Language Play – Play for Real
The influential English literacy expert Margaret Meek Spencer on the role of language play in children’s linguistic development.
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Jill Kitson: Welcome to Lingua Franca. This week: Language Play. Play for Real. The visiting English literacy expert, Margaret Meek Spencer, on the role of language play in children’s linguistic development.
Margaret Meek Spencer is Reader Emeritus at London University’s Institute of Education. Here many books about children’s literacy include Learning to Read (1982) and On Being Literate (1991). She continues to research and advise in the field of education and literacy.
In Melbourne earlier this week, Margaret Meek Spencer recorded this talk about the significance of language play in children’s language learning.
Margaret Meek Spencer: Children’s language develops with everyday social talk; most of it is directed at getting things done. But there is another kind that emerges when the day’s activities are over. You hear it clearly in some children between the ages of two and three, especially if they sleep alone. They are lying in bed, not expecting attention, talking to themselves. If you listen carefully, you will hear that they are distinguishing sounds and practising them. Then they whisper, shout, squeak, sing, and produce a whole range of the noises that make up words like a violinist trying out a new instrument. This seems to be play. If so, it is play for real.
The most important play for real is play with language. It begins very early, sometimes unnoticed as anything more than babbling, calling out or the repetition of certain noises. In children’s prolonging of sound-making, we soon see the human instinct for games, especially when they talk to themselves just before they settle to sleep. Then they turn words into playthings.
Ba-bee, ba – bee
Nice girl, nice girl, nice boy
Ba-bee want a drink
want a teddy
want a lolly.
We encourage this language play when we make noises for the duck or the boat in the bath, when we recite nursery rhymes or sing old songs, family choruses or pop hits, that is, whenever we make sound patterns apart from ordinary speech. ‘Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross’ is rhythm rather than sense. The meaning of ‘This little pig went to market’ includes the fun of pulling toes.
In language play children discover the special ways by which the rules of language can be combined in order to bring about what they want. In the sophisticated games they play with their friends, children submit to the rules.
A friend says, ‘It’s night now.’ Then all the players lie down, shut their eyes and enact all the rituals of bedtime. In this game, the rules are the rules of living. Almost suddenly, you can hear them extending the rules and language, so that to say, ‘Open the door’ makes it possible to say ‘Open the light’, instead of ‘Switch the light on.’
When children use a stick to gallop around the garden or the play park, they separate the meaning of ‘stick’ from the stick itself and supplant it with ‘horse’ and act according to the meaning of ‘horse’. Long before they go to school children know that they can speak of their legs and the legs of the table without believing the two things are the same. Play produces metaphor: the way by which language recreates itself.
In play, children discover that it is possible to separate what is said from what is meant and still make sense. By adopting other roles, they can try out other forms of speech. Understanding both words and the world becomes, for children, more and more complex and yet still manageable. They acquire, in both proverbs and clichés, little pockets of folk wisdom from listening to what adults say. Things like, ‘He hasn’t a leg to stand on.’ (He has, of course.) ‘They couldn’t organise a tea party in a baker’s.’ ‘He’s a fly-by-night’. ‘You’d think she owned the Crown Jewels.’ Even when they don’t fully understand what is meant, children know that it is more than is conveyed by the words alone.
When they know that language, like behaviour, follows agreed rules, children begin to explore the rules and, of course, to break them. They want to discover the boundary of sense and nonsense, what is meaningful and what is not. They find you can say, ‘I am dead’ when this is clearly not the case. Then they exploit nonsense purely for effect, as in the poem that goes:
Three children skating on the ice
Upon a summer’s day
or when they say they hear with their nose and smell with their eyes. Splitting apart the agents or ideas that go together is at the heart of riddles. And as they learn to play with language children come to objectify it. Their play is metalinguistic.
Kornei Chukovsky, the Russian poet who, in 1925, insisted in the teeth of political opposition that the construction of reality depended upon the understanding of nonsense, called children linguistic geniuses and tireless explorers. He showed how, in their early years, they not only learn to talk, but also to inspect words and to play with them. ‘Why are you dying to have a cup of tea? Will you die if you drink it?’ ‘Hotsy totsy hullabaloo, Hootsy tootsy that makes two.’ The metalinguistic awareness that the experts say is the mark of the good early reader and the risk-taking of young writers is born in speech games, the nonsense rhyme, the topsy-turvys of re-inventing the familiar, and all the lore and private subversions that young children make up with words.
Happy birthday to you,
Squashed tomatoes and stew,
You look like a pudding
And smell like one too.
As they become aware of language rules and how they operate, children use ‘anti-language’ to break up the hierarchies of common sense, so as to re-define for themselves what counts as common sense. In the carnival of their word play they are discovering two sets of ordering: of the world, and of their language. In doing so they learn how to signal ‘This is play’, so that their utterances are not to be taken literally. They know when they are talking nonsense. And the comic verse of the nursery rhymes, and the folk-tales and the singing games are at the heart of the matter, as are rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration.
As your well-known children’s writer Mem Fox has observed:
‘Children adore rhyme, rhythm and repetition … Young children are mesmerised and enchanged by a predictable pattern of language, which is fun for them to say and pleasing for them to hear.’
Mrs Red went to bed with a turban on her head
Mrs White had a fright in the middle of the night
Saw a ghost eating toast half-way up a lamp post
Mrs Brown went to town with her knickers hanging down
Mrs Green saw the scene, put it in a magazine.
If they have played with language in any of these ways, children are not strangers to narrative fiction. They understand stories which contain a world where the rules of everyday life are the rules of the narrative and people behave as expected. But fiction can also subvert these rules, in ways that imagination and language make possible.
Let us now apply these understandings to the whole range of language in which children’s lives are immersed: television, drama, personal stories, new pop lyrics, proverbs, talk and argument, and slang. Then it is clear that play with words, which generates metalinguistic awareness, is not the privilege of only those families who are used to self-conscious literacy. Segments of a wide range of discourses appear in the play talk of most children. But literate adult observers may notice only those that are like their own. Children are as likely to create alternative worlds from the detachable pieces of life in a TV serial, as from the expensive nursery rhyme book which no-one has yet read to them.
The question is whether children’s language play counts as a literate competence when the children begin, formally, to learn to read and write. The evidence suggests that children who have a repertoire of oral songs and verses learn to read by discovering that they can tell themselves how to see what they say. The phonology or sound system of our written language is richly exploited in oral language play. This experience is undoubtedly helpful in early reading of all kinds of texts, especially in English, where the written representation of the sounds of the language is sometimes confusing for beginners.
It is in the realm of play that children also discover how to manoeuvre themselves into writing. They adopt writing roles before they expect their marks on paper to be read by others. If they make lists and write messages when they play at house, and an adult responds to their intentions by seriously reading aloud what seems to be written down, then children are more concerned to learn the rituals of the writing system, to learn the rules. Observers of early writing are persuaded that children intend to make meaning from their earliest squiggles, and that their first attempts at writing are more logical and intentional than they were formerly perceived as being.
The great virtues of children’s play, virtues even beyond its usefulness in introducing the young to a wide range of symbolic systems are twofold. First, in play, children, no less than adults, experience a release from the apparent inexorability of the here and now. Then in play, children ‘walk tall’; their limitations are not confining, their imagination lets them invent possibilities.
What has this to do with reading? Language, both speech and writing, is a system of symbols where one thing stands for another. By discovering early how to operate these symbol systems, both in talk and in playing with toys that ‘stand for’ real things, the child represents the world to himself. The pictures in his mind, his mental imagery, and pictures in a book can be dealt with in the same way, because he knows how to separate meaning from appearance, although he does not yet know that he does it, nor how he does it. A book or a story offers him an area like his play world. Tolkien called it ‘an alternative world’ and created one of the most famous examples for both children and adults to enter. You can understand it if you ask yourself, ‘When I read a story, where am I?’ I am not in the novel, not in a space ship, nor in the town where the author has set the story. But I am not in the real world either, for all that I am sitting in a chair. We agree to the illusion of being somewhere else. Successful early readers discover that the story happens like play. They enjoy a story and feel quite safe even with giants and witches because they know that a story is a game with rules.
Stories are the essential link between learning to talk and learning to read, because they are a special kind of play with language that separates it from speech. The simplest answer to the question ‘How does a child come to know how print works?’ is ‘By being read a story’. I have already said that it is never too early to read to children; we need not even wait until they have fully learned to talk; nursery rhymes and jokes depend on conventions of narrative which are forms of play. The child does not separate fiction and fact as we do, and he relates the illusory happenings of the story to what actually happens in the course of his day. The words of the book move into his speech. Early contact with stories and poems has the greatest single effect on a child’s linguistic development. Stories are at the heart of learning to read because they make a pattern of deep imaginative play.
Jill Kitson: Margaret Meek Spencer, who was in Melbourne earlier this week. Her talk was adapted from passages in her books, On Being Literate and Learning to Read. Both are Heinemann paperbacks. And that’s all for this week’s Lingua Franca.
Presented by: Jill Kitson
Produced by: Kyla Brettle