Causing drama: Dual language learning puts on an act


Meghan Krein

Learning a second language is no easy task. And it isn’t always fun, either. Take it from the 43 percent of Arizona children under the age of 5 who are Hispanic and primarily speak Spanish at home. They’re expected to read, write and learn in English, and keep up with their peers when they start school. It’s a problem. Enter: Early Years Educators at Play (or EYEPlay), a creative drama-based, professional development program for early childhood educators that promotes language and literacy development, providing a story-based approach to Total Physical Response methodologies. The program is evidence-based and has yielded success in improving teacher facilitation, changing mistaken views of children’s abilities and developing preliteracy skills in preschoolers, especially those learning a second language.

Thanks to the Helios Education Foundation $720,000 was gifted to Arizona State University for use in an 18-month research and practice dual language learning program. ASU is partnering with the children’s theater company Childsplay and Phoenix’s Osborn and Creighton school districts to provide two-way immersion early childhood education learning. Michael Kelley, associate professor of early childhood education at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College is the principal investigator for the research component.


Kelley says that most of the research on DLL has been done with older children. With this project he hopes to help ensure more children in Arizona are ready for success when they enter kindergarten and are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

Approximately 300 preschool children, ages 3 – 5 are enrolled in the program, including children in DLL, special needs and Head Start classrooms. Teachers in Osborn and Creighton school districts work one-on-one with the professional teaching artists at Childsplay. The teachers are trained in EYEPlay methods so they can integrate them into their classrooms. Core content is taught in both Spanish and English to a mixture of native Spanish and English speaking children. The days are split, with half of the content in English and the other half in Spanish.

Drama offers a multisensory introduction to vocabulary that connects to stories and experiences rooted in a child’s world. The thinking and tactile learning central to drama-integrated literacy lessons have clear benefits to vocabulary and comprehension development in dual language learners. Each EYEPlay lesson focuses on key social and academic vocabulary and includes:

  • Anticipatory Set: Teachers could begin a lesson plan by saying, “Today we are going to study American presidents,” or you could walk into the classroom dressed as George Washington. Which one is more exciting and gets students thinking more? The latter, right? That’s an anticipatory set, in which the main goal is to introduce foundational concepts and vocabulary through multisensory elements like pictures, sounds, objects, stories, costumes, etc.  
  • Story Sharing: Books are read in a lively manner, with verbal and physical participation. For example, a teacher may say, “How do you think the zebra feels? Show me with your face and body.”
  • Drama: Vocabulary words from storybooks are shared with students and then the children role play, pretending to be a character, exploring their emotional journey and problem solving. In other words, students are not just read to — they’re fully engaged throughout the entire story.
  • Reflection: Main concepts and vocabulary are revisited verbally and physically and then elements of the story are applied to the children’s world. After reading “The Cat in the Hat” to students, a teacher may ask, “How did you feel when the Cat, Thing One and Thing Two messed up your bedroom? How do you help clean your room?”

Learn more about EYEPlay and ASU’s connection here