The Benefits of Play in the Education of Young ELs

I would like to introduce guest blogger  Karen Nemeth. Karen is an author, consultant, and presenter focusing on effective early education for dual language learners.

A recent opinion piece in the New York TimesLet the Kids Learn Through Play, focused on the role of play in early learning. Advocates for play-based learning highlight benefits that happen to be ideal for young English learners. The article, by David Kohn, described how difficult it is for many educators to rely on experiential learning through play when they are being pressured to meet benchmarks of achievement from many sources.

While it may feel like more is accomplished when teachers are saying things to students and giving them rote practice, research cited in the article shows that this kind of learning is not very effective, especially with children under age 9. Kohn refers to studies by S. P. Suggate in Contemporary Debates in Early Childhood Education that found overly didactic practices in early childhood were less effective or had limited effects that disappeared over time. Play, on the other hand, allows young children to construct knowledge in ways that meet their own individual needs and abilities, so it appears this kind of learning builds a stronger foundation for later learning.

Several of the experts that contributed to my book, Young Dual Language Learners: A Guide for PreK-3 Leaders, emphasized the importance of child-directed, hands-on, developmentally appropriate learning for young ELLs. Here are some of the benefits provided by playful interactions that are especially useful in supporting ELLs in the primary years. How many of these activities are truly present in your classrooms?

  • Social interaction with peers
  • Oral language practice
  • Using new words many times in different contexts
  • Rich, spontaneous conversation
  • Opportunities for discussion and debate
  • Social/emotional learning through role play
  • Problem solving
  • Self-regulation such as turn-taking and compromise
  • Imaginative pretend play—a precursor to symbolic reasoning
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Self-determination and initiative
  • Exploration and observation
  • Hands-on, multimodal learning
  • Multiple media, including visuals and props
  • Individualized learning that is not isolating
  • Independent, child-directed learning experiences
  • Constructive, collaborative activities
  • Telling and retelling stories and play themes
  • Vocabulary development in context of authentic experiences
  • Opportunities for multi-age, multi-language, and multi-ability groups that expose children to needed language models

With these benefits in mind, early childhood educators can better articulate the value of play-based learning in their linguistically diverse classrooms. Playtime during school is not hands-off time for teachers. When they participate in children’s play, teachers can guide and expand on the experiences so that learning objectives continue to be met. They can also use this time to assess learning and language proficiency via skilled observation techniques.

To support rich, sophisticated play experiences, the classroom should be equipped with meaningful, authentic materials that foster lots of talk in both English and the home languages of the children. Trained volunteers, family members, and paraprofessionals can also be excellent play partners to build the learning.

Kohn cites neuroscientist Jay Giedd as affirming that the brain learns best through exploration during the first 8 years. Research by David Dickinson of Vanderbilt University also found that high quality two-way conversations with young children, giving the children many opportunities to use oral language and higher order thinking, were most effective in supporting language and literacy development. Now would be a good time for elementary educators and administrators to reconsider the role of play in building lasting learning for ELLs and for all young children.


Karen Nemeth is an author, consultant and presenter focusing on effective early education for dual language learners. She is a consulting editor and author for NAEYC, and the co-chair of the early childhood SIG of NABE. Karen is the author of many books on teaching dual language learners, including: Many Languages, One Classroom, and Many Languages, Building Connections. She coauthored Digital Decisions and New Words, New Friends, a bilingual book for young children.

About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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