Targeted home support could be key in children’s early language development

62,000 reception-age pupils in England to take part in early language programme 

Two-fifths of primary schools in England have signed up to take part in a programme to support four- and five-year-olds whose early language and literacy development has been most affected by the pandemic. 62,000 reception-age pupils in 6,672 schools will receive the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) this school year, according to data released by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today (27 Apr).

NELI is regarded as the most well-evidenced early years language programme available to schools in England. The programme was offered to state-funded schools with Reception pupils at no cost by the Department for Education (DfE) in response to disruption to schooling caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The EEF is managing the scale-up, which has been funded under the DfE’s wider COVID-recovery efforts. The DfE has announced additional funding to expand the rollout to more schools for the 2021/22 school year, to be delivered by the Nuffield Foundation.

Developed by world-leading researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield and York, NELI involves scripted individual and small-group language teaching sessions delivered by a trained teaching assistant or early years educator to children identified as being in need of targeted language support. So far, close to 20,000 teaching assistants and teachers have received online training designed by the University of Oxford and provided via FutureLearn.com, the leading social learning platform, to deliver the NELI programme to pupils.

The NELI programme, published by Oxford University Press, has been robustly tested through several trials, including two funded by the EEF. The most recent, involving 193 schools, found that children who received NELI made, on average, +3 months of additional progress in oral language skills compared to children who did not receive NELI.

New emerging findings from an ongoing EEF-funded study, which aims to examine the impact of Covid-19 disruption on primary school starters, suggest that language and communication are particular areas of concern for teachers this year.

In response to a survey carried out in Autumn Term 2020, 96% of the 57 participating schools reported being ‘very concerned’ or ‘quite concerned’ about their pupils’ language and communication skills due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The research is being undertaken by the University of York, the Education Policy Institute, and the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. This research suggests that targeted language support provided by NELI would be an important part of Covid-19 recovery.

Delivery of the 20-week NELI intervention had been planned to begin in January, however this had to be delayed until schools re-opened fully after the second period of partial closures. Schools are encouraged to extend delivery into the next academic year (when pupils progress into Year 1) to complete the full programme.

The Department for Education (DfE) has confirmed funding will be available to the Nuffield Foundation to deliver the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) for reception children in the academic year 2021/22. The University of Oxford and Oxford University Press will again be supporting this initiative. If schools would like to be informed once registration is open, please complete the form here.

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“The impressive reach that the Nuffield Early Language Intervention has achieved in its first year of delivery shows how teaching professionals are embracing evidence-informed approaches to maximise their pupils’ progress.

“Whilst reported concerns around school starters’ language and communication development are of course worrying, it is reassuring to know that the NELI programme is available to meet pupils’ needs.

“In these challenging times, the success of the intervention constitutes an encouraging reminder that supporting pupils to overcome the detrimental impacts of the pandemic is not only possible, but very much underway.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said:

“We encourage all schools who have not yet done so to apply to receive NELI, which will help them to address the communication and language development needs of children starting school later this year.

“Specialist training for teaching assistants to deliver NELI is free and can be accessed online, enabling schools to provide targeted intervention for children who are most in need of additional support in their oral language development.

“The earlier we can provide this support for children, the greater the opportunity to prevent them from falling behind in developing the foundations of language and literacy.”

Andrea Quincey, Director of Primary Literacy, Oxford University Press said:

“Oxford University Press is proud to be part of the team supporting the roll out of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) to schools across England. The emerging evidence of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our youngest and most vulnerable children is concerning and it is encouraging to see such swift action being taken to provide teachers with a robust, evidence-based intervention.

“In boosting children’s early oral language and communication skills, NELI will not only help to improve their literacy skills and academic outcomes but also – and perhaps more vitally – their social and emotional well-being and mental health.”

NAHT comments on impact of lockdown on children's language skills

Commenting on new research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), examining the impact the past year of lockdowns had had on young children’s language skills, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said:

“The findings of this report are concerning but unsurprising. A reduction in social interaction with both peers and other adults during lockdown will inevitably had an impact on some children’s speech and language development.

“Schools know only too well the importance of supporting young children with their speech and language development, and they are expert in creating language-rich environments. However, the scale of the challenge must not be underestimated and the government must commit to fully supporting this work and to a multi-year funding boost for schools to enable them to help all pupils recover from the effects of lockdown. Equally, the government must properly invest in nurseries and pre-school provision so that all children get the support they need as early as possible.

"Schools also need access to specialist services such as speech and language therapists to provide timely support to those children with the most significant needs. Ongoing cuts to those services has meant that too many young children are left without the vital specialist support they need.”

Labour calls for children to be at heart of national recovery

Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“The Conservatives have treated children as an afterthought throughout the pandemic and the news that children’s language and social skills have fallen so far behind ought to be a wake up call.

“Government ‘catch-up’ plans fall far short of what is needed for children to recover lost learning, including nothing on wellbeing or social development. In addition, their stealth cut to the pupil premium hinders schools’ ability to put their own plans in place.

“Labour want children to be at the heart of our national recovery. Our plans for breakfast clubs would give all children extra time to socialise with friends, and targeted additional learning at the start of the day.”


Targeted home support could be key in children’s early language development 

21 Apr 2021: Results published from ‘Talking Together’, a project developed in Bradford and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, shows evidence of promise in improving parent and child outcomes.

Created and delivered by BHT Early Education and Training , the project aims to help families support their children’s language and communication development, and is one of over 20 services commissioned by Better Start Bradford  to support families with children 0-3 years.  Delivered in the home by trained language development workers, the programme involves six weekly sessions that support parents with the skills, knowledge and confidence to provide a stimulating, language rich environment.  The sessions focus on topics such as the importance of play, praise and encouragement, and what is communication.  Importantly, the programme is not language specific and is appropriate for use with any family regardless of the language they speak at home.

Researchers from NIESR, University of York and Born in Bradford have completed a small randomised controlled feasibility study which marks the first steps in establishing the success of the programme.  Key findings from the report show that the programme was positively received by families with parents commenting that the sessions were fun and enjoyable.  Differences between the intervention group and the control group on measures of language and parent/child relationships suggest that the programme may successfully impact children and parent outcomes.  These findings mark an exciting first step in establishing the effectiveness of a programme that can make a real difference to children and families and indicate that the programme is a good candidate for further research.   

Dr Claudine Bowyer-Crane, Associate Research Director at NIESR and project lead, said

The results from this study are really encouraging.  The quality of the home learning environment is so important for children’s development, even more so under Covid-19 restrictions.  These preliminary findings suggest that the Talking Together programme could provide families with the support they need to ensure children get off to a good start.”

Sonia Smith, CEO of BHT Early Education and Training, said:

BHT Early Education and Training are very proud to have been part of a rigorous evaluation looking at the Talking Together Programme.  The staff taking part in the evaluation study have gained a wealth of insight and knowledge, and the outcome of the feasibility evaluation has shown the strength of the Talking Together programme.  We are proud to have been supporting families with young children, within diverse communities across Bradford, with this programme.

Dr Josie Dickerson, Director of the Better Start Bradford Innovation Hub, said:

In Bradford many children need extra support to help with their language development. We know that intervening early in a child’s life is key to improving their life chances and reducing inequalities in health and education. However, until now there has been a lack of high-quality research that shows us which interventions will make a difference to our children. The findings from this study are very exciting and highlight how research in Bradford is leading the way to give children across the UK the best possible start in life.”

Eleanor Ireland, Education Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation, said

The home environment is crucial to children’s early language development. The findings from this study are an important first step in providing evidence about how the Talking Together programme can successfully support parents of very young children in their homes and provides early evidence of how the programme can help improve children’s outcomes.”

More information about the Nuffield Early Language Intervention is available here. The full briefing from the Impact of Covid-19 on School Starters study will be available here. The schools and families that participated in this study may not be representative of all schools and families in England. The data reported is a small, self-selected sample, drawn from 58 schools. However, it covers a wide geographical reach and provides detailed information relating to school and parental concerns surrounding the impact of Covid-19 on school starters.

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