One word at a time

10th March 2006 at 00:00
Exploring children's first words can be a delightful and powerful way to expand their learning, says Kate Lee

Individual words have the power to inform us, move us, surprise us, amuse us and, in the case of a baby's first word, amaze and delight us. By building on the magic of this moment with foundation stage children, we can help them to see themselves as accomplished learners - and encourage an early love of words.

Most parents will be only too happy to tell you their child's first word - after all, it's one of those magical moments that usually raises a smile, even several years down the line. Ask children to bring their first words into school and put them in a "first word box" - or you could simply record them on a large and highly visible list. If you feel unsure that all the children will be able to find out about their first word (perhaps due to adoption, fostering or other family circumstances), make it clear that they are free to choose a favourite "baby" word instead.

Suggest they visit the National Literacy Trust's website and take a look at the "talk to your baby" section. It contains a delightful list of first words, ranging from "achoo" to "city" (from one little boy whose dad's favourite football team was Manchester City). Children with younger siblings might like to use their brothers' and sisters' first words instead of their own.

Encourage the children to share their first words - perhaps during circle time -and then, together, make a "first word wall". This can include as many forms of expression as the children may suggest: colouring an outline of "their" word, painting a picture of the object it represents, writing it down, or finding the same word in magazines or newspapers. Discussions that centre on words that have special significance for particular people will help the children to see that words are not only cold, practical tools for conveying information, but can carry powerful emotional signals.

Once the "first word wall" is made, encourage the children to decide what their favourite word or words are now. You can help them understand how far they have come in terms of their expanding vocabulary, by saying: "When you were babies, you each knew just one word to start off with. I wonder how many you all know now?"

This emphasis will help children to see themselves as capable learners - a vital aspect of ongoing success with all learning in the early years.

Children could create "my favourite word" posters showing mark-making, writing, photos, painting or drawing. This interplay between words and visual expression is particularly valuable as it helps children gain a greater understanding of picture-book stories and other forms of visually-driven narrative.

Encourage children to talk about their favourite word, explaining why they like it or when they use it, and record their thoughts in sentence form as an addition to their posters.

If there are children in the class with speech and language difficulties, you can make sure they are included by asking parents or carers to choose words for them, based on their interests now, and as babies. If any of the children use signing, you could ask parents to come in and show everyone the signs which express their words. Similarly, if children use languages other than English, ask for a translation. It's fantastic for all the children to see that different languages, including signing, can be used to express the same ideas.

To extend learning still further, take a look at the word wall created by the specialist communications charity I Can, as part of its Make Chatter Matter initiative. It contains a vast array of words from "snug" to "synergy"; the ones in the yellow bricks are from well-known people. Anyone who visits the site ( can add their own word and, at the time of writing, it was already more than 12 metres long. Now there's something to inspire you.

* National Literacy Trust:

* Can (Make Chatter Matter):


Your timetable could work something like this: Monday "Circle time" chat about first words, using information brought in from home andor researched in school.

Tuesday Make a "first words wall" using any materials you like - from pens, paint and pictures to giant magnetic letters for use on a whiteboard. Why not include baby photos with speech bubbles? A collage effect is especially useful in helping to reflect the unending variety of words. Make sure you publicise it, inviting parents and older children to see it, or using it as a wonderfully colourful image to grace the school newsletter, newspaper or website.

Wednesday Talk about the children's current favourite words and make individual "my favourite word" posters. Explore the meanings that the words hold for the children, and the varying associations attached to them. Does Thomas like the word "ping pong" simply because it sounds funny? Does Joanna like the word "mummy" because it reminds her of someone who loves her? Maybe Amrita likes "holiday" because it makes her feel excited. This sort of discussion can help to deepen even very young children's awareness of the more subtle aspects of word meanings, and also encourages them to think, reflect and express their reasoning.

Thursday Take a trip to your local library or bookshop. You may be able to arrange a display of the children's work, and the outing could be combined with a storytelling session involving library or bookshop staff, or perhaps a children's author or illustrator.

Friday Using ICT, create a list or book of "first and favourite words", including the children's own explanations for their choices. Parents will be delighted to have this record and it will encourage a sense of community -something to smile about together at the school gate, and read at home with children and their siblings.

* There are lots of ways to build on the impetus generated by "word week".

For instance, as a reward, a child could choose the word for the day. They could then choose a partner and together write, build or present the word - adding a co-operative element to the business of getting to know and love words. This also allows you to pair up children with different skills, for the benefit of both. Give each child an exercise book to create an ongoing record of words they especially like.

Resources Philip and Tacey's excellent range of resources for group activity includes giant magnetic letter tiles for use with a whiteboard, pound;19.99 per set; and colourful 20cm-square phonix cubes, pound;124.99 per set.

Tel: 01264 332171 Email:

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