Symbolic Play as a part of Children’s Literacy

As parents were concerned about their children’s reading and writing abilities heading into kindergarten, I created this documentation piece in my very last year of teaching at the Helen Gordon Child Development Center.  How do I approach teaching literacy skills?


The reason why I made this documentation piece was because of a number of questions I received from parents about kindergarten readiness (a term I completely hate, because the schools should be ready for children and not just the other way around).  But their questions were valid.  They wanted to know how I was going to address reading and literacy seeing as how their children were 4-5 years old and going to kindergarten in the next school year.


This documentation was explicitly created for the parents, but it was also for my colleagues and other teachers as well.  I knew that this piece would be up in the hallway where teachers from other schools often visit.  That being said, my main focus was for the families, and the teachers were a secondary audience.

Symbolic Play

When adults work with preschoolers on literacy, there is a tendency to only focus on their reading and writing.

In particular, many adults think children learn to read specifically at the moment when they sound out letters off of a page.

Many adults think children learn to write specifically at the moment when children coherently string letters together on a piece of paper.

But think about all of the cognitive structures that need to be in place before a child can read symbols off of a page, or use symbols to express something.  There’s a lot that needs to happen.

First, children have to understand that the symbols have some sort of meaning attached to it.  They have to be able to know that when those symbols are strung together, they form words and sentences.  To do that, cognitively children have to first play with symbols in their mind, and they often do this with objects first.  They use objects that symbolically represent other imaginary ideas.

Many adults only think children are working on reading and writing when they are doing some sort of writing drill or worksheet.  And it’s hard to explain that when the child is playing symbolically, that is a requisite cognitive skill to learning to read and write.

Authentic Reading and Writing 

Think about an infant.  When they are learning to speak (which is arguably a MUCH more difficult thing to learn than to read or write), they learn how to do it without drills or adults breaking down speaking into letter sounds.  You don’t teach infants to speak by teaching them about glottal stops in the larynx or pressing the tongue to the top of the mouth, or anything like that.  Yet, we do precisely this kind of teaching when teaching writing.  We break it down into small little chunks and teach those chunks.  This is an example of inauthentic experiences.  Children will never have to do those types of drills in a real-world scenario outside of a school.  It’s inauthentic.

Think about that infant again.  When they lift up their hands, we speak back to them.  We ask, “Do you want to be picked up?”  The infant may mutter something unintelligible.  But we respond back to them, “It seems like you do.”  We treat them as if they are speaking now and not at some later date.  You treat them as if they are speakers now.

And so I operate from that framework.  Children are writers and readers now and not on some later date.
Broadening out to Language Development rather than just Literacy
In the conversation on literacy, we lose sight of this one very important question: What is the purpose of language?
When it gets boiled down, language has an intention which has been defined like so: The intention of language is to express meaning to someone for some purpose.
So if language has this intention, then language development broadens out far beyond just reading and writing.  The purposes of communication, emotion, relationship, expression, and power all come into play into children’s language development.  By focusing on a narrow aspect of this development of children, we risk missing the mark altogether.
Starting with a Declaration
The declaration:
We declare that children are readers now, and not later.
We declare that children are writers now, and not later.
This declaration establishes our posture in teaching language development.
Further declarations:
What kinds of activities might you see in the classroom using this posture?
Authentic Writing Experiences
The Value of Symbolic Play
A Perspective from Reggio Emilia on Children’s Writing
It should be noted that the framework I used for this documentation piece is highly influenced by Lindfors’ book: “Children’s Language: Connecting Reading, Writing and Talk”
It’s an excellent book and I strongly recommend it.

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