Post-pandemic language recovery in reception year

Written by: Neil Henty | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We know that the pandemic has hit language development and literacy skills among our youngest pupils. In this article, Neil Henty considers post-pandemic language recovery in the reception year

What seemed an obvious side-effect of lockdowns, pupil absences post-lockdowns, and staff shortages now has validity in research. The deleterious effects of lost learning time have been seen in many aspects of child development, not least when it comes to wellbeing. In primary schools, and especially in reception, the effects also manifest in other more easily-measured areas, such as language and communication. This article looks at some lessons from recent reports by Kindred and the NFER, especially related to language and literacy.

Impact of Covid on attainment

The NFER report The impact of Covid-19 on pupil attainment (Twist et al, 2022) described general trends across a number of studies that used standardised tests to investigate the disruption Covid-19 caused to learning.

The findings indicate that all primary year groups performed below expectations in reading and maths when assessed in autumn 2020, with a further drop in spring 2021, most noticeable in the younger groups, followed by a narrowing of what the report terms “the Covid gap” by the summer of 2021.

The biggest impact was on early literacy skills in year 1. While the report does not mention the reception year, the inference can only be that reception children faced the same impact. The report states: “The proportion of children who struggled to engage with the reading assessment in year 1 more than doubled in summer 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic sample. We would have expected to see around 16% of pupils achieving a standardised score of 85 or less. In summer 2021, 27% of year 1 children in the nationally representative sample scored in this low band.”

The consequences of our youngest school children struggling with early reading and literacy skills are stark, such is the impact it has on later learning and life skills. On this point, the NFER report concludes: “In the current context, it is going to be even more important to ensure schools are adequately resourced for this, in order to reduce the risk that one consequence of the pandemic is an increase in the numbers of reluctant readers, along with the associated negative impact on their self-esteem and potentially behaviour.”

Interestingly, the report concludes that while literacy was most affected in year 1, from year 2 the biggest impact was on mathematics.

Impact of Covid on school readiness

At the back end of 2021, charitable foundation Kindred commissioned YouGov to conduct a school readiness survey. The respondents included almost 1,000 primary school teachers and support staff. Published in January 2022, the results were sobering: 50% of children in the reception year were not ready to start school. This was measured in many ways, including toilet training and the ability to follow instructions.

One of the biggest findings was that Covid has caused an upsurge in children arriving in reception not meeting their developmental milestones, such as not being able to hold a pencil, and not having basic language skills.

While the NFER report focuses on the negative impact on children and their learning, the Kindred/YouGov survey results add some context – “88% of primary school teachers and teaching assistants reported having to spend additional time with those not achieving their developmental milestones with the result that they have less time for the rest of the children in their class”.

The report reveals that many schools had hired an extra one or two teaching assistants in reception. However, the survey also revealed that simply hiring extra staff was not always enough and that many schools were paying for external phonics, numeracy and speech and language support. Schools have also been investing money into securing additional resources such as books for story-telling.

Interestingly, many teachers in the Kindred/YouGov survey believed the responsibility for school readiness rested firmly on the shoulders of parents, including exposure to a rich language environment.

While the lack of school readiness and lack of progress in literacy and maths does involve parenting, it would seem unfair to lay the blame solely on parents, given that they too will have been coping with lockdowns, furlough, home-schooling and everything else the pandemic threw at them. The expectation that parents would simply continue the progress being made at school pre-pandemic seems optimistic at best.

Impact of Covid on wellbeing

Ofsted has noted how both learning and school readiness had regressed following school closures during the pandemic. Chief inspector Amanda Spielman told Radio 4’s Today programme that Ofsted had found the pandemic was continuing to affect pupils’ knowledge and mental health. This was manifested in increased anxiety and unwanted behaviours.

The effect of the pandemic on children’s mental health should not be underestimated, with schools needing to take into account lower levels of resilience and confidence. Ms Spielman revealed that headteachers had raised concerns about delayed speech and language development among children in reception and noted that she was “particularly worried about younger children’s development, which, if left unaddressed, could potentially cause problems for primary schools down the line” (Hall, 2022).

What should not be overlooked is the fact that early education opportunities also suffered during the pandemic. Ms Spielman noted that take-up of the two-year-old funding offer dropped during the pandemic. Many early years settings struggled to stay open and many also saw low occupancy and little government support.

Impact of Covid on early years settings

The on-going pandemic impact on early years settings should not be overlooked when assessing how to overcome the learning loss. Many settings are being forced to increase fees for the hours not covered by the government’s funding schemes (Lawler, 2022).

The on-going disparity between the hourly rate paid by the government and the actual costs of delivering high-quality childcare (Walker, 2022) has led to price rises that are forcing parents to make difficult choices. The TUC reports (2022) that parents are now spending between half and a third of their salaries on childcare, while a survey by campaign group Pregnant then Screwed and NetMums (2022) found that a rising number of parents are forced to choose between childcare and food.

There is no doubt that meeting development milestones in reception and year 1 requires a healthy triumvirate of parenting, quality childcare, and primary schooling. The impact of Covid has affected each of these negatively, which has resulted in “lost learning” against expected attainment.

So what can be done?

Education recovery needs to be viewed in the long-term, not just for the children being measured now, but for the younger children who will be entering reception in the next four years. The Kindred report suggests that interventions are expensive, which they can be, but one programme has proved popular: the Nuffield Early Language Scheme.

Fully funded by the Department for Education, the scheme lasts for 20 weeks and is usually delivered by a trained teaching assistant in three small group sessions and two individual sessions to a targeted group of around three to six pupils for 20 weeks. Using the scheme can add four months’ progress, which in many cases would be enough to make up for the lost learning, in literacy at least (EEF, 2014).

Early Years Hubs will help to provide parenting and family support that has been missing ever since the government abandoned the Sure Start Children’s Centres that were so important to many of those families whose children are often deemed hard-to-reach.

However, no single intervention will be enough to help every child who has lost learning to “catch up” or to suddenly hit their age-related expectations. Schools will need to use a range of interventions, whether external or internal, that not only target literacy or maths, but also address wellbeing and developmental issues. In turn, the government needs to address funding for interventions over a period of years to help those children who may have missed out on quality early years environments before they enter the reception year..

Neil Henty is an education writer and the former editor of Early Years Educator and Childcare – sister magazines to Headteacher Update. Read his previous articles via

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