Learn more about exploring words as part of the early years foundation stage (EYFS), including advice from experts and suggested activities.
Why exploring words is important
Stories are an important part of life. Loving printed books and developing an enjoyment of looking at or hearing stories is an integral part of early years practice. Research shows that the amount of input young children receive from the adults around them makes a significant difference to how children learn to read and write in reception classes. This section outlines the knowledge and skills that children need to develop:
- phonological awareness, the awareness of all of the sounds of language, it’s the ability to hear and distinguish sounds
- expressive language, vocabulary, grammar and changes to words such as plurals (known as morphology)
- receptive language, the ability to understand what is said
Word reading is explicitly taught in Reception classes, and all the early communication experiences parents and early years settings provide helps children to learn to read successfully.
Enjoyment of books, rhymes and songs helps children to read because you:
- share books on a daily basis
- provide opportunities to use spoken language and take part in talk (verbal interaction)
- read aloud
- discuss books
- extend spoken language by introducing new words in context, drawing attention to letters and sounds
- develop thinking and reasoning
- listen, giving a spoken account of a set of events (narrative) and developing vocabulary skills
Word reading and language comprehension are essential building blocks. Children in the EYFS need word support from an early age, to develop hearing, saying and recognising words or word parts.
What the EYFS framework says
It is crucial for children to develop a lifelong love of reading. Reading consists of two dimensions: language comprehension and word reading.
Skilled word reading, taught later, involves both the speedy working out of the pronunciation of unfamiliar printed words (decoding) and the speedy recognition of familiar printed words.
What this means in practice
Adults use books all the time. Having lots of books in the setting, reading enthusiastically, and talking to the children about why you love books starts to develop a love of reading. Making sure children have a lifelong enjoyment of books, starts by helping them understand that pleasure, fun and joy are associated with books, stories and rhymes.
You support children’s understanding of words through a range of activities, with enthusiasm and showing an exaggerated love of books. You talk about the children’s focus of interest finding books to support and extend their experiences. You connect new words to meaningful events in the child’s daily life. You explain, pretend, talk about past and what may happen in the future to broaden children’s understanding of word meaning.
Encourage children to notice signs, symbols, notices, numbers, rhymes, books, pictures, songs, and poetry, considering their different interests, understanding levels, home backgrounds and cultures.
Children should hear a wide range of songs, poems and stories, covering a selection of sounds to isolate. This helps them to develop their phonological awareness.
Provide experiences of:
- alliteration, or words that repeat the same sound in a sentence. For this, at snack time you could say ‘Aman, would you like an awesome apple?’ ‘Tam, have you brought a tasty tomato?’ ‘Saskia has some squishy strawberries’
Provide opportunities to ‘hear’ sounds. On walks, point out lorries as they rattle past, or quiet forest sounds and louder street sounds. Talk about these. Children could either hear or make sounds themselves. Focus children’s attention on a rich variety of vocabulary, including rare and infrequent words. When it rains, grab welly boots, coats and umbrellas. Can children hear raindrops ‘pitter pattering’? Take a bubble machine out with you. Children can enjoy dancing and singing under the bubbles. How do bubbles sound when they pop?
When reading with children, let them repeat and emphasise words with expression so they can react to your story. For example, ‘I’ll h-u-ff and I’ll p-u-ff and I’ll blow your house down. Ph-ee-ww (stretched whistle)’ Consider which songs and rhymes you naturally choose. Cover all sounds equally. Fill gaps of any sounds covered less often.
Make sure you get the support and help from the family by asking parents or grandparents to share songs, rhymes and stories from their cultures and childhoods, helping children identify new sounds and widen their vocabulary.
Hide and seek sounds
- a bowl or container
- water and water beads (soaked overnight, following manufacturers health and safety guidance), or other materials
- a wide selection of objects, covering various sounds and letters. For example toy animals, insects, vehicles, space characters, dinosaurs and magical creatures like fairies or unicorns
Prepare the water beads the day before with the children, sparking their curiosity. ‘I wonder what will happen?’. The next day, hide the objects in the beads or your chosen material. Prepare songs or rhymes for when the children “go fishing”.
Let children play with the beads. Emphasise words for colour and texture like squelchy or squishy. Watch as beads flip, slide and pop. Consider using flashcards to show these words.
When children find things emphasise how words sound, or read. For example if they:
find a duck, sing ‘five little ducks’, duck and quack find a rabbit, sing ‘sleeping bunnies’, rabbit and hop find a motorbike, make a loud revving engine sound find a bus, sing ‘wheels on the bus’
Change song parts to include children’s names and actions like jumping, pointing to facial features, or a particular letter or sound.
For younger children, only play with the beads and try object-finding later. Chat together and sing rhymes about colours, rainbows, textures.
To challenge older children, try wordplay. They could say or read words from prompt cards with an identical last sound, for example, after finding a frog try fig, pig, wig, big.
To change this activity, hide items in sand, flour, snow (real or artificial), ice or around your setting. Use it in line with your chosen wider themes, for example seasons, hiding a sun model. Or gardening, hiding some flowers or vegetables.
How this activity links to other areas of learning
This encourages children to talk (communication and language). It develops children’s ability to hold tools (physical development). It extends children’s experiences (understanding the world) and their ability to talk and understand the world around them (reading comprehension).
You’ll need a book to read. For example, here we use ‘Going to the Volcano’ by Andy Stanton and Miguel Ordonez, which supports harder letter sounds like ‘v’ and ‘z’.
In the story, two children visit a volcano. The book repeats sentences with a rhythm and beat. Words also play with ‘o’, for example ‘volcano, jane-o, lane-o, dane-o, train-o, plane-o’. The pictures are simple, with hidden clues, like:
- lava bears have letters on their chests, spelling out ‘volcano’
- there is a colour-changing cat to find on each page
- space characters are called Zib, Zob, Zub, Zab and Zoob
It’s easy to match story parts with setting toys like dinosaurs, a crane, a train, a plane, the weather and nurses and doctors named after the volcano.
Read the book, looking at pictures while playing with any repetitive words. Consider building on the story with roleplay, for example:
- pack a rucksack, what will you bring? Do you need a list?
- bring toys and characters along. Roleplay train journeys, plane journeys. For older children, notice sounds and spellings
- look at the animals, dog, cat, panda, rabbit and bird. What words rhyme with them? What letter do they begin with?
- there is a band in the book, what songs do they sing? What songs do you know? Be the band, with instruments. Or be an instrument. Play a pretend trumpet or trombone, or bang on a drum saucepan
- build a volcano. What does the explosion sound like? What about smells? Your volcano model can be any size, depending on you and your space.
For a volcano model, you’ll need:
- a small bowl
- a cup
- 1 tbsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
- 1 tbsp washing up liquid
- 2 tbsp water
- ½ cup vinegar
- 1 tbsp red food colouring
In a bowl, combine bicarbonate of soda and washing up liquid. Add water and mix thoroughly, then pour mixture into your volcano.
In a cup, mix together vinegar and food colouring.When ready, pour the vinegar into the bicarbonate bottle.
Wait for it to erupt, watching the lava flow.
This short National History Museum video shows how to make a volcano.
How this activity links to other areas of learning
Children imagine how they would feel on a journey to a specific place (imagination and creativity). They’re able to see how a volcano works (spatial reasoning) and respond to it (exploration of materials). They’ll want to talk about what they saw (communication and language).
What other nurseries and childminders are doing
“On our walks, we use stories and rhymes to engage children. Recently we walked through the woods, coming to a hill. The 3 year old children climbed it first, followed by the 20 month old who needed some help. We sang ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ as we climbed, and the younger child joined in saying ‘up, up.’ The big ones ran down saying ‘down again’. We stopped halfway, finishing the song ‘neither up nor down’. Another time we used Jack and Jill. I changed the song names to children’s names, making it personal to them. I got muddled because the song didn’t rhyme, but the children found it funny.”
Caroline, childminder, Rotherwick.
- Sound knowledge starts at birth. Support children to recognise and produce sounds in words. Help them to learn the meaning of new words through the activities they do with you, help children to notice how the word appears, (representation), and learn how to use words correctly.
- How are you linking spoken language to developing reading and writing? For example, focus children’s attention on labels on objects that interest them, talk to children using a variety of words that have similar meanings.
- Provide opportunities for children to express their ideas verbally and explore a rich vocabulary through high quality books.
- Children with better language skills will develop stronger reading skills.
- Consider talking opportunities for your children. Are you playing with words and making up your own? Are you extending their sound knowledge?
- Check for sounds that children struggle with. Some sounds and letters are more difficult. Once you have identified these, give them attention. Seek out opportunities to play with them more often.
- Proving children with lots of opportunities to understand and hear sounds building helps them in the reception year develop their formal phonic journey.