The Concept Cat approach teaches children concepts such as ‘first’, ‘wide’ and ‘empty’. This is taught in a structured and engaging manner with explicit teaching of vocabulary followed by implicit teaching in play-based learning. The teaching process includes staff acting out a scripted story with a toy cat. Small changes are made to the environment so that children have chances to experience the new word an increased number of times. For instance, if the target word for the week was ‘empty’ then sand and water trays would be out that week and staff would use the word ‘empty’ during children’s play. Families are engaged with simple home activities which will be available in a number of community languages.
This sequence is designed to be accessible to a wide range of children; including those with limited language. One word is taught per week; allowing opportunity for deep understanding to develop. Rather than general vocabulary, Concept Cat specifically teaches early verbal concepts (such as ‘before, early and through’) core to the curriculum of maths and science, with the ultimate aim of improving maths and science attainment at Key Stage 1.
Each setting will receive:
- key resources to run the programme.
- a free initial three-hour training session for a lead practitioner and one hour training for all staff (delivered remotely) by Thinking Talking (Stephen Parsons and Anna Branagan).
- funding to cover staff attendance at the training.
- visits from specially trained ‘Concept Cat Coaches’ to provide modelling and in-school support sessions. This will be delivered half termly with an additional session in the first half term. The sessions will provide support for staff to apply the learning in their setting, modelling teaching, quality checking, problem solving issues and sharing best practice.
- half termly one-hour on-line peer support sessions for the lead practitioners. This is facilitated by Concept Cat Coaches, supporting practitioners to share experiences of delivery in different settings and problem solve.
- £400 for participation in the study.
As part of the evaluation some setting staff will be asked to complete two short surveys (beginning and end of the academic year) about their experiences in their settings and to distribute a link to an on-line survey to parents of children attending the setting. Some settings will also be visited by the evaluators to gain more in-depth feedback.
All Early Years settings with children aged 3 – 4 are eligible to take part in the trial. This includes Private, Independent and Voluntary (PVI) and School-based settings.
Settings are eligible to apply if the following criteria are met:
- Settings expect to have a minimum of 15 children aged 3 – 4 (in Foundation 1) enrolled to attend for at least 15 hours a week in the academic year 2023/2024.
- Settings complete all baseline measures (surveys and child consent/data) and facilitate assessments within their setting prior to randomisation.
- Settings agree to participate fully in the evaluation, including completing the programme (as outlined above) if selected to be in the intervention group and completing all evaluation requirements (both control and intervention) in the academic year 2023/2024.
Settings will not be eligible if any of the following apply:
- Any staff have attended Word Aware Early Years training within the last 3 years.
- The setting has implemented Concept Cat within the last 2 years.
Schools/settings can register their interest to take part in this project below, or go directly to Better Communication CIC’s website to find out more and sign up: bettercommunication.org.uk
As part of the Department for Education’s Early Years Recovery Programme, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is working with Stronger Practice Hubs across England to fund Early Years settings’ access to evidence-informed programmes and study the programme’s influence on practice and children’s outcomes. This initiative aims to support education recovery following the pandemic, whilst also developing our understanding of effective professional development in the early years.
In 2017 the EEF published Law et al’s review of early language interventions which recommended further evaluations of language interventions delivered by EY practitioners in EY settings, and further evaluations of language interventions involving parent-child interaction with young children – both of which are key elements of Concept Cat.
The Concept Cat approach aligns with three key sub-themes identified as promising approaches in our Early Language funding round:
- Train and support staff working in the EY to promote the implicit and/or explicit teaching of oral language skills;
- Include adults with different skills sets (for example: parent, EY practitioner, teacher, Senior Leaders) who can provide implicit and/or explicit oral language teaching approaches with children;
- Embed and sustain changes in oral language teaching practice.
The Word Aware 2 book (which contains Concept Cat) has sold over 6,000 copies worldwide since publication in 2016. The results of an evaluation would be of interest to schools.
An independent evaluation of the programme will be carried out by RAND Europe and The University of York.
Concept Cat is being independently evaluated at an efficacy level. This means that is will be delivered to a number of settings to test whether an intervention can work under developer-led conditions. The evaluation will be a two-armed setting-randomised controlled trial, with 90 settings randomly allocated to either receive Concept Cat or act as a business-as-usual comparison group.
The primary outcome for the evaluation is the Basic Concepts subscale of the CELF-P‑2. The Concepts and Following Directions subscale of the CELF-P‑2, and Number Sense and Cardinality and Counting subscales of the Early Years Toolbox will be investigated as secondary outcomes.
The evaluation report will be published in Spring 2025.