Staff Workshop Teacher Handout: Language Development Through Telephone Talk

The importance of telephone talk as a significant dramatic-play tool, the benefits of which include cognitive development, social development, and language development.

  • Grades: PreK–K

We're all aware of the power of dramatic play. When children take on the role of another, playing as if they are the baby, mother, father, bus driver, or some other character, they are gaining an understanding of how the world works. A central benefit of dramatic play is that it gives children a way to express their feelings. When pretending to be a mom or baby, children find they are able to experiment with different emotions, and find their way to better managing them.

Developing Skills Through Dramatic Play


During dramatic play, children use many cognitive processes. They have to make plans-"You be the mommy and you be the baby"-and find ways to carry out their plans. Along the way, they solve many conflicts. "It's your turn to be the baby, I don't want to be that any more."


Socially, children learn to take turns when engaged in dramatic play. They have to cooperate and share, leading them to recognize their own thoughts, but to consider the thinking of others as well.


Children also use a great deal of language when taking part in dramatic play. They must be able to communicate with others to keep their play moving along. Sometimes children use words to take the place of time passing. "Now we ate, and then we slept, and now we wake up," said one girl as she took on the role of a mother. They carry on conversations. "I'll take four bags of tomatoes," says the child playing the customer, and the clerk responds, "That will be $4."

Because of the important relationship between dramatic play, language, and cognitive development, early childhood classrooms have long provided the time, space and props for dramatic play. It is only recently, however, that the role of the props provided for children's dramatic play has been closely studied.

Props for Play

Researchers have found that provision of literacy materials, including papers, markers, address books and so on, leads to children becoming engaged in more writing activities during dramatic play. It has been found that when books, magazines, catalogs and other reading materials are a part of the dramatic-play area, children engage in more reading activities (reading a book to put the "baby" to sleep, the newspaper at breakfast, or searching the catalogs for just the right item of clothing).

Introducing the Telephone

Although the telephone is a major part of life and a common prop in most dramatic-play centers, the role of the telephone in dramatic play has not been fully studied. Telephone play should be a valuable tool in young children's development of oral, symbolic, and representational thinking. While talking on the phone, children develop communication skills that are not developed by talking with others in person. On the phone, children have to compensate for not being able to see the person they are talking with. The nonlinguistic cues, such as body language or shared visual context, are missing. As a result, children have to use more specific language, voice intonations, and do more thinking about the thinking of others.

A Telephone Talk Study

This study observed 4-year-olds' language usage while using a telephone during dramatic play. Three observations were conducted in three different classrooms. The observations took place three mornings during center time. Each observation session lasted approximately three hours. Event sampling, observing when children used the phone, was included.

In all three classrooms, children seemed to understand the mechanics of telephone use. All children engaged in telephone play knew how to dial and receive calls. The vast majority of telephone usage, 98%, involved making, not receiving, calls. Only two children were observed taking incoming calls. The most frequent calls were emergency calls placed to 911, doctors' offices, and police or fire stations. Boys made the majority of calls to fire and police stations, and girls to doctors.

Children's intonations and voice changes while using the telephone suggested they understood the relationship between the language they use and specific events. During an emergency call to a doctor, for example, children used more urgent sounding voices than when placing a call to order a pizza.

Girls were observed using the phone more often than boys. When boys talked on the phone, they were observed using gruff, masculine voices. Girls' voices were observed to be more agitated than those of boys. One girl, on the phone with her 'boss,' became very agitated as she explained her absence from work. She interrupted her call to slam the receiver down repeatedly. Another girl called the doctor and asked for "Something to make me better." She hung up the phone, then picked it up again, jabbed the keys, and slammed the phone down telling the child playing with her, "The darn phone doesn't work."

Non-verbal activities during pretend phone conversations also seemed to differ between boys and girls. Boys typically tapped their fingers on the table, or tapped the table with a pencil as they were talking while holding the phone in their hands. The girls we observed tended to cradle the phone to their ear with their shoulders.

Sharing the Results

The results of observing children's language usage when using the telephone during dramatic play suggests several things:

  • The observed children understand the essential features of telephone usage. Nearly all of the children demonstrated knowledge of picking up the phone, dialing, pausing for another's conversation and then hanging up when finished.
  • All of the observed children see the telephone as a tool to disseminate information, obtain assistance, and share conversations.
  • Nearly all of the observed children were knowledgeable about the essentials of telephone discourse. They were observed using a conversational opening and closing and correct pauses, as if waiting for the imaginary person on the other end to answer and respond to them.

This observational study, although limited by sample size, illustrates the importance of the telephone as a significant dramatic-play tool. Pretend calling represents a high level of thinking, since there is no interaction from the imaginary receiver of the call.

Early childhood educators can build on this study, making certain that phones are a part of dramatic play, not just in dramatic-play centers, but perhaps throughout the classroom. Cell phones might be placed in the block area, stimulating children to call for emergency equipment when building roads and so forth. They can be placed in the library or listening center so children can 'read' to someone else.

Observing children using the telephone during dramatic play is an effective way of exploring children's language and literacy learning. It also helps us to recognize and appreciate the complex language and thinking skills children employ during this specialized communication process.

  • Subjects:
    Language Arts, Communication and Language Development, Drama, Theater, Musicals, School Administration and Management

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