Research has shown that changes to the way practitioners organise their settings and interact with young children can have a significant impact on language development. Sal McKeown reports
There is no doubt that I CAN‘s Early Language Development Programme (ELDP) has made a difference to the lives of many young children in England and their families.
‘I like the fact it gives a sense of urgency and importance to what you are doing and impetus to intervene at the earliest point, to make a real difference.’ Lead Practitioner, Birmingham, UK
Research by the University of Sheffield and supported by the Department for Education (DfE) assessed language levels among children ranging from two to three years old whose staff had received the ELDP training. Changes were evident in children’s language development from eight weeks after staff training started.
The ELDP was a national training programme that ran from September 2011 to March 2015. I CAN, the British children’s communication charity, had funding from the DfE for the programme and reached 16,000 practitioners and over 150,000 families.
Jo Greaves, a consultant for speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) in the north of England, said: ‘This project helped practitioners understand the link between play, learning and language and promoted useful and informative discussions that supported practitioners’ learning. The course emphasises the importance of working with children’s communication from birth, which the participants found extremely useful.’
In central England parents learnt ways of playing with their children to support the development of speech, language and communication. This included singing and reading with them. Staff in early years’ settings felt that the training helped them to think again about how language develops and the link between play and language development.
The ELDP training is made up of three sessions:
Unit 1 – Babies and toddlers’ speech, language and communication development
Unit 2 – Working with under 3’s
Unit 3 – Working with parents and families to support young children’s speech, language and communication development
I CAN provided a DVD of video clips featuring experienced speech and language therapists and a set of hand-outs. The sessions involved looking at the videos, discussing points, and developing ideas and strategies practitioners could implement in their settings.
This could be organised in different ways, but in Cornwall they found that training for staff at all levels in a setting was especially effective: ‘When everybody is at the training, you are getting the manager as well as the lowest level person and the language and the conversation that comes out of that is far more valuable because it is reflective of all these levels. They go away with the whole setting pledge and they feel like “What are we going to work on together?” instead of being them by themselves.’
Training changed practice in professional settings. Staff were more aware of factors such as the level of background noise and took care to turn off music before they started. They also rearranged spaces to make sure there were quiet corners for chat. They tuned in better to what the child was trying to communicate, echoing back what they said, interpreting and rephrasing.
They used short sentences. As one lead practitioner in a nursery setting said: ‘It has been really beneficial. And I can see it in the way the staff work, giving the child time to think instead of asking them question after question after question, giving them that 10 seconds to think and try and answer, getting their eye connection. It’s definitely made a difference.’
At East Cheshire in north-west England staff and parents worked together on getting rid of dummies/pacifiers: ‘The staff had a big push on the dummies; we’ve been using distraction to try and get these dummies away… we’ve been doing more stories, more action rhymes. The parents have been on board with the whole dummy thing as well, which has been really nice, because some of those children that did have a dummy for most of the day… their speech has [now] been coming on.’
Working with parents
Myllia Patsalou is a community development outreach worker at Park Lane Children’s Centre in London where she works with children who have English as an additional language and children who have disabilities including autism, SLCN and some who are non-verbal. She took ideas and resources from the ELDP to train 81 parents in two children’s centres and five schools.
Parents were surprised to find they could encourage their child’s communication and language development at home. Some parents wanted to know when they should seek professional help for their children. Patsalou used a poster provided by I CAN to alert them to the ages and stages of typical speech development so parents could judge for themselves whether they should be concerned and be seeking more support. ‘Results have been amazing,’ she says.
‘I’ve had parents telling me that their child’s communication and language has really improved and teachers have fed back that children whose parents attended the I CAN course notice a positive shift in their educational attainment, particularly when used with other classroom activities. I was initially hesitant about delivering training.’
Impact on children
Settings reported that as a result of changes in practice at home and at nursery, children started to listen for longer and use more words when talking. They also communicated more, both with other children and with adults.
Dr Judy Clegg, Dr Maggie Vance and Carla Rohde, Department of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield conducted an evaluation, commissioned by I CAN with support from the DfE, to see if children’s progress was affected by the training. They used Zimmerman, Steiner and Pond’s Preschool Language Scales, a standardised test that measures children’s early language development and makes it easy to compare subjects’ performance to that of other children of the same age.
The children had to look at pictures, name items and carry out spoken instructions. They did a baseline test twice before the setting implemented the training and eight weeks later did a follow-up assessment. Practitioners were also asked to record the type of vocabulary children used and the length and complexity of instructions they were able to follow.
Using two baseline assessments meant practitioners were likely to get a valid assessment with less chance of error. It was a small scale evaluation with just 22 children in four settings in south-west and south-east England and one in the north-east. All were areas of social deprivation. They found that there was a significant statistical improvement between baseline and outcome assessments.
Key findings showed that girls had improved more than boys; that there were variations across settings, but children fared better in those settings which engaged better with the children and had a better infrastructure in place. The most interesting aspect was that practitioners rated children higher on the baseline tests than they actually were. However, their assessment of the children at outcome was much more accurate: so training had made them more reliable assessors as well as more skilled interventionists.
Back in nurseries and other early years’ settings practitioners are using the ELDP resources and are coming to realise the impact training is having on their professional practice. As a nursery manager and training attendee explained: ‘It opens your eyes to extend what you already do, and also to adapt what you already do to suit the needs of different children… the fact that at the age of two you can influence outcomes at age 26, that was the one thing that everybody took away. And when we mentioned it in parents’ information evenings, parents said, “Do you know, I never thought about it like that”.’
The funding has now finished but I CAN rolls out training support for practitioners on a licensee model. Practitioners outside the UK can contact I CAN for advice for resources based on the ELDP model.