The following interview reflects a unique slant on how children learn to read, including emotions and play as critical elements of this developing skill.
Early Childhood Today: In your work, you emphasize the connection between learning and emotional development. How does this specifically relate to how children learn to read?
Stanley I. Greenspan. M.D.: I think that while there's been wonderful research in the field of literacy, there are some other very important aspects to consider about what children need to be ready to read. The perspective commonly discussed in education is that children need knowledge of the world and that this knowledge can be acquired from pictures or listening to stories. Those things are helpful, but they don't come close to the magnitude of the highly personal, emotional experiences that children need. Children need opportunities to interact with others when learning new concepts-whether it be learning a word/concept like dog or something more complex. Words like love or fairness are words that are learned in an emotional context. So, when we read about these things, reading becomes meaningful.
Interaction is also important when learning the mechanical parts of reading-the ability to perceive shapes on a page and the ability to associate those shapes with sounds and words. You've got to decipher that d-o-g stands for the word dog and then you have to associate the word dog with what you know about a dog. And, if you don't have much experience with a dog, then it's really an empty word. Of course, if you have a wonderful memory, you might have memorized a flash card and know that "dog is a four-legged animal that goes bark," but you don't really know what a dog is.
Deborah Leong, Ph.D.: I agree that personal experience is what makes the entire reading process meaningful. That's why I think what is most important, what best prepares preschool children and kindergartners for reading, is play. I'm referring to well-developed dramatic play, where children take on rich roles and create fantasy worlds that are of their own design. Children develop incredible story lines with their play partners. This kind of dramatic play provides the best backdrop for developing cognitive skills, including symbolic thinking and self-regulation and, specific literacy-related skills such as oral language.
ECT: What are some ways that dramatic play prepares children for reading?
Leong: Through play, children actively turn their environments into anything and everything-weddings, schoolrooms, castles. Through this rich dramatic play, imaginations develop. And when children enter these fantasy worlds, they are practicing entering the fantasy worlds of the author, who uses words alone to create scenes and people and entire worlds.
ECT: What other literacy skills are children developing through dramatic play?
Leong: Well, children also practice separating objects from their real-life uses as they play. This is important, because reading involves a similar kind of abstract process-separating an object into a word that, in turn, is separated into a bunch of letters. This awareness of words as separate from what they represent is called symbolic representation. To read, children need to realize, for instance, that c-o-w represents the word cow, and the word cow represents the animal. Play that promotes this understanding involves children in using their imaginations with open-ended materials-a marker might become a magic wand, a block can turn into a boat.
Finally, we find that children communicate better with each other when they play. In fact, if you want to provide rich opportunity for the development of language skills, then encourage dramatic play-a place where you'll really see children's language grow and thrive.
ECT: Assuming a strong foundation has been established, what actually happens that gets children reading?
Greenspan: When we think about the mechanical process of reading, we first have to look at the perceptual side of learning, which involves visual-spatial processing. This is the ability to identify the shapes of letters and see the shapes coming together as a word, phrase, or sentence. Then we can look at the auditory-perceptual side-how children distinguish sounds and words in terms of what they hear and organize in their minds. So what's happening when a child is learning to read? He's connecting visual-perceptual properties and auditory-verbal ones to what he's experienced with his other senses as well in an emotionally relevant context. By connecting up these processes, the child can make sense of what he looks at and relate it to what he's heard.
Let's put meaning aside for a moment. In order to visually perceive shapes, you have to master certain steps of visual processing. For instance, if you deprive a 2-year-old of getting to know the world of physical shapes, you'll have a child who can't distinguish squares from triangles or Ps from Qs. The perceptual system doesn't develop on its own. It needs relevant experiences, which, we believe, are highly interactive with the world.
Children do best when these experiences are part of human relationships. The 2-year-old looks at a block and sees how lines make a shape even before she has the word for "square." She plays with it, but she gains even more knowledge when a teacher engages her.
ECT: Some of these ideas seem compatible to your own, Dr. Leong. How do you approach preparing young children to read?
Leong: When you look at early readers, you see that there are many paths to reading. Some children learn sounds first, others memorize words, and then there are infinite combinations in between. By the time children are fluent readers, all these paths have converged and children are capable of both sounding words out and recognizing words by sight. However, formal instruction usually emphasizes one method over the other I feel, in preschool, we have the luxury of not emphasizing one particular method. This is the age when it's more important for children to learn that print is communicative. Yes, children need to learn the alphabetic principle, but we don't have to get involved in direct instruction.
ECT: What is a good alternative?
Leong: We can allow children to play around with a lot of different cueing systems and a lot of different ways of looking at letters and literacy and writing. They write some words-the ones they often recognize such as their names-but we let them explore all venues rather than locking them into the way it's done in first grade. We emphasize writing because it gives everyone more leeway. Our children read back print that is part of their everyday lives. This includes their own messages and the messages of their friends and of their teachers. They can try to read books-but we don't push that. We believe that writing is the key, because through writing, children can fool around with different sounds and different ways to represent sounds. Also, in reading their own messages, children are able to use lots of contextual clues, such as pictures they've drawn, as well as letters. When you have young children read basal readers, it's very hard to create that essential, meaningful context.
ECT: What do we do when none of these approaches seems to make print meaningful to a child?
Greenspan: In this case, we need to build up the child's vocabulary and concepts of the world through interactive experiences. We need to ask ourselves: Is this child not understanding what a lot of words mean because her life experiences have been limited? Fortunately, we can offer those experiences in preschool or in kindergarten and begin to remedy the problem.
Stanley I. Greenspam, M.D., is co-author, with T. Berry Brazleton, M.D., of The Irreducible Needs of Children (Perseus Books, 2000; $24). Dr. Greenspan is a clinical professor of psychiatry, behavioral science and pediatrics at the George Washington University Medical School.
Deborah Leong, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver. A Vygotskian researcher, Dr. Leong and her writing partner, Elena Bodrova, developed the program Tools of the Mind, a group of strategies used to teach reading and writing to young children, for which they received a United Nations award this year for innovations in early childhood education.