Tooled Up Education

Researcher of the Month

NELI Preschool: a new oral language enrichment programme for preschools and nurseries

Oral language skills provide the foundation for formal education, yet many children enter school with language weaknesses. Oral language is fundamental to children’s overall development and educational success. It is linked to all higher level cognitive skills and is pivotal for literacy development, and education more generally. It’s also vitally important for children’s social and emotional development. 

The term oral language refers to a complex set of skills that should ideally work seamlessly together to enable children to communicate with others by producing and understanding language. It’s an umbrella term, encompassing numerous component skills which include having a good vocabulary and the grammatical ability to combine words effectively to convey meaning, along with an understanding of cause and effect, memory skills and the ability to plan what to say and what not to say. 

Language skills develop rapidly between the ages of 3–6 years making preschool an excellent time to intervene to support language development. Because of this, Dr Gill West and her colleagues – as part of a team headed by Professor Charles Hulme – have developed and evaluated the efficacy of a new language enrichment programme, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention—Preschool (NELI Preschool), which is delivered to children the year before they enter formal education. The programme combines language enrichment for all children, with additional targeted support for those with language needs, potentially narrowing the gap in language skills associated with social disadvantage. 

Summary

“To our knowledge, this is the first randomised control trial to demonstrate substantial improvements in children’s oral language skills from a whole class language enrichment program.”

NELI Preschool is a 20 week, scripted, language enrichment program for children aged three and four. It is a universal enrichment programme designed to be used in nursery/preschool settings, which scaffolds the improvement of all children’s language skills through a scheme of shared reading and guided play.  It also has an additional targeted support element for children identified as having weak language skills. The intervention is an evidence-based programme and has flexibility built in, enabling practitioners to tailor it to their particular circumstances.

The programme features 20 original children’s books and a significant amount of supporting materials relating to special ‘words of the week’ and narrative activities surrounding the stories. Children are encouraged to talk and supported to produce more cohesive utterances, using varied vocabulary. It also aims to support children’s narrative development, both in terms of telling stories and in the recounting of simple experiences and events from their own daily lives. It is designed to help children develop an ability to listen for longer periods of time, which will benefit them as they move into formal schooling.

The intervention also includes an extensive self-paced online training programme for educators which takes approximately 10 – 12  hours to complete and includes a detailed introduction to children’s oral language development, exploring the problems that children commonly experience and strategies that can be used to support language development. It focuses on the techniques used for shared book reading and teaching, as well as good practice in encouraging language production and active listening, and includes filmed sessions of programme delivery, enabling trainees to watch ‘best practice’ for each type of programme session, alongside additional expert commentary. A peer delivery support hub is also offered, which allows settings to come together, share experiences and showcase how the intervention is being implemented in their classrooms.

All children are assessed by teachers before the programme starts using the LanguageScreen app. This is also used to monitor improvements in language skills during the programme, and allows the staff delivering the scheme to make decisions based on the results. This assessment tool helps to identify children who need targeted intervention from the NELI Preschool programme, and children with substantial and long-lasting challenges, who may benefit from specialised, ongoing support from speech and language therapists or specialist teachers.

The programme has been trialled in 65 nurseries with 1,586 children through a randomised control trial. Half of the nurseries were allocated to the control group. Staff in the other half were trained to deliver NELI Preschool and subsequently used the programme. All children in the trial were screened by staff in their own settings.

Results showed that, on average, children receiving the NELI Preschool intervention made about three additional months of progress in language development compared to the control group (where children were still receiving high quality education). Many of the nurseries described boosts in confidence around oral language, for both children and staff.

Implications

Implications for schools

Interested schools and nursery settings have until 26th July 2024 to sign up to an Education Endowment Foundation trial to test the effectiveness of NELI Preschool.

The project will be evaluated by the Education Endowment Foundation through a randomised controlled trial. Settings that sign up are randomly assigned to one of two groups: the intervention group, who implement NELI Preschool; or the control group, where practice continues as usual. As they do not receive the intervention, the control group receives a larger payment for taking part in testing and has the opportunity to use this payment to implement NELI Preschool the following year.

The evaluation will be an effectiveness trial, meaning it will assess the impact of NELI Preschool in real-world conditions. It will evaluate the impact of NELI Preschool on children’s language skills, including receptive and expressive vocabulary, listening comprehension, use of words to cover information, and grammar.

Expressing interest in the programme does not commit settings to taking part. Please note that the trial is only available in certain geographical areas.

Implications for parents

Consider children’s language nutrition and build language-rich environments. Talk as much as possible with children. Listen carefully to what they say. Repeat back their responses and expand on them. Engage in activities that use language, such as rhyming and singing to help develop phonemic awareness.

Build on children’s experiences. Explore the world around them and use language to expand their knowledge and understanding. Chat as you go on daily walks. Be sensitive to your child’s interests and talk as you play alongside them.

Use dialogic reading techniques. Reading with children should ideally be an active process. When you are reading to them, involve them in the story. Ask questions and invite their opinions and perspectives. Attune to what they are interested in and nudge them to consider certain aspects of the plot or characters’ feelings further. Get as much information as possible from books and read a variety of different kinds and genres.

Picture books without words have their place, but ensure that you also use books with words. To use picture only books effectively, adults should be confident with scaffolding children’s language. The language used in books with words is commonly much richer than our everyday spoken language. Therefore, books with words give children the opportunity to get to grips with more interesting and varied vocabulary, and more complex grammar.

Audiobooks have a place, but should not replace written books. Many children enjoy audiobooks at bedtime or in the car. The books used on the NELI Preschool programme actually have a recording which children can listen to after reading the story. However, audiobooks tend to be a more passive experience for children, with less opportunity for interaction, so whilst they are a lovely addition, don’t rely on them instead of written books and talking.

Join your local library! Surround them with language.

If you are worried about your child, go and talk to their school or nursery.

Resources Created from and Related to this Research

Dr Gill West, Lecturer in Language Sciences: Development and Disorders at University College London

Dr Gill West is Lecturer in Language Sciences: Development and Disorders at University College London. Before taking up this role in 2023, she was a Research Fellow and Lecturer in Child Development and Education at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on language assessment and intervention in children, including large-scale randomised control trials of school-based language interventions. Recent projects include evaluations of the Nuffield Early Language intervention (NELI), the development of an online teacher training and support model for the programme to enable delivery at scale and the subsequent rollout of NELI to over 10,000 schools between 2020 to 2022, funded by the DfE as part of its Covid 19-recovery effort. She was also part of the development team behind LanguageScreen (www.languagescreen.com), an app used in schools to assess the language skills of children aged 3-8 years. She is now involved in the development and evaluation of a new early language enrichment programme for children in nursery. A successful efficacy trial funded by the Nuffield Foundation has been completed and recruitment of nurseries for the next stage of the research – a large-scale effectiveness trial funded by EEF – is underway.  

In addition to her academic role, Gill is also one of the Directors of a University of Oxford spin out company, OxEd and Assessment Ltd, created to translate research into children’s language and reading difficulties into practical applications. Gill completed her PhD at UCL, combining an interest in both memory and language to investigate the relationship between memory processes and language in children.

Find Dr West’s research here