In this article we look at the upcoming changes to the specific areas of the Early Learning Goals, those for:

  • Literacy
  • Mathematics
  • Understanding the world
  • Creative art and design


The main change here is the addition of “Comprehension” with ‘Reading’ and ‘Writing’. After all, what is the point of learning to ‘read’ if you don’t understand what you’ve read? That would be like being able to read a foreign language, but having no understanding of what it means – it’s pointless. Ensuring children comprehend and understand what they read, or probably more precisely, what the practitioner reads, is crucial. Interestingly, the expectation that children will demonstrate an understanding of ‘what they have read’ has gone, which implies that reading independently by the end of the Reception year is not realistic for most children. 

Paraphrasing the new ELG for Literacy slightly, children at the expected level of development will:

  • Understand what has been read to them, retell stories and narratives in their own words
  • Anticipate events in stories
  • Use new vocabulary in discussions and role plays 

Last month we discussed the importance of, and emphasis on oral communication in early years, and is underlined in the new ELGs for literacy too since there is an obvious link to understanding and vocabulary. The emphasis now is more on the ability of students to understand words they hear, and use them in their own communication rather than stress reading in early years. Clearly reading is the ultimate end goal, but how this is done is still up for discussion. Many early learning educators choose to support children in developing phonemic awareness, phonological awareness and phonics knowledge in the pre-school years through a number of different methods including purposeful play, linking pictures, sounds and letters/words or formal phonics. However, with children, there is rarely a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and each setting will have their own literacy challenges, and should tailor their approach to the literacy curriculum according to their own needs. Perhaps your setting has a higher proportion of disadvantaged children at risk of falling behind in language, or a high proportion of EAL children, or parents who push for early phonics at the expense of other learning areas. Only you will be able to determine what is right for the literacy development of the children in your setting.

Whilst we have focused here on ‘reading’ and ‘comprehension’ mainly, the ‘writing’ element has remained consistent, so encouraging mark-making in different media and scenarios will also remain  important. 


Much has been written about the changes to the Maths ELGs, especially with the removal of “Shape, Space and Measure”, replaced by “Numerical Patterns”. Some people have been upset with the greater emphasis on number bonds, counting and patterns, however, within early years, much of the Maths curriculum involves teaching numeracy by using shapes, space and measures anyway, so the debate may be more about semantics than practice. For example, when you show a triangle to a pre-schooler, you are not only teaching the name of the shape, but also that triangles have 3 sides, and usually, that it has fewer sides than a square (4 sides). Children often play with different-shaped polygons way before they can count, therefore, it is difficult to see how early years maths can really be done without teaching shapes, spaces and measures. Just because this is no longer one of the requirements for assessment at the end of the Reception year, doesn’t mean it will be ignored. 

Also, as early years practitioners, you will already know that the ELG outcomes are not the only thing you teach, so these things should continue to be included to give a well-rounded and balanced curriculum. If you teach counting, or the concept that some objects are bigger or taller than other objects, then inevitably you will be covering some area of space and measure as well. 

The inclusion of “Numerical Patterns” is a significant change though because when children recognise patterns in maths (e.g. doubles/odd/even numbers/things changing by a set amount), they often find other concepts easier later on, such as multiplication and division, and square and cube numbers. However, it’s also useful to remember that patterns can also be to do with shape, colours, symmetry and rotation as well as quantity and numbers, so these things could be incorporated to help children understand numerical patterns too.  

Understanding the world

This has been split into ‘past’ and ‘present’ and ‘Technology’ has gone, although as technology is now abundant in many educational settings, most children will naturally grow up with using things like computers, games, YouTube videos, audio stories, animations etc, shown on technology as a matter of course. 

There is some extension to the “Natural World” section which includes ‘other important processes and changes in the natural world’, as well as the seasons, where you could consider teaching things like life cycles - butterflies, bees, worms, plants, frogs, hedgehogs are all good candidates here, but you could also consider changing weather, and habitats too. 

Expressive arts and design

One of the changes in this section is that ‘Performing’ has been replaced with “Being Imaginative and Expressive’. Perhaps this stems from an inference that ‘performing’ somehow implies an audience and this is not what is required here. What is being encouraged is a confidence in expressing ideas in different forms and using their imaginations. 

Moving in time to music can be encouraged from very early on by rocky a baby rhythmically, or through baby music classes which help children recognise and respond to different rhythms, picking out the patterns that they hear. Music and maths have long been connected, so there are opportunities here to work across the curriculum by listening for the numerical patterns in musical rhythms, for example. 

As with the other areas, it cannot be stressed enough that your curriculum should be matched to the needs of the children in front of you, and that you should be working everything backwards so that your curriculum for babies and younger toddlers is building towards the later outcomes. And also keep in mind the role of parents and the 3 characteristics of effective teaching and learning, namely:

  • Playing and exploring
  • Active learning
  • Creating and thinking critically

Further information

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