Using Play Activities to Increase Comprehension

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For my project I wanted to focus on an area that involved some sort of student play/interaction. I teach Pre-K so most of what my students do is through exploration using tactile processes. My students really enjoy books and I can tell when I'm reading that they are completely engaged in what's to come. Through observation of my students I also know that they enjoy acting out various things while they are at centers. Since some of my kids seem to have trouble with comprehension and remembering key information from the book I thought that bringing the book to life might be helpful for those struggling.

Background/Class Information:

I teach at SGA Elementary School in Sardis, GA which is located in Burke County. This school has grades Pre-K through 5th. There is 1 principal, 1 vice principal, 1 instructional coordinator, 1 counselor, 1 medical assistant, 1 office manager and 2 office personnel. The school is comprised of 33 classrooms, including the resources: art, physical education, and music. Grades Pre-K through 3rd all have a paraprofessional in each room and 4th and 5th share a floating paraprofessional between the grades/classes.

This school is in a very rural part of the county. Income levels are very low and most parents suffer from high unemployment. If parents do work it is for a low paying/minimum wage job. Because of this factor all students are served a free breakfast and lunch everyday at school. Pre-k also receives a snack at the end of the day that is provided by our lunchroom.

At this school there are 401 total students. There are a total of 186 females with the ethnic breakdown including: 3 Hispanic, 4 multi-racial, 71 White, and 108 Black. For the males, there are a total of 215 including: 4 Hispanic, 4 Multi-racial, 77 White, and 130 Black. Since we do have several families in our school that are Hispanic the school recognizes that there is a language barrier. We have a translator who can be used in order to help make communication easier for them as well as ourselves. Most families have family members who can help and they will come to events in order to assist them. In my classroom I have 1 Hispanic student. She began the year speaking broken English and has now progressed, but still gets hung up on a few ideas. Her father speaks very little English with a strong accent and her mother speaks no English at all. When he needs to speak to me or I need to speak to him about his child they prefer to use their daughter to help with translation. The parents said that made them more comfortable to use her so I have never had to utilize the services of our translator, but the language barrier really hasn't been too big of an issue. In my classroom I have 20 students. It consists of 11 girls and 9 boys. For the girls I have 3 White, 7 Black, and 1 Hispanic. I have 6 White boys and 3 Black boys.

In my classroom it is myself and a paraprofessional. She has been in a Pre-K classroom for 5 years. We pretty much have an equal distribution as to what we do, how we do it, and how things get accomplished. I teach the majority of the time, but there are times in which she will teach calendar. She always assists when we are in a large group setting and doing an activity during that time. We share a joint role in conducting small group. I have created groups based on level. We decide what needs the students have and try to come up with activities to help them practice so they can start getting better at them. This is the area in which I can see the students benefiting from the most because they are able to get our one-on-one attention and we, in turn, are able to really focus on them and help them where they struggle. Or if we see that they can do a task with ease we give them something to challenge them. Needs are tweaked according to the groups.

Action Research Question:

The focus of my project was based on the question: if after reading stories aloud to my students I give them different avenues to explore the stories during center time will this help them develop a better understanding for what is read? As I mentioned earlier, I knew this was the area I needed to concentrate on since some of my students had trouble with comprehension. I don't know very many kids who don't enjoy playing either so incorporating it with something active seemed best. Even while conducting my research I didn't have any areas of my question that needed to be changed.

Supporting Data:


Students' main exposure to books in a pre-k classroom is to nursery rhymes and classic stories. Nursery rhymes introduce the basis for a story: a character, an event and an ending (GSU, 2008). Students also gain understanding through the rhythm and repetition. With classic stories, students are able to learn the difference between fact and fantasy as well as understanding the structure of a book (GSU, 2008). This way, there is a clear beginning, middle and end for the students. A teacher should teach one rhyme a week, highlight one a month, incorporate a rhyme into a unit and encourage children to act out the story or rhyme by providing opportunities at large group and/or center time (GSU, 2008). To promote story comprehension and enjoyment, drawing and discussion are widely practiced and accepted in elementary schools, but a third less often practiced way to follow up reading to children is dramatic play (Galda, 1982). Children connect books to play by actively searching for book-related toys and props in order to support comprehension through establishing a more concrete grasp on ideas. Book-related pretend play represents a richer method of monitoring students' understanding of stories, moving beyond the typical questions and simple retellings (Welsch, 2008). A focus on play around familiar stories and literature capitalizes on the storylines that define pretend schemes (Welsch, 2008). Literacy related activities allow children to refine their growing conceptions of the functions of written language and provide valuable, highly meaningful practice with emergent reading and writing (Christie, 1991). Within an early childhood classroom, book-related pretend play could be considered an equal opportunity experience, in which every student can put on the hat, pick up the fork, go in the house, and enter the world of the story (Welsch, 2008). Realizing that a child acquires language through active participation and that literature provides rich language models, storytelling and retellings is an excellent technique for fostering growth in language and increasing comprehension (Biegler, 1998).

Implementation Ideas:

"Preschool and kindergarten classrooms, even those specifically designed as interventions for children at risk of reading difficulties, must be designed to support cognitive, language, and social development, including stimulating verbal interaction and enriching children's vocabularies. Play affords children opportunities to develop physical, social, and cognitive abilities that will serve them later in non-play situations" (Christensen and Kelly, 2003). There are a number of things that can be done in a classroom to increase a student's comprehension. The main way is through dramatic play. Using props and other materials makes the stories come to life. Teachers can first provide a variety of rereading experiences: partner reading, Readers Theatre, echo reading, choral reading, shared reading, individual reading (Hicks, 2009-2010). All of these things help with fluency and increase comprehension. Play activities are the center of young students' zones of proximal development, where new knowledge is gained through social interactions with more competent players and, while pretending, students translate their perceptions of the real world into the actions that create and define the world of play (Welsch, 2008). On their own and by their own choosing, students may use this type of play to explore the most fundamental purpose of literacy, the construction of meaning (Welsch, 2008). High-level play is widely recognized as an instructional strategy that builds language, vocabulary, and underlying cognitive skills necessary for children to become successful readers and writers (Christensen and Kelly, 2003). Children practice verbal and narrative skills that are important to the development of reading comprehension and teachers can assist the language and literacy development through high-level play in the following ways: 1.) activating or developing children's background knowledge for the play setting, 2.) scaffolding the construction of scenarios and retellings, 3.) becoming involved in play settings to guide the children's attention and learning through modeling and interaction, 4.) providing the appropriate amount of definitive and narrative props, and 5.)providing time and space for high-level play (Christensen and Kelly, 2003). Research has demonstrated that manipulation of the classroom play environment through physical arrangement of play centers, inclusion of literacy-related materials (pencils, paper, typewriter, etc.), and dramatic play props can affect the quality and variety of a child's oral language use, engagement in literacy behaviors, and story comprehension (Monson and Nielsen, 1996). Some stories lend themselves to the use of puppets, felt-boards and still others can be developed as prop stories which make storytelling come alive, exciting the imagination and involving the listener (Biegler, 1998).

Research Findings:

Various studies have been done as to whether or not these forms of active participation work. Analyses of instances where play was related to the meanings of the books the children had read indicated that each instance of book-related dramatic play could be described in terms of six properties including (a) the scope of play, (b) the type of connection constructed between books and play scripts, (c) children's purposes for play, (d) the perspective or point of view explored, (e) the sign systems used and their relation to book reading events, and (f) the kinds of social interaction involved (Rowe, 1998). Rowe (1998) also noted that analyses demonstrated that the children created direct linkages between their book and play experiences. Children's book-to-play connections involved: connecting books to the world of objects by locating and holding book-related toys and props, personal response to books through dramatic enactments of feelings and actions, participating in book-reading events through the persona of a pretend character, aesthetic reenactments of book events, sorting out the author's meanings through play, character studies and using book themes and characters as springboards for personal inquiries about the world (Roskos and Christie, 2000). Authors Pellegrini and Galda noted the importance of the peer interaction and the beneficial aspects of pretend as contributing to students' increased ability to understand the story (Welsch, 2008). The Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children clearly saw high-level play as an instructional strategy that fosters literacy development and future reading success in which children reflect on situations through dramatization (Christensen and Kelly, 2003). In a study done by Deborah Rowe she suggested that there are a number of characteristics of the play observed in her study that may have provided both motivation and opportunity for the young children's literacy learning: connection, ownership, flexibility, openness, multiple sign systems, transmediation and community (Rowe, 1998). The results from Bieglers' study was that children exhibited greater comprehension and story memory by using dramatic story reenactment than those who reconstructed stories in teacher led instruction and art activities and story related comprehension was most effectively facilitated by engaging in fantasy play and retellings (Biegler, 1998).

Jodi Welsch wrote an article in 2008 entitled, Playing within and beyond the story: encouraging book-related pretend play. In this article there are many good points dealing with students playing and comprehending information. Welsch (2008) stated that children connect books to play by actively searching for book-related toys and props in order to support comprehension through establishing a more concrete grasp on ideas. Book-related pretend play represents a richer method of monitoring students' understanding of stories, moving beyond the typical questions and simple retellings because a focus on play around familiar stories and literature capitalizes on the storylines that define pretend schemes (Welsch, 2008). Two authors, Pellegrini and Galda are quoted in Welsch (2008) noting the importance of the peer interaction and the beneficial aspects of pretend play as contributing to students' increased ability to understand the story. Play activities are the center of young students' zones of proximal development, where new knowledge is gained through social interactions with more competent players and, while pretending, students translate their perceptions of the real world into the actions that create and define the world of play (Welsch, 2008). On their own and by their own choosing, students may use this type of play to explore the most fundamental purpose of literacy, the construction of meaning (Welsch, 2008).

Plan and Timeline:

Implementation of this strategy took place over a ten day span in my classroom from February 1st through the 12th. I taught a unit on nursery rhymes one week and fairy tales/tall tales during the other week. I eased my class into the changes during our unit time as we discussed the stories. The way it was introduced to my students and carried out is as follows:

-Monday (2/1): The unit for the week is Nursery Rhymes. I introduced what a nursery rhyme was, elements that it contained, and talked about rhyming words.

-Tuesday (2/2): I read "Humpty Dumpty" to my class. We talked about all the words that sounded alike in the poem. They then did an activity where they drew what Humpty Dumpty might've been if he hadn't fallen off of the wall. I added this felt board story to our puppet center in the loft.

-Wednesday (2/3): Today we talked about "Mary had a Little Lamb." I first played the song and most of the kids recognized it and sang along. I then read it to them and added the book and music to the listening center.

-Thursday (2/4): I talked about the nursery rhyme, "Jack be Nimble." I had a small candle holder with a candle in it and I had my kids take turns saying the rhyme and jumping over the candle stick. After the lesson was over I put the candlestick in our dramatic play area.

-Friday (2.5): The final nursery rhyme we covered was "5 Little Ducks." We discussed how this utilized math and counting backwards/down. As we read the story I had 5 students holding a duck and each time one went away I had the student sit down. I also played this on a CD and the students took turns acting it out with the ducks. The CD was added to the music center. Five ducks were placed in music as props and the other ducks were placed in math as manipulatives.

-Monday (2/8): This started the week in which I introduced fairy tales and tall tales. I started out by giving different scenarios and the students had to help me figure out if it was the truth or a fib. I then explained the elements of these types of stories and had the students create one of their own through a drawing. My paraprofessional and myself dictated their responses.

-Tuesday (2/9): I started by reading Cinderella. I wanted students to help me predict what would happen next since I figured this was a familiar story to them. I added a Cinderella costume and a suit coat to the dramatic play area.

-Wednesday (2/10): Today I read "The Elves and the Shoemaker." After discussing the book I had students draw what they would do to help people if they were magical elves. My paraprofessional and myself dictated their responses.

-Thursday (2/11): "Little Red Riding Hood" was discussed today. I talked about strangers and asked students if they thought this could really happen. The book and tape for this story was placed in the listening center.

-Friday (2/12): To end the week I read "The 3 Little Pigs." I had the students help me predict what would happen to each house and each pig as we went through the book. I added rubber pig noses to the dramatic play area as well as the felt board story to the puppet center in the loft.

-*All books from both weeks were kept out on my bookcase so students could use them during independent time or if they chose the reading center.


During this process I monitored students as I read and as they chose centers. While watching them as I read I looked to see if they were responding to voices, certain parts of the book and if they were answering the questions I asked at different points throughout reading. This helped me know right off the bat if they were comprehending or not. This also helped me make note of who I could watch during centers to see if they utilized any of the items I placed around the room after reading the books. I was surprised because the majority of those that seemed lost during me reading the book often selected reading or listening and selected those books we had talked about. I could hear them reading out loud and using the pictures in the book to help guide them so they could tell what was happening. They would get excited when they would recognize that was something I had shared with them and it seemed to mean more to them than just picking a book at random. It was funny to watch students at the listening center too because they would have their headphones on and be in the quiet zone, but all of a sudden you would hear them start telling the story out loud. In the dramatic play area all of the props and costumes were the first things anyone grabbed. There were a few who would put on the Cinderella costume and say that she was a princess and play in it, but there were others who would wear it and really get into acting out the story. I don't have many boys that go to the dramatic play area because aside from dress-up clothes it is mostly used by the girls as the housekeeping area. There was one boy that struggles to comprehend stories and he selected dramatic play everyday after we read Cinderella and he would go over there and put on the suit and pretend to be Prince Charming. He did a great job at retelling various things that happened so he really benefited from the extra reinforcement. The last area I added things in was our puppet center in the loft. The students really enjoyed the felt board stories. I have had felt board stories up there all year and I can only recall two times in which they have been used. After reading the stories and adding them to that center everyone that went up there used the pieces to retell the stories. It was unbelievable to me since it had rarely been used in the past that they would use it as much as they did and as effectively as they did. One thing that really stood out to me was students who would select the writing and art centers. While in these centers almost all of the students over the two week span brought me something they had created and told me it was a certain part from one of the books we had discussed. I thought that was neat because even though I hadn't added anything new for them to use they still utilized the materials they had to show their enjoyment and comprehension of the stories.


Throughout this process I did several things in order to collect data and make observations. As I mentioned in the section above, I first watched the students as I read/introduced the book and made a mental note of who I was most curious to watch during center time. Then during center time I circulated the room and listened to student discussions as they played. The majority of them, at least for a portion of the time spent playing, related in some way to the books we had discussed. If I saw students dressed up as a character, telling a felt board story or listening/reading one of the books we had talked about I would get my camera and snap some pictures. I video recorded several students retelling nursery rhymes on the felt board as well as a group in dramatic play re-enacting the ball from "Cinderella."


I feel that this process was an extreme success and thoroughly answers a resounding yes to my research question. I was very pleased at the overwhelming response by my students to the props that were accessible to them. The main purpose of my goal was to see if this helped more with comprehension and I can tell that it really did. I have several students who can't tell me anything about a story after it is read and those are some of the ones I focused on watching. They all, at some point or another, chose a center and selected an activity within that center solely because they recognized it from our readings. All of them were able to tell at least a part of the story, if not all of a story, when using the props. This is definitely something that I will continue to do as much as possible in order to continue to help those students who struggle to comprehend. For those that can comprehend well it will continue to serve as added reinforcement for their content knowledge.