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Early Childhood Education Journal: Supporting sociodramatic play in preschools to promote language and literacy skills of english language learners

Early Childhood Educ J (2016) 44:299–305
DOI 10.1007/s10643-015-0715-4

Supporting Sociodramatic Play in Preschools to Promote
Language and Literacy Skills of English Language Learners
Rashida Banerjee1 • Amani Alsalman1 • Shehana Alqafari1

Published online: 4 June 2015
Ó Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Abstract English language learners are often at risk for
communication and language delays—crucial elements in
the foundation of early literacy skills. Studies have shown
that preschool children involved in sociodramatic play
demonstrate greater proficiency and interest in language
development and reading. The manuscript shares evidencebased strategies to support early literacy skills for English
language learners during sociodramatic play during center
times in a preschool routine. Specific environmental
adaptations and adult interventions that teachers can use in
their preschool classrooms to facilitate play that encourages early literacy skills are described.
Keywords Play Á Sociodramatic play Á Early literacy Á

Early language Á Preschool
Researchers have emphasized the importance of teaching
literacy skills to young children (e.g. Fadool 2009; Moon
and Reifel 2008; Myck-Wayne 2010; Tsao 2008). However, English language learners (ELLs) consistently
underperform on academic achievement tests when compared to native English speakers; not only is the overall
achievement level for ELLs significantly lower, but the gap
also widens over time (Fry 2007). Though this gap shows
up in all academic areas, the area of literacy is critically
significant because so much of teaching occurs in English.
In order to close the glaring gap, researchers, practitioners,
and policy makers advocate for strategic intervention in
emergent literacy beginning in preschool.

& Rashida Banerjee

University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO, USA

Learning through play is a common teaching and
learning approach in early childhood settings (Bodrova
2008; Frost et al. 2001; Hyvonen 2011). Play is a natural
and healthy activity that children are involved in every day.
Combining learning and play is a smart method to
encourage children to learn in an easy, fast, and interesting
manner. Hyvonen (2011) stated that play is a valuable and
significant tool in early childhood education, and suggested
that all pre-service teacher training programs should
include, in their education programs, strategies to design
effective playful learning processes and to create an
enjoyable learning environment. The purpose of this
practitioner focused article is to (a) discuss issues and
considerations in early literacy development for young
children who are ELLs, and (b) share recommendations for
sociodramatic play, especially during center time. The

discussion is grounded in evidence-based, recommended
practices (for example see Kohnert et al. 2005; Neuman
and Roskos 2005; Roskos et al. 2003; Tabors 2008) and
position papers of national professional organizations in
early childhood [e.g. Division for Early Childhood (DEC)
2010, 2014; National Association for the Education of
Young Children (NAEYC) 2009).

Gaps in Literacy Competency for English
Language Learners
One of the specific achievement gaps that is of grave
concern is the literacy gap between ELLs and native
English speakers. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress data, ELLs in fourth grade
scored 25 points lower than their peers in the section that
measured reading. By eighth grade, the point difference



was 41 points (National Center for Education Statistics
2013). For both these grade levels, this achievement gap
represents a 2–3 year deficit from other students at the
same grade level. This growing trend of the achievement
gap as students progress through upper grade levels illustrates the lack of adequate and appropriate instruction in
spite of much legislation intended to narrow this achievement gap (Drummond 2007).
One interesting fact related to this gap is not just the
limited language proficiency students demonstrate upon
entering school, but often a dual deficiency in both native
and second language (Gersten et al. 2007). Many beginning
ELLs in kindergarten or first grade actually have inadequate literacy experiences in both languages (Espinosa
2013; Garcia 2000). Abedi and Ga´ndara (2006) point out
that when these young ELLs first begin public school they
are already significantly behind their peers and much extra
time and specialized instruction is necessary to help them
catch up. Studies have shown that ELLs with no English
skills need between 5 and 7 years to achieve sufficient
mastery of academic English to match their Englishspeaking peers (Hakuta et al. 2000). While these ELLs are
attempting to overcome this challenge of continuing to
increase their English skills at the same time as trying to
learn new material, one can reasonably postulate that the
learning rate of children who are ELLs may not match
those of the native English population of students (Abedi
and Ga´ndara 2006).
The development of literacy is a process that begins at
birth, and occurs throughout very early childhood, long
before children start attending public school; this literacy
development is intricate and complex, representing many
different skills and experiences (August and Shanahan
2006). Well before formal reading instruction begins, the
literacy process rests on developing oral language skills
such as vocabulary and conversation. Research has
demonstrated that developing speaking and listening skills
is most effective when play based, interactive strategies
and activities are used to promote language and communication, such as intentional adult-child dialogues, or peer
conversations (Solomon and Rhodes 1995; Florida State
Department of Education 2003; NCREL 2003).

Importance of Play to Support Literacy
The relationship between play and literacy has long interested scholars (e.g., Christensen and Kelly 2003; Fadool
2009; Moon and Reifel 2008; Myck-Wayne 2010; Pelligrini and Galda 1998). A number of studies have been
conducted that link play and literacy development in early
childhood. In their review of literature published between


Early Childhood Educ J (2016) 44:299–305

1992 and 2000, Roskos and Christie (2004) found strong
evidence that well designed, literacy-promoting play
environments provide for language experiences that lead
young children to build connections between oral and
written modes of expression and thus support their later
formal literacy learning.
Moon and Reifel (2008) confirm the findings of previous
studies regarding the importance of play and creating
appropriate play environments to enhance literacy learning
among children. The authors demonstrate that using different types of play improves literacy learning among
children from different language backgrounds. Providing
appropriate literacy materials in play environments has also
been shown to promote literacy learning (Fadool 2009;
Tsao 2008). For example, providing popular story books,
such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle et al. 1989) or
The Cat in the Hat (Seuss 1985) during center time allows
children from different language backgrounds to connect
these familiar stories with their experiences or read them in
their native language (Moon and Reifel 2008). Children
often use words during play center to convey their thinking,
feelings, and ideas, all of which support the growth of
young children’s language skills. Furthermore, creating
effective play environments for children encourages children to collaborate, expand their vocabulary, and enjoy
reading and writing in an environment that encourages the
development of language skills. Thus, well-structured play
environments provide each child with opportunities to
learn and meet his/her needs (Fadool 2009).
Using literacy materials during play time, especially
during dramatic play, helps to increase children’s understanding of the processes of reading and writing. MyckWayne (2010) found that the dramatic and block play areas
provide many opportunities to enhance the communications and social interactions between young children.
Make-believe acts and role play are aspects of dramatic
play that enhance learning, especially of verbal language,
because children are motivated to produce explicit and
thoughtful language for their play (Frost et al. 2001; Tsao
2008). Conflict resolution, cooperative work, accepting of
others’ viewpoints, and recognizing real and pretend differences are play aspects that the young children learn
during play center.
Play intervention is a critical component to assist and
effectively improve children’s literacy and language
(Roskos et al. 2003). The adults should ensure that the
relationship between play and literacy has a meaningful
connection by directing, observing, and participating with
children during play time. Scaffolding dramatic play can
positively affect the improvement of the early academic
skills (Bodrova 2008). Effective play time can contribute to
improve cognitive skills and to get more confidence and
achievement in play. These developments could direct

Early Childhood Educ J (2016) 44:299–305

those young children to investigate their environments and
seek to use higher level thinking, talking, and playing skills
(Tabors 1998).

Strategies to Promote Play for English Language
Building on the mounting evidence for relationship
between children’s language and emerging literacy abilities, below we present some strategies to support
sociodramatic play to enhance language and literacy
development in young children. Sociodramatic play
occurs most frequently during the preschool years and
accounts for a significant portion of children’s behavior
during this period (Banerjee and Horn 2013).
Sociodramatic play involves six characteristics (Smilansky 1968): (1) make-believing using objects; (2) assuming
a make-believe role; (3) make-believing about a situation
or action; (4) persisting or being able to continue the play
in face of challenges; (5) using language to communicate
the context of play; and (6) interacting socially while
playing. The last two characteristics of play that involve
interaction and communication are critical to sociodramatic play and distinguish it from simple dramatic play.
This type of play fosters development in all domains
including social-emotional, cognitive, language, and
physical development, and allows children to function at
their highest level of competence (Vygotsky 1977).
Morrow and Rand (1991) investigated the impact of
environmental changes in preschool classrooms and, in
addition, examined patterns of teacher guidance on children’s literacy behavior. They found that not only was the
environment important but also that the teacher’s role was
extremely important in guiding and modeling literacy
behavior. Active adult participation in child-initiated play
in the sociodramatic play center enriches and elaborates
the play, contributes to the creation of potential development, and supports the self-regulation growth of the
children (Keles¸ and Kalıpc¸ı-So¨yler 2013). Thus, there is
evidence for supporting two types of strategies for


enhancing language and literacy development in
sociodramatic play: (1) adults as mediators/facilitators,
and (2) enhancing ‘‘language richness’’ of the environment. Below we describe how teachers can support these
two interventions in order to enhance language and literacy skills for young ELLs in their classrooms. Since most
preschools include center time when children work in
small groups independently or with peers under adult
supervision or under direct adult directions, these strategies are specifically targeted at providing interventions
during center time.

Environmental Interventions
Environmental interventions include changes to the physical, social, or temporal environment to promote participation, engagement, and learning during center time
(Sandall et al. 2008). Specifically, in this context, environmental supports refer to changes to the physical environment to promote language and literacy skills among
preschool children. Below we provide some strategies for
early childhood practitioners that have shown evidence in
improving language and literacy skills for young children
who are ELLs during center times (Banerjee 2012,
Table 1).
Increase Classroom Dramatic Play Time
Having extended time for child-directed dramatic play built
into the daily routine of a preschool classroom is important
for children to sustain engagement in play activities
(Christie 1990; Hemmeter et al. 2008). Typically, at least
1 hour (i.e. approximately 25 % time) per morning or
afternoon session of predictable and structured sociodramatic
play time is necessary for young children to become
engaged in and sustain activities independently or with
peers (Banerjee 2012). Furthermore, expect children to
spend at least 15 min per sociodramatic play area or center
to provide uninterrupted blocks of time during play. This
extended time allows children to enter and maintain

Table 1 Environmental interventions to support children’s language and literacy development during center times
Increase/maintain classroom dramatic play time to at least 1 hour per AM/PM session
Minimize the number of dramatic centers available to children at a time to 4–5 centers (have at least 2–3 centers that are ‘‘sociodramatic’’
play centers; restrict the number of centers that encourage solitary play)
Provide focused centers with enhanced reading and writing materials
Bring in the cultural aspects within each of the centers
Make sure your props and environment closely resemble ‘‘real life’’ scenarios. Children’s familiarity with the themes and props are very
Provide uninterrupted blocks of time during play. Expect children to spend 10–15 min per area



interests, engagement and learning and elaborate their play
through language, peer interactions, and problem solving in
an activity that interests them. This also allows teachers
adequate time to observe or support play for the children in
the classroom (Leong and Bodrova 2012).
Prepare Children Before the Start of the Center
Transitions between activities may be challenging for
many children (Banerjee and Horn 2013; Hemmeter et al.
2008). It is critical that children who are ELLs get adequate
time to prepare for the next activity. For example, after the
large group session, and before sending children off for
center time, Ms. Hart, a preschool teacher, prepares the
children with information about each center, including
which centers are open and what specific expectations
teachers have of the children at each of the centers. Ms.
Hart points to the Block Area and says, ‘‘Remember you
heard about the floods and that the bridge and roads are
broken in our city? Today we will construct new bridges
for our city. You have the tools you need in that area. I also
have some books for you to read on how bridges are made.
There are note pads for you to write your measurements in
or make notes. Three children can go and play in that
area’’. Then she points to the Home Area and says, ‘‘Our
friend Julie’s birthday is coming up next week. Can we get
ready for her party? There are some materials you will need
to bake a cake for her. The recipe books explain how you
can bake the cake. Pick the one you like best. There are
cards and some markers on the table for you to invite
friends.’’ These simple, predictable instructions provide
children a focus for what the theme for each of the center is
and what expectations teacher have of them.
Limit the Number of Centers Available to Children
at a Time
By minimizing the number of dramatic centers to about four
or five, the children are encouraged to work with one
another, even if briefly, and engage in peer interaction and
thus exchange language to share their needs, ideas, or to
problem solve (Christie 1990). Banerjee (2012) observed
between 10 and 17 centers in classrooms with sometimes as
many or fewer children. More centers are likely to encourage
isolated play and thus reduce opportunities for child–child
interactions throughout the school day that are not adult
directed. Teachers may choose to consolidate some centers
based on themes to minimize the number of centers. For
examples, instead of a separate sensory center, Ms. Hart
placed the water table in the ‘house area’ and encouraged
children to wash fruits and vegetables before preparing
meals. Similarly, she used variety of materials for exposure


Early Childhood Educ J (2016) 44:299–305

to textures. e.g. children use wood chopping boards, different types of beans and other non-perishable food items for
cooking, stainless steel pans, and plastic silverware.
Provide Focused Centers with Reading and Writing
In an attempt to encourage meaningful use of reading and
writing materials, teachers may consider adding appropriate and relevant literacy materials in the dramatic play area
(Morrow and Rand 1991; Neuman and Roskos 2005). The
use of reading and writing materials and activities during
their daily routines encourage children to engage with the
functional language and literacy. It is important that a wide
variety of reading and writing tools are available for children to meet their play needs across different contexts. For
example, instead of a separate reading corner, Mr. Eduardo
includes recipe books and writing materials where children
write grocery lists in the house area. Similarly, in the
doctor’s office, children have magazines and a clip board
available to them, where the ‘‘patients’’ can sign in or
where the ‘‘nurse’’ or the ‘‘doctor’’ can write notes. They
have audio books to listen to while they are waiting for
their turn.
Bring in the Cultural Aspects Within Each Center
Ensuring that the props and play environment closely
resemble ‘‘real life’’ scenarios builds familiarity for children, especially more so for those who are ELLs (Kohnert
et al. 2005). Teachers may seek parents’ help to identity
materials that are familiar and attractive to the child and
keep the child’s interest in a particular center for longer
duration. For example, by adding some empty cans of
different beans used at home in the kitchen area and a few
articles of clothing from a child’s home may encourage
children to participate more actively in the area that might
have otherwise been of little interest to them. Similarly,
instead of assuming the child’s routines at home, it is
important that teachers seek parents’ help in identifying the
routines that are familiar to the child and use them to guide
interactions at the centers. For example, if the child is used
to eating with grandma on the floor, the teacher [or another
adults] can play the role of grandma at a dining room
center to encourage a usually reticent child to interact. It is
recommended that adults learn the names of items and few
conversational phrases in the child’s dominant language to
support the dialogue.
Construct a Picture Dictionary
During the sociodramatic play, children are likely to
encounter new vocabulary as they engage with materials,

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peers and adults. Teachers may develop one or more picture dictionaries in which common words in English are
translated into another language or languages (Tabors
2008). Teachers write each word and definition on a piece
of paper that can be placed alphabetically in a three ring
binder. Teachers leave room for the child to illustrate the
entry as they continue to build the dictionary throughout
the year and enlist the help of parents in this ongoing
activity. While the child may not have the literacy skills to
be able to read these words, the child builds a connection
with the word and this provides an excellent resource to
develop sight vocabulary and patterns in written language.


providing props, arranging materials, tidying and rearranging as needed, clarifying and defining space, ensuring
enough space, providing background experience to children as necessary. For example, Mr. Eduardo provides the
clothes in the home area that are appropriate for the play
theme as well as the right size for the children. Depending
on the needs and exposure of the children in his class, Mr.
Eduardo sometimes chooses to start the center activity with
fewer props to avoid overwhelming the children. He may
add more props later to encourage variety and language use
as children learn to engage actively with the available
props. As the stage manager, Mr. Eduardo considers children’s learning goals and child’s home and culture when
presenting props.

Adult Interventions
Adult as a Player
Adult interventions, the second type of interventions to
support language and early literacy development, refer to
strategies undertaken by adults to support children’s
sociodramatic play as well as their language and literacy
development during play. Adults may play multiple roles
during the sociodramatic play as delineated below (Isenberg and Jalongo 2013; Van Hoorn et al. 2014, Table 2).
Adult as an Observer
Standing back and taking the time to observe in a preschool
classroom is often a luxury. Further, accurate observation
takes time and practice. The purpose of this observation is
for the teachers to assess each child’s engagement with
peers, to identify children’s strengths and needs in all areas
and determine the areas where the adult might need to
intervene (Bodrova 2008). It gives the teacher an insight
into each of the following roles.
Adult as a Stage Manager
As the stage manager, the teacher or other adults in the
room set the stage for the informal drama to occur during
the center time (Bodrova 2008; Isenberg and Jalongo 2013;
Van Hoorn et al. 2014). They prepare the environment by

One of the most commonly used roles of adults is that of
player in the drama that the child initiates. The adults may
serve as a parallel player in which the adult plays alongside
the child without actually interacting with the child or
children in the play (Saracho 2004; Van Hoorn et al. 2014).
The purpose of parallel play is to subtly demonstrate or
model extended use of materials and language to young
children without stifling children’s own creativity. The
adult may choose to serve as a co-player in the dramatic
play with the child. As a co-player, the adult may take on a
more assertive role with less skilled player. However,
adults are cautioned against overusing this role as it can
interfere with the child’s natural creativity.
Adult as a Mediator
In a preschool classroom, conflict between the children is a
frequent occurrence. During a conflict situation, the adult
may help children resolve conflict by suggesting alternatives while also allowing children to implement solution on
their own (Davidson 1996; Van Hoorn et al. 2014). For
example, instead of saying ‘‘fighting is not allowed in
school’’ or ‘‘that’s not nice’’, the adult would instead say,
‘‘it looks like there is a problem.’’ Thus, the role of

Table 2 Adult interventions to support children’s language and literacy development during center times
Prepare children before the start of the center time as to what centers are open—and what specific expectations you have from them in each of
the centers
Remember adult roles during the play
Player: actor in children’s play
Observer: observer where the children may need support for language/literacy development
Stage manager: plan themes ahead and provide the material to support these themes
Mediator: help children problem solve
Interpreter: help children interpret each other’s and their own emotions or thoughts



mediator is a balance between teaching children skills of
conflict resolution (sharing toys, using words, taking turns),
offering children the opportunity to develop problem
solving skills by using language, while keeping the conflict
at a manageable level. The use of language enhances the
child’s capacity to problem solve and think creatively—
both important skills for literacy development.
Adult as an Interpreter
Three and four year old preschool children are egocentric
and often do not realize that things can be viewed from
more than one perspective. In their role of interpreter
(Davidson 1996; Saracho 2004; Van Hoorn et al. 2014),
adults can interpret or describe children’s actions to make
them aware of other children and teach children social
competence. During clean up, when Fernando makes a
fuss, Ms. Hart gets down to his level and says, ‘‘Fernando,
it’s hard to clean up. I can tell you’re worried about leaving
your bridge.’’ She then goes on to problem solve with
him—‘‘What do you think we should do?’’ When Fernando
has trouble offering solutions, Ms. Hart offers a couple of
solutions of her own, ‘‘Perhaps, you can come back and
clean up after snack time?’’ or ‘‘Perhaps we can take a
picture and you can keep that before you clean up.’’ By
labeling emotion and finding a solution, Ms. Hart is able to
help Fernando enhance his vocabulary and language skills.
Adult as a Social Director
Finally, one of the other important roles of the adults is to
find a role appropriate for and interesting to the child, and
draw other children into the play when needed. Davidson
(1996) emphasis two functions of the adults in this role. As
the ‘‘guardian of the gate’’, the adult can help children to
enter play. As the ‘‘Matchmaker’’, the adult can help
children to find peers for needed roles. For example, as the
matchmaker, Ms. Hart calls out to Joshua (a master player)
to help Lisa (a ‘‘less confident’’ player) and says, ‘‘Joshua,
do you think you can play with Lisa? She needs extra help
in getting ready for Julie’s party’’ As the guardian of the
gate, Ms. Hart ensures that there is a balance of skills,
language or social competency, and gender in each center.

Certainly, there need to be significant improvements in
enriching and enhancing the language base for literacy in
English for ELLs (Gersten et al. 2007). Sociodramatic play
activities have been shown to stimulate social, emotional,
and intellectual development in the child, all of which are
critical for each child’s success in school (McGowan and


Early Childhood Educ J (2016) 44:299–305

Smith 2013). Frequent, naturalistic and informal interaction during play provide an important learning tool for
young children; and teachers must capitalize on this tool to
maximize young children’s learning while also gathering
information regarding children’s needs. Teachers have the
power to contribute to the development of children’s language and literacy skills by initiating and sustaining the
interaction among children during sociodramatic playtime.
For children who are ELLs, these are critical skills which
will equip them to be successful learners in kindergarten
and beyond. Collaborative efforts between researchers and
practitioners may continue to lead to unique and innovative
practices that address the literacy gap of ELLs at all education levels.

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