Report Overview

Previous Sutton Trust research has contributed to the evidence that language skills are a critical factor in social disadvantage and in the intergenerational cycles that perpetuate poverty.

This report, produced by the Sutton Trust, is a summary document which explains the rationale for the Coaching Early Conversations Interaction and Learning (CECIL) project – a mixed-method research project that aims to provide high quality provision for children in Early Years settings to enable them to develop strong communication and language skills.

Phase 1 was launched in March 2020, at the same time as the effects of COVID19 were first felt in the UK. It explored two support models led by specialist Speech and Language Therapy teams, ‘Launchpad for Language’ in Hackney and ‘Let’s Interact’ in Nottinghamshire, offering training, modelling, coaching, and mentoring for practitioners working with 2- and 3-year-olds. The pandemic significantly impacted both delivery and evaluation of the project.

Also connected to this report are the Institute for Employment Studies’ Implementation and Process Evaluation report and the University of Oxford’s Impact Evaluation report. 

Key Findings

Findings from interviews as part of the Implementation and Process Evaluation 

Perceived change in practitioner behaviour and the nursery environment  

  • Practitioners reported that they have increased skills, confidence, and motivation to support children’s language and communication development. 
  • Practitioners reported that they have increased knowledge and awareness of individual children’s language, which allows them to identify gaps and tailor strategies. 
  • Practitioners reported using strategies which enable interactions to be child led e.g., slowing down, balancing comments and questions, and OWLing (Observe, Wait and Listen to let the child lead the interaction). 

Perceived impacts on children’s language and communication skills 

  • The context of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt to have negatively impacted language and communications skills for some children, but other children were at the expected level or had higher levels of language. 
  • Both programmes appeared to be universal interventions which practitioners felt supported the language of all children at their settings, with particular benefits in targeting approaches for children who were struggling or had additional support needs, e.g., EAL or shyer children. 
  • Practitioners observed that improved language and communication skills also had benefits for personal, social, and emotional development, with increased turn-taking and verbal negotiation between children instead of just taking toys or objects from each other which could lead to conflict and fights. 

Findings from the Impact Evaluation 

There was significant attrition from those in the research sample, which resulted in a small sample size available for evaluation. As a result, results must be interpreted with caution, and more sophisticated approaches to analysis that would have been appropriate in a larger sample were simply not possible. 

Child language 

  • In Nottinghamshire, children in the Early Starter (intervention) group scored about 11 points higher on average than those in the Late Starter (control) group in Summer 2021 after controlling for scores at baseline. This difference was borderline statistically significant, suggesting that there may be an effect of the intervention despite challenges caused by the pandemic both to the intervention itself and the evaluation.
  • In Hackney, no significant difference was found between the Early and Late Starter groups in terms of children’s language development by Summer 2021. This does not mean that the intervention had no effect, only that the evaluation was not able to detect an effect, which may be a result of the very small analytical sample size. It is also worth noting that anticipated effect of the Hackney model relies more on the regular (weekly) presence of a SaLT in the setting, which was significantly reduced by COVID restrictions.   

Practitioners’ confidence and skills 

  • No significant differences were found between the Early and Late Starter groups in terms of change in confidence and skills based on practitioner self-report between Autumn 2020 and Summer 2021. This does not mean that the interventions in Nottinghamshire and Hackney had no effect; the evaluation was not able to detect one given the very small sample of practitioners (15 in Nottinghamshire and 14 in Hackney) for whom data could be matched across the two time points.   
Lessons Learnt

The value of coaching support

  • The coaching approach has been positively received by settings in both areas of the CECIL study.  

The value of a bespoke/ responsive offer 

  • The characteristics of PVI settings (tight staff ratios, limited time, space, and resources for training, less qualified workforce) mean that they particularly benefit from a tailored approach to CPD 

The value of expert input  

  • Expert knowledge of early childhood language and communication  
  • Encouraging and supportive coaching methods   
  • Flexible, responsive, and solution-focused approach 
  • Strategies, resources and prompts to reinforce practitioner learning 
  • General advice and responses to queries about individual children, or groups of children, including those where there were specific concerns 

Mechanisms for embedding learning and sustaining practice 

  • Systematic learning assessment tools
  • A coaching need protocol in order to offer additional coaching to identify those most likely to benefit.
  • Support to cascade learning. They also encouraged the practitioners in the trial to share their learning with others in the setting as a way of embedding their learning, although they recognised that more could be done to formalise this process.
  • Resources to reinforce and maintain key messages
  • Accreditation 

Valuable lessons from the University of Oxford Impact Evaluation, recommendations include:

  • The use of parent report alongside the researcher or practitioner assessment of child language.
  • The use of practitioner self-reporting in a larger-scale study, but, if possible, this should be complemented with an alternative measure based on researcher observation.
  • If using video recordings of practice, a structured approach that ensures the comparability and utility of video clips via a tightly defined set of.


Next Steps

CECIL 1.5 

  • An opportunity to embed and sustain good practice from Phase 1, exploring formal and informal accreditation and a transition into lighter touch support from the SaLT teams. 

CECIL Phases 2 & 3 Future Plans  

CECIL Phase 2A: Exploring further support models  

  • To date CECIL Phase 1 has explored two SaLT-led support approaches in Hackney and Nottinghamshire and for the next Phases 2 and 3, the intention is to explore alternative support options such as those led by language assistants or Early Years teachers 

CECIL Phase 2B & Phase 3: Exploring the role of support in embedding & sustaining the impact of an evidence-based intervention 

  • The forthcoming efficacy trial by the Education Endowment Foundation of the Hanen “Learning Language & Loving It” TM (LLLI) programme offers an opportunity to explore whether coaching early language approaches (such as those studied in CECIL Phases 1 and 2A) can support embedding of the LLLI programme in Early Years settings beyond the initial training period 5 

Future models of CPD in the Early Years sector 

  • The CECIL project is currently focused on CPD for Communication and Language, working primarily within the PVI sector. In the long term we are hoping to influence a more general conversation around the value of sustained CPD within the early years, particularly in the PVI sector. CECIL is well placed to explore a variety of different models of support that can lead to implementing sustained good practice.