Language and Literacy

There are so many structured activities out there for teaching language and literacy to children, from flashcards to phonics programs and stencils. When all the research says that children learn best through play and the requirements of the NQF state that children should be at the centre of the program, and have choice and control over their learning, how well do these structured experiences meet the developmental and engagement needs of the children in our care?

Previously I have discussed the difficulty with large group experiences and ensuring that children are really getting out of these what we anticipate the outcomes to be. (These discussions can be seen in and Stencils and structured activities provide evidence, but what is the evidence necessarily of? If a child can rote learn to say the letters and their sounds, is that any different than a child learning to memorise the words to a song like twinkle twinkle, or let it go? Do they really understand the application of the content or have they just heard it so many times they have committed it to memory?

When it comes to stencils, are children really understanding the letters and the relationship and A has to an Apple when they trace the letters and write their own copy of the letter and colour in an apple? Or have we collected evidence of other skills such as following instructions, fine motor and pencil control and the ability to complete a task? How do we say for certain that they have knowledge of the letters just because they completed a stencil?

Neither of these types of activities has the child at the focus of them either, they are for ticking a box (sometimes metaphorically or sometimes literally on a check-list). What if a child can’t hold a pencil? Do they not get to learn letters because stencils are the tool of choice? What about children who cannot sit at a group experience and engage with the content because they are using their energy just to sit still, do they not get to learn about letters and their sounds?
It is also difficult, when children go to so many different types of school systems that have so many different styles of curriculum to ensure the way they are taught is the right way, and will meet the needs of the school. Most schools have such specific ways of teaching they would rather do it themselves and just have children interested in letters and language and ready to learn. (See

There are so many different ways to engage children in language and literacy experiences in our programs that are based on the children and their needs and it comes down to seeing the opportunity, as educators, and seizing this opportunity to help children learn. Here are just a few examples:

  • Increasing the amount of text and symbols in your service. Whether it be magazines, catalogues, packaging, brochures, books, signs, keyboards, phones, money or similar, all these different types of media encourage and support children’s engagement with literacy. You can also add letters to your loose parts play through items such as scrabble tiles, pieces of alphabet games/puzzles that are broken, or even drawing letters onto stones. Through all these opportunities children are using illustrations to understand the text, they learn to turn pages right to left, they learn to recognise symbols and logos as always representing the same items – what child doesn’t know the McDonald’s logo? Children who can engage with text and symbols in a play based way will connect with the content more, explore, investigate and display their sense of agency in the experience. Educators can role model, engage with and challenge the children during play situations such as using a catalogue to make a shopping list with the children by cutting out what they need to buy and sticking these items to a piece of paper. Older children might want to add their own labels for the items too.
  • Engaging in conversations. The best way to increase the amount of language children learn is to increase the amount of language they are exposed to during the day. Talk to the children, sing around the children, with infants you can label actions so they get used to language and start to absorb it all. When using language with children don’t be afraid to use big words, or new words, but make sure they understand the meaning of the word and explain it if necessary. Sometimes adding tools like pretend phones will also increase the amount of language children use, or providing opportunities to re-tell known stories or create their own with puppets, felt pieces of similar resources.
  • Adding literacy opportunities to different play areas. I often like to make letters out of play-dough when I play alongside the children. I don’t make them do it, or even draw attention to what I am doing, instead I draw the attention of those who are interested. Some recognise letters from their name, or can say the name of the letters. Others want to have a turn too. Another thing I like to do when sitting at the sand pit is pick up a stick and draw or write in the sand on the edge. It is amazing how often children who are afraid to pick up a pencil and write on paper, often because of the permanency of this, will draw or write in sand with a stick because it just disappears when someone walks on it. I also add literacy opportunities for children to record their ideas with clipboards, paper and pencils whether they be creating a plan to find treasure in the yard, recording the injuries in the doctor’s office or documenting their findings when searching for bugs in the bushes.
  • Creating meaningful opportunities for children. Instead of writing a stencil filled with the same letter or a child’s name, which may seem pointless to a child, I get those children eager to write to help me with tasks I needed documented. Signs around the room, labels on drawers in the office, headings for forms given to parents, all created by children. The purpose of this was twofold. Firstly the children were developing their skills in letter formation, awareness of words and using text to make meaning. Secondly those who entered the service saw that learning was at the centre of the program and each child was given the opportunity to engage with learning in meaningful and diverse ways that reflected the needs of the individual children.


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Find time to play

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We all have very busy schedules and so many different things we need to achieve in our services that sometimes we get caught up in the “jobs” and forget the purpose of out job. We are there for the children and we should be with them as much as possible.

Sure things needs cleaning, filing, documenting, displaying and so much more, but sometimes this takes up so much of our time we end up merely supervising, or may leave only one educator with the children.

Now, when I say play, I don’t mean ask a million questions like you are interviewing the child for a job. Would you be relaxed if every time you explored your environment, tried something new, or even picked something up someone asked “What are you doing?”, “What colour is that?”, “What do you think will happen next?”, “How many do you have?”. Or would you feel overwhelmed, anxious and possibly put off from doing anything around that person?

You might already know all of this, which is great, but you also might have got consumed by the “jobs” or even be new to child care in which case this might help you engage with the children more.

Here are some tips on playing with children that help increase their learning and build relationships:

  1. Get down to the children’s levels: When you are at a child’s level not only do they feel safe and comfortable with your presence but you can also start to see things from their perspective. Whether it be understanding how they are thinking, what they are doing, or how you can challenge or support them. Being at the children’s level also allows you to pre-empt and prevent behavioural issues from occurring as you are right there on hand to support children.
  2. Role model: If you are playing along side the children you are likely to demonstrate ways to use the resources that they might not have thought of yet. This challenges their thinking and allows you to scaffold their learning by providing options in a non-threatening and child-focused way. If you were to say “look at the tower I built, who can build one like me? I will show you have I did it..” then that could intimidate children who are not yet confident to try. By just building a stronger base, or perhaps saying “oh no, it fell down, maybe I need a stronger base” then this can help children observe what you are doing and why, to store that information for when they are ready. In this example you have also role-modelled the appropriate emotional response to a tower falling down.
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  3. Put down the technology: There is almost no reason that mobiles, laptops, tablets etc. need to be constantly on the floor with the children. They are a distraction and often the answers they give in response to children’s questions are very technical and not really child friendly. Another piece of technology that gets in the way when it comes to relationships with children is cameras. We do not need to take photos of everything that happens in our services, and often to take a photo we go hunting for the camera or ask someone to bring it over which interrupts the engagement and relationships with the children (both for us and the other educators who are hunting for the camera on our behalf). You may have seen my previous challenge to take no photos for a week and see what impact it has on relationships with the children.
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  4. Look at the roster/routine: See whether there are better times in the day that jobs could be done so they don’t interfere with interactions and play time with the children. Whether it be waiting until rest time, waiting until educators are back from lunch breaks or during the quiet morning and evening times. Also see whether things can be done with the children’s help. Get them involved in cutting out photos and putting them into documentation, or choosing items to refill craft pots, all of this is meaningful and build relationships while providing learning opportunities for the children.
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Play time for children is about them, becoming confident, resilient and secure in themselves, so we do not need to be interrupting their play constantly and trying to play alongside everyone. But it is also not a time to “get stuff done” while the children are busy playing. There needs to be a balance between the two and hopefully these points will help you achieve this if you feel you are not finding the balance.


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