The performing arts are an engaging and fun way to facilitate children's emergent literacy learning.
This section will explore how music, dance and drama can be used as learning opportunities for emergent literacy learning foci (including fine motor, concepts of print, phonological awareness, phonics, making meaning and expressing ideas, and exploring and creating texts).
The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) sees the creative arts (performing and fine arts) as essential parts of the early childhood learning and development.
Creative skills are not only linked to the arts; they are important in all areas of the curriculum and developed by the children and early childhood professional's use of problem solving to guide teaching and learning.
- VEYLDF (2016)
The benefits of performing arts
Performing arts are an essential method of communication and learning; and are strongly linked to language and literacy. We perceive the world through the senses, and the arts allows us to observe, explore, understand, experiment, and express ourselves:
[Children's] communication and self-expression take many forms including sharing stories and symbols from their own culture, re-enacting well-known stories and using creative arts, such as drawing, painting and sculpture, drama, dance, movement and music to communicate with others. They create and explore imaginary worlds through dramatic play and through artworks. - VEYLDF (2016)
Dance, music and drama allows children to explore language and literacy concepts in a fun and memorable way.
Music is both a pedagogical tool and a curriculum area in early childhood education.
Some types of music experiences include (but are not limited to):
- playing instruments
- creating or composing music
- listening to and reciting rhymes (with or without music)
- creating rhymes or raps
- listening to and viewing live performances
- interpreting and discussing music
- performing to an audience
- combining music with movement/dance
- reflecting on and appreciating music.
There are strong links between music and emergent literacy learning foci (particularly phonological awareness). Thus, the following musical concepts have strong parallels with the phonological concepts important for emergent literacy:
Embedding emergent literacy into music
Children's participation in music experiences allows them to explore and play with the concepts of rhythm, pitch, and pattern—concepts that are mirrored in emergent literacy. Some example ideas include:
- experiment with different instruments and encourage children to find the words that describe what kind of sounds they are making (for example: loud, soft, sharp, twangy, strong, scratchy)
- listen to music together and try to describe the emotions and other meanings within songs
- introduce children to the concept of beats by clapping along to familiar nursery rhymes and songs (slower songs are easiest to begin with)
- extend upon this understanding of beat, by identifying the beats (syllables) in children's own names
- for example: how many syllables can you hear in Jemima? Je-mi-ma!
- during songs and rhymes listen out for rhyming words, and explore the lyrics of songs, to find out why they sound similar at the end (for example: Incy Wincy Spider: spout/out, rain/again).
Dance and movement
Dance as a teaching practice and learning mode offers further opportunities for emergent literacy learning:
Dance makes meaning using the body as the instrument of expression and movement as the medium. In an educational context, dance offers children an opportunity to learn by involving the whole body in kinaesthetic exploration, cognitive processing, aesthetic experimentation and social engagement.
- Deans, Meiners, Young and Rank (2017, p. 95)
Types of dance experiences include:
- developing a dance/movement vocabulary (see performing arts – interacting with others)
- improvisation using language, sound, and music
- creating dances
- learning traditional or cultural dances
- performing dances
- linking dance to other art forms
- appreciating the history and culture of dance.
Performing Arts – Interacting with Others
Embedding emergent literacy into dance
Example ideas for embedding emergent literacy in dance experiences are:
- retell familiar stories whilst children dance their responses to certain parts of the story
- use concepts and words from other situations/contexts (nature, home, cultures, literature, science, working life) and work with children to "dance" how these words feel and what they look like
- use musical instruments, sound effects, or recorded music to help children improvise movement to these auditory stimuli:
- using music/sounds that have a certain mood, you can explore different emotions through dance (happy, sad, angry, worried movements)
- create improvised or rehearsed dances with children as representations of familiar books or stories (e.g. dancing the story: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle)
- use body movements and shapes to recreate symbols from literacy (for example: numbers, letters, words)
- place large material or foam letters down on the ground for children to dance their own name (by jumping from letter to letter).
According to the Victorian Curriculum F-10:
Drama is the expression and exploration of personal, cultural and social worlds through role and situation that engages, entertains and challenges… Drama enables students to imagine and participate in exploration of their worlds, individually and collaboratively. Students actively use body, gesture, movement, voice and language, taking on roles to explore and depict real and imagined worlds.
Like music and dance, drama is powerful because of its multiple purposes as a tool for teaching (pedagogy), an artform, and as a socio-cultural experience (sociodramatic play) (Bird, Donelan, & Sinclair, 2017).
Some key dramatic elements that can be explored and learnt through drama experiences include:
- role – different parts that performers take, including parents, children, doctors, teachers, construction workers, sailors, scientists, kings, queens etc.
- character - the identity of the parts that are played, including their characteristics, motivations, desires, histories, and cultures
- focus – the ability of the performer to concentrate and channel their energy into the performance
- tension – how conflict or suspense is communicated through the performance
- climax – the highest peak of excitement or tension/conflict
- transformation of space and objects – how spaces and objects can be transformed from one thing to another, through the actors' use of voice and body language
- symbolic use of space and objects – how the actors pretend that space and objects are representative of something else
- in this element, educators can model how emergent literacy texts (paper and electronic) and objects (such as signs, labels, and single letters/words) can be used symbolically.
See Dinham and Chalk (2018) and
Sociodramatic Play – Emergent Literacy for more information.
Embedding emergent literacy into drama
Here are some ideas for dramatic tools or games that can be enriched with emergent literacy learning opportunities (adapted from Dinham and Chalk, 2018):
Social role playing
- this is similar to sociodramatic play but with some more guidance from educators
- to embed emergent literacy in these spaces, educators can think of functional forms of print that can be used in these situations (see sociodramatic play – emergent literacy for examples)
- dramatic play areas – setting up the environment for different places or scenarios (e.g. home, zoo, garage, lab) with appropriate props, costumes and scenery
- follow children's role playing and model the language needed to describe objects, places, and people
- provide examples of the language used by different roles (e.g. ordering at a café, researching in a lab, fixing machines at a computer store).
- play boxes – similar to play areas, except the props and costumes are in a tub or box accessible to children.
For more information, see
Sociodramatic Play – Emergent Literacy
- puppets come in many forms (finger, sock, shadow, paddle, hand puppets, marionettes)
- puppets allow children to bring different characters to life, and interact with other players to create drama. During these experiences educators can:
- model example words and sentences that the puppets might say, for children to hear, imitate, and build upon
- provide stage directions to help children improvise and tell their story using puppets
- encourage children to recreate scenes or stories from familiar books using the puppets
- prompt children using the components of a story: Who is in the story? What happened next? How did the character feel? But what can they do? How did the story end?
- tableau – the educator provides a picture or book stimulus and children recreate the scene to match the stimulus:
- for example: the book might be
We're going on a bear hunt by Michael Rosen, and children are asked to recreate the scene where the bear chases the family into their house
- soundscape – the educator provides background sounds or music for children to respond to and match to a particular picture, page, or book:
- for example: the sounds of the jungle might be played, and children figure out what it sounds like, and which picture, page, or book it belongs to
- for example: soft lullaby music might be played, and the children match this to a book or page about bedtime
Using story drama children can explore different characters and events, taking their understanding of a story to another level.
- in this approach, stories are the stimulus for the drama
- after hearing a story (from a book reading or a storytelling experience), children can act what they remember from the story, and take it further. Children can explore what might have happened before the story, or what happened after the story finished, or create alternative events or endings:
- help children to take on different characters, and provide props, costumes and scenery as needed
- remind children of the language (and rhymes/songs if included)
- encourage children to refer back to the book for guidance on what to do next (encouraging emergent reading comprehension)
- use elements of process drama to help create new stories together (see storytelling):
- the educator might be a character in the story, or a narrator, with the children coming up with ideas of how to solve the problem, and move the story forwards
See Dinham and Chalk (2018) and
Storytelling for further information.
Ways of using texts to guide drama experiences
- books as stimuli for drama: Books that children are familiar with can be great starting points for drama experiences:
- educators may read from books as a storyteller, with children acting out the story
- children can refer to pages of the book to help recreate scenes or whole stories
- literacy in dramatic contexts: educators can model the use of texts during drama experiences
- educators can create storyboards and visuals scripts of drama experiences, that children can refer to during the performance
- educators and children can use real texts in the context of drama experiences (e.g. a menu at a restaurant, a sign on a road, and magazine at the supermarket)
- educators and children can engage in writing during drama experiences (see sociodramatic play – emergent literacy for examples)
- multimedia texts: the strategic use of technology can help to enhance drama experiences, including:
- taking pictures or video as part of the experience
- looking up directions on google maps
- finding out information using a dictionary or google search
- pretending to send an email
For more information, see
Sociodramatic play - emergent literacy.
Theory to practice
Bruner's concept of "scaffolding" (see Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976) is important to understand the power of embedding emergent literacy into performing arts. In this case, scaffolding is where children observe, respond to, and learn about emergent literacy concepts, through music, dance, and/or drama experiences, by collaborating with more capable peers or adults.
Looking particularly at music's relationship with emergent literacy skills, McMullen and Saffran (2004) hypothesised that music and literacy are supported by similar mechanisms of learning and memory, and mutually benefit one another.
Rieg and Paquette (2009, p. 148) argue that teaching emergent literacy through drama and dance:
…gives children a context for listening and meaningful language production, provides opportunities for reading and writing development, and involves children in reading and writing as a holistic and meaningful communication process.
Along with aspects of physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive development, emergent literacy skills can be explored and learned through performing arts experiences, where educators work to extend the craft and skill of children through scaffolding.
Growing research is demonstrating how the use of musical experiences in early childhood settings has benefits for language learning (e.g. Gillespie & Glider, 2010). In particular, there are numerous studies showing the effectiveness of music teaching for phonological awareness development (e.g. Anvari et al., 2002; Bolduc, 2009; Degé & Schwarzer, 2011; Peynircioglu, Durgunoglu, & Uney-Kusefoglu, 2002)
For dance, research is emerging showing improvements in language and literacy skills following language-enriched dance experiences (Giguere, 2011; Lorenzo-Lasa, Ideishi, & Ideishi, 2007).
There is also some preliminary research showing the benefit of drama experiences for the development of emergent literacy (Mages, 2008; Smith, 2010).
Links to VEYLDF
Outcome 1: identity
Children feel safe, secure and supported
- explore aspects of identity through role-play
Children develop knowledgeable and confident self-identities
- explore different identities and points of view in dramatic play
Outcome 2: community
Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active civic participation
- cooperate with others and negotiate roles and relationships in play episodes and group experiences
- build on their own social experiences to explore other ways of being
- understand different ways of contributing through play and projects
- are playful and respond positively to others, reaching out for company and friendship
Children respond to diversity with respect
- become aware of connections, similarities and differences between people
- listen to others' ideas and respect different ways of being and doing
Outcome 3: wellbeing
Children take increasing responsibility for their own health and physical wellbeing
- combine gross and fine motor movement and balance to achieve increasingly complex patterns of activity, including dance, creative movement and drama
- respond through movement to traditional and contemporary music, dance and storytelling of their own and others' cultures
Outcome 4: learning
Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity
- use play to investigate, imagine and explore ideas
- initiate and contribute to play experiences emerging from their own ideas
Children transfer and adapt what they have learnt from one context to another
- use the processes of play, reflection and investigation to problem-solve
Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials
- explore ideas and theories using imagination, creativity and play
Outcome 5: communication
Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes
- interact with others to explore ideas and concepts, clarify and challenge thinking, negotiate and share new understandings
- use language and representations from play, music and art to share and project meaning
- contribute their ideas and experiences in play and small and large group discussion
- exchange ideas, feelings and understandings using language and representations in play
Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts
- listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhymes in context
- view and listen to printed, visual and multimedia texts and respond with relevant gestures, actions, comments and/or questions
- sing chant rhymes, jingles and songs
- actively use, engage with and share the enjoyment of language and texts in a range of ways
- recognise and engage with written and oral culturally constructed texts
Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media
- use language and engage in symbolic play to imagine and create roles, scripts and ideas
- share the stories and symbols of their own cultures and re-enact well-known stories
- use the creative arts, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, drama, dance, movement, music and story-telling, to express ideas and make meaning
- experiment with ways of expressing ideas and meaning using a range of media
Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work
- use symbols in play to represent and make meaning
- develop an understanding that symbols are a powerful means of communication and that ideas, thoughts and concepts can be represented through them
- listen and respond to sounds and patterns in speech, stories and rhyme
Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking
- identify the uses of technologies in everyday life and use real or imaginary technologies as props in their play
- engage with technology for fun and to make meaning
- use information and communications technologies as tools for designing, drawing, editing, reflecting and composing
Experience plans and videos
For age groups: early language users (12 - 36 months).
For age groups: early language users (12 - 36 months) and language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months).
For age groups: language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months).
Links to learning foci and teaching practices:
Anvari, S. H., Trainor, L. J., Woodside, J., & Levy, B. A. (2002). Relations among musical skills, phonological processing, and early reading ability in preschool children.
Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,
Bird, J., Donelan, K., & Sinclair, C. (2017). Drama: Social dreaming in the 21st Century. In C. Sinclair, N. Jeanneret, J. O'Toole, & M. A. Hunter (Eds.),
Education in the Arts. Third Edition. South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Oxford University Press Australia.
Bolduc, J. (2009). Effects of a music programme on kindergartners' phonological awareness skills 1.International Journal of Music Education,
Deans, J., Meiners, J., Young, S., & Rank, K. (2017). Dance: Art embodied. In C. Sinclair, N. Jeanneret, J. O'Toole, & M. A. Hunter (Eds.),
Education in the Arts. Third Edition. South Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Oxford University Press Australia.
Degé, F., & Schwarzer, G. (2011). The effect of a music program on phonological awareness in preschoolers.Frontiers in Psychology,
Dinham, J. (2011)
Delivering authentic arts education. South Melbourne: Cengage Learning Australia.
Dinham, J., & Chalk, B. (2018).
It's arts play: Young children belonging, being and becoming through the arts. Sydney, Australia: Oxford University Press.
Giguere, M. (2011). Dancing thoughts: An examination of children's cognition and creative process in dance.Research in Dance Education,
Gillespie, C. W., & Glider, K. R. (2010). Preschool teachers' use of music to scaffold children's learning and behaviour.
Early Child Development and Care,
Lorenzo-Lasa, R., Ideishi, R. I., & Ideishi, S. K. (2007). Facilitating preschool learning and movement through dance.Early Childhood Education Journal,
Mages, W. K. (2008). Does creative drama promote language development in early childhood? A review of the methods and measures employed in the empirical literature.Review of Educational Research,
McMullen, E., & Saffran, J. R. (2004). Music and language: a developmental comparison.
Music Percept. 21, 289–311.
Peynircioglu, Z. F., Durgunoglu, A. Y., & Uney-Kusefoglu, B. (2002). Phonological awareness and musical aptitude.
Journal of Research in Reading,
Rieg, S. A., & Paquette, K. R. (2009). Using drama and movement to enhance English language learners' literacy development.
Journal of Instructional Psychology,
Smith, H. (2010). The effects of a drama-based language intervention on the development of theory of mind and executive function in urban kindergarten children. PhD thesis: Georgia State University.
Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016). Victorian early years learning and development framework (pdf - 1.14mb) (VEYLDF). Retrieved 3 March 2018.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016)
Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
Vygotsky, Lev S. (1967). Play and its role in the mental development of the child.
Soviet Psychology,5(3): 6–18.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving
Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Applied Disciplines, 17(2), 89-100.