Playing to learn leads to multiple grants for ASU professor


Jennifer Priest Mitchell

If it looks like fun, can they actually be learning? Yes! This is true for students as well as teachers. Recent collaborations among a university professor, a local theater company and an innovative school district are proof.

Michael Kelley, associate professor of early childhood special education in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, has been playing, researching, writing and playing some more for decades. His work with young children and educators has led to remarkable outcomes and skills among students and those who teach them.

Kelley is the principal investigator of a grant recently awarded to Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College by Helios Education Foundation to support a four-year Dual Language Learning research initiative in partnership with the Osborn School District and Childsplay, a nonprofit theatre company of artists who perform and teach their craft. Kelley’s colleagues in the college, Scott Marley, Katie Farrand and Katie Bernstein, are co-principal investigators.  

Their collaborations prepare preschool teachers to educate students using imagination, kinesthetic, or whole-body learning and story books to introduce complex and precise vocabulary words as well as high-level reasoning skills. These efforts are now expanding to dual language lessons and showing great results in student engagement and achievement. Educators appreciate the results as much as they enjoy the interactive play in this teaching model.

“We’ve found this to be a very natural way to teach children. It increases their confidence and participation,” Kelley said. It seems to do the same for teachers.

The grant will support professional development for preschool educators who teach core content in Spanish and English to native speakers of both languages. The model promotes language and literacy development through creative drama, providing an authentic, story-based approach.

“The really exciting thing about all this,” said Kelley, “is that not only do we see English language learners and children with special needs getting involved, but many of the children show positive outcomes regarding problem-solving skills and analytical thinking.” Educators also report gains in teaching and communication skills and, Kelley explained, “They say how much they like being able to teach the way they want to teach.” Teachers become more effective and report feeling positive about the experience and capable of replicating it on their own.

“Most research on Dual Language Learning has been done with older children,” he said. “By taking a look at how dual language opportunities can support early literacy and language development, we hope to better understand how to 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.”

A $720,000 grant makes this the second grant-funded project in which Kelley is working closely with Helios and the Osborn district. The first was awarded in 2012 to support use of drama strategies in language development. That grant was to Childsplay and involved Kelley working with them to assess outcomes in children and teachers.

In partnership with Childsplay, he is also in the first year of a Professional Development Arts and Education Grant from the U.S. Department of Education that is funding Osborn kindergarten teachers’ use of drama in classrooms. The program is highly vocabulary-based and centered on two-way language immersion in which native speakers of English learn Spanish and native speakers of Spanish learn English.

Kelley's various grants will support this work and creation of a sustainable model for dual immersion, drama use in classrooms and assessment of students over time. “Because we are working in one school district right now, we hope to be able to follow at least some participants in this project up to the third grade. We will see how dual language skills help with school readiness and with reading levels by third grade,” Kelley said.

Kelley, now in his 26th year at ASU, said, “I’ve been in administration. I was a division director. And now, for the last five years, I’ve been developing and acting on a research agenda. I am working with undergraduate students and we’ve been really focused on early education and the impact of drama in the classroom. I also get to work with doctoral students. I am really enjoying what I do. This is all very meaningful and I see a bright future for this type of work. We won’t run out of ideas; we will just keep seeking the resources to conduct this work.”