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Reimagining the ‘characteristics of effective teaching and learning’ as a framework for feedback in the Early Years

Written by: Verity Downing
10 min read

The purpose of the ‘characteristics of effective teaching and learning’ (CETL) section of Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) guidance is to signpost teachers towards prioritising not just what students learn, but how they learn. Through affording due respect to students’ attitudes towards their learning and how they respond to their educational environment, it is hoped that teachers will be able to tailor their practice to be of optimum suitability. Despite the September 2020 update to the CETL, which saw the existing guidance of multifaceted complexity unnecessarily substituted for a new, overly prescriptive and narrow tick list, the principles and importance of this area remain and should be upheld. Teachers should be encouraged to not only use the CETL as a frame through which to view students’ learning habits and to contemplate this area as a primary reference point during assessment periods, but to also position the feedback that they deliver to their students through the founding principles of this guidance section.

What are the CETL?

The CETL, albeit now tacitly, encourage teachers to develop, promote and praise students’ resilience, perseverance, ingenuity and engagement – the attributes that research has shown to be of life-long benefit to learners (Dweck, 2008; Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

The CETL are organised into these three subsections (taken from DfE, 2020, p. 9):

Section  Relates to
‘playing and exploring’ students’ propensity to seek out learning experiences
‘active learning’ students’ resilience and the setting/achieving of individual goals
‘creating and thinking critically’ students’ ability to develop and refine problem-solving skills

Main concerns about the 2020 revisions

With a new overarching name and each subsection being subject to a reshuffle, the essence of what the characteristics of effective learning (CEL) (Early Education, 2012, p. 6) once stood for has been damaged. The addition of ‘teaching’ within the new title would imply that the teacher’s role has become newly prioritised within the CETL, yet this is not the case, as demonstrated by the omission of fundamental teacher guidance statements from the 2012 document, such as (p. 7):

‘Model being a thinker, showing that you don’t always know, are curious and sometimes puzzled.’

Moreover, a clear and concise explanation of how teachers should deliver praise and feedback that was present in the 2012 guidance – ‘Be specific when you praise, especially noting effort such as how the child concentrates, tries different approaches, persists, solves problems, and has new ideas’ (p. 6) – has also been discarded, giving cause for teachers to reimagine the CETL as a feedback framework as opposed to struggling to grapple with its flaws as a standalone section, to ensure that students do not suffer from a lack of appropriately employed, high-quality feedback.

Types of feedback and its’ significance

Feedback, is the imparting of opinion, judgement and encouragement from teacher to student through the medium of verbal and/or body language. Research has shown that poorly pitched feedback can negatively impact upon how students view themselves, their education and the wider world (Skipper and Douglas, 2012; Dweck, 2008; Kamins and Dweck, 1999) and it is thought that if young learners are not exposed to high-quality feedback, the ramifications may be evident in the long term (Dweck, 2008). It is thought that feedback can be divided into three principal categories (Skipper and Douglas, 2015; van den Bergh et al., 2014; Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Kamins and Dweck, 1999).

Attribute-based feedback

This is described by Kamins and Dweck (1999) as ‘person praise’ (p. 835). It is widely accepted that this type of feedback, which is evident in phrases such as ‘what a good girl you are’, is ineffective and, according to a multitude of researchers, damaging. It is thought that this feedback can result in students’ self-esteem being negatively affected (Henderlong Corpus and Lepper, 2007) and resilient attitudes being dampened (Kamins and Dweck, 1999; Dweck, 2008). This, quite rightly, is not encouraged in the CETL.

General recognition feedback

It is thought that feedback that gently encourages and orientates students by using phrases including ‘keep going!’ is effective in keeping students focused on their progress, what they are striving for and their achievements (van den Bergh et al., 2014; Hattie and Timperley, 2007). It could be argued that this is the feedback style that the CETL alludes to.

Effort-centred feedback

This is the ‘high-information’ (Wisniewski et al., 2020, p. 12) form of feedback that numerous researchers agree is the most beneficial to learning (Wisniewski et al., 2020; Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Kamins and Dweck, 1999). Defined by Kamins and Dweck (1999) as ‘process praise’ (p. 835), this feedback encourages students to be resilient, ambitious and hardworking (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). This feedback is evident in considered phrases such as ‘Well done for trying. That didn’t work that time, did it? I’m sure if you have another go, it will work.’

Why incorporate the CETL into feedback?

Wisniewski et al. (2020) state that ‘high-information feedback’ (p. 12), which is often evident in effort-centred remarks, ‘is most effective’ as it assists students to:

‘not only understand what mistakes they made, but also why they made these mistakes and what they can do to avoid them next time’

The subsections of the CETL can, in their published order, be matched to the format of the above quote and, regardless of their ambiguity within official guidance, used by teachers to create high-quality, ‘high-information’ (Wisniewski et al., 2020, p. 12), effort-centred feedback to improve student outcomes:

  • ‘What mistakes they made’ (Wisniewski et al., 2020, p. 12) can be considered under the CETL section of ‘playing and exploring’ (DfE, 2020, p. 9). Here, teachers are provided with the opportunity to discover a student’s main interests and subsequently integrate this into their continuous provision. This, as outlined by Moll et al. (1992) and their concept of ‘funds of knowledge’ (p. 132), will enhance the likelihood that the student will engage in the learning opportunities that are available to them, due to the familiar, comforting environment that has been created. This could result in students being more willing to learn, and make beneficial mistakes while doing so. Appropriately worded guidance from the teacher – ‘that didn’t quite work, did it?’ – will aid with this.
  • ‘Why they made these mistakes’ (Wisniewski et al., 2020, p. 12) can be considered within ‘active learning’ (DfE, 2020, p. 9). Teachers may use phrases such as ‘Do you know why that didn’t work? Shall we talk it through before you have another try?’ to keep the students on task, and to subtly remind them that the outcome, and how and when they get there, is in their control, and that the end goal must be worth reaching. Teachers can also model learning from their mistakes: ‘Oops, I got that wrong. Let me try this instead.’ Metcalfe (2017) and Tulis (2013) documented how invaluable it is for students to witness a teacher make and correct an error.
  • ‘Creating and thinking critically’ (DfE, 2020, p. 9) is the positive, future-looking, optimistic section that has the potential to encourage children to learn from their mistakes and understand ‘what they can do to avoid them next time’ (Wisniewski et al., 2020, p. 12). Teachers may say, ‘The marble won’t fit through that tube because you picked the smallest tube. Do you want to make a different choice?’ By positioning the feedback in this way, teachers are collaborating with the student, encouraging their reflection without dictating it and suggesting that another approach is needed without giving the student the solution. Hohmann and Weikart (1995) argue that this is an essential position for teachers to take so as to encourage a student’s problem-solving skills and desire to be autonomous within their learning.

Students and teachers will benefit

Not only does appropriately worded and timed feedback promote and enhance students’ strengths, progress and achievements, but it also makes for easier assessing. While all students learn and develop at their own speed and in their own way, it could be argued that students may develop a style and attitude towards their learning that they will apply to all curriculum areas. A sound understanding of this will enable teachers to steer their students towards assessment points through appropriately worded feedback and carefully considered continuous provision.

Classroom applications

Teachers’ interpretations of the CETL’s principles and their subsequent use of this within the classroom will integrate it into an effective feedback framework and enable teachers to make informed assessments.

Time and resource management:

Teachers can carefully manage the time that students have to explore resources, and how the resources are presented, to create an opportunity for effective feedback to be used. For example, if the marble run is indoors one day, it could be moved outside another, and the marbles swapped for water. In light of this, teachers can use the experience that the students had with the marbles and apply this to the water; ‘do you think the water or the marbles move faster? What if you tried both together?’. This example of “high-information” (Wisniewski et al., 2020, p. 12) feedback encourages students to build on their previous experiences to further their learning. Additionally, the swapping out of resources can be effective. While old favourites should always be available to create a sense of familiarity, the removing of certain resources for a period of time will likely enable students to apply successful tactics they have developed in its’ absence when it is reintroduced, resulting in a feeling of self-efficacy and growth within the student.

Verbal and non-verbal feedback:

Teachers must use sensitive verbal feedback to enable students to recognise the significance of failure, perseverance and achievement. Instead of saying ‘don’t give up’, try saying ‘let’s not give up now’, so that students will sense that there is a reason to keep going. Further to encouraging students during the process, it is then essential to use carefully considered feedback when the goal is reached. Teachers could say; ‘you must be so proud of yourself! Are you glad that you kept going? Look at what you’ve made!’.

Non-verbal feedback can similarly be effective, notably when scaffolding problem-solving skills. When working alongside a student on a task, try to only assist when absolutely necessary. If, for example, the student cannot thread beads onto a string, sit alongside the student and start your own threading to non-verbally model support and advice. This contributes to a student’s feeling of ownership and self-discovery.

Supporting innovation and child-led exploration:

As an example, when making playdough from scratch, if a student wants to add cold water to the mix, instead of hot water as instructed, follow this and say ‘alright, let’s see what happens, this is how discoveries are made!’. Feedback phrases such as ‘what do you think will happen?’ adds to this, as does; ‘this is a great idea, we’ll try it, and if it doesn’t work, we can try again’. This demonstration of being open to ideas will boost students’ self-esteem, interest in critical thinking, and show recognition of their individuality, while also modelling respect for others’ ideas.

Closing thoughts

Although the 2020 revisions have somewhat dampened the pre-existing focus on the complexities of young children’s learning, this cannot detract from the importance of the CETL’s conceptual fundamentals continuing to be present within EYFS settings. By reimagining ‘playing and exploring’, ‘active learning’ and ‘creating and thinking critically’ (DfE, 2020, p. 9) through the medium of thoughtfully worded feedback, teachers will notice the emergence of a more manageable and accurate assessment process, and students that are engaged with their current educational stage and well positioned to always eagerly seek out new knowledge, experiences and achievements in the long term. As research has demonstrated a link between the feedback that students receive and their future memory abilities, failure tolerance and general educational engagement (Metcalfe, 2017), the necessity for its appropriate use is evident. It is duly noted that ‘no job is more important than working with children in the early years’ (DfE, 2020, p. 3), and with a correlation between EYFS experiences and long-term attitudes to learning having been established, the magnitude of this statement is palpable.


Department for Education (DfE) (2020) Development matters: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage. Available at: (accessed 9 January 2021).

Dweck C (2008) Mindsets: How praise is harming youth and what can be done about it. School Library Media Activities Monthly 24(5): 55–58.

Early Education (2012) Development matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Available at: (accessed 9 January 2021).

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Hohmann M and Weikart D (1995) Educating young children: Active learning practices for preschool and child care programs. From: Educating Young Children. Michigan: High/Scope Press, pp. 11–41. Available at: (accessed 22 March 2021).

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Moll LC, Amanti C, Neff D et al. (1992) Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice 31(2): 132–141.

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Tulis M (2013) Error management behaviour in classrooms: Teachers’ responses to student mistakes. Teaching and Teacher Education 33: 56–68.

van den Bergh L, Ros A and Beljaard D (2014) Teacher feedback during active learning: Current practices in primary schools. British Journal of Educational Psychology 83(2): 341–362.

Wisniewski B, Klaus Z and Hattie J (2020) The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology 10(3087): 1–14.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas