Blogger Early & Family Literacy committee

Play and the Science of Reading: How Play Helps Get Kids Ready to Read

Over the next few months, the Early and Family Literacy Committee will write about one of the ECRR early literacy practices and discuss the science of reading research that supports the development of that practice and the skills it engenders. Today’s practice is play! 

As mentioned in last month’s committee blog post, the Science of Reading is becoming more popular as a framework for teaching kids to read.  Rather than being a specific step-by-step plan, it brings together key elements that when used as a whole, successfully prepares kids to read. 

We want to relate the 5 practices of Early Literacy (Sing, Talk, Read, Write, Play) to these key elements, and we’re going to start with PLAY. 

How does Play support the 5 tenets of reading instruction (Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension) that the reading research has deemed effective?  In many ways, PLAY allows these to be combined to produce a fulfilling experience for a child while they are having a good time. 

The skills children develop while playing are many:  

  • Narrative skills as they share and tell stories 
  • Fine and gross motor skills as they act out stories, manipulate toys, and move in a variety of settings
  • Vocabulary as they learn new words as they explore their surroundings and parents, caregivers, and educators label new things
  • Counting skills as they inventory what they see 
  • Social skills as they learn to engage with others 

Many of these skills provide children with a foundation that will serve them well when they begin formal reading instruction. 

The University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science has developed a set of 26 cards extolling the virtues of play, and they can be used with parents or child care providers. Each uses a letter to express a different idea for why play is important, and cites research in support.  Use these as a resource when parents have questions about play and how it will provide a foundation for learning to read and more. Here is a sample that directly speaks to this topic using “L” is for Language: “Children build language skills through play. In particular, when children play with other children, they have to negotiate roles, set up rules, and build a world together. As they do so, they learn to use more sophisticated vocabulary to express themselves, and to better understand others.” 

“Why child’s play is serious business in early education,“ by Karen D’Souza in EdSource is a great piece to offer lay readers, particularly parents and others, to convince them of the power of play. This article discusses how increased focus on academic rigor in schools as we come out of the pandemic has led to reduction in recess time and Play opportunities at school, to children’s detriment. And the article also states that, “Children who dress up and tell stories are learning how to shape a narrative, a precursor to learning to read and write, experts say.” The development of narrative skills builds a foundation for fluency and comprehension during later reading instruction. 

“The Contribution of Play Experiences in Early Literacy: Expanding the Science of Reading” from the International Literacy Association, reviews the literature from earlier studies indicating Play can contribute to the development of skills supporting early literacy, even beyond language development. The research reviewed here reinforces the notion that play with adult guidance results in more literacy behaviors displayed by children during play. If you have play sessions as part of your storytimes, don’t just watch from the sidelines – engage with kids and model behaviors for caregivers!  

The 2021 Hechinger Report summarizes  multiple studies that conclude that play could be a possible tool against inequity and help close learning gaps for children in disadvantaged communities.  Data collected from studies around the world showed heightened learning gains in children who regularly engaged in Play with adult participation, regardless of economic indicators. 

If you’d like to read more about the importance of play, this blog post highlights a collection of articles from Children and Libraries

Interested in more on the Science of Reading? Check out these other ALSC Blog Posts

The Science of Reading and Every Child Ready to Read

The Science of Reading: A Primer for Children’s Library Staff 


Today’s blog post was written by Jennifer Duffy, children’s librarian at King County Library System in Seattle, WA, on behalf of the ALSC Early and Family Literacy Committee. She can be reached at jduffy@kcls.org.

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