Early Language Development

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – in partnership with Public Health England (PHE) – is commissioning a review of the current evidence about early language development. The review will assess current needs and provision, and identify the most promising approaches and programmes that can support children’s language development from 0–5 years, with a particular focus on children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We are seeking proposals from research teams able to complete this review by December 2016.

This review is intended to identify priorities for improving practice, and inform a possible new funding round to evaluate projects with the greatest potential to improve children’s life chances and reduce inequalities in outcomes.


There is good evidence that children’s early speech, language and communication skills are powerful predictors of later life chances. Children’s understanding and use of vocabulary at two years of age is strongly associated with their school readiness, which in turn predicts longer term outcomes at school and beyond.

However, while most children develop language skills effortlessly, some are slower to develop these skills, and there is a significant language gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers by the time they start school. Despite good evidence about the importance of early language for a range of later outcomes, more evidence is required regarding interventions and practices to improve early language skills and how the lessons of research can be applied in practice, particularly with a focus on reducing inequalities.

The EEF’s mission is to break the link between family income and education attainment. Since 2014 it has expanded its remit to focus on early years, through developing the Early Years Toolkit, and extended its funding to include evaluation of projects in the early years.

PHE aims to improve the nation's health and wellbeing, and reduce inequalities. One of its national priorities is to ensure that every child has the Best Start in Life which aims to drive measurable improvement across a range of physical, mental and emotional health outcomes to ensure every child is able to reach their potential and to improve life chances. Through the Best Start in Life national priority, it aims to ensure that: every woman experiences a healthy pregnancy; every child is ready to learn at two; and every child is ready for school at five.

Review purpose

The purpose of the review is to:

  1. Summarise typical early language development;
  2. Assess current needs in relation to early language development, and identify areas where efforts could be targeted;
  3. Identify areas of promise, including specific practices and programmes that are suitable for evaluation or scale up;
  4. Assess current provision, and whether it is supported by evidence. 

The review will focus on children in England aged 0–5, and the carers, services and settings that support their language development. We are interested in approaches and interventions relevant to children that are likely to struggle with language and literacy on entry to school and beyond, and particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Within the scope of the review, we are interested in speech, language and communication, as well as early literacy development – for simplicity we refer to these collectively as ‘early language development’ in this call for proposals.

1. Summarise typical early language development

We would like the review to summarise the literature on typical development of early language, communication and literacy. This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the literature. Instead, it should set out a model of language development that is useful and applicable for practitioners, and how it can be used to identify when and why a child might be struggling to develop language skills.

Questions we would like to answer include:

  • What does typical language and literacy development look like at different ages?
  • What are useful models that practitioners can use to identify problems with literacy and language development?

2. Assess current needs

This part of the review is intended to identify the extent of needs and priorities for support in relation to children’s early language development. This would include assessing the proportion of children that struggle with language development, differences in levels of need, and at-risk groups.

Questions we would like to answer include:

  • What is the need for support in relation to improving children's language development?
  • Are there any particular gaps that are important to focus on?

3. Identify areas of promise

We would like the review to identify approaches and interventions that are effective in improving children’s language and communication development. This should consider universal approaches and approaches targeted at particular needs identified in section 2 above. It should also include approaches for supporting parents to improve children’s language and communication skills. We are most interested in robust, causal evidence of impact using experimental and quasi-experimental designs, including studies carried out both within the UK and internationally. The review should assess the strength of existing studies; identify international interventions that may be most suitable for adaption in this country; identify UK interventions that would benefit from further study; and identify and review where further research should be carried out if gaps are identified in the literature. The systematic reviews that underpin the ‘Early literacy’ and ‘Communications and language approaches’ strands of the Early Years Toolkit should provide a useful starting point for this work.

Questions we would like to answer include:

  • What is the quality of existing evidence for practices and programmes that impact on children's language and subsequent academic outcomes?
  • Which interventions and programmes have the greatest promise for improving attainment and social and emotional outcomes for disadvantaged children in England?
  • Where is further research needed?

4. Assess current provision

This section should assess the different services and approaches available. Young children and their families have regular contact with a number of different services such as midwifery, health visiting, childcare and early education provision. The review should assess the principal approaches to supporting language development (both universal and targeted) and the extent to which they are supported by evidence. This should include awareness among parents of approaches to promote language development. Questions we would like to consider include:

  • To what extent are existing practices informed by evidence
  • How does this vary according to different services and settings?


The deadline for proposals is 9am on Friday 29th July 2016. We are looking to appoint someone as soon as possible to begin working straight away, submitting a draft to the EEF by 30th November 2016, and a final version of the report by the end of December.

Appointment Process

If you would like to be considered to undertake the review, please send a brief outline describing your proposed approach. Please include an overview of your relevant skills and experience, and an estimated budget. Proposals should be no more than 1,500 words.

We recognise that different strands of this review may require different skills, so are open to joint applications from multiple teams. We will finalise the specification with the successful team. The final report will be peer reviewed. Report length and budget are open for discussion at this stage. The Early Intervention Foundation is also currently conducting a review of language development with a different focus to this project. In agreeing the scope, EEF would like the appointed team to liaise with the EIF-appointed reviewer to ensure the two studies are complementary and do not duplicate efforts.

If you have any questions, please contact Peter Henderson: peter.henderson@eefoundation.org.uk

Please send your short proposal to: peter.henderson@eefoundation.org.uk by 9am on Friday 29th July 2016