To accompany today’s report, Dr Anneka Dawson and Olivia Garner from the Institute for Employment Studies share some reflections on speech, language, and Covid-19.

Today’s 3-year-olds were only babies when the Covid-19 pandemic began, and whilst nurseries have remained open for most of this time, emerging evidence suggests there may already be some long-lasting impacts on the future development of these children. The government has focussed funding towards mitigating the effect of missed schooling, but less has been done for early years settings: in June 2021 the government announced £1 billion in extra funding for the National Tutoring Programme, whilst only £153 million was allocated for evidence-based professional development for early years practitioners.

Given the significance of speech and language skills developed in the early years for long lasting wellbeing and future outcomes (e.g. see the EPPSE study focussing on the effectiveness of early years education in the UK), this is a potential oversight. Nursery leaders and staff are increasingly showing concern over the speech and language capabilities of young children, as shown by research from Ofsted . A study for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) into the impact of Covid-19 on school readiness found the area that schools were most concerned about, after reopening in September 2020, was communication and language development, followed by personal, social and emotional development. Evidence also suggests inequalities are widening – socially disadvantaged children are more likely to have poorer speech and language than their peers, affecting their educational attainment and future life outcomes.

Research shows that age 2 to 3 in particular is a critical stage for development, and high-quality evidence-based early interventions improve outcomes for children (e.g. see the EEF Early Years Toolkit). IES recently led an implementation and process evaluation (IPE) of the Sutton Trust Coaching Early Conversation Interaction and Language (CECIL) project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, and the Lindsell Foundation which is published today here. The University of Oxford are also leading on a linked impact evaluation (find out more about this here). CECIL explores two continuous professional development (CPD) approaches which are designed to help practitioners in Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) settings to develop their practice to support speech and language outcomes for 2- to 3-year-olds.

Two Speech and Language Therapy Teams were identified for the project: the Children’s Integrated Speech and Language Therapy Service for Hackney and the City and Nottinghamshire Healthcare’s Children’s Centre Speech and Language Therapy Team. Each team built upon their existing programmes, including incorporating further coaching elements (amongst other changes), whereby practitioners would be supported by the Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) based on videos they had recorded of their own practice. For the implementation and process evaluation we explored how the interventions were delivered and identified contextual factors influencing potential impact. We used interviews and surveys with practitioners and nursery managers to explore any reported changes in practitioner behaviour, the nursery environment, and child language and communication outcomes as described by practitioners. We also explored evidence of effectiveness and issues which need to be considered for a wider roll-out of the interventions. The main findings were as follows:

  1. Perceived impacts on practitioners: Both approaches showed that through training and coaching sessions with the SLT, practitioners had increased their understanding of children’s speech and language and learned skills to interact with the children to support their development. There were also changes made to the nursery environment, as practitioners shared their learnings, facilitated by nursery managers. The one-to-one coaching sessions allowed practitioners to further embed ideas and strategies and reflect on their own practice, reinforcing learning. The presence of a SLT in the setting and through the coaching was the central value of the programme and practitioners and nursery managers alike valued the SLT’s input and expertise.
  2. Perceived impacts on children: Both programmes appeared to be universal interventions which practitioners felt supported the language of all children at their settings but were particularly beneficial for targeted approaches with children who were struggling or had additional support needs, e.g. children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) or shyer children. Improved language and communication skills also had benefits for personal, social and emotional development with increased turn-taking and verbal negotiation between children.
  3. Barriers to working with PVIs: Staff shortages due to Covid-19 and the time commitment required meant there were some issues with releasing staff to take part in the training or coaching, and this was made extra challenging as staff could not be transferred between rooms or bubbles. There were also barriers around the use of technology, including some technical issues with accessing training, coaching and learning material e.g. filming videos. Overall, staff and programme deliverers adapted relatively well to the need for remote learning.

Considerations for working with PVIs in future:

  • Providing settings with resources e.g. printing materials in preparation.
  • Delivery of training and coaching delivery should be face- to- face wherever possible.
  • It may be practical to use a venue local to settings if they have limited space or availability.
  • Managers should liaise with staff to determine key priorities for training.

These findings suggest that early years professional development programmes involving coaching from Speech and Language Therapists may be a helpful way to improve quality of practice in PVI settings and close inequality gaps, an increasingly important mission in the wake of the pandemic. Further implementation of such approaches requires careful consideration of the context of PVI settings’ resources and capacity, to limit disruption and accommodate their needs, especially when using potentially unprecedented video-based coaching.

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