Early Learning
Can We Play iRead?

What is more satisfying than when a student asks if she can "play" with something that you know has educational value? Play is a beautiful word; it tells you that she is engaged, having fun, and above all else, your student  does not view this as a task. You may have smiled to yourself after hearing a student ask if she can play iRead, but as her teacher you know that it does not need to begin and end with the software. 

The Power of Play

Have you ever seen a child pick up an object, maybe banana or a shoe, hold it up to their ear, and pretend to talk into it? Yes, it's an adorable sight, but it's also an example of symbolic play.

Language is a symbol-based system; we represent literal things and actions using sounds we make and squiggles on a page. One thing must stand in for another in order for us to convey meaning. When a child does the same thing during play, this "subbing in" both precedes and serves as a precursor to more complex language development. This is so powerful that it provides a strong base for future symbolic skills like literacy.

As children get older, the play they engage in becomes increasingly complex, requiring sophisticated social and linguistic skills. Take playing a board game as an example. A student needs to be able to follow rules, demonstrate emotional regulation, and have healthy, cooperative peer interactions. On top of that, game rules promote creative problem solving--I can't just pick up my piece, place it at the end, and declare myself the winner; what sequence of moves, within the parameters of the game, can I make to achieve the desired outcome? This level of creative thinking is self-satisfying. In my next blog post, we will discuss this contextual language further.

Solitary to Cooperative

If a student is asking to play iRead, she most likely views it as a video game or video game-like experience. This makes sense: there are levels of accomplishment/play?  (what do we mean by levels for the reader?), avatars, achievements, and engaging graphics. The excitement, engagement, and serious fun of learning to read is an important and intentional part of the program. It represents solitary play, or parallel play if multiple students are using the software simultaneously at a learning center, which is an important part of this play hierarchy. This is one form of play. However, another form of play is cooperative play.  Students that engage in cooperative play --active engagement with peers--generally express stronger language, social, and academic outcomes than their peers that don't engage in partner or group play. How can we take advantage of the play-like feel of the iRead software and incorporate more peer-based activities?

You may have noticed the Learning Center Ideas while flipping through your Professional Guide. Memory match, board and card games, interactive whiteboard games, bingo, tic-tac-toe, reader’s theater…these partner activities are all takes on games that allow play to continue and transition from solitary to cooperative.

Because we don't want to give up the personalized and targeted nature of the software experience to bring students together, learning center activities are organized by instructional strand in the Professional Guide and are searchable on SAM Web. Students may see themselves playing a fun memory match game, but you know they are reinforcing general social and language skills as well as developing a specific skill such as phonemic awareness through identifying rhymes.

Make Time for Play!

In a classroom, we want to make time for structured and free play because both generate opportunity for students to develop critical social, linguistic, and academic capacities. Play is absolutely an academic skill, and students who see learning as play are engaged. So the next time a student asks you if they can play something you have designed as a learning opportunity, go ahead and pat yourself on the back!


Dr. Anne Cunningham is nationally recognized for her research on literacy and development in early childhood. Her research examines the cognitive and motivational processes underlying reading ability and the interplay of context, development, and literacy instruction. Dr. Cunningham has served on several early childhood expert panels, including the National Early Literacy Panel. Her expertise informed the entire Big Day for PreK program with specific emphasis on phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, assessment, and professional development.

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