06 April, 2023 | Posted by Dr Marguerita Magennis & Katie Kelly

Vivian Gussin Paley’s Methods of Supporting Language and Literature in Early Years

Vivian Gussin Paley’s Methods of Supporting Language and Literature in Early Years

This article entitled 'Vivian Gussin Paley’s Methods of Supporting Language and Literature in Early Years' has been written by Katie Kelly and Dr Marguerita Magennis for Portobello Institute. The pictures are from Portobello Montessori School, and consent has been given to share them.

Chicago-born Vivian Gussin Paley started her teaching career in the 1950s after being born there in 1929. Since then, she has written countless articles, and more than a dozen books.

She received a great number of honours throughout her life; some of them are listed here. She was the first kindergarten teacher to get the Mac Arthur "Genius" award and the only kindergarten teacher to ever win the National Council of Teachers of English's language arts educator of the year award.

She has the distinction of being the first classroom teacher to receive the John Dewey Society's Outstanding Achievement Award, the American Book Award for lifetime achievement, and the MacArthur Fellowship.

Paley writes about children from her viewpoint as a practitioner, which is what makes her work unique and intriguing despite all of the accolades and honours she has received. Her writings may not be considered scholarly in the traditional sense, but they are nonetheless quite introspective.

Her publications may not make mention to other theorists, but they nonetheless highlight her distinct and evolving thought. Along with two of her subsequent works, Kwanzaa and me; a teacher's narrative (1995) and The Girl with the Brown Crayon, she published her debut book, White Teacher, in 1979. (1997).

Encouraging Reading Skills in Early Education

Reading is a vital skill that is essential for academic and personal success.  However, for some young children, the process of learning to read can be daunting and overwhelming, and for those with dyslexia that can manifest into fear and dislike of reading and education in general.  That is why it is vital from an early age that pre-school educators not only recognise traits that might indicate dyslexia but also implement strategies which will help children to develop literacy skills as early as possible. 

Recently in Portobello Montessori School, we decided to highlight the value of role-play, based on Vivian Paley’s approach, to encourage reading and interactive engagement with the Portobello Montessori children acting out “we’re going on a bear hunt”. 


Vivian Paley's Approach to Literacy Development 

Vivian Paley was a renowned teacher and author who believed that play and storytelling were powerful tools for encouraging literacy development in young children.  Paley emphasised the importance of imagination and creativity in the learning process, and her approach to teaching has helped countless young children to develop a love for reading and language. It is important to note that Paley writes about children from the viewpoint of the practitioner, which is what makes her work unique and intriguing; and while her writings may not be considered scholarly in the traditional sense, they are nonetheless quite introspective.   

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Strategies to support Literacy Development 

Preschool children are often under pressure to develop the intellectual skills that are thought to be essential for success as they transition into primary school, and these transferrable skills are deemed essential if a child is to be successful in later life.    

Most people who have experience working with young children concur that each child learns to read differently, at a different rate, and that a variety of ways can be helpful. Also, we are aware that culture, life experience, and self-assurance affect when and how children learn to read. No one method or program will teach all kids to read, and there is no set age at which every child has mastered reading. 

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Likewise, Paley emphasises the importance of the environment in enhancing the child’s engagement with literacy and language.  Some of the key components of her theory can be seen below: 

  • Create a print-rich environment – fill the setting with books, posters and labels to help children develop print awareness and literacy skills.
  • Use storytelling and imaginative play – encourage children to create their own stories and engage in imaginative play to help them develop their language and literacy skills.  
  • Read aloud to children – read aloud to children daily to expose them to a variety of literature and to model fluent reading.  
  • Foster a love of reading – encourage children to choose their own books and make reading fun and enjoyable activity.  
  • Use peer interactions to support learning – encourage children to talk and interact with their peers to help them develop language and literacy skills. 
  • Encourage mark-making and writing from an early age (even through play) – provide opportunities for children of all ages to write their own stories, create labels, and practice writing letters.  Remember even at a very young age a scribble will present a symbol to a child and hold meaning.  

Learn More - Dr Geraldine French: Supporting Language and Literacy Development in Early Childhood

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Vivian Paley's Approach Enhancing Literacy for Children with Dyslexia 

The Vivian Paley Approach to enhancing literacy development and reading skills can be particularly valuable for children with dyslexia.  Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that affects a child’s ability to read, write and spell.  Children with dyslexia often struggle with phonemic awareness, decoding, and fluency, which can make reading a challenging and frustrating experience.  Paley highlights the value of storytelling and imaginative play for enhancing and supporting these children to develop a larger vocabulary through interaction with peers, supporting their comprehension.  

Furthermore, Paley suggests that children with dyslexia often struggle with reading fluency, making it difficult for them to read with accuracy and speed.  Engaging with interactive and role-play activities, encouraging children to act out not only their own stories, but also stories they have previously read or had read to them – we are encouraging the children to develop their memory and recall, but also enhancing their creativity and imagination, and building confidence in their ability to engage with and read/respond to text.   Image (11)

As you can see, engagement with books and stories makes sense by giving young children opportunities to explore language and foster a love of stories, literacy, and books in a play-based setting that is full of meaningful dialogue. Teacher, author, and play advocate Vivian Gussin Paley created a method for incorporating acting and storytelling in a playful and useful way into the daily routine of the classroom, building confidence among children to engage with language and literacy. Using Paley's "Storytelling/Story Acting" method is an easy way to give young children everyday exposure to rich linguistic experiences. As teachers, we often sit with the children and support them in telling their own tales in whichever format they would like to choose, providing opportunities for children to express their imagination and creative mind. 

Throughout our role play activity of “going on a bear hunt”, we asked questions, and read sections from the story, all in an attempt to encourage the children to engage further, but also to offer prompts and enhance their imagination and creativity.

This not only helps children feel comfortable but also makes the children aware of the value of their contribution and their words to the storytelling process.

As the teacher, we must make it very clear to the children that we value their words and ideas and demonstrate that we are interested in what they have to say throughout the activity. 

Children are offered choices about their role in the story encouraging independent creative engagements, which eventually will become shared peer lead interactions, supporting collaborative learning, and enhancing language and communication.  

Further Reading: 
  • Snow, C. E. (1991). Theoretical and practical considerations in the assessment of preschool children's language and literacy skills. In C. Pratt & A. F. Gartner (Eds.), Early Childhood Assessment: Issues and Methods (pp. 141-164). Springer US. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4613-9072-6_8 
  • Mastropieri, M. A., Scruggs, T. E., & Levin, J. R. (1989). Role playing: A review of the literature. The Journal of Special Education, 23(2), 137-147. doi: 10.1177/002246698902300205 
  • Paley, V. G. (2004). A child's work: The importance of fantasy play. University of Chicago Press. 
  • Smith, P. K., Cowie, H., & Blades, M. (2011). Understanding children's development (5th ed.). John Wiley & Sons. 
  • Tizard, B., & Hughes, M. (1984). Young children learning: Talking and thinking at home and at school. Fontana Paperbacks. 

About the Authors 

Dr Marguerita Magennis, Course Coordinator Masters in Early Childhood Studies & Lead Lecturer BA Hons degree Early Childhood Studies at Portobello Institute. Read her blog, Dr M's Thoughts here.

Katie Kelly is the Manager of Portobello Montessori School and a student of our MA in Early Childhood Studies.

She is Lámh trained and holds an Early Childhood Care and Education Level 6, BA (Ord) Level 7 Degree in Early Childhood Studies, Level 8 BA (Hons) Degree from Portobello Institute.

Get in Contact

At Portobello Institute, we help you to follow your passion and fulfil your potential to achieve the career you want.

Reach out to our Early Years Admissions Advisor, Jennifer Matteazzi, who will answer any questions you may have.

You can book a 15-minute free consultation call with Jennifer at a time that suits you here. Or you can email jennifer.matteazzi@portobelloinstitute.com or call her directly on 01 892 0031.  

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