Literacy Through Play – G. Owocki

(en español)

Literacy Through Play - Owocki 1999This month I read the book Literacy Through Play by Gretchen Owocki (1999).  Of course, there is already a wealth of information in the early childhood field on the topics of play and of literacy, as well as the relationship between the two.  Owocki’s statement that “In a developmentally appropriate classroom, play time is teaching time” (1999, p. 29), seems to be reflective of the attitude of nearly every early childhood educator I meet.  While play would seem to be universally utilized to some degree in virtually all preschool classrooms, primary classrooms are often not so fortunate.  I will therefore be discussing Owocki’s text in relationship to my student teaching experience in an inner-city third grade classroom.

Despite all of my university courses stressing the importance of play throughout the entire early childhood span of birth through third grade, in my midterm competency appraisal for my student teaching experience my university supervisor declared standard 4Bb, “Plans and implements a curriculum that incorporates play” (NLU 2012, p. 26) to be “Not Applicable” to the third grade public school classroom I was assigned to.  But as Owocki points out, “Play allows teachers to respond to children’s ideas, to help them elaborate on their thinking, and to help them see the world of literacy through many lenses” (1999, p. 39).  I therefore made efforts to incorporate play into my literacy curriculum.

This was not an easy task, as I received pressure from the public school to conform my curriculum to that being taught in the other third grade classrooms.  However, with the benefit of my experience as a preschool teacher, as well as support from my university supervisor, I found myself with surprising freedom when it came to teaching writing.  With the understanding that by the end of my unit I would have covered the same topics that other third grade classrooms were covering, I was given the freedom to stray from the prescribed curriculum to some degree and teach those topics in my own way based on a teaching method I’d found particularly successful in preschool.

Owocki indicates that “If children do not understand that reading and writing serve important functions, then there is little reason for them to read or write” (1999, p. 56).  She additionally states that “Developing a clear message for an audience is fundamental to effective communication” (1999, p. 21).  I strove to make literacy meaningful by providing the children a greater understanding of audience.  I did this by incorporating drama into the writing curriculum.  The sequence for the unit was as follows:

  • Week 1 – Story Dramatization – Students learn to retell a familiar story by acting it out.
  • Weeks 1-2 – Writing Dramatizations – Students learn to incorporate peer feedback by dramatizing and discussing as a class their written stories.
  • Week 2 [Math] – Making Change – Students learn to make monetary change by ordering DVDs of their dramatized stories.
  • Week 3a – Character Traits – Students learn to describe characters by discussing the character traits of the roles they are portraying when dramatizing each others’ stories.
  • Week 3b – Guest Speaker: Editor-in-Chief – Students learn about the process of editing from the editor-in-chief of a local university newspaper.
  • Week 4 – Setting – Students learn to visualize and describe a setting through the use of props.
  • Week 5 – Chronology – Students learn to describe a sequence of events in their stories.
  • Weeks 5-6 – Spelling – Students learn to use accurate spelling to improve readability.
  • Week 6 [Social Studies] – Election – Students learn about the upcoming election by voting on the title and cover illustration for a class anthology.
  • Week 7 – Punctuation – Students learn to use periods, capital letters, and quotation marks to improve readability.

Throughout the seven weeks of this unit, the children dramatized stories on a daily basis, transforming their writing into play.  Of course, some teachers might say that dramatization of written stories may not be considered play in the fullest sense of the word, but I would argue that it meets Owocki’s criteria for the most complex form of play, in which, “Dramatic play is characterized by the mental transformation of objects, actions, and situations” (1999, p. 11).  In my student teaching the children were able to mentally transform themselves and the various props that were provided into fictive elements developed from the children’s own imaginations.

Owocki reveals that “Play allows teachers to respond to children’s ideas, to help them elaborate on their thinking, and to help them see the world of literacy through many lenses” (1999, p. 39).  In my writing curriculum I was able to utilize the play to provide a forum for discussing important topics in relationship to writing.  With the exceptions of Week 2 [Math], Week 3b, and Week 6 [Social Studies], each topic was discussed in direct relationship to a specific story or stories written by the students and dramatized during that week.  These play-fueled discussions helped to build the type of social community that Owocki is discussing when she states that “all of the children within the social community activate zones [of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978, p. 87)] all over the classroom as they play, talk, and share their understandings of the world” (1999, pp. 50-51).

By using the children’s own stories and play as the driving force behind the curriculum, I engaged the children in writing in a way that enticed them to enjoy the task.  As Owocki says, “Through stories, children experience imaginative ideas, new possibilities for doing things, and diverse ways of thinking and living” (1999, p. 62).  Children’s excitement about the idea of bringing play into the third grade classroom in this way was evident even before the process had begun, as can be seen in the following excerpt from my student teaching journal:

As the last few children were finishing up their character webs, I made a big show of setting up the projector.  The children were curious and asked me all sorts of questions about what we were going to do with it, during which I remained silent and allowed their imaginations to compound their curiosity.  Finally, I responded to the most persistent child, Yousef, who was at this point asking if we were going to watch a movie, to which I told him that we would, but that it would be a very short one.

This got many of the children excited and on the edges of their seats.  The stragglers for the character webs went to the task with renewed vigor, anxious to finish so that they could see what I was going to be showing them on the projector.…  I quickly finished setting up the projector and I showed them a single short clip that I often show in workshops I give on the topic of story dictation and dramatization.  I introduced the clip by telling the children that, just like we dramatized a chapter from Horrible Harry (Kline, 2000) yesterday, I often had my preschoolers dramatize stories that they created.  I explained that the preschoolers didn’t know how to write yet, so I had to write the words for their stories, but the children created the stories and then got to act them out.

The entire clip was a minute and ten seconds, and the children had their eyes glued to the screen with excitement throughout.  They laughed and enjoyed watching the preschooler’s story dramatized along with the children in the video.

After the clip was over I then told them that, just like the children in the video, that we would get to dramatize their own stories.  I asked them to think about this as they did their stamina writing.  The children got very excited by this prospect, Pierce and Joseph in particular.  So much so, that when I had to stop them during their stamina writing because one of the children got distracted, the children got upset and demanded that I let them write more.  I did, and they went even longer, which surprised me since they didn’t have a break between the two attempts.

Nor did this enthusiasm for writing die down over the course of the curriculum.  In fact, it actually increased, as can be seen in this excerpt from my final reflection on the unit:

I have them hooked.  I’ve introduced writing in a way that has the children engaged and excited.  As I’m transitioning to get the children back on the same page as the rest of the third grade writing curriculum, I have been teaching the same writing lesson that the other third grade teachers are doing this week.  We’ve given the children scarves and told them to pretend that they are magic scarves that give the wearer superpowers.  They are to write stories based on the superpower their scarf would give them.…

Pierce tends to take a little bit longer at tasks than most other students, but the same enthusiasm I saw at the beginning of my writing program was still there when he told me that he wasn’t quite done [with his superscarf story] as we were getting ready for recess today.  I started to tell him that he could finish it over the weekend as he worked on his second draft, but he cut me off to tell me that he wanted to stay and work on it during recess.  I then made it clear that he didn’t have to do that and that he could do it over the weekend, but he still insisted on staying during recess.  It took him about five minutes to finish before he went outside.…

While I am not happy to see the children missing out on their time to engage in play, it excites me that the children choose to use their free time to work on writing.  As the writing curriculum prior to this week is the only part of my curriculum that has not been already shaped by the third grade team, this gives me a sense of satisfaction that I’ve done something right.

In my opinion, it is the desire to write more than anything else that is the greatest thing a literacy program can help cultivate in children.  Style and mechanics will all eventually come if they have the motivation to pursue them.  In the words of Gretchen Owocki, “Once children have a reason to use print, they naturally explore its features” (1999, p. 25).

I welcome and encourage comments and discussion on this post.  Also, if you have a book that you think would interest me and would like to see me discuss in this blog, please feel free to comment with your recommendation.  Next month I will be discussing the book Teaching Community by bell hooks (2003).


hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge.

Owocki, G. (1999). Literacy through play. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kline, S. (2000). Horrible Harry moves up to third grade (F. Remkiewicz, Illus.). New York: Penguin.

National-Louis University (2012). Early childhood education undergraduate and graduate student teaching handbook. Online:

Vygotsky, L.S.  (1978 [1930-1935]).  Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes.  (M. Cole, S. Scribner & E. Souberman, Trans. & Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.