Education Endowment Foundation:Communication and Language

Communication and Language

Approaches and practices to support communication and language development in the early years.

Approaches for supporting communication and language development

Introduction — using the Evidence Store

Information on how to make use of the Evidence Store is provided in the how-to guide. There is also a methodological summary of how the evidence was summarised and how we plan to improve it. The Evidence Store is a living resource with additional evidence, written examples and videos to be added in the future.

The Evidence Store’s recommended approaches can be applied across different contexts for teaching and learning in the early years (see pedagogical continuum here) and educators should reflect on how they can use the approaches and practices both during adult-initiated and child-initiated opportunities.

  • Evidence consistently shows that communication and language approaches benefit young children’s learning.
  • Using multiple approaches will support the development of children’s communication and language.

There are many activities that expose children to rich vocabulary and language such as reading books and pretend play. These activities are important but how the adult engages with the child during these activities is key. The quality of language heard and used by the child during an activity can be enhanced by the adult using approaches and practices to further the learning opportunity.

Communication and language approaches involve intentionally acting to develop young children’s understanding of language and their ability and confidence to use language, and other strategies, to communicate effectively. They are based on the idea that children’s language development benefits from approaches that support communication through talking and non-verbal expression.

Communication and language approaches in the early years can be grouped and include:

Approaches that support the linguisticConnected to language or the study of language aspects of communication through:

  • teaching and modelling vocabulary; and
  • teaching and modelling language.

Approaches that simultaneously support both cognitiveRelated to the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning. and linguisticConnected to language or the study of language aspects of communication through:

  • interactive reading; and
  • teaching through collaborative talk. 

Approaches that support the physical aspects of communication through:

  • teaching and modelling social communication skills.

Overall, studies of communication and language approaches consistently show benefits for young children’s learning. This finding is based on multiple systematic reviewsResearchers summarise all of the research on a particular topic, which meets pre-defined eligibility criteria, in order to answer a specific research question. This gives an objective overview of the evidence for a particular topic or research question. The methods used must be reproducible and transparent., meta-analyses and randomised controlled trialsA randomised controlled trial (RCT) is an experiment in which candidates are randomly assigned to one of two groups: the experimental group receives the intervention being tested while the other receives an alternative, or no intervention at all.. These approaches can have a positive impact on various aspects of language and communication, including children’s spoken language skills and comprehension. All children appear to benefit, but some studies suggest that it is particularly important to use these approaches with children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, who often start with early years providers at an earlier stage in their language development.

Some communication and language approaches, such as interactive reading, have a particularly strong body of evidence to support them. Other areas, such as collaborative talk, show promise but are currently under-researched in the early years. Many successful interventions involve multiple approaches and practices, for instance combing explicit teachingFormal educator-directed approaches in which educators explicitly support children to develop specific ideas and skills. of vocabulary with interactive book reading; the NELI programme combines approaches in this way. Settings should consider using a range of different approaches to develop communication and language skills, as it is unlikely that one approach alone is enough to secure progress. Using multiple approaches will support children to develop in the different areas that work together to underpin effective communication and language.

If a child is experiencing difficulties with communication and language, practitioners should also consider other factors that may be affecting development in this area. Each child should be considered as an individual, and challenges in another area – such as self-regulation – may have an impact on learning. Where practitioners are unsure of how best to support a child or suspect that a child is not meeting developmental norms, it may be best to seek help from a speech and language therapist. A therapist will be able to provide more specialist support. Even after referral, it is important that practitioners continue to support children experiencing difficulties as best they can alongside any specialist input.