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UKLA book extract: Bringing the Outside In

Margaret Cook

Bringing the Outside In: using playful contexts to maximise young writers’ capabilities by Margaret Cook


This chapter describes a particular approach to the development of writing through role play with four to six year olds, devised by myself and a group of Early Years and Year One teachers to be part of the general writing curriculum for that age group. What is described here is not the only way in which play and role play should take place in Early Years settings nor the only way of supporting young writers. Play is children’s natural medium and its many different forms and outcomes should be central to the Early Years curriculum, as indeed is recognised in the current Early Years Foundation Stage Framework (DCSF 2008). And there are many different aspects of writing and approaches to its teaching which children should learn and experience. It is certainly not the case that play opportunities in classrooms always have to have a cognitive purpose such as writing, nor that children’s incidental production of writing in play (for example, the ‘emergent’ texts which often form part of role play) is not a valuable part of learning how to write. The teaching interventions described here take only one small aspect of what should be general provision for this age range – the setting up and use of role play areas – and shape them to achieve very specific aims: to make use of the audiences and purposes arising from children’s representation of real life experiences in role play, and in doing so to support their growing knowledge and use of written forms and ensure that they retain ownership of the play.

Looking at role play’s potential for providing real audiences and purposes raises a more general issue: how to make a teaching bridge between the world of the young child, represented here in role play, and the world of school with its largely academic aims and structures. Maximising the use of that rich outside experience is not just a matter of recognising that children’s out-of-setting experiences and language/s are significant to how their learning develops and therefore should have their place in the curriculum. It also means that we do not shy away from another reality, that the educational setting – the ‘inside’ of this chapter’s title – also has something to offer which is valuable and distinct; and that conscious measures are necessary to realise the worth of both.

The initial impetus for devising this approach to writing was concern among a group of Early Years staff about the possible marginalisation of role play in Early Years classrooms at the time of the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in England (DEE 2001). The perceived need to include an hour’s structured teaching of literacy seemed to some both to reduce the time available for child centred play, and to privilege teacher driven teaching of literacy. Nearly a decade on, this concern remains in spite of the lessening of the Literacy Hour’s organisational demands, the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework’s clear statement about the importance of play and the recommendation by Sir Jim Rose, that this should continue into Year One (5–6 year olds) for some children (which, incidentally, the approach outlined below would fulfil admirably) (DCSF 2009). For some teachers of Foundation Stage children (3–5 year olds) it may even have been intensified by the introduction in 2008 of challenging Early Learning Goals relating to literacy including the requirement for children to acquire a specific form of phonic knowledge through direct teaching (DCSF 2008).

It is not the aim of this article to challenge any current statutory requirements which, for most Early Years practitioners in England are not negotiable, but to show that role play with carefully designed interven- tions can be an effective way of teaching some aspects of writing at text, sentence and word level alongside (and seen as equal with) other pedagogical provision.

Moreover, because we perceived that practitioners in other Western countries were subject to similar dilemmas, we tried to make our findings relevant to wider language and teaching issues which we felt needed to be more generally addressed.

This, then, is what we asked ourselves:

  • What can we learn about children’s knowledge and use of oral and written genres through their re-enacting of real life purposes and audiences in educational settings?
  • What oral and written knowledge and skills can be promoted through role play ?
  • How do typical features of role play relate to obvious characteristics of home pedagogies including child ownership of play?
  • What relationship does this knowledge and use have to school literacy teaching?
  • What kind of teacher intervention in child initiated role play will promote children’s knowledge and use of written forms?

In the event, the children achieved much more than we had hoped, making affective and social gains beyond what adults had expected of them, and revealing a treasure trove of knowledge about the real world and its literacies which made the adults involved seriously question the validity of traditional methods of assessment. They (and we) also had a great deal of fun!

Playing and writing

In retrospect, the enterprise might have seemed a poor candidate for success. On the face of it, play and writing are a difficult combination to promote in educational settings. Play is a natural activity, writing an artificial one. Play occurs spontaneously, in young children and many animals; the more developed forms of writing have to be learned, and for this, most children will need some degree of explicit teaching. Play needs no teaching. It is serendipitous, feeding off chance opportunities, using apparently random physical resources and capable of being initiated and controlled by even beginner players; writing is conscious, abstract by its very nature, working through a medium which is bound by exterior rules, forms and cultural expec- tations, and requiring a high level of expertise if it is to serve its full communicative purposes. Play is low status and ephemeral, a main pursuit of the young and unregarded, involving adults only as a leisure activity when work is over. Writing is high status, associated from its beginnings with wealth, politics, genealogies and all the trappings of power. The reward of successful play is solely the satisfaction of the player; writing additionally confers authority, influence and the possibility of enduring fame on its successful practitioners.

Yet play and writing share some significant features. Both have a strong relationship to experience, that of the individual’s own life and of the writers who have recreated theirs for others to read; and both have recourse to imagination as their principal driving force, essential to the abstractions and transformations of reality which are characteristic of their successful development. Without recourse to imagination, play would remain at the level of automatic response, and writing would be confined to forms such as lists where there is only a restricted need to imaginatively recreate experience and consider a range of possible purposes or the needs of particular audiences. It is easy for players to represent reality and they do so in their every move: bananas become telephones; Lego and bricks, airfields and harbours; parents, teachers and their actions, the characters and scripts of home corner sitcoms.

The successful written transformation of experience is less easy since it involves combining a complex of sophisticated coding and manual techniques, attention to forms and conventions, and sensitivity to the com- munication needs of others, while still conveying the clarity and intensity of the author’s purpose. Contemporary writing curricula have a shorthand for this process, stressing the need for it not only to use acknowledged forms but also to originate in ‘real audiences and purposes’, something often difficult for teachers to achieve in classrooms. Yet the failure to do so often results in poor quality results and the frus- tration of young writers like eight year old Joe who says he loves making up stories but doesn’t like writing them in school ‘because we can’t control what we want to write… (the teachers) make us write about certain things we don’t want to write about’ (reported in The Guardian Weekend 11 April 2009 p.69).

Audiences and purposes from their own experience are, however, commonly employed by children in the sub-set of play often called role play. In the dialogues of role play, children can orally and collaboratively represent and respond to the demands of ‘real’ audiences and purposes, as when they take on the ‘real’ responsibilities of a hospital receptionist or the mother of a cantankerous child in a bus queue. The interpersonal nature of role play also reflects the conditions of early language and other learning. Adults, in and out of the play, and other children, provide models, and adult interventions and child responses are scaffolded and dependent on collaborative learning in shared contexts, exactly what is needed to support children’s oral language development. All this suggested to us that role play could be an excellent means of addressing our first three concerns.

We also had to address the problem of how the knowledge and use of language which children display in role play relates to how they might progress in the kind of literacy which is the proper concern of schools. In particular, how could we bridge the learning and teaching gap which seems to exist between the emergent writing which children easily and delightfully produce in role play of their own accord, and the range of genres, texts and technical features demanded by school and national curricula? And could this be done without losing the immediacy of experience which is so much a feature of children’s oral language in role play and the positive attitudes and under- standing of purpose and form which are such valuable features of their early writing of texts? It was clearly important that we did not take away children’s ownership of the language produced in the play by, for example, taking an emergent text and showing the child how to shape it to conform to an adult perception of correctness. We really wanted to have our cake and eat it – to provide for child initiated play but to link this into a curriculum which did not relate to it. Establishing an appropriate model for adult interven- tions which would not alter the nature of the play or take it out of the children’s hands therefore became crucial.

Pedagogical approaches

Our approaches to learning and teaching were strongly influenced by theories of cultural capital (Freire, 1996) and ethnographically oriented studies (e.g. Tizard and Hughes, 1984; Weinberger,1996; Hall 1998; Pahl,1999) which also support the thinking of many family literacy programmes. These suggest that in general formal schooling sidelines the wealth of knowledge and skills which learners acquire from family, neighbourhood and community (Barton, 1994) and which often employ teaching strategies focusing on the context of use, modelling, sharing, supporting and collaborating (Brice Heath, 1983). The purposes and audiences for written language in these out-of school situations are usually real and immediate or, in the case of children, emanate from imaginary re-enactments in play of real life experiences.

Learners in these situations have great freedom of choice and to a large extent set their own learning objectives and initiate their own learning, typically asking for help in completing a task they have chosen rather than addressing the task as a problem set by someone else. Even if the resulting texts do not conform in every respect to standard forms, they are recognisably part of the discourse of the social situation which gave rise to them and their language is shaped by real purposes and audiences. However, the central features of this kind of learning – that it is learner rather than teacher led and that it arises opportunis- tically rather than by design – are not easy to replicate in schools, which are intended to provide an explicit and staged curriculum usually through planned opportunities for groups of learners.

Highly characteristic of this kind of out-of school learning are Vygotsyian strategies such as modelling, where, by doing something herself, the adult demonstrates how it should be done, often with a commentary on the process; and scaffolding, where the adult leads the child on to the next stage in learning (Vygotsky, 1978). Such strategies are frequently employed by parents and carers in, for example, showing children how to cook or lay a table and further marked by the strongly collaborative nature of the process, contrasting with the direct teaching of how to write birthday cards which parents often use as an opportunity to teach children how to write their own names. These of course, are also the strategies of early oral language learning and have long been known in the literature on children’s language development (Geekie and Raban, 1993). They have also been central to a number of educational initiatives. Examples are the First Steps (Western Australia, 1997) material and to some extent, the modelling and sharing practices prescribed for the shared and guided elements of the Literacy Framework.

However there are some essential differences between the school-based use of scaffolding and how this often functions in out-of-school learning (Cazden, 1992). In the latter the focus is usually on the activity initiated by a single child and the support strategies, such as the scaffolding of language, follow the learner’s path and not the adult’s (what our group came to call ‘open’ scaffolding). In the Literacy Strategy, however, teaching objectives are chosen to match the needs of the majority and not an individual and are already identified before the activity starts. Scaffolding here is mainly ‘closed’ with discussion between adult and children shaped by adult chosen objectives. This is not the case in play centred activity where adults do not know where the play will take them and have to make use of open ended scaffolding to capitalise on chance events to support further learning. This can only be possible where children and adults recognise that the play, its purposes and direction, is owned by the children and where the adult’s relationship with the child is as an equal or inferior, as, for example, where the adult pretends to need information which only the child can supply. The adult intervention role here is as another character in the play, providing models of appropriate language and actions but not initiating, directing or shaping these. This open teaching strategy was therefore the first of our adult interventions.

We decided a pedagogy was needed was which combined this child led and adult supported way of learning with one, like that of the Literacy Framework, which is teacher led and uses explicit modelling of writerly activities and collaborative construction of a text. Closed scaffolding would be used only where this was absolutely necessary. There would also be recognition of the need for adults teaching young children to undertake substantial responsibility for the technical aspects of writing, for example by scribing, and therefore temporarily down grading individual responsibility for this aspect of text production. This particularly applied to the youngest children, those whose oral skills were in advance of their writing ability, and children identified as having special needs. The children would thus be initially relieved of the burden of undertaking the whole of the writing task from the beginning, leaving them free to focus on audience, purpose and text forms but retaining the joint authorship of a fully formed text. The unifying thread would be the strong emphasis on collaborative learning, between children, and between children and adults, as the principal learning strategy for both oral and written language, again reflecting the nature of much family language and literacy use. We would thus capitalise on role play’s potential for providing real audiences and purposes by using the oral contexts of these for the explicit teaching of text forms and directly mediating the transition from oral to written texts with the children. This strategy constituted the second kind of teacher intervention.

Linguistic approaches

Our approach to language had, above all, to recognise the centrality of audience and purpose to language use. For this we went to genre theory where these are seen as the predominant influences on the language user’s choice of forms. Genre theory posits that an understanding of how genres and text types work is central to successful engagement in all social activities and fundamentally affects the language user’s choice of both spoken and written forms in the service of purpose and audience. Genres and text types are different from each other. Genres are seen as essentially purposeful, staged processes, oral or written, encountered across many different social and cultural situations. The major genres are variously described but a useful list is provided in the First Steps material where they are called forms, and in the English National Literacy Strategy materials where they are called purposes (First Steps Writing Resource, 1997: 19-20; NLS Developing Early Writing, 2001:153-154).

Every home commonly uses a range of these: language is used to give pleasure when parents tell their children stories, to explain how some homework should be done, to persuade children to go to bed, and so on. Using a genre successfully involves understanding the purpose to be accomplished, what kind of language ‘belongs’ in particular situations and how to manipulate language to accommodate the needs of a particular audience. Flexibility and change are essential for, as Anne Haas Dyson elegantly puts it: ‘genres are neither rigid types nor formless inventions: they are potential ways of producing meaning, shaped by formal symbol systems, by the existing social constellation; and by strategic improvisation’ (Dyson, 2001).

Text types, on the other hand, have relatively inflexible forms which can be explicitly modelled , directly taught and used across a number of different genres without changing their essential features. Even homes which consider themselves to be unliterary contain a multitude of texts: letters, cards, catalogue forms, betting slips, recipes, shopping lists are only a few. Text types do not belong to particular genres and are capable of being used for a multitude of purposes. Letters, as in early epistolary novels, can carry narratives, recounts, explanations or be mainly persuasive; poems can be mainly for pleasure but have arguments subsumed within them; a patient care plan can contain both reports and procedures.

Learning about genres and text types

Learning about and using genres and text types obviously involves understanding both their essential structure and how they can be successfully deployed in many contexts of use. This presents learners and teachers with both challenges and opportunities: learners need to understand the purpose and features of a genre but in such a way that they can transfer the learning across different social situations and adapt the language used to each. They also need to learn the features of text types but not in such a way that they always associate a text type with a particular context of use. So in the persuasive genre (as in the example below) there is always, however vestigially, an intention on the part of the author or speaker to move her or his audience from one attitude or belief to another by the use of arguments or blandishments which often culminate in an exhortation or statement of belief.

The actual forms of language will, however, change according to whether, for example, the social context is a baby clinic or a pizzeria, the audience is an anxious mother or an aggressive international competitor, and what the distribution of power is within the author – audience relationship. There will also be a choice about the text type used: the baby clinic ‘staff ’ in the example described below decided to send the anxious mother a letter and the pizzeria owners responded to competition from McDonalds with a customer survey and a series of posters. On the other hand, they could, respectively, have chosen to use a standard reminder form or a letter to the local newspaper. Since the different text types would have had differing effects, deciding on the text type became part of learning how to use language effectively.

Learning this complex linguistic interplay between the structure of a genre and the language features, demands and possibilities of a particular social situation, is an essential aspect of successful oral and written language use. Experiencing the language demands of real or recreated social situations where, as in role play, children can play out power roles denied them in real life, within scenarios in which choices can be constantly made and remade and where situations have to be responded to, would seem an excellent way for this kind of language learning to take place.

Supporting new purposes

We saw the conscious introduction of problems which the children had to solve through adjusting the kind of language they used as a means of promoting new or specific purposes. So, for example, persuasion was identified one week as an appropriate genre, and that morning the children in the baby clinic role play arrived in class to find one of the dolls covered in spots, giving rise to a discussion about measles, why babies are immunised against it and how mothers could be persuaded to bring their children in for ‘the needle’. An adult in role played a reluctant mother and later the children in collaboration with the teacher wrote a persuasive letter to her promising that the ‘doctors’ would be ‘very gentle’. In another school, the children set up the pizzeria restaurant referred to earlier in opposition to another class’s MacDonalds, and when a customer complained about the high prices, ran a fairly aggressive campaign to persuade customers to adopt a supposedly more healthy Italian style of diet. A teacher whose class had been involved in setting up a potting shed evolved a particularly powerful strategy to develop children’s understanding of the different purposes of the enter- prise, always assuming the role of a witless assistant within the potting shed team so that every undertaking had to be carefully explained to her. (What was especially noticeable here was the way in which power relationships, shown by the use of language between children and assistant, immediately shifted when the playtime bell went and she reverted to the teacher, becoming Miss X instead of Sarah). These problems, usually devised by adults but arising out of the children’s play, constituted the last of our adult interventions.

A model for writing

The foundations of the model, therefore, were the recognition of the generic nature of oral and written language and of the need to shape the transition between the two (Cook, 2005); and the careful positioning of three kinds of adult intervention: one within the role play, on equal terms with the children and using the modelling and open scaffolding charac- teristic of family learning; and two outside the play but intimately connected with it. Both of these used the child produced contexts of the play, one to introduce problems designed to provide purposes for new oral language use; and the other to model texts and scaffold children’s oral responses so as to enable them collaboratively to construct a written text.

The building blocks of our model were:

  • real life experience shared by adults and children
  • the role play which represented it and provided the oral contexts for language and literacy development
  • children in charge of the play and determining its direction 
  • provision for children to write freely and have their texts valued
  • the modelling by adults of texts appropriate to audiences and purposes chosen by the children in response to situations arising from the role play
  • the scaffolding of the children’s collaborative construction of these.

In these ways we addressed the third of our concerns, that adult interventions in the play should reflect the pedagogies of home.

The model in practice

The model was devised in the first phase of the project and involved two teachers, each with one teaching assistant and two groups of children. The second phase involved five classes, the practitioners and support staff together with a control group in each class (Cook, 2000). All the staff involved contributed enormously to the refinement and enrichment of the model while observing its central principles with a quite remarkable consistency. A major contribution to this was almost certainly the time devoted to the collaborative drawing up and explicit stating of the principles described above, together with group discussion of progress and outcomes throughout the time the projects were running. Other schools became involved and used the approach with children up to the age of seven and beyond.

As time progressed, a pattern for implementing the model developed which seemed common to all the settings. This involved a sequence of activities which realised the underlying pedagogical and linguistic principles without forming a procedural straitjacket. Six children from across the whole range of ability were selected and their parents were told what was taking place, the likely theme of the role play and why we thought the children would benefit, emphasising that the children would not miss out on their academic learning. We stressed how much children’s role play revealed what the children knew (most parents had of, course, already realised this), and how we wanted to build on this knowledge. We encouraged the parents to support role play at home and, if the children showed an interest in doing so (but not otherwise) to talk to the children about the real life situations which would be represented in the school role play and if possible, provide resources for it at home and for the school. These six children then constituted a working/guided group for the period of the play (about six weeks) so that they would have the opportunity to learn and work collaboratively together.

Experiencing the outside together

Children, parents and staff then followed this up by discussing at home and in school a projected visit to a site thought to be reasonably familiar to the children. Visits which have proved particularly successful have been: a garden centre; a baby clinic; a park potting shed; an airport with booking office and information centre; a farm shop; and a pizzeria. Farms, hospitals and a vet’s would have been favourites, too, but had to be excluded for health reasons. They were replaced by the farm shop, visits to a doctor’s surgery and by the practice nurse to the class, and, in a subsequent development, by a video of a vet’s practice. One of the features of the role play was that, as it progressed, extensions were added to the classroom sites: the garden centre acquired a cafe for tired visitors; the baby clinic, a waiting room and bus stop; the park had a nursery growing plants for sale; the airport, a travel agents, booking office and information centre; and the farm shop acquired a rather scenic duck pond. In spite of being prevented from actually visiting a hospital, the doctor’s surgery, supplemented by a great deal of inside information , particularly from one child (see below) seemed sufficient input for a working hospital to be set up, complete with reception area, triage, operating theatre and wards. The pizzeria site was particularly prolific, developing two additional classroom sites, a police station and a fire station, as the result of a child’s initiative in starting an accidental fire (regrettably, as the result of a dropped cigarette!), and making use of an existing shared role play area (a McDonalds restaurant) to develop the aggressive marketing campaign mentioned earlier.

A visit was, however, the usual practice, with the children going in their group with a practitioner, non-teaching assistant and any of the children’s parents who could attend. During the visit, there was an emphasis on the purposes of the differing activities at the site, rather than on simple labelling of objects, and the children were also encouraged to notice and ask about any written texts encountered, their purposes, forms and audiences. This list of these in their later home – made representations shows the comprehen- sive exploration of this initial visit. It includes labels, shopping lists, menus, customer orders and involves, signs such as Open and Closed, Opening Hours, No

Smoking, Mind the Step, Organic Food, Fresh Eggs; stock lists; requisition forms; till receipts; visitor complaint /comment forms/books; weight charts; prescriptions; patient plans; message pads; address books; yellow pages; timetables; recipe books; letters and invitations. In this way the children collected, as a group, a considerable amount of information about how the site and its personnel functioned, the systems employed and the kinds of oral and written language typical of its discourse, including the ways in which different participants talked and the content of what they said. This information was discussed in school, and parents were encouraged to do the same at home and to support (but not initiate) any role play arising naturally from the visit.

Bringing the outside in

The children were then, as a group, asked to brainstorm their experiences and recollections of the visit and they collaboratively made an oral recount of what they had experienced. This was then used to plan the construction of a role play area to represent the site, and the children were encouraged to bring resources from home and to construct, in their own emergent writing, the home made notices referred to earlier. Some adult made texts were also provided such as prescription forms to act as models and frames for further writing. Some commercial resources were used, for example, dolls for the baby clinic, beds and other equipment for the hospital, but this was not a significant feature of the role play and, indeed, as time went on, it was apparent that very little and sometimes no commercial or other materials were needed. Indeed we strongly suspected that ‘overpropping’ could inhibit the play, because it might suggest to the children that adults were really in charge and able to provide resources which were the ‘correct’ or ideal product. On the other hand, the children took considerable pride in making their own equipment, for example a quite magnificent luggage scanning machine for the airport. As with all play, it is perhaps necessary for adults to restrain themselves from making things too perfect from the beginning, as if an adult template for play will improve its quality.

Reflecting on roles and procedures

After the teacher and children had jointly set up the role play site, the different roles and procedures which the children had previously identified as significant were explained to the group and a period of free play followed, to enable both adults and children to experiment with roles and interactions. In a further stage all participants, children and adults, assumed assigned roles, the adult always taking one of equal or inferior power, for example, a patient, visitor or customer. After this, the same set of roles rotated throughout the period that the role play theme operated, so that each child took on every role at least once, providing an opportunity both for individual use of language and for using language modelled by others. As the project proceeded, where children’s ability to adopt the speech forms and content of real life models flagged, teachers sometimes took the opportunity of group or whole class sessions to play out these roles themselves, sometimes in dialogue with another adult, and this seemed sufficient to extend the children’s understanding of what was required in the role play and help them to acquire the appropriate vocabulary. As the play progressed, the children appeared able to develop not only accurate representations of real life roles but also collaborative play in which they demonstrated a quite sophisticated ability both to act out a jointly constructed oral script and also to change it or introduce a problem where the demands of the situation they had created required it. The children in the hospital play, for example, decided, independently of the teacher, that too many patients had arrived for the number of beds available (in reality there was only one bed!) and that the answer lay in deciding which patients were least ill and sending these home – a hot-bedding solution familiar to hospital managers in the NHS!

Introducing a problem

When the children were secure in playing in this way and had accepted adults in role, an appropriate real life problem or complication was introduced with the explicit intention of providing an opportunity for the children to use orally a particular genre taken from those described in the First Steps material, so encouraging them to use language for a specific purpose and audience. A robbery occurring overnight in the farm shop led to a recount of what had happened, but in a later development, where the children pursued the robber and asked for an expla-nation, narrative was the focus genre and led to the writing of a story, the punch-line being that the robber was hungry and so was forgiven and kissed better!. The occasion for the marketing of the pizzeria (see above) arose as the result of an adult commenting to the owner that she had had a cheaper meal at the fast food outlet next door, which then led to a discussion about how people could be persuaded to pay more for better food and the drawing up of a customer survey and advertising copy. Sometimes, however, as with the sad incident of the pizzeria fire, a child introduced the complication and the children took the whole subsequent play on board with no assistance from adults, including seeing the need to inform the fire brigade and make telephone and written reports to the police.

Constructing a text form together

Observation of the role play after the introduction of a problem always seemed to suggest, as in these cases, a text form appropriate to a purpose which developed from the problem. These covered a range including stories, letters, lists, prescriptions, patient plans, and instructions. There was overall a preponderance of informational speech and writing, perhaps reflecting the nature of the initial visits paid. Narrative, while easy to develop orally, as in the case of the penitent robber, turned out difficult to translate into a written story within the time span of the collab- orative writing session, making us suspect that story writing is a difficult form for young writers, possibly because its structure and form are usually more complex and lengthy than those of commonly occurring non-fiction texts. However, there may also have been some confusion among children (and adults) about the differences between narrative and recount. It may be that this was a simple lack of understanding that narratives usually involve themes, settings, characterisation (as distinct from character), compli- cations, and a resolution, over and above the events and characters of recounts but it may also be that the transition between oral and written narratives requires more mediation and certainly more time than for other genres and texts.

The selected text type provided the focus of the out- of-role session which followed after the role play and was often quite distinct from it. Here, the writing of the text type was modelled by the teacher, with a reminder of the text’s purpose and audience, how it had arisen in the play and how it is usually written and used. The children then, together with the adult, collaboratively constructed a similar text, with plenty of opportunity for all members of the group to contribute ideas on the form and content of the text. For all but the most able of the older children, this was often felt to be enough, with the individual writing of texts left for a different learning situation.

Main outcomes: all children

A range of evaluative measures in the first two phases of the project showed that children ‘s knowledge
and use of oral and written language significantly progressed, particularly noticeable being their increased ability to adapt language for different purposes and audiences, knowledge and use of text forms and of a range of vocabulary. Pre- and post- testing on a range of measures, and, in the second phase, comparison with control groups in the same class, showed that the teaching objectives of the Literacy Framework, including knowledge of words, letters, and sounds, were achieved at least as well, and sometimes more effectively, by children involved in the role play project as an alternative to the ordinary range of classroom activities provided for their class. This is borne out by adults’ informal reports. Above all, all the adults and schools involved have found the approach greatly increased children’s confidence in both oral and written use of language, and developed greatly increased positive attitudes to writing and knowledge of text forms. Boys seemed to show particular progress both in their ability to role play and in their use of oral language. Teachers of seven year old children in an infant department which now uses this form of role play from the time children first enter school, are reporting not only that the children are achieving improved results in writing in external tests, but that they are more confident and willing writers and that they do not need to have common text forms explained to them.

Outcomes for children with identified special needs

Particularly illuminating was the way in which children with identified special needs blossomed in the course of the play. This was sometimes the result of growth in social skills, for example in children who had previously been slow to talk in group situations. More striking still was the way in which the role play, with these children and others, enabled the players to reveal knowledge and skills which would otherwise have remained hidden. For example, the way in which one child’s peers viewed him changed radically when he became the group’s expert on hospital procedures, making use of his experience of visiting a sick brother. Another, in role as a car driver, revealed a wealth of knowledge about car crashes and insurance claims which seemed extraordinary in a four year old. Another, previously silent in class and for much of the time at home, found his voice as the receptionist at a baby clinic, when he needed to respond to requests for information about appointment times and local bus travel.

Time and again, the adults involved marvelled at how much the children knew and could speak about, and how their own presence in the role play revealed this to them. Because the children’s contributions to the collaborative writing session were mainly oral and immediate, based in the recent play and constantly referring back to experiences held in common, children with special needs could make major inputs here, too, particularly in the area of content. In return, they were supported by children with more advanced technical skills, for example in letter formation. Teachers remarked on the way the experience made them rethink their previous assessments of the children and realise that assessment procedures which ignore spoken language use in play tell only a small part of the story and may be frighteningly inaccurate as an account of a child’s real potential. Schools in England may wish to take account of this as they respond to Rose’s recommendations for increased attention to spoken language in primary education (DCSF 2009).

Other outcomes

The children’s social skills also progressed significantly. Particularly noticeable were their increased ability to collaborate with others; to undertake responsible roles such as the receptionist at a baby clinic making decisions about appointment times; and to sideline their own wishes in the interests of the group play. A criterion here was the children’s progressive willingness to let someone else take a high status role such as the doctor – and with it ownership of the much coveted stethoscope. Perhaps because they grew into the role play together over the course of some weeks, they seemed to develop a collective ability to think through the role play and their part in moving it on, including creating and solving appropriate problems.

In the course of doing this, they collaborated in the creation, redrafting and recreation of a multitude of oral scripts which they held in common and which then became available to them as a group and individually. Making this collaborative and reciprocal language the basis of the explicit teaching of writing and using it to inform written texts which reflected real life audiences and purposes, was an important part of developing a pedagogy which bridged the gap between oral and written language. By rotating roles within the role play, and ensuring that all children within the writing group could contribute to the construction of the shared text, the gradual move from collaborative to individual writing production was also begun.

There was also a more general pedagogical development as the role play spread, physically through the classroom and cognitively, seeping into other classroom activities, with leakage of knowledge and skills from the children engaged in the project play into the rest of class and school. The adults’ approach to role play within the project also extended to other classroom activities with a seemingly unconscious adoption of a role play based approach to unrelated play and other activities.


These successful outcomes suggest that our approach went a long way to addressing concerns about how to relate children’s existing real life knowledge about oral and written language use to school literacy requirements and how to establish the kind of adult intervention which would bridge the gap between the two. Essential to that bridge is the opportunity which the children seized on in the role play, to, in Freire’s phrase, ‘name their world’ (Freire,1996: 70). Defining adult interventions as necessarily equal with the children’s and supporting the collaborative nature of all the oral and written activities, ensured that no-one ‘named on behalf of others’ (Freire, ibid.). Finally, the oral nature of the shared writing intervention reflected the dialogic nature of spoken language and maximised the opportunity for all children to draw and reflect on their collaborative experience in the joint construction of a text which arose from their own experience of real life audiences and purposes. 

With many thanks to the teachers whose practice and reflection informed this chapter, and to the Headteachers of English Martyrs Catholic Primary School, Sefton, Great Crosby Catholic Primary School, Sefton, St John’s CE School, Crossens, Sefton, and Rivington Primary School, St Helens. 


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