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Literacy Defined

Pretending, Storytelling, and Participation:

Defining the Heart of the Inclusive Early Childhood Literate Community

 Shayne Robbin’s voice rose above those of her seventeen students, aged four, five, and a few just turning six, scattered throughout the combined preschool/kindergarten classroom at the Shoshone School.  “You tell me what you need to make it work,” the lead teacher was saying to Jared and Duane, two students intent on completing the construction of a cardboard-box rocket ship near the center of the room.  The rocket was one of several projects related to the current classroom theme of the “solar system.”  A number of child-oriented books on outer space lined shelves around the room, and planets made of papier-mâché, splotched with paint, hung from the ceiling. 

The previous day, another child, Starr, had painted the words “Nook Raket” [i.e., Nook Rocket] along one side of the cardboard structure under the guidance of her five-year-old friend, Lori.  Starr was nondisabled. Lori had cerebral palsy, limited, difficult-to-understand-speech, and had been earlier labeled with cognitive delays though her teachers and parents thought otherwise.  She was one of three children in the class labeled with significant developmental disabilities.  To indicate which letter Starr was to paint, Lori reached out  and touched a computerized, keyboard typing device – called a Dynavox – as an associate teacher, Margaret, stabilized her in a sitting position.  Lori touched the letter “N.”  A computer-generated voice from the Dynavox intoned, “N.”  Margaret, the associate teacher, repeated “N,” and Starr painted the letter.  Lori spelled the word “Nook” on the Dynavox quickly and correctly with Starr struggling to keep up.

While Nook was a familiar, posted word, Rocket was not. Lori hesitated, and Starr waited, poised with brush in hand, purple paint dripping from the end.  “Rrrrocket,” Margaret, the associate teacher, said to Lori, emphasizing the beginning letter, “What letter makes the ‘rrrrrrr’ sound?”  Lori reached out and with her middle finger touched the “R.”  The computer voice said, “R,” and Margaret said, “’R,’ good.  ‘R,’ Starr.”  Starr painted a circle with two sticks coming down – her version of an “R.”  Margaret said to Lori, “What letter comes next?  Rrrraawwket.”  Lori hesitated a moment, her body slumped slightly forward.  She lifted her head, and touched the letter “A.”  The computer said, “A.”  Margaret said, “Do you want ‘A?’  Are you choosing ‘A?’”  Lori smiled and made a sound that came from the back of the throat as she moved her torso forward.  Margaret said, “Okay, Starr, ‘A.’”  Starr painted the “A.”  We continued observing as the small group completed the christening of the cardboard rocket.

It was now the following day; Starr and Lori were elsewhere and the two boys, Jared and Duane, wanted to stabilize the “nose cone” – the top box – of the structure which leaned precariously to the right.  “You tell me,” Shayne repeated, “and we’ll see if that works.”  Jared said, “Duct tape?” in a tentative tone.  “Maybe,” Shayne said, “See if we have any.”  While Jared went off to look in a bin labeled “Tape,” Duane climbed through a round opening cut in the rocket.  Duane was labeled with mild speech and language disabilities. He began shaking the box from the inside while making sounds mimicking those of a rocket blasting off. Joey watched Duane from the periphery of the play area. Joey, a tall boy with shining brown eyes and sandy hair, had just turned 5. He had limited, highly repetitive speech. A medical doctor had labeled him at age 3 as both autistic and cognitively disabled.

Joey ran toward the shaking box, slapped at the door flap, then bounced backward on his tiptoes, letting out a high pitched squeal that continued in a vibrato for several seconds. Duane stuck his head out the flap and said, “Joey, we going ‘a space! You got to … [not understood] for Jared. We fix this rocket.” Duane’s head snapped back into the rocket. Joey slapped at the box, giggled wildly, and ran around the structure. Duane exited and came at Joey in a slow walk with arms out as if he were moving through Jello. “Robot,” Duane said in a slow voice. Joey stood still and Duane’s arms came down over him in a bear hug. With an arm around his shoulder Duane steered Joey toward the rocket door. Joey stumbled through the opening with Duane behind him. Much shaking, sound effects, and Joey-giggling followed.

At the end of the school day, the teacher Shayne Robbins was sitting with several children at a table. Two students drew with available markers, one was eating some leftover chips, and one paged through a book. Shayne was positioned immediately to the right of Joey and had a number of notecards laid out on which she had quickly written the following words: Nook Rocket, Cooking Activity, Outside Play, Blocks. Robbins read and pointed to each card. She asked Joey, “Which should I write home about?” Joey reached out and grabbed the card that read Nook Rocket. Robbins wrote in a notebook, “I played in the Nook Rocket.” She rifled through another set of cards with the names of classmates written on them. She laid out 5 and without reading them said, “Who should I say you played with?” Joey picked up Duane’s name. Robbins wrote in the notebook, “I played with Duane.”

Our interest in literacy would clearly focus our research gaze on such obvious literate acts as: a) providing reading and pictorial materials for the exploration of the theme solar system, b) Lori, a child with disabilities, determinably typing out the semi-phonetic spelling of Nook Rocket in interaction with her friend, Starr, c) Jared searching for duct tape in a bin labeled tape, or d) Shayne Robbins working with Joey to write a note home.  By convention, literacy is closely associated with alphabetic texts that, also according to convention, allow an author to systematically encode ideas and convey those ideas across time, space, and place to an audience able to decode the text. 

In research interviews and daily practice, however, Shayne Robbins expressed a sense of literacy that suggested our focus might need to be broadened.  Robbins told us that not only should we be interested in Lori’s sophisticated, even startling alphabetic abilities, but also in Duane, Jared, and Joey’s pretend space travel.  In a research interview she said, “I think the most important literacy we do in here is seen in the kids’ play.  The way they pretend is their way into [literacy].”  In a separate interview, Shayne expressed a similar sentiment when she said,  “It’s really all about literacy.  There’s very little we do that’s not literacy related even when it doesn’t look exactly like reading the way you and I look when we sit down and read a book." Speaking specifically about Joey, Robbins noted, “He does so much pretending now. Whenever pretend play is happening he’s there. Sometimes just kind of hovering but like you saw, kids are figuring out how to get him in and it’s not just that but it’s – they’re discovering how much fun it is to get him in.”

Equating symbolic action such as pretend play with early literacy radically departs from current educational proclivities rigidly emphasizing direct instruction in phonetic awareness and alphabetic decoding as the necessary focus of initial reading instruction. However, while departing from orthodoxy, Shayne Robbins did not stand alone. Rogow (1997) noted, “Sharing meaning through play, storytelling, and other life events is an important building block of literacy. By pretending, children learn to create and share meaning with other children. In their dramatic play, they learn to accommodate one another’s interests, weave language into play, and develop their narration skills” (p. 10).

Other participating teachers voiced a similar sentiment about a broadened understanding of early literacy.  Sarah Johannas, lead teacher at Bethel Nursery School, told us early one morning before her students arrived, “Literacy is about storytelling. You have got to get the kids telling stories. Everything is storytelling. You make a list – your telling the story of your day. The schedule for instance, that’s a story of our day. The list is the story of your grocery shopping.” Johannas continued by emphasizing the importance of children actively participating: “But you need to see yourself as a storyteller and even by [age] 4, even 3, a lot of kids have gotten the message, ‘You don’t have anything to say.’ And they’ve gotten no chance or opportunity to say it! They’re shut out of the conversation.”

By focusing on pretending, storytelling, and participation, the early childhood inclusion teachers involved in this study emphasized literacy as a dynamic process of children in interaction making use of visually accessible or tactile symbols, materials, and one another to create shared meaning. In describing the emergence of  written language from oral cultures, Egan (1999) highlighted the fundamental importance of this turn toward visually accessible sign systems: “The economy of the mind,” wrote Egan (1999), “inclines us towards using mental strategies in oral cultures – in which what one knows is what one remembers – and towards using some different mental strategies in literate cultures – in which various mental operations can be enormously enhanced by visual access to organized bodies of knowledge” (p. 6).

With his colleague McEwan, Egan contended that at the heart of all literacy is narrative or story:

Narrative is basically extended language configured in such a way  that its earlier embodiment in life [e.g., a thought, an emotion, etc.] becomes revealed [i.e., is made observable, emphasis added]…What distinguishes narrative is that it takes shape in however attenuated a form, as a rhythm that ultimately springs from patterns implicit in human life and action. (McEwan & Egan, 1995, p. vii, emphasis added)

Using the example of imaginative play, a child’s pretend behaviors are obviously not random actions, but are sequences and strings of symbolic signs representing, as well as modulating, bodies of organized understanding. To be what we might term effective play, these signs must be understandable and interpretable to others. Thus, our example play forms a kind of text, albeit one that is highly attenuated relative to traditional texts. In effect, through play (and other symbolic actions including writing), children are capturing and fixing meaning within culturally defined conventions.

A central concern of each of our participating teachers appeared to be that no child in the class be segregated from pretending, storytelling, or active participation. As ethnographers we began to see literate participation as a form of valued classroom citizenship and the literate community as one in which shared, observable and/or recorded [i.e., visually accessible, graphic, or tactile (e.g., Braille)] symbol systems or materials were used by children and adults as social tools for constructing, conveying, interpreting, sharing, and reconstructing understanding and meaning with one another and the wider community beyond school. Visually accessible symbol systems importantly included printed language in every classroom but did not exclude other formal and informal symbol systems.


The contents of this site were developed under grants from the U.S. Department of Education (nos. H324D010031 & H324C040213).  However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and no endorsement by the Federal Government should be assumed.  For further information, please contact the project Directors Dr. Christopher Kliewer at christopher.kliewer@uni.edu or Dr. Christi Kasa-Hendrickson at hendrick@chapman.edu.