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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
Action Research: Classroom Management & School Culture:
Play Matters

by Susan Courtney
Summer, 1999

Purpose and Rationale
In the summer of 1996 a group of teachers within an inner-city portion of the Los Angeles Unified School District formed a literacy network to begin asking questions about effective classroom practices that lead to student literacy. This year, our literacy network is interested in analyzing the value and benefits of play across age and grade levels with regard to language development practices of English Language Learners. Our rationale for researching the importance of play as a curricular tool comes on the heels of the present restructuring and back-to-basic movements and Proposition 227 models being implemented in our schools. Proposition 227 is a California statewide initiative that replaced the bilingual educational programs for all second language learners with an English Immersion program. Students who previously were receiving instruction in their primary language while learning English are now being mandated to begin receiving all instruction in English. While there is substantial research on the benefits of play during the early years of a child’s cognitive growth (Christie, 1990; Morrow, 1991; Stone, 1995), our research is inquiring about the value and benefits of play in relationship to the recently adopted California State English Language Development Standards and second language learners, ages 4 - 9. All students who are participating in this research are from the inner-city and have been assessed as having no or limited English proficiency.

Research Questions
The process for formulating our questions and action plan included brainstorming issues and practices we were interested in questioning systematically in order to seek answers to our questions using action research. The questions we decided to frame and use to develop an action plan for collecting information are:

  • Do students demonstrate language proficiency commensurate with English Language Development Standards as they play?
  • How does the talk and vocabulary used by children differ when they are playing from when they are not playing?
  • How does the role of the teacher change the efficacy of play?

Data Collected
This study includes 150 students, 4 - 9 years old. All students are from classrooms that are using an English Immersion Model Program. The teachers are all Literacy Network members who are participating in this Action Research Project.

  • Recordings and notes were taken of the students’ talk as they engaged in play and during teacher directed activities and lessons. Recordings were later transcribed and information was recorded on separate checklists for noting talk and students meeting standards both in and outside of play.

  • Teachers used literature and puppets, scripts, flannel board characters, and other prompts to note and observe the behaviors and language used by the students as they played with the objects and materials. Observations and anecdotal notes were taken before teachers engaged in play and after to note if the teacher’s role changed the efficacy of play.

  • Teachers noted behaviors and language development standards that children were exhibiting as they played. The information from those notes was later transferred over onto the checklists when it pertained to any of our three questions.

Patterns that developed as we reviewed and discussed our data indicated that the majority of children were using expanded and complex vocabulary from stories and negotiating with others almost exclusively during play. Therefore, we can infer and conclude that play is a necessary and important component where students extend and refine the language they are learning and using. In gathering and analyzing our data, literacy behaviors that extended beyond vocabulary development have also been reported. Students were sorting and classifying objects and characters from the stories, using books as a reference while playing, sequencing actions, showing visual discrimination using the pictures in the book and materials used during play, matching characters and objects created for play to pictures in the books, and extending stories to include events from their own lives. Teachers also noted that their students were switching from their native language to their second language when directly referencing vocabulary, characters and events from the stories. In reviewing the data, what is significant about this research is that even students who were reluctant to use the language in teacher directed situations, heard the models and used the language structures during play.

These findings have implications that play provides:

  • for the development of using symbols to represent objects. This is the first step is developing an awareness that words represent objects.
  • for a wide range of language uses. Beginning language learners were able to engage in social conversations with gestures, expressions and objects while retelling stories. More experienced language learners were able to retell stories using expanded vocabulary, descriptive words and paraphrasing (using specific vocabulary words and phrases from stories used during Read Aloud time).
  • risk-free environments where students are much more likely to explore the many uses of language.
  • a natural setting for supporting literacy development.
  • experiences children can use to write for meaning and purpose.

Policy Implications
Instruction for English Language Learners assists the students in acquiring communicative competence. Play provides the pathway to gaining meaning from print, which begins with the successful use of language at the receptive and oral levels. Therefore, the following recommendations are made, keeping the needs of the English Language Learner at the center of these policy changes, in order to assist each student in meeting State standards and becoming a successful reader and writer of the English Language:

  1. Play should be included when drafting and writing both State and District level curriculum and instruction frameworks.

  2. Play should be included in the State and District level intervention programs for both English Language Learners and Native English Speakers.

  3. Professional Development should include how to organize and manage play environments. Ongoing training and support should be given to all educators in developing models for introducing and guiding play to provide supportive environments and experiences for beginning to advanced English proficiency levels.

Encouraging and supporting the implementation and integration of play as a daily practice from the beginning and throughout the domains of language arts will stimulate language development and lead to acquisition of knowledge for all learners.


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