

In a large national survey, 80% of kindergarten teachers surveyed in 2011 reported that they believe students should learn to read in kindergarten, as compared to 31% of teachers who held this belief in 1998. Moreover, 64% of teachers in the same survey believed that early literacy instruction during the preschool years was key for success in kindergarten (Bassok, Latham, & Rorem, 2016). These findings highlight the increased pressure placed on preschool teachers to maximize children’s early literacy skills (i.e., print concepts, literate language, phonological awareness, letter recognition, etc.) to increase the likelihood of later success during the school-age years (Catts, Fey, Tomblin, & Zhang, 2002; Dickinson & Porche, 2011; Hannon, 2000). 

Whereas direct instruction in early literacy concepts might appear to be most effective for the development of children’s early literacy skills, research suggests that children can make large gains in these skills through teachers’ integration of concepts into every aspect of the classroom day (Kaderavek & Justice, 2004). One central part of the preschool day is play, wherein teachers have many opportunities to aid children’s literacy development (Vukelich, 1994). Play is typically viewed as a child-initiated and child-directed way for children to make sense of the world around them and can include games and activities, as well as pretend play that is more free form in nature (Meadows & Cashdan, 1988; Williams & Rask, 2003). Many parts of the preschool play experience, from classroom organization (i.e., how the classroom is arranged and how the teacher utilizes the classroom setup) to teacher involvement, have been targeted as areas to develop early literacy skills. Thus, this literature review will seek to answer the following question: how do teachers support preschool age children’s development of early literacy skills through play?

Classroom Organization and Supporting Literacy through Play

The preschool classroom involves many opportunities for teachers to interweave literacy into their play centers (Singer & Lythcott, 2004; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). For example, some teachers will include books and writing materials in different play areas of the classroom not typically associated with reading, such as child-friendly menus and recipes in a sociodramatic kitchen set (Singer & Lythcott, 2004; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). To further include literacy in their students’ play, many teachers will emphasize literacy-related concepts as they interact with different groups of students, but then back off and allow students time to play without pressuring them to make their play wholly academic (Roskos & Neuman, 1993). For example, a teacher might encourage students playing in the art area to first create something related to a book they just read before giving them free reign to create whatever they like. 

One specific and very explicit classroom organizational setup that has been used by teachers is a literacy-embedded play center (LEPC; Owocki, 1999; Roskos & Neuman, 1993; Saracho & Spodek, 2006; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). A LEPC is very similar to a sociodramatic play area found in most preschool classrooms, but materials to encourage literacy are intentionally included in play center setup and teachers include specific learning objectives that target a variety of different developmental domains, including cognitive and social-emotional development (Owocki, 1999; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). For example, a teacher may include pieces of paper and writing implements in each play center and a list of relevant prompts for adults in the classroom to encourage children to depict their play visually. The goal of an LEPC is to establish a print-rich environment through the use of books and writing implements, which the teacher can use to model and guide both focused and open-ended literacy related play (Owocki, 1999). Teachers purposefully select themed areas, props, and materials that are familiar to children in order to connect knowledge students already have acquired with more novel literacy concepts, such as encouraging students to use the block center in the classroom to build the house from a story they had already read (Bodrova & Leong, 2003; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). In doing so, children relate their general knowledge of building structures with blocks to more story-specific content. Moreover, teachers consider the variety of different roles that can be played in that particular themed area, and the different ways each role can interact with literacy materials (Saracho & Spodek, 2006; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). For example, in a dramatic play setup, a teacher might include a variety of different dress-up clothing so that children can act out stories. Research also suggests that children generalize concepts taught in LPECs to other settings that are not as deliberately literacy-focused, such as outdoor play (Benjamin, Haden, & Wilkerson, 2010). Thus, by very deliberately creating an area that seamlessly integrates literacy and play, teachers encourage students’ learning of many different concepts in a fun environment.

Teachers’ practices to integrate literacy during free play is incredibly important for the development of literacy skills in a more academic context. When teachers bring literacy into play, they connect more “traditional” approaches to literacy instruction (i.e., book sharing and direct instruction) to areas where children have already been exposed to print in their everyday environment, such as menus and food labels in a kitchen (Vukelich, 1994; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). Additionally, doing so provides some structure to what children already spontaneously include without resorting to formal instruction, which makes the preschool classroom as a whole a more natural and enriching environment (Roskos & Neuman, 1993; Walker & Spybrook, 2011). 

The Role of Teachers in Supporting Literacy through Play

Historically, the role of teachers in supporting children’s play has been very controversial (Harper & McCluskey, 2003; Landreth, 2002; Trawick-Smith & Dziurgot, 2011). Traditionally, researchers have warned teachers to limit their involvement in their students’ play out of fear that teachers will easily overpower their students and stifle their growing creativity and emotionality (Biber, 1984; Brown & Freeman, 2001; Landreth, 2002). Similarly, proponents of limited teacher involvement in play suggest that teacher interaction in play inhibits students from learning how to successfully navigate the play experience on their own, such as conflict resolution with peers (Biber, 1984; Landreth, 2002). This approach suggests that the role of the teacher during play time is to observe children and to keep the play experience from becoming dangerous or overly chaotic (Landreth, 2002). As a result, proponents of this approach to teacher interaction in play would rather allow children to spontaneously make connections to literacy related concepts, rather than taking steps to integrate literacy into play. However, teachers can play an integral role in supporting their student’s early literacy skills through play.

When teachers do interact with children during play, they can take on a variety of roles that help promote literacy development (Roskos & Neuman, 1993). These roles include the onlooker, where the teacher observes and occasionally indicates that she/he is paying attention to the play, the player, where the teacher is directly involved with the play, and the leader, where she/he attempts to structure the students’ play (Roskos & Neuman, 1993). Research suggests that most teachers will take on all three roles at some point over the course of the preschool day, but tend to remain consistent in their approach in one context (Morrow & Gambrell, 2004; Roskos & Neuman, 1993). For example, if a teacher takes on a ‘player’ role and engages students during storybook reading, she/he might be more likely to take on a similar role while children are reading during free play. However, during sociodramatic play, that same teacher might demonstrate an “onlooker” role. This research suggests that teachers use different roles as they attempt to include literacy opportunities in play. 

Teachers may also choose to take a more instructional approach in integrating literacy into children’s play. A large majority of interventions that seek to engage children in literacy related activities during play involve using play as a follow-up activity to some kind of instruction (Ilgaz & Aksu-Koc, 2005; Roskos, Christie, Widman, & Holding, 2010; Williams & Rask, 2003). For example, a teacher might read a story to students and then encourage students to act out the story or use toys related to the story during sociodramatic play. These play activities particularly target language comprehension and story production rather than more print-based concepts (e.g., word recognition). Typically, these concepts are targeted on a classroom organizational level, such as providing books for children in different settings (Roskos et al., 2010). 

Conclusion and Future Directions

With increased pressures on young children to enter school with the necessary skills to begin reading and increased pressure on preschool teachers to adequately prepare their students for kindergarten, it is crucial to examine how teachers can fully integrate early literacy skills into the preschool classroom. Teachers can do so on both an organizational level (e.g., including literacy materials such as books and writing materials in different play centers) and on an involvement level (e.g., prompting students to act out a story during sociodramatic play). Regardless of the approach teachers take, research suggests that integrating early literacy into children’s play has beneficial effects for the development of children’s pre-reading skills. 

However, despite the benefits of play for early literacy development, there are still many gaps in our current understanding. The majority of studies on play and literacy are conducted on mostly White middle-class populations, where preschool teachers have access to a wide variety of resources. Future research should further investigate more economical strategies to integrate literacy into play for teachers in low-income areas. Moreover, future studies should examine how early literacy skills can be integrated into at-home play, both to create continuity between home and school and to increase children’s exposure to literacy skills when the play facilitator (i.e., the caregiver) is not primarily focused or trained in instruction. Regardless, studies on preschool classrooms suggest that, through combining early reading skills and play, teachers can foster crucial early literacy skills in a fun and engaging manner.  


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