Learning and Development

EYFS poetry – How to use it to enhance literacy journeys

  • EYFS poetry – How to use it to enhance literacy journeys

Clearly as a children’s poet I’m wholly biased; but I see poetry as a gift for the early years sector.

And contrary to what I’ve been told in the past - that poetry is irrelevant, difficult, scary - I’d say that a great many practitioners now heartily concur that it is a wholly creative, flexible, vital, dynamic, fun and cross-curricular medium.

So why do I consider poetry a gift? First, children love it. They don’t need persuading; they instantly respond to and absorb its music, its magic, its brevity and intensity, its hypnotic and infectious rhythms, rhymes and repetitions.

And they also delight in its playfulness, its humour, and its unique way of looking at the world anew and afresh.

Moreover, poetry is perfect for topics. There are poems available on every subject under the sun. Including the sun. And minibeasts. And the sea… robots… space… and beyond!

Whatever topic you are doing right now, you can be sure there will be poems available to help you fully explore and express that subject matter.

Here are some practical ideas (derived from my book, Let’s Do Poetry in Primary Schools, published by Bloomsbury) for bringing poetry into EYFS and KS1 classrooms.

Poem a day

Try reading a poem to your class every day. These could be topic-centred, or about the seasons or feelings. Funny poems. Story poems. Riddle poems. Nature poems. Try a whole range, including nursery rhymes, and use them as discussion points.

What did you like about the poem? What was your favourite part and why? Were there any words you liked or didn’t understand? How did the poem make you feel? How could we perform it? Could we write one like this? Could we illustrate it on a giant poster?

Nothing done in the name of poetry is a waste

A poem every morning is a fabulous drip of the good stuff - of literacy - for building vocabularies and word stores, and widening children’s experiences, as well as broadening their knowledge and understanding of language, grammar and syntax.

Above all, it’s a really fun and lovely ritual. At the end of the week, ask the class which poem they enjoyed best, and read it all over again!

Poetry display

Put up a display - somewhere prominent in the classroom (say, by the door, so children see it every time they leave the room). Rotate displays - try shape poems for a fortnight, then writing by one poet, then haikus.

Celebrate all kinds of poems, and especially the children’s own work. It’s essential they see themselves as published authors.

Write a poem

I know this fills some of you with dread, but it is much, much easier than you would imagine, and children are always full to the brim with words and ideas; you’ll be the scribe.

It doesn’t have to rhyme or scan, and can be as simple as a list of ‘things’ (see the ‘Happy Poem’ activity further down). Don’t aim for perfection, go for expressiveness.

Try this workshop I recently created for my residency infant school, ‘Five of the Wonders of Space’:

STARS that dazzle like golden fireflies
A MOON that..
PLANETS that ..
COMETS that..
A SUN that…. 

Hey, how doable is that?

Learn a poem

What better than for children to know a poem, or poems, off by heart? This may take time over a number of days, but is so worthwhile. Ask the children to come up with simple actions for each line or verse.

And why not break the poem up, so different children/groups of children do different lines and verses in places? A poetry performance is perfect for parent shows or assemblies (top tip: double the volume, half the speed).

Hunt for poems

Poems are everywhere. Find videos on YouTube, recordings at the Poetry Archive, and all the resources at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.

You could even invite a poet to visit your setting, to inspire teachers and children alike and give everyone poetry tips and tricks.

All these activities, done regularly, will make a huge difference; I’ve seen the evidence in schools I work with. What’s more, I’d argue that a poetry-rich setting is a happy place – one in which children are immersed in vibrant and expressive language, where their vocabularies are ever expanded and imaginations stimulated.

Nothing done in the name of poetry is a waste. Time spent reading, writing and enjoying poems will all feed directly and deeply into children’s prose skills (that’s a fact!).

Poetry is intensive, concentrated language - language with the brightness turned up.

Because of this, through sharing and exploring poems, children will implicitly gain so much explicit knowledge about the way language works, from repetition, rhythm and rhyme to alliteration and assonance – as well as metaphor, imagery, narrative, structure and much more.

A poem is a microcosm through which to experience language as a whole.

Consider this. Poetry is a hill. Prose is a mountain: and a subtle, highly complex, and multi-faceted one at that. The more hills you climb, the better the mountaineer you will ultimately become. So, bring on the poems!

Try these activities

Grow up

Work on a performance of my poem GROW UP! Start it off as a call and response, so you say a line and the children repeat it.

Grow Up!

Every day
in every way
I grow
a little more

Older, higher,
wider too,
and further
from the floor

My head,
my hands,
my knees,
my nose,
my teeth,
my tongue,
my toes

So steadily
so silently
my body


Do this over a few days until the class knows the poem off by heart. Perhaps add actions as you go, and point at the various body parts as they appear in the poem.

End the poem with a bang, with every child jumping, and lifting their hands as they yell ‘GRRRRROWS!’.

Happy poem

Write a class version of my Happy Poem (teacher scribes).

The children could come up with their own list of happy things, or perhaps you could change it to be an animal poem (Spiky as a hedgehog/Speedy as a hare/Wonky as a donkey/Grizzly as a bear…).

It doesn’t have to rhyme – but there are plenty of rhyming animals to bring in if you’d like to give it a try: cat/bat/rat, ox/fox, bee/flea, sloth/moth, snail/whale.

James Carter is an award-winning children’s poet and National Poetry Day ambassador. Both poems featured here are by James Carter from A Ticket to Kalamazoo! Zippy Poems To Read Out Loud, illustrated by Neal Layton, Otter Barry Books).