Kindergarten to Grade 4 English Language Arts: A Foundation for Implementation

Implementation Overview: K-4
Creating a Literacy-Rich Environment - Part 2

Teaching Literacy through Imaginative Play

Literacy learning in the Early Years is embedded in play. Early childhood educators have always recognized the value of play for social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development. Oral language develops through social interaction and through play at the sand and water table, and at other traditional Early Years centres.

Play is recognized as an important vehicle for developing all aspects of literacy because it provides a functional, meaningful setting for language development. Teachers promote and extend students’ reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing skills by helping them create imaginative centres around themes in the classroom.

For example, as part of a community study or nutrition theme, and after a field trip to a local grocery store where students are encouraged to observe environmental print, teachers help the students create a grocery store in the classroom. Students brainstorm ideas for items that should be in their store, including signs, flyers, and coupons. Ideas can be mapped and categorized, and the class develops a written plan to set up their store. Students will need to make decisions, form committees or work teams, and design, make, and collect the items they need. Teachers ensure that students have materials such as message boards, order forms, paper and clipboards, labels, pens, pencils, and markers in these centres to encourage the use of literacy skills. Once the store is set up, many more learning opportunities requiring literacy and skills for different sign systems will present themselves or can be facilitated by the teacher.

As students use all six language arts through imaginative play — whether in a store, newspaper office, hospital, post office, or pioneer home — teachers observe and gather evidence of students’ literacy learning. Teachers observe students’ active engagement in co-operating with peers, their use of prior knowledge, and their skills in organizing and managing their environment with the support and guidance of others. In this way, imaginative play settings provide both opportunity for and evidence of the social, collaborative, and interactive nature of literacy development.

Nurturing the Will to Learn

Many children begin their development as readers and writers before school age and enter school eager to succeed. Teachers who recognize that each student can succeed, who communicate that belief to each student, and who structure learning activities that ensure each student’s success are helping their students develop a sense of self-efficacy and a belief in themselves as readers and writers. Students’ motivation to use the strategies they are being taught can be heightened dramatically if they genuinely believe they are capable of applying the strategies to improve their own performance.

If we want students to become deeply engaged in language learning, then they must believe that it is worthwhile to do so. Comprehending and composing demand effort and persistence. As Guthrie observes, however, "students will exert the needed effort and attention if they possess powerful, personal motivations such as involvement and curiosity" (Guthrie, 1997, 18).

Learning is a highly personal process. It is prompted by learners asking questions or identifying purposes that are individual to them. However, it is within the context of social interaction and the exchange of ideas that learners find opportunities to generate new questions and identify their own purposes in language learning.

Teachers enhance student engagement in learning by providing a variety of texts that are relevant to students’ lives, and by giving students choices as readers, writers, and creators. As Kathy Short and her colleagues point out, "It is in making the decision to read this book rather than that book, or to write this story rather than that story, that ownership of the process occurs" (Short, et al., 1996, p. 89). Reading, viewing, and listening are more meaningful when they offer students opportunities to establish what they want to know. Speaking, writing, or representing become more effective if students use them to discover what they want to say.

The desire to explain and to understand is a part of intrinsic motivation. Literacy experiences need to build from students’ life experiences inside and outside school. Authentic language learning activities enable students to learn about the world, to work through personal issues, to share with peers, and to tell stories. Engaged learners often work together as they construct understanding and personal meaning. This social interaction also contributes to motivation.

Building a sense of personal autonomy is motivating to students. As students are provided with choices about what to learn, and are supported by teachers in how to learn, they become more engaged language learners. Furthermore, as Guthrie, 1997, observes, they demonstrate persistence, effort, and confidence in themselves as learners.

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