A Reception teacher’s perspective – making final judgements against the new writing Early Learning Goal (ELG).
When the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) reforms were introduced, they offered those of us working in early years the chance to reflect on our curriculum – every aspect of it! In 2020/21, our large two-form entry, inner city school become an EYFS ‘Early Adopter’. This started our journey on analysing, assessing and strengthening each area of our curriculum. These reflections took place throughout our whole early years unit, including our 78-place nursery and expanding into the wider school curriculum.
Building the foundations for learning
We placed our focus on building unique curriculums which were bespoke to our children’s needs. The EYFS was the bones to our ever growing and developing educational programme, and we also used the non-statutory guidance Development Matters as a guide.
Going through this process, it is understandable why many early years professionals have begun to question their end of year judgements. But what is the overarching aim of our curriculums – could it be the same aim that applies to everything we do in early years? From birth to Year 1, early years professionals share one driving factor: we are building the foundations for future learning. As a result, the question must be – in the context of writing – has the child gained the many complex aspects of early writing needed to go forward and be successful?
The flexibility provided by the EYFS reforms is our opportunity to apply our expert knowledge, experience and our judgements, and to have our say. For my team, the past couple of years have been the easiest years for making our judgements against the writing ELG. This is because we have had two academic years where our knowledge and skills in communication and language, physical development, and literacy have been planned sequentially and strategically – ensuring that our curriculum is inclusive for all children, offering all children the opportunity to meet the expected level of development needed to succeed in writing.
Literacy and holistic development
Before unpicking the writing ELG itself, it is essential to recognise the significance of how the literacy area of learning and development is now broken up. With the addition of comprehension having its own aspect, literacy feels like it is broader, giving more value to the communication and understanding aspects of it.
The addition of self-regulation within personal, social and emotional development also recognises the importance of goal setting and being ambitious. Our focus has been on the prime areas of learning that are essential to future success. This has had a huge positive impact on our children, and we have found that we are able to develop children’s spoken language to enable them to become enthusiastic literacy learners. By approaching children’s development holistically from the start, we have ensured that children are consistently developing the resilience, drive, physical skills, communication skills, and the literacy skills they need to write. I can confidently say that every child in my cohort has made significant progress in writing, whether they have met the ELG or not.
Making final judgements on writing
When we are making our final judgements on writing, it is important to focus our attention on the statutory documentation. The Writing ELG simply states that:
Children at the expected level 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.
Naturally, interpretation will take place. It is important to unpick and understand the expectations before making final judgments. The professional dialogue at internal and external informal moderation meetings has been key. The temptation to bring many books along and start comparing is still there, but for our setting, the value of communication has been the most important resource. Moderation for us is not a stand-alone event at the end of the year but a continuous journey with a focus on informing and improving. Throughout the year we moderate internally, with KS1 staff, within our MAT as well as inside and outside of our Local Authority to discuss barriers for children at risk of falling behind, strategies and share good practise. The most valuable moderation for us is the consistent dialogue about how to overcome these barriers and how to help the child progress.
With the removal of statutory moderation we have found it increasingly important to ensure that we plan in effective moderation sessions where discussions lead to success. Early years holds such a crucial role in children’s future success, so our moderation has reached out further to staff in the wider school. During whole school moderation, subject leads are able to moderate progression and make reflections on their curriculums appropriately.
So looking closely at the ELG for writing, what is a majority of correctly formed letters? Throughout the year, as everyone else has, we have worked hard on improving children’s gross and fine motor skills. We have taught regular handwriting and ensured that every child develops the correct and comfortable tripod pencil grip. Throughout this process it becomes clear who is confident with letter formation and who needs the extra help. We then put the extra support in place, most will succeed, and all will make progress. It is clear to see, when writing, which pupils have picked up the correct letter formations that have been taught. The latter part of the ELG says that writing should be able to be read by others. Without a significant knowledge of letter formation, this part would then be difficult to achieve.
Example 1 shows a child who we have judged has achieved the ELG. Enough letters in the sentence are correctly formed. Although some letters such as the ‘r’, ‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘h’ are not correctly formed, the child clearly has enough knowledge of handwriting formation to mean this can be read back by themselves or others. The letters not formed correctly and spelling will be targeted in future learning.
Example 2 shows a child who started with us very late in the year. The child had very little experience of forming letters correctly. With a focus on fine motor development and large movements the child is beginning to grasp, recognise and begin to mimic some letters. We have judged that this child does not meet their ELG as most letters are not formed correctly, and this piece of writing was unreadable by the child and others.
Although the Reading ELG does mention ‘about 10 digraphs,’ there is no mention of this in writing. This does not mean, however, that I would expect children to reach the ELG without using them. The wording says, ‘Spell words by identifying sounds in them and representing the sounds with a letter or letters.’ This is not about choosing an amount of digraphs that a child can use in their writing, or a number of words that they can write or transcribe, but looking to see if children have the segmenting skills and the knowledge of phonics needed to write. It’s ambitious, yes, but let’s be honest about what we should be expecting from 4 and 5 year olds. We want to send children out of early years and into the wide world of school with a love of writing, a passion for learning, and a broad range of Literacy experiences. We don’t need an essay, but we do need to know that children have the skills to succeed.
A huge focus throughout our early years setting is giving children the language for literacy. We are ambitious with our vocabulary and we create articulate learners. Digraphs aside, when we are assessing children against the Writing ELG we would expect a certain level of ambition. If children have the skills to independently segment, fine motor skills and have the confidence that it is OK to make mistakes, they will have a go. That is what we want to see – children independently having a go and having the skills to reach goals.
Example 3 shows a child who has chosen a sentence based on their own ideas and has written the sentence phonetically. The child does not feel held back by a lack of phonic knowledge as has used the ‘er’ sound taught and is confident to write what they want to. They have the strategies needed to work out spellings and the fine motor skills and pencil grip/control needed to write successfully. The sentence is readable with many correctly formed letters.
Example 4 is an example of work by a child who lacks confidence with writing. They do have the physical skills needed and hold their pencil correctly. However, they have chosen to write short words, based not on what they want to write but what they feel will be easiest and needs to be heavily directed by the teacher. The child has also had a lot of support and has been reminded at every pause to work out what grapheme comes next. This phrase was not seen as being easily read by others and this child has not met the expected level of development yet.
This then leads on to the all-important question around independence: how independent does a child need to be in their writing? Does transcribing a dictated sentence count?
The EYFS states that ‘writing involves transcription (spelling and handwriting) and composition (articulating ideas and structuring them in speech, before writing).’ We therefore should expect children to be able to compose and retain simple sentences with a significant level of independence. Importantly this is the foundation for future learning, so, can they apply the skills and knowledge learnt? I would not however, expect children to combine these skills with overly ambitious spellings, punctuation and length. We must keep in mind developmentally appropriate expectations.
Transitioning into Year 1
When a child in our setting does not achieve their ELG, we apply the same strategy as we have done all year to identify the key barriers that are holding them back. The ELG’s are a key piece of transition information and invaluable to our Year 1 teachers for planning and sequencing of their curriculum. For us, this is not a lengthy process that requires ticked off assessments. We write with our children regularly, we know them and their abilities, and know their barriers well. We feel confident to apply our judgements to these goals, and we value the information that we can take from this process to pass onto parents and to Year One. We apply our deep developmental early years knowledge, with integrity and authenticity, to ensure incremental steps to learning both towards, and following, all ELGs.
With thanks to Josey Hall and Knavesmire Primary School for providing this blog.