Did you see the new Literacy Trust report ‘Mental wellbeing, reading and writing’that came out this week? The research that underpins it looked to explore any links ‘between mental wellbeing and reading and writing enjoyment and attitudes’ (p. 25). It referenced other studies such as the Millennium Cohort Study which has found parallels between reading ability and wellbeing. This might make us feel we must rush to teach young children to read without taking into consideration the important role that play has in developing language skills and therefore literacy skills. So how does play support these early literacy skills?
If children are allowed to play with language they can rehearse, make mistakes, practice and just enjoy the sheer thrill that different sounds and wordscan make. For example, think about a young child shouting ‘Wheeeeeeee!!’ at the top of their voice as they go down a slide or another learning a new word and repeating it over and over and over again……….Bruce and Spratt (2011)discuss how important it is for a child to have these opportunities. They describe the scenario of ‘Sam’ who ‘smelt rotten food…[and] uttered a disgusted sound – ‘Errrrh!’ (p. 34) and they remind us how important mastering these vowel sounds are for children when they begin to read.
These sounds begin to develop too in children’s imaginative play; they might begin to make animal sounds or copy the words of characters from their favourite stories. They might even throw in a few words that surprise you; I’ll never forget a 2-year-old galloping around the garden on his imaginary horse and then bringing me my ‘palomino’ so I would join in with him. Paes and Ellefson (2018) describe how important pretend play can be in supporting children in developing their spoken skills, skills they will need to become successful readers and writers.
And of course in pretend play, mark making and early writing happens in an informal yet purposeful way. For example, a child making notes from an imaginary phone call is not worrying about the size, direction or accuracy of their writing; they are just participating in the joy of making a meaningful mark.
The progression from speaking and listening to reading and writing needs to be facilitated by knowledgeable adults who can provide exciting and engaging occasions for play. It is not sufficient to plan ahead with a rota of particular activities provided on particular days of the week. As Neum (2018) found, just because children are playing, this does not necessarily mean they are developing the important types of language they will need to be successful at school and beyond.
So when we are thinking of developing young children’s literacy skills we should never take play out of the equation. If children are deprived of rich play opportunities which are facilitated by skillful adults, how will they develop those important language skills that they will need to become effective readers and writers? Any thoughts? Please add your comments below….