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Targeting the language gap in EYFS children

Written by: Amanda Quirke
7 min read

Teachers are acutely aware of the literacy, communication and language challenges that some of their children face when they first enter the classroom. The link between disadvantage and low levels of language and communication in particular is well-researched; there are significant gaps in vocabulary between children from the least disadvantaged and most disadvantaged backgrounds (Save the Children, 2015).

The communication challenge facing children in deprived areas across our part of the North West drove us to develop this project, which ran between February 2018 and April 2019 and focused on children aged three to five. Led by Warrington Teaching School Alliance (WTSA) – part of Warrington Primary Academy Trust (WPAT) – and funded through the Department for Education’s Strategic School Improvement Fund, our objective was to give EYFS practitioners in 56 schools across seven local authorities the skills, strategies and teaching and learning techniques to help them improve children’s literacy, communication and language.

Schools were selected through Office of National Statistics (ONS) data that identified them as being in areas of high deprivation. Local authorities also helped to pinpoint the schools that would gain the most from the project. Nearly 2,000 children – mostly in Reception classes, as well as some in nursery provision – were involved in the project.

How it worked

High-quality CPD, delivered by experienced trainers and built around professional dialogue, rehearsal of strategies, reflection on impact and the sharing of success, was at the centre of the project. Research from a range of sources, including the Teacher Development Trust (Kirby, 2003), CUREE, Pearson School Improvement (Bell et al., 2012) and the Education Endowment Foundation (2019), informed its development.

Schools received a package of programmes and support, including the Talk for Writing EYFS CPD programme, a communication and language CPLD programme from Lingo and communication and language intervention training to deliver Talk Boost and Chatty Bats programmes. These providers were selected because they represented a mix of established interventions with a track record of success and newer programmes developed using the knowledge of speech and language learning experts.

Teachers were also trained in the early identification of children with speech, language and communication problems, in order to help them identify which children needed interventions or additional support, using the Communication Trust’s classroom observation tool. Individual assessment of children’s speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) was carried out using a range of assessment tools, including the Communication Trust’s Universally Speaking booklets.

Each school appointed project leads – often SENCOs or literacy leads – to head up the project’s literacy and communication and language strands. Headteachers and SLTs were updated through termly breakfast meetings. Clusters of schools attended half-termly professional learning network meetings so that they could support each other and review gap tasks, while expert practitioners in the form of SLEs (specialist leaders of education), LLEs (local leaders of education) and NLEs (national leaders of education) made half-termly support visits to each school.

Participating schools were offered support cover for staff attending professional development, and networking sessions and associated leadership time in school. In total, schools claimed back costs for 234 days of cover support.

Impact on children and staff

Schools measured children’s attainment levels at the beginning and completion of the project in a wide range of areas, including language use and development, talking with other children, curiosity and problem-solving. Staff at participating schools conducted baseline EYFS assessments at the beginning of the project and compared EYFS end scores against these; of course, it is worth noting that without a control group, the impact seen may have been due to other factors as well as the project.

SLEs also measured the quality of adult support using sustained shared thinking and emotional wellbeing (SSTEW) scales, comparing scores at the end of February 2019 against April 2018 baselines.

To assess the impact of Talk for Writing, in autumn 2018 teachers asked children to retell a story familiar to them, and the number of words used was recorded. The exercise was repeated with the same children in spring 2019 to measure the difference in the numbers and types of words used.

Staff were asked to grade their children’s progress across the range of learning areas at the conclusion of the project using an online questionnaire. The questionnaire asked them to grade children’s progress on a scale of level 1 to level 5. Level 1 was negative impact, 2 represented no impact and 3 indicated some impact of between five and 10 percentage points difference. Level 4 showed significant impact of over 10 percentage points difference and level 5 demonstrated substantial impact of more than 15 percentage points difference.

Participating staff – usually classroom teachers – were also asked to make detailed accounts of how the professional development impacted upon their pedagogy in a wide range of learning areas, including reading, writing, story-making and creative play.

Teachers were asked to detail what changes they had made as a result of the CPD and what differences the changes had made. For example, in reading, one participant noted that she had ensured that reading time with adults was increased, that at least two books, including favourites of the children and unfamiliar texts, were read to them daily and that reading opportunities were introduced into all areas of provision.

Staff were also asked to identify which aspects of their professional development they felt were most effective. Delivery by experienced trainers, professional dialogue with colleagues and an opportunity to reflect on successes at the beginning of each professional development session were common themes from their feedback.

HASCE, the University of Cumbria’s Health and Social Care Evaluations organisation, evaluated the findings. HASCE noted that in the communication and language strand, the data showed that schools reported significant effects on children’s learning: 97 per cent of all participating children made some positive progress, with 35 per cent of girls achieving the most frequently reported level of 4 and level 3 being the most common level among boys.

The project was as effective for children who were identified as disadvantaged by their schools using FSM data: 97 per cent of participants reported some level of impact, with 58 per cent at a high or highest level of impact. The project also had an impact on 90 per cent of children with SEND, with the majority of schools reporting mid-to-high impact on these children. Schools reported that 68 per cent of EAL children showed progress.

As with the communication and language strand, researchers reported significant impact on learning in every child involved in the literacy strand: girls (53 per cent) were more likely than boys (41 per cent) to achieve level 4, the most frequently reported level.

This data was broadly similar to the communications and learning strand findings but with less difference between the genders. Major effects were reported for children identified as disadvantaged, with 97 per cent of survey respondents recording mid-to-high levels of impact (levels 3–5) for these children.

Schools reported that the literacy strand had some impact on every child identified as SEND, with 44 per cent of respondents noting a high (level 4) impact.

The impact of this strand on the learning of EAL children was high, both in comparison to other groups of children within the literacy strand and when compared with the communications and language strand, as respondents reported the highest level of impact (50 per cent) for EAL children. Researchers stated that these figures suggest that Talk for Writing was particularly effective for children with EAL. We will need to conduct further research so that we can establish why this is. 

Agents of change

Researchers concluded that the project lead role in each participating school was critical to the programme’s success. Their report stated that these roles appeared to bear a responsibility to learn and to identify and disseminate good practice through training, supported by elements of the professional development training.

Researchers identified a number of examples of the effective dissemination of good practice by project leads. These included the cascading of information in team meetings and using online resources to build the skills of their team members. The project leads were also instrumental in leading their teams to develop effective audits and to complete their assessments and project actions in an efficient and timely fashion.

SLE support was also highlighted as a success. These highly skilled professionals were allocated to each school to reinforce key training messages, help schools solve any problems, develop actions and help participating staff reflect and learn. On each visit, their agenda included creating new professional development actions and supporting staff in their existing professional development targets. The visits helped each school’s project lead and team maintain the momentum of the project in their school. As well as paying regular support visits, the SLEs were the first point of contact on areas such as the capture and analysis of data.

The HASCE researchers said that this approach maintained clear support pathways and helped to develop strong relationships between the schools and their support network. Such strong relationships meant that both project participants and SLEs were always considering what, how, when and why they could change or adapt their practice in the light of new learning.

All staff involved in the project reported some level of impact, with almost half the respondents in each strand reporting the highest level of value. This led the researchers to recommend that this model of support be recognised as an example of good practice that could be easily transferred to other programmes.


More work is needed to determine why there are differences in impact between different groups, but the overall findings indicate that the project had a significant positive learning impact on a range of children – a point echoed by the HASCE researchers. They stated that the project was particularly successful in the way in which staff gained new knowledge and received support to translate knowledge into practice.

For further information about WTSA’s work, go to and


Bell M, Cordingley P, Hawkins M et al. (2012) Understanding what enables high quality professional learning: A report on the research evidence. Available at: (accessed 28 October 2019).

Education Endowment Foundation (2019) Communication and language approaches, evidence summaries. Available at: (accessed 28 October 2019).

Kirby J (2003) What makes effective CPD? In: Teacher Development Trust blog. Available at: (accessed 28 October 2019).

Save the Children (2015) Ready to read: Closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in England can read well. Available at: (accessed 20 November 2019).

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      Clare Margaret Clare Evans

      Following lockdown, we have noticed an increased number of children presenting with speech and language delay or disorder. Working in an area of high socio-economic deprivation – it would be interesting to carry out EBP in our PLC

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