North Norwich : Phonics Research



Assessment for Learning: How can teachers support the effective use of feedback within the Early Years Foundation Stage?

09 July 2014
Assessment for Learning: How can teachers support the effective use of feedback within the Early Years Foundation Stage?

Quality feedback is the single most powerful influence on achievement.
(Hattie, 2012)

During my first school based training I was invited to attend an INSET day examining the impact of assessment for learning (hereafter AFL) on pupil achievement. Research was presented from the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit (Higgins et al, 2014) which showed that improving the quality of feedback to pupils had the highest impact on pupil outcomes at a relatively low cost (through professional development). Principles and strategies were introduced and explored through workshops and group discussions. I was able to draw comparisons with my experience in the reception classroom and discussions involving my mentor and visiting tutor. The potential to make a significant impact on the effectiveness of teaching supported my increasing interest in this area.

Black and Wiliam (1998) brought the concept of AFL to the fore through their research which comprised of more than 250 international studies. In recent years AFL has been promoted by the government through the Assessment for Learning Strategy (DCSF, 2008). As Grigg (2010, p. 373) states, AFL is linked to formative assessment and draws on ‘evidence and discussion to find out where pupils are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to help them get there.’ Academics have written widely on the subject and there are now many strategies and resources available to support teachers.

As Clarke (2003) states, feedback lays at the heart of formative assessment and at its foundations are the establishment of a conducive classroom culture and carefully selected learning intentions and success criteria. In this assignment I will examine each of these foundations in turn before focusing on other aspects supporting the effective use of feedback. In each section I will link learning theories with current pedagogical practices. I will also draw on my own experience and observations within the foundation stage setting before examining the implications for my future practice.

Establishing a classroom culture that is conducive to effective feedback

As Clarke (2003) states, there is an increasing association of formative assessment with the constructivist model. The constructivist model encourages children to take a more active and responsible role for their learning experience. One of the ways that the constructivist model supports effective feedback is in the high value placed on classroom dialogue, as Brooks and Brooks (1993) state as one of their twelve descriptors of constructivist teaching, stressing the need for teachers to encourage pupils to engage in dialogue not only with the teacher but also with one another. It is clear to me that an environment that stimulates effective classroom dialogue is one that will support effective feedback.

Looking more closely at the types of classroom dialogue, Barnes (2008) places a high value on what he describes as exploratory talk. There is an emphasis on exploring and making sense of ideas through a classroom dialogue in which children are able to ask questions and challenge ideas but in which there is a sense of shared purpose. The process can encourage children to be more reflective and critical, factors that are important in the giving and receiving of effective feedback. I believe that Barnes work in this area helps provide teachers with a model for what exploratory talk looks like and the confidence to pursue this agenda. Barnes (2008) also makes clear that in order for exploratory talk to take place there must be an atmosphere of trust.

During my school based training I noticed that some children were much more nervous about engaging in classroom dialogue than others. The class teacher employed various strategies in order to encourage children to take part. In the case of one such child, the class teacher communicated with the parents and suggested that the child bring in something to show and tell at least once a week to attempt to build their confidence. The opportunity allowed the child to engage with their peers through presentation and taking questions on a subject that they were familiar with. Over the course of a month the child became more confident in group situations and more engaged in constructive classroom dialogue.

The OECD (2008) state that teachers had more success with formative assessment when there was a classroom culture in which children felt safe and were confident to take risks and make mistakes. There are clear links to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that certain needs have to be met in order that people can go on to achieve. In relation to the classroom culture, important aspects of this include the need for children to feel safe and secure, have a sense of belonging and building their self-esteem.  Hattie (2012) also supports this view and recommends that the classroom environment should be one in which errors are welcomed as they can provide the stimulus for ongoing constructive feedback and learning.

Sadler (2008) suggests that successful feedback relies on three conditions being met: the feedback must be needed; there must be time to use the feedback; and that there is a willingness and ability to act on the feedback. I believe that a classroom culture that increases children’s self-esteem and willingness to participate in constructive classroom dialogue will contribute greatly towards meeting these conditions. Teachers can also work with parents through verbal communications, newsletters and homework activities. In my school based training I observed the effective use of maths activities which encouraged children and parents to focus on process skills that required communication. This was extended in the classroom with children sharing and discussing their findings.

Another way to support the classroom culture effectively is to use displays. Weeden et al (2002) recommend having key assessment questions on posters around the setting that prompt the children to consider ideas such as what they have learned and how they can improve. These posters can provide a helpful reference to teachers and pupils alike during lessons. A way of enhancing these posters would be to accompany them with images. Children could be involved in the creation of these posters by drawing images or taking photographs to make the meaning more personal to them. 

Displays can also be used to celebrate good work and provide a stimulus for classroom dialogue. In my observations in a previous volunteer position, every classroom in the school had a WAGOLL (what a good one looks like) board. At the end of a lesson, teachers and pupils together, would choose one piece of work to be displayed on the board. The process provided an opportunity to reflect on the learning and a helpful record of the week’s lessons and activities. Teachers can also refer to the display to remind children of previous learning in subsequent lessons. 

Spendlove (2009) states that AFL will be best developed when it is done so across the whole school. Clarke (2003) supports this view and states the importance of having a whole-school rationale in place for different types of marking and feedback. I believe there are many benefits to this approach. It will provide teachers with a frame of reference around which to discuss their own findings with one another and therefore develop their own practice. It will also provide consistency for children. As children move from one class to another they will know what is expected from them in relation to classroom dialogue and feedback. Hattie (2012) suggests using assemblies to talk to all children and staff about expectations around feedback through the use learning intentions and success criteria.

Learning intentions and success criteria that support effective feedback

Wiliam (2011) identifies five key strategies of formative assessment which includes ensuring that learning intentions and success criteria are shared with pupils. Clarke (2003: p. 17) supports this view and goes on to state that feedback relies on ‘clear understandings about the learning objective and related success criteria.’ Having this information available to both teacher and pupil will provide a clear frame of reference around which to generate effective feedback. However it is not simply enough to share this information; the content of learning intentions and success criteria must also be carefully considered.

Hattie (2012) states that success criteria too often rely on performance related goals such as spelling and neatness. This can distract feedback away from the learning intention when it is perhaps the mastery of a particular concept rather than a skill. It is easy to envisage issues such as this occurring in the classroom, for example, when the learning objective may be to think of and write down rhyming words but the focus turns to handwriting. In my future practice I will pay close attention to carefully selecting success criteria that support the main learning objective and in turn effective feedback.

When formulating the learning intentions it is also important to consider whether or not they are phrased in such a way as to be transferable. As Clarke (2003) states, this can be achieved by separating out the context from the learning intention. The example that Clarke goes on to use is that of writing lists. A poorly formed learning objective might be ‘to list all the items in a shopping basket’ whereas phrasing the learning objective as ‘to be able to make a list’ will highlight that this is a transferable skill. Children could then be encouraged to take this knowledge and apply it to different situations around the setting. This will help feedback be more effective as the child will be able to see the value in the new skill and both teacher and child will not be distracted by the context of the task. 

It will help support effective feedback if the experience of sharing learning intentions is carried out in such a way as to make it memorable. Commonly, teachers will display the learning intention on an interactive white board or worksheets which are discussed or referenced during the lesson. These are valid ways of presenting the information and teachers should ensure that children have access to the learning objectives and success criteria during the lesson. However, an example of a more memorable way of delivering the learning intention could be to have a puppet around which the children could be gathered. The learning intention could then be revealed either orally or by a written note in a prop such as an egg. Similar approaches can then be applied to success criteria.

Arthur et al (2008) notes the importance of self-motivation in constructivist learning. Another way to give children a sense of ownership over their learning is to involve the children in the formulation of the success criteria. Clarke (2003) supports this view as a key point in considering success criteria. A teacher can achieve this through appropriate questioning strategies that enable the children to identify the necessary steps to success. In my school based training I observed this process frequently during phonics lessons when the class teacher would ask children what the success criteria would be for a good sentence. If the children were struggling to think of success criteria the class teacher would model a bad example, this strategy would immediately get the children engaged and thinking about the task. The process seemed particularly useful for those children who struggled with their sentence writing. In my future practice I will carefully plan and extend this approach to other lessons to increase the children’s sense of ownership over their learning. 

Clarke (2003) presents evidence from interviews with children and teachers that show how both groups value the transparent use of learning intentions and success criteria. Children like to have the success criteria visible for reference and appreciate the focus that allows them to pinpoint the learning required. Teacher’s observations included that it helped improve children’s motivation and concentration as well as working more efficiently and independently.

The effect of praise and extrinsic rewards on feedback

The use of praise in relation to feedback should be carefully considered. Black, in Murphy (1999), states that where praise is overused this can lead to children attributing any failure to a lack of ability. Children may then choose not to seek out feedback from their teacher in order to hide this apparent lack of ability. Praise will be more effective if it is directed at the effort that a child puts in. Another problem of misdirected praise is the effect that it may have on the rest of the class. Clarke (2003) provides us with several examples including one whereby a teacher praises a child’s handwriting during a lesson. The result is that all the other children over hear the praise and concentrate on their own handwriting, shifting their focus away from the original learning intention. 

Some teachers often accompany constructive feedback with praise leading to what Hattie (2012) refers to as a dilution effect. A teacher may feel that using praise in these circumstances will provide a child with motivation to respond to the given feedback. In fact, the praise dilutes the content of the feedback, making it less effective. It is partly for this reason that Hattie (2012) suggests leaving praise out of feedback about learning altogether. This view appears to be supported by Black in Murphy (1999, p. 128) when he recommends that feedback in written or oral form should ‘avoid comparative, ego-involving, discourse’. In my school based training my visiting tutor drew my attention to this concept following the observation of a phonics lesson in which I had praised the pupil for their effort while at the same time correcting the phoneme they had written, sending a confusing message to the child. In my future practice I will ensure that my use of praise is measured and does not interfere with constructive feedback.

Building on the subject of praise within feedback, another consideration is the effect on individuals and the wider learning environment that this can represent. This also connects with the use of extrinsic rewards such as stickers and prizes. Dweck (2012) defines the two opposing mindsets of fixed and growth. A fixed mindset is one where a person believes basic qualities such as intelligence are fixed, whereas a growth mindset is one where people believe these qualities can be enhanced through dedication and hard work. Her work highlights how the inappropriate use of praise can reinforce a fixed mindset which can have a negative effect on all children, including those who are high achievers. To support a growth mindset, in my future practice I will direct toward the effort that a pupil has put in to their work.

Clarke (2003) talks of a comparison effect when using marks and extrinsic rewards within feedback. Comparing themselves with others can lead to children feeling demoralised and lacking motivation around their learning, while more able children may become complacent. The children may perceive that a higher value is attached to their performance than the process of learning. This may manifest itself in many ways such as children rushing their work which could detract from the deep learning that was planned for a specific activity. Some schools will implement a whole school policy with regard to rewards to ensure that best practice is followed. My research in this area strengthens my opinion that any use of marks and rewards within the classroom needs to be carefully considered. 

Feedback through oral and written marking

Clarke (2003) suggests three types of prompts for marking children’s work. These are: the reminder prompt; the scaffolded prompt; and the example prompt. While on my school based training, children would add an entry to their weekly news book every Monday morning. The session would last approximately twenty to thirty minutes and the teacher would usually sit with one group at a time to provide some feedback orally. When marking the work the teacher would usually praise an aspect of the child’s writing or picture before adding a comment which could take the form of one of these prompts. With the class teachers guidance I took responsibility for a share of this marking and provided these comments myself.

When the children returned to their weekend news in a subsequent session they would first look at the comments and prompt. An example of a scaffolded prompt could be to ask the child for more information about an aspect of their writing or provide a sentence structure in which they could fill in the blanks. An example prompt could take the form of a multiple choice question and could use tick boxes or provide a space for an alternative answer. The reminder prompt might refer to an aspect of the presentation or to remind the child that they should be writing about something that they experienced over the weekend. Whatever form the prompt took it might then be used to help inform the child’s next steps. These were added at the top of the following page. Some children would require help reading the prompts and next steps but all the children seemed to look forward to the activity. In my future practice, this framework of prompts will provide a useful reference when providing feedback to children, both in oral and written form.

The use of prompts in this way has a direct link to the theories of Bruner. As Lindon (2005) states, Bruner used the visual concept of scaffolding as used in building to represent how teachers can support children with temporary guidance. This temporary guidance is not restricted to the teacher but also children with more experience in a particular area. The support can be given in the form of verbal or non verbal guidance. When the child shows that they are competent, the structure can be removed and the child can move on. 

Hattie (2012), states that feedback is at its most effective when it is provided orally rather than in written form. Oral feedback is usually something children can respond to straight away and highlights the importance of providing children with the time to respond to feedback whether it is in oral or written form. As Black et al (2003) states, teachers should include opportunities to follow up feedback as part of their planning process. Opportunities can be made at the beginning or end of lessons for a whole class to respond to feedback. In my school based training, when individual observations were carried out during child initiated play to evidence early learning goals, next steps would usually be included. These would be kept in a visible location so that adults in the setting could subsequently look for opportunities to carry these out. The observation could then be signed and filed in their learning journey. My experience in this area highlighted the impact that good organisation can have on providing effective feedback across the setting. 

When providing feedback to pupils Shute (2008, cited by Hattie, 2012) highlights the importance of feedback being kept as simple as possible. Feedback should be specific so that children have a clear understanding of how to act upon it. Teachers should also take into account that too much feedback can be overwhelming for children so it may be better to focus on one or two key issues at a time. During my school based training when providing feedback during lessons I found that it was usually more productive to provide a single point for a child to work through and return with any additional feedback a little while later. However, the ability to respond to feedback did vary between children and highlighted the importance of adapting to the unique needs of each child.

Black, in Murphy (1999, p. 121), states that feedback can be particularly effective when it challenges children’s existing ideas, creating a situation in which ‘their ideas cannot cope without modification.’ It is useful to consider the connection between effective feedback and the development of higher order thinking skills. As Spendlove (2009) states, it is integral to effective feedback to cause deep thinking and increase reflection in the learner. Effective feedback can help support the development of higher order thinking skills as children are challenged to analyse and problem solve. A study by Estyn (2011) found that effective feedback, including open questioning, improved pupils’ higher order thinking skills. These skills can help support children’s ability to self assess and increase the effectiveness of their independent work. There is also a clear link to critical thinking in the practice of peer feedback.

Peer feedback

Hattie (2012, p. 131) suggests that teachers who do not realise the importance of peer feedback on their pupils can be ‘most handicapped in their efforts’. Clarke (2003) supports this view stating children will feel powerless in a classroom where only the teacher is giving the feedback. One way of supporting peer feedback is through the use of talk partners. On my school based training the class teacher regularly used talk partners during lessons, something which she encouraged me to do as well. This process provided the children with thinking time before answering questions or feeding back to the group by way of classroom discussions. Using talk partners regularly is good way of getting children comfortable with the process of feedback and so supports its effectiveness in other situations.

Children will require guidance to use talk partners effectively. As in the case of success criteria, with support from the teacher, children can define these attributes themselves and could use them to create a poster in the setting. Pictures and captions could include ‘turn to face each other’, ‘take turns to talk’, ‘listen carefully’ etc… This would also provide a helpful reminder to draw pupils’ attention to when using talk partners during lessons.  

Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (hereafter ZPD) represents the idea that there is an area of potential learning that a child has at any given time. As Lindon (2005) states, help should build on existing skills, understanding and ability rather than the introduction of entirely new ideas. Through feedback and assessment teachers can work within the ZPD to help children extend their learning. Lindon (2005) goes on to note that Vygotsky also valued the help that children can give one another to extend their knowledge within the ZPD. Of course, this kind of feedback between peers also happens naturally within child initiated play. However, from my experience within school based training, I believe that using talk partners can enhance this process and increase the learning potential for all children.

When approaching peer feedback it is important that children have a sense of fairness. As Hattie (2012) states, feedback can lead to negative consequences such as children feeling they are poor learners and are dependent on the help of other children. Clarke (2003) lists body language that can help a teacher recognise when there are problems around peer feedback. In my experience in school based training there were occasions when the teacher would move children around to try and enhance the effectiveness of talk partners. In my future practice I will use my planning to ensure that such strategies are working effectively.

Another aspect of fairness and supporting successful feedback from pupils is ensuring that all children are equally involved in questioning and classroom discussion. There are times in previous volunteering experience within schools when I have heard a child say, “...but you always ask him”, which has led to children becoming disengaged with the lesson. There are various strategies that teachers can employ to get around such issues. Such strategies include the use of lolly sticks with names on or there are random name generators that can be used with the interactive whiteboard. These can add a fun element to the process as well as bringing the use of technology into lessons. This ensures that children not only feel the process is fair but when used effectively can focus children’s concentration as they know that they may be selected. Teachers should ensure that they are sensitive to the children’s needs and allow time to respond, such as by using talk partners.


My research leads me to believe that the benefits of implementing AFL to support effective feedback can be extensive. As the OECD (2008, p. 5) state, AFL can also provide the ‘knowledge and skills for lifelong learning.’ I believe that instilling positive learning dispositions in the Early Years Foundation Stage is of the utmost importance so that all children are equipped to achieve at their own highest level. By supporting effective feedback and developing these skills in children, they can go on to improve their ability to self-assess. A whole school policy is desirable so that these attributes can be continually nurtured throughout their primary education. 

Many of the practices of supporting effective feedback in the EYFS have connections with the three characteristics of effective learning and can help teachers in meeting these aims. Other benefits could include, for example, the development of children’s social awareness through the use of classroom dialogue and peer feedback leading to improved behaviour and the meeting of additional early learning goals. The focus of providing effective feedback to every child also helps teachers to be inclusive within their practice through the planning process it requires.

There are many ways that a teacher can support effective feedback in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Clarke (2003, p.1) suggests that teachers should see themselves as ‘action researchers’ when experimenting with both their own or other teachers AFL ideas, and being ‘equal learners with the children’. She suggests that teachers should keep notes on what approaches they found work and any interesting findings to stimulate discussion with other teachers. I believe this approach will help teachers find strategies that suit their teaching style and the unique needs of the children within their class.

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