The national roll-out of a programme to support young children’s language skills in response to the COVID-19 pandemic had a positive impact on their development, according to an independent evaluation published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.
The Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), created by the founders of OxEd and Assessment, was offered to all state-funded schools in England with Reception classes across three academic years (2020−21, 2021 – 22 and 2022 – 23), funded by the Department for Education. Over 6,500 schools registered to take part in the first year, while a further 4,000 signed up across the second and third years of delivery.
The independent evaluation, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), found that children who took part in the programme made on average four months’ additional progress in their language skills, compared to children in participating schools who didn’t receive the intervention. The study looked at data from 10,800 children in 350 schools who registered for the second year of the national roll-out (2021−22).
Developed by researchers at the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield and York, the programme trains school staff, usually teaching assistants or early years educators, to deliver individual and small-group sessions to four- and five-year-olds to improve their vocabulary, active listening and narrative skills. For example, in one session, the adult tells the children “The Gingerbread Man” story, before working with them – and Ted the puppet – to put pictures of the story in order. In another, the children paint handprints and then wash their hands to practise the target vocabulary “clean”, “wash” and “dry”.
Further analysis in today’s report found that children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) made on average seven months’ additional progress as a result of receiving the programme, suggesting that NELI could help to close the language development gap between socio-economically disadvantaged children and their peers.
The findings also showed that the impact was greater for children who received more of the programme sessions compared with children who received fewer sessions. Due to ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic, many schools included in the evaluation – which examined the impact of NELI in the academic year 2021 – 22 – were unable to deliver all the sessions as intended. But even for children who received fewer sessions, there was an average positive impact on their language outcomes.
Since 2012, the EEF has funded three evaluations of NELI to test its impact at increasing scale, all of which have shown consistently positive effects on young children’s language development. The Department for Education funded the national roll-out in response to emerging evidence suggesting young children’s language development had been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They recently confirmed funding for a fourth year of delivery, to further support young children to recover from the impact of the pandemic.
The EEF is currently recruiting early years settings to take part in other projects, including a broad range of early years programmes designed to support young children’s emerging language or maths skills. These include the Early Years Conversation Project, funded by the Department for Education through the Early Years Stronger Practice Hubs, which provides educators with professional development to promote high-quality adult-child interactions during play.
Early years providers can search for opportunities to get involved in on the EEF website.
Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:
David Johnston, Children and Families minister, said:
Dr Ben Styles, Head of Classroom Practice at NFER said:
Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:
Professor Charles Hulme, co-author of the NELI Programme, said: