Jan. 6, 2005 — Playing is children’s work. That’s why the University of Utah’s Child and Family Development Center (CFDC)-a combined parent co-op preschool and teacher training site for early childhood majors and educators-supports reading readiness through play. The young students in the CFDC’s preschool invent, dictate, then dramatize their own narratives.
“A lot of kids dictate stories, but the powerful, highly motivating part for the children is that they get to act out their stories,” explains Cheryl Wright, director of the CFDC for 19 years and an associate professor of Family and Consumer Studies at the U.
This reading readiness work, patterned after MacArthur Foundation award winner Vivian Paley’s research on children’s storytelling and imagination, was implemented as a pilot program in the preschool last year and, because it was so successful, is being used again this year.
Tyler Black, a CFDC instructor and graduate student studying family ecology, notes, “The children watch you write down their stories so they understand the concept of print. You can see the connection they are making between their oral language and written language. This is a great skill for preschoolers because they are not developmentally ready to learn about grammar and syntax. But they are learning about directionality, about left to right.” The children’s stories are copied and sent home the same day.
Black has been studying the importance of teaching literary skills in a fun, child-centered way. He stresses that storytelling and dramatizing their tales aids students in developing social and imaginative skills and self-confidence.
“This underscores the lab school’s philosophy,” notes Rachel Casper, an early childhood specialist and CFDC supervising teacher at the center. “What we do is research-based-as it becomes known to us-as opposed to preschools that teach the same curriculum in the same way year after year. It’s great for student teachers to take the latest information out into the field with them.”
Wright notes that the instructors are collecting data on and analyzing the content of the children’s storytelling, which is not restricted. “This is a very powerful tool-to look at what children are interested in and how they express themselves at specific ages.” Black and CFDC staff are researching gender differences in dramatizing various themes of play, love and aggression.
The preschoolers at the CFDC are allowed to dramatize aggressive acts in their stories, provided they do not touch each other. Stories that teachers anticipate might disturb the children are not acted out-with a clear explanation given. But the stories are still dictated. “The parents understand this as well,” explains Black. “Normally aggressive behavior would be discouraged, but aggression can be part of a normal process.”
Wright says the preschool “provides state-of-the-art, early childhood curriculum and is an important resource to the community.” There are 130 families enrolled at the Center, and children with special needs are given priority in the programs. Teacher turnover at the center is low. Most of the instructors have been there for nearly a decade.
Last year’s dramatizations were piloted in concert with another project instigated by the University of Utah Reading Clinic (UURC), run through the College of Education, and funded by No Child Left Behind grant money. The collaboration paired the CFDC staff (early childhood education U students) with at-risk, elementary-school-age readers. In addition to learning early intervention techniques, the U students studied developmentally-appropriate reading readiness methods that could be transferred to the preschool setting and the teacher training program. These techniques help children establish an early literacy foundation that will prepare them for reading and school success. Kathleen Brown, UURC director and clinical professor of education at the U, reports that the departments further partnered with Salt Lake City School District’s Mountain View Elementary, where Wright and four graduate students tutored and trained. The interdisciplinary program is entering into its second year of federal funding.