Great Idea: Early literacy word work

The Bell Foundation logo

What is early literacy word work?

Early literacy word work refers to learning activities which focus on individual words or short phrases, and which are designed to support learners who are using English as an Additional Language (EAL) to learn to read and write for the first time. The aim of these activities is for learners to be able to understand, read, and write key curriculum-related vocabulary.

With support from visuals, these word-level tasks can support learners who are at the new to English stage of reading, viewing, and writing, to develop their literacy skills within the context of the curriculum.

Early literacy word work is not intended to replace exposure to and support with building sentences and texts, but is a useful strategy for adapting teaching when a learner’s emerging literacy skills are a barrier to engaging with curricular reading and writing tasks.

Examples of activities


Learners match images and previously taught/rehearsed words. A word mat showing the images and words can be provided for support. In introducing new words, note that images may not be an adequate representation without explanation or further context.  


Learners find the key words in a curriculum text and highlight them. Access to the meaning of the full text could be supported by an audio translation, such as through Microsoft Immersive Reader. 

Filling in initial letters

Learners complete familiar words presented with an image by filling in the initial letter or letters. This activity gives practice of letter formation and grapheme-phoneme awareness. When a word begins with a consonant digraph (e.g., sh or th), leaving two spaces for both letters can help with the recognition of the graphemei. A word bank can be provided for support.  


Learners label a diagram, image, or set of images with the taught/rehearsed words. A word bank can be provided for support. 

Self-made reference resources

Learners make their own flashcards or vocabulary lists by copying words and drawing or sticking in images. Explore ideas for the use of flashcards. In Book Creator, learners can create their own illustrated e-book of key vocabulary and add audio in English and/or their home language.  

Collaborative activities

Learners practise reading or writing familiar vocabulary by working with a partner or in a small group. The activities described above can be completed in pairs or small groups. Examples of games learners can play together for early literacy word work include: 

  • Pelmanism (also known as ‘pairs')Use a set of flashcards with images and a set with matching words/phrases. Learners place the cards face down on the table and take it in turn to pick up two. As they do this, they read aloud the word/phrase cards, and say the word/phrase that corresponds to the image cards. When a learner finds a matching pair, they keep it. Players compete to collect the most pairs. For an example of word and image flashcards, see our Learning about Magnetism resources.  
  • Bingo – The teacher or a learner says a taught/rehearsed word and learners cross off or cover the corresponding word on their own bingo sheet. This can also be done with images on bingo sheets to support the learning of the vocabulary before focussing on its written form. For an example of bingo for learning vocabulary, see our river landscapes in the UK vocabulary activities. 
  • Loop games – Learners connect cards which have a word on one half and an image on the other, by matching words to corresponding images, in the same way as dominoes work. For an example of a loop game, see our Handa’s Surprise resources. 
  • Spelling track game – A simple track game can be created by writing the key words on spaces. Learners take turns to throw a die, read the word on the space they land on, then cover it and try to write it with accurate spelling. All players check, and if the spelling is correct the game continues; if it is not correct, the player returns to their previous space.  

How early literacy word-level activities work

For early literacy word work to be effective, it is important to: 

  • Select words carefully to ensure they will help learners access and engage with the curriculum. This is likely to mean using words that are either central to the curriculum learning (e.g., a circuit when learning about electricity) or words that will be frequently encountered in lessons. If the learner is also at the new to English stage of speaking and listening, then basic “everyday” words will be important (sometimes known as “tier 1 words”) - a switch, for example. If the learner’s speaking and listening skills are further developed (early acquisition to fluent), high utility words that the learner is likely to encounter across the curriculum may be particularly useful (sometimes known as “tier 2 words”) - connect, for example. 
  • Consider the number of words the learner will work with in one session so that they are appropriately challenged but not overloaded. We recommend between approximately three and eight words at a time.  
  • Provide an opportunity for learners to learn and rehearse the words orally before engaging with literacy activities. 
  • Model clear handwriting and give guidance on letter formation, e.g., with a reference sheet showing the starting point and direction of each letter. Supervise early handwriting as much as possible. 
  • Provide opportunities for translation where appropriate. This could be with another learner or member of staff who speaks the same language, or with the use of translation software.   
  • Provide frequent opportunities to revisit the words to support learning.  
  • Expect rapid progression from the earliest stages of literacy development and provide the learner with opportunities to start reading and writing the words/phrases in sentences and texts. Word-level activities can be effectively carried out in preparation for, and alongside, sentence and text-level literacy activities, such as DARTs and the use of writing frames.   

Top Tip

Once the focus words have been chosen and images selected, these can be used repeatedly for different activities. For example, a matching activity created on a Word document, can be easily adapted to make other activities such as labelling or filling in initial letters. Widget Online is a useful website for sourcing visuals and creating resources.

Why is early literacy word work a Great Idea for learners using EAL?

Learners who are literate in another language will have transferable skills when learning to read and write in English (August, et al., 2009), but those who are using English as an Additional Language to learn to read and write for the first time will need considerably more support. Early literacy word work is an approach to addressing some of the specific needs of learners who are at the early stages of literacy, and an example of the kinds of “highly differentiated classroom practices” necessary to meet these (Anderson, et al., 2016).  

Research suggests that some specific focus on the development of word-level skills is beneficial for the literacy development of learners using EAL (Murphy and Unthiah, 2015). With its focus on vocabulary building, along with skills such as single word reading and phonological awareness, the activities above combine “language” and “literacy” support (Murphy and Unthiah, 2015). Integrating language and content is a fundamental principle of EAL pedagogy (Gibbons, 2009), and the focus on curriculum-related vocabulary, which underpins the concepts they are learning (Conteh, 2015), supports learners’ access to the curriculum while they are developing their proficiency in English.   

Visuals, widely agreed to be useful for learners at the early stages of learning English (NALDIC, 2005), offer contextual support, a key tenet of EAL pedagogy. Cummins argued that the teacher’s task is to gradually reduce contextual support while increasing cognitive challenge (in Sharples, 2021). Although early literacy word work is unlikely to be highly demanding cognitively, the level of cognitive challenge these tasks offer will depend on the learner’s age (Sharples, 2021) and existing skills and knowledge. Because it is context-embedded and unlikely to present significant cognitive challenge, early literacy word work is a supportive starting place for learners who are taking their first steps to engage with written text independently.


Anderson, C., Foley, Y., Sangster, P., Edwards, V., and Rassool, N., 2016. Policy, Pedagogy and Pupil Perceptions: EAL in Scotland and England. [pdf] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 November 2022]. 

August, D., Shanahan, T. and Escamilla, K., 2009. English Language Learners: Developing Literacy in Second-Language Learners – Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Journal of Literacy Research, 31(4), pp. 432-452.  

Conteh, J., 2015. The EAL Teaching Book: Promoting Success for Multilingual Learners in Primary and Secondary Schools. London: SAGE. 

Gibbons, P., 2009. English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 

Murphy, V. and Unthiah, A., 2015. A systematic review of intervention research examining English language and literacy development in children with English as an Additional Language (EAL). London: Educational Endowment Fund. 

NALDIC, 2005. Developing Language in the Mainstream Classroom. [pdf] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 November 2022]. 

Sharples, R., 2021. Teaching EAL: Evidence-based Strategies for the Classroom and School. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. 

Upcoming courses and webinars

Embedding EAL Assessment (Online Course)

4 June 2024
Online course

EAL Learners and Science (Webinar)

5 June 2024

How to Adapt Teaching for Learners Who Use EAL (Online Course)

17 September 2024
£45 – £67.50
Online course