Naturalistic Study of the Relationship Between Literacy Development and Dramatic Play in Five-Year-Old Children

Goodman, J. R. (1990). A naturalistic study of the relationship between literacy development and dramatic play in five-year-old children. Unpublished Ed.D. Dissertation, George Peabody College for Teachers, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.1

Abstract:

This study investigates the relationship between dramatic play and literacy and explores some of the critical factors that influence that relationship. The study was carried out in a preschool classroom and included the use of dramatic play. The researcher focused on functional uses of literacy; the ability of children to translate familiar stories into play texts; use of play to establish physical setting and to present stories; the use of personal themes; and modes and degrees of social interaction. The study provided evidence that dramatic play is an important vehicle whereby children can both practice and learn about literacy skills and knowledge.

Key Findings:

The study found that children’s favorite stories often become the basis for many play scripts. Children also used literacy skills in composing their play scripts. Both teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions influenced the children’s choices about the importance and use of literacy within their plays. The settings of literary texts appeared in varying degrees in their dramatizations. Through play, the children exhibited their ability to read texts and materials related to their play, their use of written artifacts within their play, and their efforts at composing scenes and plays. Within the “risk-free” atmosphere of dramatic play, children are also able to expand their use of literacy skills. The researcher notes a positive relationship between creating stories and translating stories into play texts. Such translation includes establishing settings, characters, character relationships, and plots.

Significance of the Findings:

The use of literacy by children in drama suggests a significant “opportunity benefit” for supplanting non-learning, self-directed time with the literacy-rich activities of drama. The dramatic play examined in this study also seemed to motivate children to gain literacy skills. Moreover, literacy in the form of detailed understanding of texts appeared to give power to playwrights, and the ability to direct play also reflected the children’s “storying” skills and appeared to elevate their social status within the classroom. Because five-year-olds are at fairly early stages of literacy development, dramatic play may be all the more important for these children if the dramatic form provides a motivating context for learning about literacy, using literacy skills, and exploring new and abstract concepts. In the findings of this study, drama provides that context.

Methodology:

This study was carried out in an intact preschool classroom with 17 children between five and six years of age. The class used dramatic play on a nearly daily basis over five months. Themes within dramatic play ranged from the very common (house, family, school, stories) to the occasional unique subject (farm, fishing, concert). The researcher used traditional ethnographic methods to categorize themes of the children’s drama and to explore the literacy activities of children during dramatic enactment. Data collection included participant observation, informal interviews, and document analysis. The researcher used tape recording and videotaping to support analyses. The researcher focused on a variety of literacy-related phenomena: functional uses of literacy; the ability of children to translate familiar stories into play texts; use of play to establish physical setting and to present stories; the use of personal themes; and modes and degrees of social interaction.

Limitations of the Research:

The primary limitation of this study is the lack of generalizability to other settings. To what degree are the findings only applicable to the middle-class students in the study? In addition, the sample included a preponderance of examples from female students.

Questions to Guide New Research:

What are the relationships between creating play texts and writing abilities?

1The text of this summary is adapted from the Arts Education Partnership’s 2002 research compendium: Deasy, R. J. (Ed.). (2002). Critical links: Learning in the arts and student academic and social development. Washington, DC: Arts Education Partnership.