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'We love playing with dinosaurs!' Boosting vocabulary in the EYFS at Holmesdale Infant School

About our school

We have 45 children in Reception, in one Reception class and one mixed Reception/ Year 1 class. All Reception children work closely together. We are an experienced EYFS team and we are passionate about learning through play.


We decided to use Isobel Beck's three tiers framework to help us to focus on the vocabulary we wanted our Reception children to learn. We hoped to:

- introduce children to new, targeted vocabulary that was adventurous, exciting and transferable

- use this vocabulary consistently in both direct teaching and in play

- involve all staff in this approach to build consistency.


This work took place over 4 weeks in summer 2018, during our class focus on dinosaurs. We chose this topic because some of our children, particularly our boys, were fascinated by dinosaurs.


Deciding which words to teach

Initially, the EYFS staff team met to identify all the language that might be used in a topic about dinosaurs. We used a big sheet of paper and wrote down all the words we thought we might use.

We then divided these words into three categories using Beck's tiers framework. 

In Tier 1 we put words that we had already heard most of the children use. We were fairly confident that these were words the children already knew because we had heard the children use them independently in play and learning. Eg: dinosaur, legs, tail, teeth, jaws, claws.

In Tier 2 we put words that were accessible, transferable and, for some, not as familiar. These words would be accessible because we felt that the children would understand the concepts they are describing. They would be transferable because the children would find them useful in other contexts. They would not be very familiar to some children so they would widen the children's vocabulary. Therefore, these Tier 2 words would be our main teaching vocabulary for our topic. Eg: prey, extinct, herbivore, carnivore, predator.

In Tier 3 we put our more challenging or adventurous words. These were words which were very specific to this topic. Eg: palaeontologist, Triassic, bipedial.

We felt that some of our Tier 2 words were adventurous - but some of them had been Tier 3 words in an initial trail of the approach in a 2 week 'Jungle' topic. We learnt a lot from this initial trial as we tuned into the children's receptive and expressive vocabulary. We thought words like habitat, extinct and camouflage would be Tier 3 words for this trial. However, we noticed that some children had taken them on board, so we decided to put them into our main teaching vocabulary for the dinosaur topic.

Finding out what the children already know

Before we started teaching, I asked a group of children, 'What do we know about dinosaurs?' This gave us a 'baseline', an indication of the words the children readily associated with dinosaurs and could use with confidence and ease.

Teaching Tier 2 vocabulary

We agreed that, as a team, we would all use these words consistently throughout the topic, in all areas of learning. We introduced them explicitly in whole class sessions. Then, we emphasised and discussed the words in play and learning. We encouraged the children to use the words and to talk about them.

Film clip 1: The boys use 'predator' in play Sarah prompts the boys to use the word 'predator'. Their play shows that they understand that a predator hunts other animals so those animals have to hide from the predator. They seem to be enjoying using this new word!

Film clip 2: The boys are learning 'carnivore' The discussion shows that the boys understand the concepts of plant-eaters and meat-eaters and that they can recall the word 'carnivore' when prompted. They are on the way to knowing the word more deeply.

Using Tier 3 vocabulary

Our main focus was to teach the Tier 2 words. However, when appropriate we used and reinforced the adventurous Tier 3 words. The children loved hearing and using these words - they usually caused some excitement!

Teaching Tier 1 vocabulary

A small number of of children needed support to use Tier 1 words. We gave these children specific adult support in their play.

- Adults really focused in on the key words - there was good consistency.

- All adults felt confident with the vocabulary being used.

- The children really embraced the new vocabulary and this was seen in their play.

- A follow-up assessment with the same children who participated in the initial 'baseline' showed that their vocabulary had increased . In conversation about dinosaurs, they could use a wider range of words readily, independently and with confidence. 

In these clips, Sarah talks about the teaching of vocabulary with Lisa Maybury from Lenthall Infant and Nursery School.

Film clip 3: What strategies helped the children to start to use new words more independently?

Film clip 4: How did you use Beck's 'tiers' approach to select words?

Film clip 5: 'It's like planting a seed.'

Next steps

- This is now part of our standard topic planning for any of the main themes which run through Reception. We meet together each half-term to share our ideas and to use Beck's tiers approach to decide which Tier 2 words to teach explicitly.

- We will also start to share the Tier 2 words with parents and carers.


Sarah Lockwood, Head of School and EYFS Lead, Holmesdale Infant School

Additional information

Would you like to take part in a vocabulary project in your school? Project Vocabulary EYFS - Year 6 is a collaborative CPD opportunity available to primary school clusters in Derbyshire. It builds on the robust foundations of Project READ. It will enable schools not involved in the original project to participate in similar, collaborative school improvement projects. Participating schools work in partnership with Derbyshire's Teaching, Learning and Assessment Consultants and with Specialist Leaders of Education from Derbyshire's Teaching Schools. Contact for more information.

1. The boys use 'predator' in play. Password for all clips: projectread
2. The boys are learning 'carnivore'
3. What strategies helped the children to start to use new words more independently?
4. How did you use Beck's 'tiers' approach to select words?
5. 'It's like planting a seed.'
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