UCL News


Bespoke support for nursery practitioners in disadvantaged areas would boost language development

29 June 2023

Early years practitioners working in socially disadvantaged areas should receive bespoke professional training to help boost children’s English oral language development, finds a study led by UCL.

Image shows a teacher reading with children

Early years practitioners working in socially disadvantaged areas should receive bespoke professional training to help boost children’s English oral language development, finds a study led by UCL.

Specialist training tailored to this group would increase the amount of talking by children in groups and their vocabulary development, by changing how staff talk with the children in their care.

Experts from the IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society, the University of Oxford’s Department of Education and Newcastle University carried out a trial of a universal language-focused intervention supported by the Nuffield Foundation. The intervention, Talking Time, empowered staff in early-years education settings to boost oral language skills for three- to five-year-olds in the lowest quintile for social deprivation.

Previous studies have found that 20% of children in areas of high social deprivation in the UK will face difficulties or delays in language development, compared to 5-8% of all children. Furthermore, children in the lowest quintile are on average nearly a year behind children from middle income families in vocabulary tests by the time they are five. Children who speak English and at least one other language, known as dual language learners (DLL), often have particular difficulties in English compared to their monolingual English-speaking peers.

Language delays from a young age have been associated with poorer academic performance and social difficulties as children grow up, including problems with literacy, behaviour and hyperactivity, which can impact on long term mental health and social difficulties.

Study lead Professor Julie Dockrell (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society) said: “This study demonstrates the need for a universal intervention to improve children’s oral language development in socially deprived areas. Furthermore, the positive results impacted on both monolingual English-speaking children and children who were DLL, indicating that high quality CPD training has the potential to enhance oracy skills for all children.”

For the study, published by UCL, more than 400 preschool children from 20 nurseries in London and 20 in the northeast of England took part. Of those participants, 17% of parents or carers had reported a concern with their child’s language and only 37% of children were read to every day. Overall, at the end of the intervention period, all children demonstrated a significant improvement in expressive vocabulary.

The children were randomly allocated to either the Talking Time programme or the business-as-usual programme. Talking Time focuses on high-quality, child-led conversations in small groups, prompted by books, resources and play activities designed to be engaging for children. It encourages staff to ‘co-tell’ stories with children rather than directly reading the text.

The intervention study consisted of three small-group activities, Story Conversations – co-construction of stories and conversations using book illustrations as prompts; Word Play – games designed to rehearse and reinforce vocabulary and concepts from Story Conversations; and Hexagons – story discussion and retelling based on photos of real and familiar situations, such as going shopping.

The programme also includes training and mentoring for staff to support them in using evidence-based techniques for talking with children.

By the end of the study staff were confident at using more of these language-supporting interactions with children. Audio-recordings of shared reading sessions showed that staff read less directly from the text, children participated more and there were more back-and-forth conversations between practitioners and children. Teachers said their practice had become more child-led and noticed that children were more confident to talk, particularly children with weaker language skills and DLL.

The vocabulary gains are important because the target words for children to learn were implicitly embedded in these flexible activities and materials, rather than scripted via formal teaching plans. Staff were not aware of what the target words were. The findings show that children can effectively learn new words through guided conversation and play.

The researchers say that with more support, Talking Time could reach more children across England to support their oral language development.

Dr Sandra Mathers (Department of Education, University of Oxford), who developed the professional training element of Talking Time, added: “We are particularly excited about the impact of the programme on the ways in which staff talked with children. This enhances the impact of the small group sessions – giving children’s language a greater boost - but should also give the programme a longer shelf-life because we are building staff expertise to support oral language in the longer term.

"We hope to be able to reach more children across the early years sector with Talking Time in the future to help young people develop the oral language skills they need to do well in school and become lifelong learners.”

Eleanor Ireland, Education Programme Head, Nuffield Foundation, said: “The Foundation has a long-standing interest in funding research on children’s early language development. We’re delighted that Talking Time is having a positive impact on improving language skills for young children living in socio-economically deprived areas who need the most support. Skilling up staff to deliver the programme may also lead to sustained improvements in language overall in early years settings, benefitting even more children.”

The study was supported by the Nuffield Foundation.



Media contact

Kate Corry

Tel: +44 (0)20 3108 6995

Email: k.corry [at] ucl.ac.uk