Early years and why closing the gap matters

As a Speech and Language Therapist, I am constantly amazed by the number of skills a child needs to acquire in those all important early years.

‘Children can express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners’ needs. They use past, present and future forms accurately when talking about events that have happened or are to happen in the future. They develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events’ [1]……Just a handful of the oral language skills a child is expected to have when they enter school. I wonder how many children in your class will find these skills a challenge?  With Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) being one of the most common childhood difficulties [2], you could see up to 50% of your class presenting with delayed speech, language and communication if you work in an area of social disadvantage [3].

Having now spent a few weeks/first term with your new reception class, you are probably beginning to notice a variation in the oral language skills of each child……some will be confident and chatty….others quiet……. But this alone won’t give you a precise indication of their level of skill.  We need to be looking at a broader range of skills:

  • Can a child listen and attend?
  • Does the child understand words and sentences?
  • Do they have a good ‘bank’ of words to be able to express their needs, thoughts, ideas, feelings?
  • Do they appear to forget or miss out key words when they are talking?
  • Can they put words in an order that makes sense and use the correct grammar?
  • Can they organise a sentence to tell a story?
  • Do they appreciate the needs of those listening to them?

Wow…….so many skills to master! You may have already noticed children who are struggling with these skills and are considering an intervention that will boost their spoken language.

With some of the schools that I have been working with, we have been using the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), a 20-week evidence based programme that has been designed to improve the spoken language skills of children in reception classes. Teaching Assistants attend a 2-day course to prepare them to deliver three 30-minute small group sessions per week.  They love the fact that all of the group session plans are provided, so you don’t have to spend precious time deciding which activities to use.  Children also receive two 15-minute individual sessions each week, which really allows the Teaching Assistant to offer a more flexible session that can be tailored to the child’s needs.  All of the sessions focus on listening, vocabulary and narrative.  The second half of the programme also covers phonological awareness (an understanding that sounds are the building blocks for words).  The sessions are fun for the children and the Teaching Assistant, however Ted the puppet does tend to steal the limelight and becomes a firm favourite with the children!

We are constantly being asked to justify what we are doing, so it’s crucial that any intervention has a strong evidence base.  The NELI research trials to date provide us with the evidence that oral language skills can be promoted in the Early Years and that children receiving NELI made improvements in their oral language skills equivalent to four months’ additional progress [4].

What have you been doing to boost language and communication skills in your school?  Let’s give these children’s language skills the boost they need, as communication really is at the heart of everything we do.

Heather Price

Speech and Language Therapist and NELI Tutor



[1] Early Education (2012) Development Matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). Available at www.early-education.org.uk

[2] Law, J., Dennis, J. and Charlton, J. (2017) Speech and language therapy interventions for children with primary speech and/or language disorders (Protocol). Cochrane library database of systematic reviews
[3] Law, J., McBean, K and Rush, R. (2011) Communication skills in a population of primary school-aged children raised in an area of pronounced social disadvantage International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 46, (6) pp 657–664

[4] Sibieta, L., Kotecha, M. and Skipp, A. (2016) ‘Nuffield Early Language Intervention: evaluation report
and executive summary’, London: EEF. https:// educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and- evaluation/projects/nuffield-early-language-intervention/