Symbolic Functioning and Children's Early Writing: Relations Between Kindergartener's Play and Isolated Word Writing Fluency

Pellegrini, A. (1980). Symbolic functioning and children's early writing: Relations between kindergartener's play and isolated word writing fluency. EDRS Number ED 201 407 (1980): 1-15. Early Childhood Education, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia.1


This study examines the relationship between play and isolated word writing fluency—a crucial beginning component in the process of becoming literate. The researcher investigates differences in effects of four defined types of play (functional play, constructive play, dramatic play, and games with rules) that are considered to involve different levels of symbolic expression/functioning and are expected to be associated with different levels of writing fluency.

Key Findings:

Statistical tests showed the strongest association between isolated word writing and dramatic play.

Dramatic play was the factor most significantly associated with isolated word writing fluency.

Significance of the Findings:

This study was one of the earliest to look at the relationship between dramatic play and word fluency. Prior studies looked at dramatic play and its relationship to verbal skills or higher level beginning reading skills. The author’s theoretical framework provides some possible direction for the study’s findings. Dramatic play, the type of play most associated with word fluency, uses symbolic functioning. During early literacy development, children eventually learn that letters have meaning and words represent things. This is yet another display of symbolic functioning. This study is additionally significant because it looked at different types of play. Prior studies only looked at play/no play as conditions.


The author worked with 65 kindergarten students from a rural school. Participants completed the Robinson’s Test of Writing Fluency prior to the study to assess their ability to write isolated whole words. Two weeks after the test, the study began and ran for four weeks. Researchers observed participants in free play and each participating student was observed at five different points in time for 20 minutes each observation session. Observers categorized play into the following different categories: functional (exercise/movement), constructive (building something), dramatic (language as part of a pretend role), and games with rules play (playing with a pre-determined set of rules). Dramatic and games with rules are more cognitively demanding for students. The author analyzed data with analysis of variance. Additionally, he used regression analysis to examine the relationship of gender, age, socioeconomic status, and observed play type to writing and language fluency.

Limitations of the Research:

This study looked at play styles after students took the writing assessment. Also, there was not consideration of other academic factors, such as students’ proficiency in other literacy areas and the lessons covered in class, as part of the study. Findings may have been stronger had play styles been observed before and after the written test and other academic factors were added into the regression model.

Questions to Guide New Research:

How much can dramatic play help students with weaker word fluency improve their skills? How associated with word fluency is dramatic play in relation to other academic factors?

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.