Early years experts weigh up the revised ELGs

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Now that the revised Early Learning Goals are finally out, we asked an expert in each area of learning to give their initial thoughts.


The much-anticipated revised Early Learning Goals (ELGs) for the end of the Reception year are being piloted from September in 25 schools in England. A consultation on the new goals will not take place until after the pilot in 2019.

The Department for Education has said that the measures are aimed at closing the ‘word gap’ between disadvantaged children and their peers, to help children who start school struggling with language and social skills.

They are also intended to cut teachers’ workload to free up more time to support children’s early skills and produce engaging lessons.

The DfE told Nursery World, ‘We know that teachers and practitioners want greater clarity on what to teach in Reception year, and as part of the pilot we will explore what support and guidance teachers think would be helpful. This will include the future of non-statutory guidance such as Development Matters.’

Our experts share their views below.

communication-and-language-iconCOMMUNICATION AND LANGUAGE

ELG Listening

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • listen carefully and respond appropriately when being read to and during whole-class and small group discussions
  • make comments about what they have heard and ask questions to clarify their understanding
  • hold conversation when engaged in back-and-forth exchanges with their teacher and peers.

ELG Speaking

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • participate in small group, class and one-to-one discussions, offering their own ideas, using new vocabulary
  • offer explanations for why things might happen, making use of new vocabulary from stories, non-fiction, rhymes and poems when appropriate
  • express their ideas using full sentences, with modelling and support from their teacher.


chris-and-tonyProfessors Chris Pascal and Tony Bertram, directors, Centre for Research in Early Childhood

The expressed intention of the revised ELGs for Communication and Language are to close the ‘word gap’ and help children who start school struggling with language and social skills.

The most striking and consistent feature of recent evidence on learning and development is that communication and language proficiency underpins all other areas of learning, includingmathematical and literacy learning. It is therefore heartening to see this area of learning reaffirmed as a prime area and an emphasis on the importance of providing a language-rich environment in Reception classes.

The revised goals and the guidance on the educational programme for communication and language reflect the evidence that role-play and small group times offer an effective means for delivering sustained conversation and language development, offering opportunities to hear and practise language. It also reflects that teaching content should include plenty of reading aloud of words, rhymes and stories.

We believe this document should strengthen the confidence of Reception teachers to make early language development a major feature of their classroom practice and develop an active, play-based pedagogy to support this.

ohysical-development-iconPHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT

ELG Gross Motor Skills

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • negotiate space and obstacles safely, with consideration for themselves and others
  • demonstrate strength, balance and co-ordination
  • move energetically, such as running, jumping, dancing, hopping, skipping and climbing.

ELG Fine Motor Skills

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • hold a pencil comfortably using the tripod grip
  • use a range of small tools, including scissors, paintbrushes and cutlery
  • show accuracy and care when drawing and copying.


lala-mannersDr Lala Manners, director, Active Matters

PD remains a prime area, yet ‘Moving and Handling’ is reduced to the bare minimum of gross and fine motor skills, and ‘Health and Self Care’ is removed completely – only to reappear under ‘Self Management’.

PD is more than just skill acquisition. It is of profound importance to children themselves – informing, underpinning and supporting all developmental domains – particularly communication and language through active play.

The state of children’s overall health is alarming. Removing health and self-care from this prime area will prevent the effective implementation of any holistic approach or initiative to tackle critical issues.

The assessment procedures that accompany PD remain stubbornly vague. The terminology that creates questionable data persists, e.g. ‘negotiate obstacles, demonstrate strength, move energetically’. We still have no clue what ‘emerging’ or ‘exceeding’ look like for PD.

Yes – children need to ‘develop strength and a love of exercise’, but this framework won’t help to achieve even this very modest goal. A rethink is sorely needed.


ELG Self-Regulation

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • show an understanding of their own feelings and those of others, and regulate their behaviour accordingly
  • have a positive sense of self and show resilience and perseverance in the face of challenge
  • pay attention to their teacher and follow multi-step instructions.

ELG Managing Self

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • manage their own basic hygiene and personal needs, including dressing and going to the toilet
  • understand the importance of healthy food choices
  • explain the reasons for rules and know right from wrong.

ELG Building relationships

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • work and play co-operatively and take turns with others
  • form positive attachments and friendships
  • show sensitivities to others’ needs.


julia-manning-mortonJulia Manning-Morton, early years consultant and trainer

The ‘refinement’ of the early learning goals does not mean that they have been improved, but means that they have been reduced, not in number but in clarity and comprehensibility. The ELGs for PSED seem to have been reduced to instrumentalist tools that are even more focused on fitting children to school, where too few adults have to manage inappropriately large groups of children: hence the goal of ‘Pay attention to their teacher and follow multi-step instructions’.

Yes, most children will (on a good day) be able to meet that goal, but for those who are summer-born, have EAL or SEND, and for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, such ELGs will result in more children ‘failing’.

This reductionism has resulted in complex terms such as ‘self-regulation’ being used in a simplistic way, and the potential for teachers to misunderstand self-regulation to mean self-control and compliance, which it does not. Self-regulation is how effectively a child can deal with and recover from stress; how they can keep an internal balance between the five domains of their physiology, emotions, cognition, social environment and empathy. All these domains influence each other, therefore you cannot expect a child to pay attention (cognitive domain) if the stressors in their bodies or the social environment (such as a noisy classroom) are too high.

Research shows that when these stressors are removed, mood or behaviour problems often disappear (Shanker 2012), which begs the question, ‘Is it children we should be measuring or schools?’


ELG Comprehension

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • demonstrate understanding of what they have read and has been read to them by retelling stories and narratives using their own words and new vocabulary
  • anticipate – where appropriate – key events in stories, non-fiction, rhymes and poems
  • use new vocabulary during discussions about stories, non-fiction, rhymes and poems and during role-play.

ELG Word Reading

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • say a sound for each letter in the alphabet and at least ten digraphs
  • read words consistent with their phonic knowledge by sound-blending
  • read aloud simple sentences and books that are consistent with their phonic knowledge, including common exception words.

ELG Writing

  • Children at the expected level of development will:
  • write recognisable letters, most of which are correctly formed
  • spell words by identifying sounds in them and representing the sounds with a letter or letters
  • write simple phrases and sentences that can be read by others.


helen-moylettHelen Moylett, independent early years trainer, consultant and writer

The current ELGs for literacy are pitched too high. They are developmentally inappropriate for many children at the end of Reception.

Improvements would have my full support. However, these proposals are muddled, do not improve, and encourage a checklist approach.

The existing ELGs are better than these.


Literacy grows out of Communication and Language, not the other way around. Comprehension – this area is better represented and in the right place in the current ‘Understanding’ in Communication and Language. (This and ‘attention’ have been removed from Communication and Language against expert advice).

The proposed Reading ELG should actually be entitled ‘Decoding’ as that is what it has been reduced to. Phonic knowledge is not the whole reading agenda. Bullet point one is over-demanding and there is nothing about using a range of reading strategies or enjoyment.


Handwriting is not writing! What about communicating – the purpose of writing? Can the child or others read it? Does it make sense? Do they use writing in play and for other real purposes?


ELG Number

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • have an understanding of number to 10, linking names of numbers, numerals, their value, and their position in the counting order
  • subitise (recognise quantities without counting) up to 5
  • automatically recall number bonds for numbers 0-5 and for 10, including corresponding partitioning facts.

ELG Numerical Patterns

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • automatically recall double facts up to 5 + 5
  • compare sets of objects up to 10 in different contexts, considering size and difference
  • explore patterns of numbers within numbers up to 10, including evens and odds.


elizabeth-carruthersElizabeth Carruthers, former head teacher of Redcliffe Nursery School, presently finishing a doctoral thesis at Bristol University in mathematics education

The new ELGs for mathematics appear a random and sparse set of statements that give a very skewed view to a subject that most teachers and early years practitioners already find challenging. Only numbers up to 10 are mentioned and seemingly the argument might be ‘to go deeper’, which is influenced by Mastery Learning.

However, this has connections to the behaviourist learning theory which is a narrow step-by-step approach. This ignores any meaningful, real life and broader aspects of mathematics that children are steeped in before they come to school and make sense to them. At the heart of mathematics education is problem-solving and children’s own ways of putting down their thinking to solve their own mathematical enquiries. These aspects are sadly lacking from the new goals.

These new goals need to be reconsidered through an open lens and directly linked to the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

understanding-the-worldUNDERSTANDING THE WORLD

ELG Past and Present

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • talk about the lives of the people around them and their roles in society
  • know some similarities and differences between things in the past and now, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class
  • recall some important narratives, characters and figures from the past encountered in books read in class.

ELG People, Culture and Communities

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • describe their immediate environment using knowledge from observation, discussion, stories, non-fiction texts, and maps
  • know some similarities and differences between different religious and cultural communities in this country, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class
  • explain some similarities and differences between life in this country and life in other countries, drawing on knowledge from stories, non-fiction texts, and – when appropriate – maps.

ELG The Natural World

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • explore the natural world around them, making observations and drawing pictures of animals/plants
  • know some similarities and differences between the natural world around them and contrasting environments, drawing on their experiences and what has been read in class
  • understand the effect of the changing seasons on the natural world around them.


lorraine-kayeLorraine Kaye B.Ed, MaT, retired senior lecturer, Middlesex University and editor ofYoung Children in a Digital Age

Minor changes to the content of the pilot ELGs for this area are the separation of ‘People and Communities’ into ‘Past and Present’ and ‘People, Culture and Communities’. ‘The World’ becomes the ‘Natural World’. The programme states that as well as building important knowledge of the world around them, this ‘will support later reading comprehension’.

Overall, there is strong emphasis on the use of reading/being read to for the development of children’s knowledge in these areas. That somehow, young children will gain all that knowledge from books, reminiscent of the view of the child as a ‘blank slate’ (Locke 1632-1704) and that helping them to develop means simply filling the space with facts; that they are unable to think or respond to the world.

However, the most bizarre change to Understanding the World is the omission of ‘Technology’, not mentioned anywhere in the pilot framework. Yet again, current developments in early childhood education and their curricula have neglected to take account of the advances in technology and the digital society in which young children live.


ann-langstonAnn Langston, director, Early Years Matters

Young children develop an understanding of the world through all of their experiences – which is why the current early learning goals for this area focus on the adoption of a concentric approach, beginning with the child and their first-hand experiences, then building outwards as these expand.

It would seem that the Early Learning Goals proposed in the pilot have been devised by people with a strong bent towards geography since the new version contains two geography strands alongside a single history strand. Technology has been omitted – perhaps understandably since, as many have predicted, myself among them, the use of technology is now almost as unremarkable as the pencil. Clearly, these ELGs have been written with an eye on the national curricula for geography and history.

So, what’s new? On the positive side we now have a nod to ‘people who help us’ as part of ‘Past and Present’; however, in every ELG there is now reference to ‘what has been read in class’, suggesting that there should be a greater emphasis on information from books rather than on first-hand experiences – bizarre in a period when experiential learning is recognised as more effective than rote learning and when film has never been more able to convey images of planet earth in all its glory, as well as in its struggles against pollution.

Facilitating Children’s Learning in the EYFS by Ann Langston (2014), Oxford University Press


ELG Creating with Materials

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • draw and paint using a range of materials, tools and techniques, experimenting with colour, design, texture, form and function
  • share their creations, explaining the process they have used
  • make use of props and materials when role-playing characters in narratives and stories.

ELG Performing

Children at the expected level of development will:

  • sing a range of well-known nursery rhymes and songs
  • perform songs, rhymes, poems and stories with others, and – when appropriate – move in time with music
  • co-construct, invent, adapt and recount narratives and stories with peers and their teacher.


anni-mctavishAnni McTavish, early years and creative arts consultant

My first response to the proposed changes to Expressive Arts and Design is that I wish it had been left well alone!

Laid out as bullet points (six rather than two broad goals), this is likely to encourage a ‘tick-box’ approach, and may also have the effect of increasing (rather than decreasing) paperwork. Secondly, there is a worrying over-focus on the ‘end product’; for example, by replacing ‘exploring’ with ‘creating’ and renaming the second goal ‘performing’. Although the aim may have been to acknowledge ‘performance art’, i.e. singing or storytelling, this could be misinterpreted and, quite literally, children will be asked to perform.

Lastly, there is barely any mention of music, dance or imaginative play. Technology and the importance of generating ideas and representation are missing completely. Expressive arts and design is about exploring and expanding creative boundaries, developing the imagination and critical thinking. Sadly, these new goals limit these possibilities.

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