NELI’s language development programme - a useful tool in every school’s arsenal

Many professionals within the early years sector are understandably angry at the government’s record around the early years given its crucial importance in children’s life.  These include issues around insufficient funding, the development of new frameworks without genuine sector consultation and the lack of focus on supporting pre-school settings.  We are concerned that this frustration has led to misunderstandings being widely shared about a programme designed to support early language skills, and this may prove harmful for supporting informed decision making.

Recently, the government announced that it was working with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to scale up access to the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) for all state-maintained schools as part of the National Tutoring Programme put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  A recent report from the Education Policy Institute found clear evidence that the narrowing of the disadvantage gap has stalled even without the added pressure of COVID-19.  As such, the priority for researchers, policy makers, educators and parents must be to work together to ensure all children receive appropriate support.  However, misconceptions about NELI may impact the potential benefits it can bring to children in need of support. 

To be clear, some of the concern expressed is understandable. Schools want the best for their children and teachers are absolutely right to question whether a particular programme will fit within their context.  However, the main concern is that NELI ignores the importance of rich communicative environments to children’s language development, and instead is based on a model of passive, didactic learning.  This is not the case.  The programme is not designed to replace the language learning that takes place in high quality communication-rich environments.

We know that pre-COVID-19, a large proportion of children were starting school with poorly developed language skills, particularly in areas of deprivation.  This number is very likely to rise following the pandemic given the added emotional, financial and health concerns that many families have experienced and continue to experience.  And we know that without support, children who are struggling with the early stages of reading are likely to continue to fall behind while their peers continue to improve – a phenomenon known as the Matthew Effect.  Making sure the right support is available to these children is vital.  There will be many pupils whose language development will be well supported by high-quality, differentiated classroom teaching/support or small-group-based support incorporated into the classroom.  However, there will also be children who will benefit from additional support through individual or small-group interventions.  These are the children NELI has been developed for.  


Designed to be engaging

The programme combines theoretical knowledge about children’s language development with effective approaches to supporting children’s language that are frequently used by speech and language professionals. It was developed by a team of researchers in collaboration with education professionals and speech and language therapists, and widely piloted and tested in schools and settings across the country.  The sessions are designed to be interactive, multi-sensory and engaging, with flexibility built in for practitioners to adjust the sessions to the needs of the children.   NELI also incorporates a training package for staff as well as a clear assessment procedure to allow teachers and teaching assistants to identify children who may benefit from taking part.  This training will now take place online.   The use of online training is currently being evaluated, and previous changes to the training model from researcher led training to training by other professionals have been successfully managed.

There is now a great deal of evidence from carefully designed studies that have shown the effectiveness of this approach.  By participating in these studies, early years pedagogical experts have contributed to the continued design and development of the programme.  With support from the EEF, the programme has been trialled with 1,500 children in 227 schools across England.  The work is available to read on the Education Endowment Foundation website.   Importantly, schools are being given the opportunity to take part in evaluating this current roll-out of NELI, thereby providing more opportunity for early years professionals to provide invaluable feedback on the implementation of the programme in their settings. 


Helping the return to school

It is clear that implementation of this programme will not address all of the complex issues faced by teachers, children and families as children return to school.  Children starting school this year are doing so without having been able to take part in the usual preparatory activities, having experienced a period of huge instability and with their development being influenced by atypical environmental and social influences.  Work will need to be done to support children’s social and emotional wellbeing as they adjust to the school environment.  However, if school leaders are looking for a way to support the language skills of children in reception, they now have supported access to a programme which they can be confident will likely make a difference.  We know that those same school leaders who have successfully navigated their schools through the most challenging seven months of education in recent times will be well placed to make discerning decisions about what is best for their school. 

As such, where adopted, NELI should be used as part of a wider language-rich strategy across the school with a focus on developing children’s communicative competencies as a valued outcome.  NELI does not replace high quality communicative interactions in our settings and classrooms – but it can help accelerate the language development of children in need of additional support to enable them to access these interactions better and take advantage of them.  We know there is no magic bullet but why not have as many tools in your arsenal as you can?

Designing, developing, piloting, refining, trialling, delivering and evaluating interventions in schools is a team sport – it takes the blood, sweat and tears of many to create something with the potential to do so much. Science and education working together in a collaborative partnership is the key to this and we should be embracing the process. We would urge educators, researchers and policy makers to work together to identify the most effective ways to support children in the classroom as we move into the post-COVID era.  Making available high quality evidence-based interventions is a positive move, but we would encourage all those involved in designing and implementing these interventions to continue to monitor their effects across different cohorts and in different contexts in order to ensure all children receive the support they need.  Frustration with government policy should not detract from the potential of intervention programmes like the Nuffield Early Language Intervention to help cope with the consequences of Covid-19.

Our top tips for implementing interventions in your schools can be found here


The original piece was published by The Times Educational Supplement (TES) on 6th october, and you can read it here.

Claudine Bowyer-Crane is Associate Research Director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Megan Dixon is Acting Principal and Director of Aspirer Research School Acting Principal and Director of Aspirer Research School

Rob Newton is Associate Strategic Director at Huntington Research School and Social Mobility Project Manager at City of York Council.  He is an experienced school leader and most recently Acting Headteacher of an infant and nursery school.

Silke Fricke is Senior Lecturer in the Division of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield.

Both Claudine Bowyer-Crane and Silke Fricke are co-authors of the NELI programme

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