An estimated one in three children in this country expriences significant difficulty in reading. For these children, achievements in school is a struggle and later on, in their adult working lives, success may be limited. In response to this national crisis, a trend to emphasize skills at younger and younger ages has taken hold.
Yet recent studies stress that nurturing, responsive relationships are essential to the cognitive development of children.
It follows that the development of early language and eventually literacy occurs in the context of close relationships with others. According to The National Education Goals Panel, "A solid base of emotional security and social competence enables children to participate fully and learning experiences and form good relationships with teachers and peers."
During the first years of a child's life, the brain develops substantially as a result of interactions with others. Toward the end of the first year, a child's desire to relate with others in shared interactions becomes apparent. The baby wants the adult to notice what she is noticing and acknowledge the experience. This is known as "joint attention." Early childhood teachers and parents can foster joint attention by being alert to the young child's intention to communicate and responding to the child's interest. Early social-emotional development affects the ability to communicate, use language, and eventually develop literacy skills.
It is clear that children do begin "literacy learning with language and that enhancing their language development by providing them with rich and engaging language environments during the first five years of life is the best way to ensure their success as readers" (Tabots, Snow, & Dickinson, 2001, p.334). One way to increase the development of oral language is through play.
Play is an important factor because it encourages young children to reflect on situations through their own dramatizations. We can enrich children's play by providing field trips as a source of knowledge, as well as relevant props to stimulate fantasy and by becoming involved in the play ourselves (suggesting new activities, vocabulary, and rules).
In order for play to provide opportunities for oral language development and literacy, children need at least 20 to 30 minutes at a time to allow enough time for them to create the elaborate scripts of dramatic play (Christie, Johnsen, & Peckover, 1988). Consider an example of young children playing doctor's office. First they need time to establish everyone's roles. Perhaps they had recently read a book about Sam, who has an earache-someone needs to be Sam, another person his Dad who takes him to the doctor, another child the doctor, and so on. Then children need to think about and decide what items are needed and choose objects to represent those items. For example, a paper tube from a paper towel roll might be used to look through to see Sam's earache. Next comes the all-important playing out of the story with all its detail. All this takes time and, if needed, helpful guidance and support from a teacher.
The teacher's involvement is pivotal in helping children incorporate literacy materials into their play. Effective play also enhances their self-regulatory behavior and helps them develop a sense of story-which is important to future reading.
We know that to become fluent readers, young children need experiences that help them to develop oral language skills and phonological awareness, the motivation to learn to read, as well as the specific skills associated with decoding the alphabet and comprehending print (Bums, Griffin, & Snow, 1999). Important elements of their learning environments include positive, supportive, reciprocal relationships in addition to specific literacy-related activities and materials. However, it is the supportive relationships with parents, peers, and teachers that create the foundation for literacy and all learning.