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Nuffield Early Language Intervention could help close the ‘disadvantage gap’

By Josh Hillman

Today sees the publication of findings from a large-scale randomised controlled trial of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), concluding that it boosts pupils’ oral language skills by an additional three months.

Designed for children in the reception year of primary school, the intervention is particularly targeted at those with relatively poor oral language skills, although it has spillover improvements for whole classes. Capabilities such as vocabulary knowledge, narrative skills and active listening are foundational for young children’s learning, in particular their literacy development. For many, difficulties and delays in their language development are associated with aspects of their home environment.  

The programme was developed by a team of developmental psychologists led by Professor Margaret Snowling, now President of St John’s College Oxford and Professor Charles Hulme, also now at the University of Oxford. Findings from an earlier ‘efficacy trial’ funded by the Education Endowment Foundation rated the intervention as one of their most successful evaluations, gaining prominence in the Sutton Trust-EEF ‘Teaching and Learning Toolkit’, a popular summary of educational research that provides guidance for schools and early years settings on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. 

The research published this week is from a much larger ‘effectiveness trial’, also funded by the EEF and involving 193 schools. The findings are extremely positive: three months’ progress for the children taking part, with the EEF’s highest security ‘padlock’ for the robustness of the findings. This level of supporting evidence for NELI is almost unparalleled among early years educational interventions and makes it one of the most successful programmes of over 100 randomised controlled trials conducted by the EEF since it was set up nearly a decade ago. 

In one sense, the effectiveness of a classroom-based intervention may not seem immediately relevant at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. Schools are closed to the vast majority of pupils, and the programme is intensive and requires careful face-to-face work with children. However, it is clear that school and nursery closures are likely to have a greater negative impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds than their peers. 

There are many reasons for this, including fewer educational resources in the home, more limited opportunities for learning or developmental activity, lower rates of parental engagement with children where families are struggling with poverty or trying to juggle work and caring responsibilities. This applies as much to pre-school children as to those already in school, so come September, the gap in readiness for primary school between four-year-olds from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, perhaps having not been in any pre-school provision for six months, will be even greater than usual. 

Concern about this is one of the many reasons why the Nuffield Foundation is supporting research into the immediate impact of COVID-19 on the education of children and young people. 

The likely increase in the ‘disadvantage gap’ means that school-based early interventions will be more important than ever later this year. A number of features of NELI make it particularly well placed in this respect. 

First, the intervention is implemented right at the beginning of primary school. We know that early intervention increases the potential for significant and long-lasting effects, and indeed that is why we are now piloting a nursery version of the intervention. 

Second, the initial design and development of the intervention was informed by robust scientific research. So while it chimes with the desire for ‘what works’ – having been through various iterations and trials evaluating both its feasibility and effectiveness – it also has a strong theoretical underpinning. This is rare within education, unlike health for example, where there is a vast corpus of fundamental and clinical biomedical research on which the judgements of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) are based.    

Third, the programme is manualised, and delivered by trained Teaching Assistants (TAs). Whilst the initial research on the more general use of TAs raised concerns about their lack of positive impact on pupil outcomes, more detailed evaluations have shown that when TAs are involved in structured programmes with high-quality resources, they can play an important and cost-effective role in supporting learning. NELI is an excellent example of this.  

Finally, the intervention has a clearly worked-through and feasible pathway to implementation at a national scale. The resources are now published and marketed by Oxford University Press, and training for the TAs is provided by Elklan – a specialist training agency focused on supporting speech and language development. 

The inevitable widening of the gap in educational outcomes between advantaged and disadvantaged children will be a significant fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. As we collectively consider ways in which this might be reversed when schools start to return to normal, NELI and other programmes proven to be effective will be of central importance.   

More about NELI


About the author


Josh Hillman
Director, Education

Josh Hillman has been Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation since 2008. He leads the Foundation’s work in education, encompassing both research funding and student programmes in STEM and quantitative skills. For 15 months in 2015-6, Josh was also Acting Director of the Foundation.

Josh was formerly Head of Education Policy at the BBC, where he was responsible for development of education policy and partnerships for the BBC’s output across media for children and adults. Prior roles include Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, Research Officer for the National Commission on Education, and short periods at the Institute for Education and the Department of Education and Science.

Josh was Deputy Chair of Governors at an Inner London primary school for five years. He is a member of the advisory board, chaired by Professor James Heckman, of the TrygFonden’s Centre for Child Research at Aarhus University. This multidisciplinary centre uses randomised controlled trials and administrative data to study child and adolescent development.

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