Concerns over missed education for young people have spread around the world with schools and colleges firmly shut for long stretches because of COVID-19. In England, the Government has announced large-scale funding to help education recover from the devastation of the pandemic. As part of this, the very youngest children, who have poor oral language skills and have been particularly affected by the switch to online learning, will be able to access specialised help – key to academic success.
It is widely recognised that language skills are fundamental to many aspects of cognitive and psychosocial development, and that poor language skills are a barrier to educational success.
Developed by an Oxford team, led by Professors Charles Hulme and Maggie Snowling, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) programme improves oral language skills in young children. According to research by this group, there can be a transfer effect with oral language interventions, leading to improved reading comprehension. As a result of official funding, it is hoped that all primary schools in England that want it, will benefit from the Oxford oral language programme. Last autumn, the Department for Education announced a £9 million investment in the programme, with a further £8 million announced for next academic year. In this academic year, this funding has enabled the programme to be delivered by some 6,500 schools. Schools wishing to register interest can do so here.
The current rollout of the NELI programme in English primary schools is a stunning example of how basic academic research can be translated into practical application at large scale. Professor Hulme says, ‘Children’s oral language skills are a critical foundation for the whole of formal education. To learn in the classroom, children need to understand what is said to them and be able to express their thoughts and feelings. Good language skills underlie a child’s ability to learn to read and to master arithmetic.’
Dr Gillian West, a member of the research team, comments, ‘Language skills are also critical for children’s social and emotional development, and their ability to make friends.’
Language skills can vary greatly among social groups. According to Professor Hulme, ‘It is well established that children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds often enter school with weak language skills. The NELI programme offers the potential to help reduce social inequalities in educational outcomes and can also be used effectively with children for whom English is an additional language.’
The schools taking part identify five or six children in each reception class with the weakest oral language skills.
Last month, a study of NELI’s effects by Professor Hulme showed that the programme produced sizeable improvements in children’s language skills and small improvements in word reading skills.
Teachers and teaching assistants are trained to deliver the NELI programme using an online training programme, developed by the Oxford team, and delivered on the FutureLearn platform. The schools taking part identify five or six children in each reception class with the weakest oral language skills.
These children receive the programme get two 30 minute group sessions each week and three 20 minute individual sessions. During these periods, the children are involved in speaking and listening activities including storytelling and learning new words. Once staff are trained, NELI can be implemented in schools year after year, benefitting generations of children.
Identifying those children who would benefit from the programme is key. Teachers need a way to identify language weaknesses when using the NELI programme. A ‘LanguageScreen’ assessment app has been developed by Professor Hulme’s research group in collaboration with Dr Mihaela Duta and Dr Abhishek Dasgupta in Oxford’s Department of Computer Science. It is now available to all schools via an Oxford spinout company (LanguageScreen.com). Dr Duta says, ‘It is a great pleasure to bring software engineering to bear on an issue of such social importance.’
The Education Endowment Foundation, with private equity enterprise ICG, provided funding to develop online training for the programme, ensuring it could be offered in a social-distanced manner as well as at national scale.
LanguageScreen runs on a tablet or phone and gives teachers an accurate and rapid assessment of a child’s language ability via a secure automated online report. LanguageScreen will allow teachers to monitor the development of children’s language skills.
This article was originally published on the Oxford Arts Blog, 27 April 2021.
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