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 linguistic aspects of communication, such as teaching and modelling vocabulary and language
- Approaches that simultaneously support both cognitive and linguistic aspects of communication, such as interactive reading or collaborative talk
- Approaches that support the physical aspects of communication such as teaching and modelling social communication skills
Approaches usually involve an early years professional, who has been trained in the approach, working with a small group of children or individually to develop communication and language skills.
Communication and language approaches typically have a very high impact and increase young children’s learning by seven months.
Positive effects have been identified on early language and literacy skills. When selecting strategies it is important to consider outcomes.
Staff are very likely to benefit from training or professional development to use programmes and approaches successfully.
There are many communication and language approaches. High quality provision is likely to include multiple strategies across vocabulary, language, talk and social communication skills.
Overall, studies of communication and language approaches consistently show positive benefits for young children’s learning, including their spoken language skills, their expressive vocabulary and their early reading skills. On average, children who are involved in communication and language approaches make seven months’ additional progress over the course of a year. All children appear to benefit from such approaches, but some studies show slightly larger effects for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Some types of communication and language approaches appear, on average, to be more effective than others. There is consistent evidence that reading to young children, and encouraging them to answer questions and talk about the story with a trained adult, is an effective approach. A number of studies show the benefits of programmes where trained teaching assistants have supported both oral language and early reading skills.
A number of studies comment on the importance of training and professional development, and supporting early years professionals with the implementation of different approaches. There are indications that settings should use a range of different approaches to developing communication and language skills, as it is unlikely that one approach alone is enough to secure young children’s development and progress.
The evidence base includes multiple high-quality studies from the UK. A 2016 randomised controlled trial found a positive impact of four months’ additional progress for the Nuffield Early Language Intervention – a programme designed to improve the spoken language ability of children during the transition from nursery to primary school.
The evidence is relatively consistent, suggesting that communication and language approaches can be successful in a variety of environments. Less is known about the long-term impact of communication and language approaches, so additional evidence about whether, and how to ensure that, benefits are maintained once children start school would be valuable.
Almost all studies investigate the effects on language or early reading outcomes.
Studies have taken place in nursery settings and early years settings in primary schools and show high positive effects across both types of setting.
While studies have taken place in eight countries, the majority of the studies are from the USA, and these show a slightly bigger impact on children’s progress than studies from other countries. This suggests some care may be needed in adopting approaches from different contexts.
Very few studies measure the impact of communication and language approaches on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, which means it is not possible to accurately measure the impact, However, the small number of studies that have taken place in settings with a higher proportion of children experiencing socio-economic disadvantage tended to have above average effects suggesting that this is likely to be a beneficial approach for this group.
There is evidence of language gaps for disadvantaged pupils at the beginning of school, so targeted communication support may be a promising approach to narrow these inequalities.
Communication and language approaches are a crucial part of provision in the early years. However, even with the promising average impact, implementation is important. In particular:
- Carefully matching approaches with the needs of children – for example diagnosing whether a child is struggling with vocabulary or with social communication
- Linking children’s spoken language to the development of their reading and writing skills
- Ensuring children are exposed to a range of strategies by combining different communication and language approaches, as this is likely to be more effective than using a single approach
- Ensuring staff are trained and supported in delivering different approaches
Where early years professionals 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.
The Early Years Evidence Store offers some additional ideas for how communication and language approaches could be implemented in different contexts, along with exemplification materials.
When introducing new approaches, settings should consider implementation. For more information see Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation.
Overall, the costs are estimated as very low. There are few, if any, direct financial costs associated with the approach. Additional resources such as books for discussion may be required. While the median cost estimate is very low, the option to provide additional resources such as books for discussion, and professional development for staff means that costs can range from very low to moderate.
In a recent UK evaluation, the cost of additional resources was estimated at between £10 and £20 per pupil. Professional development or training is also likely to enhance the benefits on learning. One intensive communications programme evaluated by the EEF costed around £80 per child for a 30-week intervention, which included professional development.
The security of the evidence for communication and language approaches is rated as moderate. 66 studies met the inclusion criteria for the Toolkit. The topic lost one additional padlock because a large percentage of the studies were not independently evaluated. Evaluations conducted by organisations connected with the approach – for example, commercial providers, typically have larger impacts, which may influence the overall impact of the strand.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.