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The Right Word: Conversation and Print During Pretend Play

About this video

This clip shows children don’t necessarily need structured activities to meet benchmarks. When teachers schedule large blocks of time for free play, children can learn in unexpected ways by engaging with each other and the classroom environment. Through their play and attempts to find the right word for a toy, the four boys in this video meet several benchmarks in language arts, social/emotional development, and English language learner home language development.

The boys attend a state-funded half-day bilingual preschool classroom. Instruction is given in both Spanish and English, and children may use either language, or both, during the times scheduled for self-directed activity. Because of background noise, the children’s words, spoken almost entirely in Spanish, are often difficult to hear. The translated transcript below will help users understand what they are saying.

Disagreeing About a Word: “So, What Does It Say Here?”

The video begins during choice time. Jacob (age 5.3) and Aladio (age 4.4) are playing with plastic horses and a toy barn. Soon Martín (age 5) joins them. Much of the play seems to involve trying to fit horses into the barn. Jacob seems to direct the play for the first several seconds. Other than Jacob’s directions, the boys are playing nonverbally. They smile, sit close to each other, and seem comfortable with what they are doing.

Nicky’s arrival changes the focus of interaction. He carries a toy horse and clearly wants to join the play, but first he seeks some information, possibly so he will know what expectations the others have established for this activity. He moves the barn and asks: “Is it the house?” Interaction then shifts to the problem of what to call the structure.

Jacob starts to correct him (“It’s a kind of—”), and Aladio interjects his own idea: “of Alejandro.” (A Spanish translator who viewed the video suggests that Aladio may have been thinking of the word almacén, a place where things are stored, or of alojamiento, which means lodging or accommodations. Aladio has probably heard someone use one of those words to describe a structure similar to the barn but has misremembered it as the fairly common name “Alejandro.”)

Jacob immediately recognizes Aladio’s mistake (“It is not an Alejandro!”). The fact that he does not offer a correct substitute suggests that he isn’t sure of the right word, either, though he seems confident that Alejandro is a proper name (“Who is Alejandro?”), not the word for a structure. The teacher’s response, when he goes to her, confirms this idea (“Maybe the farmer’s name is Alejandro”).

This leaves the children still puzzled over which word to use.

Aaldio and Nicky turn to some print on top of the toy. It is the toy company logo, but none of them seem aware of that. In fact, none of the four boys are reading yet in either Spanish or English. They treat the words there as a label, the final authority on what to call it. Aladio rubs his finger over the logo and asks, “What does it say here?” Nicky also touches the logo and asserts his support for Aladio’s idea: “Here, here it says Alejandro.”

The second time Aladio asks what the label says, Martín confidently says “barn” in English. (This translanguaging was unusual for Martín. When he was observed during other choice time activities, he spoke Spanish almost exclusively.) Aladio repeats “Barn?” as a question, and Martín confirms with a nod. Aladio and Nicky both seem to accept that “barn” is the right word. They continue to play with the horses and the barn.


Note: The dialog in this video is primarily in Spanish. For an English translation, you can choose English under the closed caption feature in the video player (above) or click on Transcript (below).


Jacob and Aladio are playing with a toy barn. Jacob tries to put a plastic horse inside the barn. Aladio touches the hayloft, and Jacob slams the lower stable door shut. Aladio opens and closes the hayloft door. Martín approaches them with another horse in his hand.

Jacob (to Aladio): There! I’ll put them there to play. That’s how they are.

Martín comes closer to them.

Jacob: Close it, Aladio.

Aladio closes the hayloft. Martín hits the barn with his horse. Aladio opens the hayloft door again, and Jacob puts the mouth of his horse there. The boys laugh. Martín continues to hit the barn with his horse.

Jacob: It doesn’t matter anymore. There they are.

Nicky joins the boys, holding a white horse. He turns the barn to better see the large lower doors.

Nicky: Is it the house?

Jacob: No, that’s not a house. It’s a kind of …

Aladio: Of Alejandro.

Jacob laughs and shakes his head no.

Jacob: It is not an Alejandro!

Martín: Alejandro?

Jacob: But you know an Alejandro. Who is Alejandro?

Aladio rubs the print on the roof of the barn with his finger.

Aladio: What does it say here?

Martín and Nicky continue to hit the barn with their horses. Jacob stands up with his horse.

Jacob: Let me go tell teacher.

Jacob is off-camera, but the other three boys watch his interaction with the teacher with great interest.

Jacob: Teacher! Teacher! Teacher, I’m calling Aladio Alejandro.

Teacher: Are you pretending that someone’s name is Alejandro?

Nicky: Yes. He wanted, ah …

Teacher: Maybe the farmer’s name is Alejandro.

Nicky: … Here too, Aladio here … it says here…

Nicky rubs the roof of the barn with his finger like Aladio did earlier.

Nicky: Here, here it says Alejandro.

Aladio touches it, too.

Aladio: So what does it say here?

Martín (in English): Barn.

Aladio: Barn?

Martín nods his head yes.

Aladio: Oh.

Martín, Aladio, and Nicky continue to play with the horses.

Benchmarks and How They Were Met

BenchmarksHow They Were Met
Language Arts
1.B.ECc: Continue a conversation through two or more exchanges.
Nicky, Aladio, Jacob, and Martín continued their conversation through several exchanges as they tried to figure out what to call the toy barn. (Jacob involved the teacher, but no one fully explained the problem to her.)
Language Arts
1.D.ECc: Understand and use question words in speaking.
Nicky asked about the barn: “Is it the house?” Jacob asked Aladio, “Who is Alejandro?” when disagreeing with him about what to call the barn. Twice, Aladio touched the logo on the barn and asked “What does it say here?”
Language Arts
1.E.ECd: With teacher assistance, explore word relationships to understand the concepts represented by common categories of words (e.g., food, clothing, vehicles).
The teacher was minimally involved as Aladio, Jacob, Nicky, and Martín tried to determine what to call the structure: A house? Un “alejandro?” Jacob seemed certain that “Alejandro” is a name for a person (“Who is Alejandro?”), not for an object.
Language Arts
4.A.ECc: Recognize the one‐to‐one relationship between spoken and written words.
Aladio, Nicky, and Martín treated the logo on the barn as a label that named the object. Their assumption was incorrect, but they were associating print with a spoken word.
English Language Learner Home Language Development
28.A.ECb: Use home language in family, community, and early childhood settings.
Jacob, Aladio, Martín, and Nicky conversed in Spanish (except when Martín said “barn” and Aladio repeated it). Jacob used Spanish when bringing the teacher into the conversation.
English Language Learner Home Language Development
28.A.ECc: Develop an awareness of the different contextual and cultural features in the early childhood and community settings the child participates in.
Aladio and Nicky treated the print on the barn as a potential source of information. Martín seemed to assume that the print was the English word for the object: “barn.”
Social/emotional Development
30.C.ECb: Demonstrate persistence and creativity in seeking solutions to problems.
The children appealed to two different authoritative sources to solve their problem. Jacob went to the teacher to support his idea that Aladio was wrong. (He might have gotten a more helpful response if he had explained the whole situation to her). Although they couldn’t read it, Aladio and Nicky treated the print on the barn as their source of information. Martín didn’t read it either, but told them the English name for the structure: “barn.”
Social/emotional Development
31.B.ECa: Interact verbally and nonverbally with other children.
Initially, when playing with the toy horses, Aladio and Martín interacted nonverbally while Jacob used words to direct the play. After Nicky joined and asked a question, verbal interaction increased.

WIDA Early English Language Development Standards (E-ELDs)

To assess and make curriculum decisions regarding children whose home language is Spanish, Illinois educators use the Early Spanish Language Development (E-SLD) Standards, developed by World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. The observational data described here would be useful for planning instruction. However, a teacher would need multiple pieces of evidence to evaluate a child’s performance level.

Expressive language. In this clip, Jacob is the child whose language use reflected the greatest variety. He directed the pretend play at the beginning of the clip using short, complete sentences and a command (“Close it, Aladio.”). He used complete sentences throughout, employing different types of pronouns and several verbs, prepositions, and nouns. He used past tense, present tense, and future tense in Spanish. He made comments, gave commands, and asked questions. His explanation to the teacher about Aladio’s use of “Alejandro” seemed incomplete, however, and as a result, she did not fully understand what was going on with the boys.

Based on what is shown in the video, a teacher might consider Jacob’s Early Spanish Language Development (E-SLD) performance for expressive language to be at the “bridging” level. However, children may use language(s) differently in different contexts (home, community, school) and situations (pretend play, direct instruction, project work). The teacher would need to collect additional data across settings, conversation partners, and time to gain a full picture of each child’s receptive and expressive language capabilities in Spanish. For example, at other times, Jacob was observed translanguaging, but in this clip, only Martín does so, which was highly unusual for him.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Teachers / Service providers
  • Faculty / Trainer

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2017