Making a difference to the early years language gap

Written by: Amanda Quirk | Published:
Time to talk: Teachers from the Warrington Teaching School Alliance have been creating opportunities to have quality interactions with children focusing on developing literacy, communication and language skills

A project across a number of primary schools to improve the communication skills of EYFS children has made huge strides. Amanda Quirk looks at how

Children living in deprived areas already have their fair share of challenges before they start school. And once they are through the gates, the extent of the challenges they face become all too clear.

Literacy, communication and language skills are among the key issues for these children. According to ICAN, a children’s communication charity, the largest cognitive skills gap they face is in vocabulary – children from low-income families are almost a year behind their peers by the time they start school (ICAN, 2019).

This worrying gap was the main reason we created this project. The objective was simple: give Early Years Foundation Stage practitioners in 56 schools in disadvantaged areas across seven local authorities the skills, strategies and teaching and learning techniques they needed to help them improve children’s literacy, communication and language. Nearly 2,000 children – mostly in Reception classes, as well as some in nursery provision – were involved in the project.

The project was led by Warrington Teaching School Alliance – part of Warrington Primary Academy Trust (WPAT) – and funded through the Department for Education’s Strategic School Improvement Fund.

Our project had two main strands: literacy, and communications and language. Professional development was a cornerstone of the programme. Schools received a package of programmes and support, including the Talk for Writing EYFS CPD programme, a Lingo communication and language CPLD programme, and communication and language intervention training to deliver the Talk Boost and Chatty Bats programmes. Practitioners were also trained in the early identification of speech, language and communication problems.

Project leads – often SENCOs or literacy leads – were appointed in each school to head up the project’s two strands.

Clusters of schools attended half-termly professional learning network meetings so that they could support each other and review gap tasks, while expert practitioners and specialist, local or national leaders of education made half-termly support visits to each school. Headteachers and their senior leaders were kept updated on the project’s progress through termly breakfast meetings.

Schools also received support cover towards staff attending CPLD and associated leadership time in school.

St Barnabas CE Primary in Liverpool has 198 children on roll, with 30 children in its Reception class. Most children arrive with a baseline score way below the national average.

Reception class teacher Helen Dodd said that they focused their attention on encouraging reading and building a love of language with the children. The use of story maps – a key element of the Talk for Writing programme – had led to the children being able to tell a number of stories by heart and adapt basic story outlines to make their own stories during independent learning time.

“We have found that our children sometimes struggle to think of what they can write about which has impacted the amount of independent writing (they can do),” Ms Dodd explained. “Due to the children now being able to tell a number of stories by heart, they have been more motivated (about) writing This has positively impacted how often they apply their writing skills.”

One of the aims of the project was to give settings tangible strategies to encourage more quality small group interactions. This was achieved through a combination of new teaching strategies and changes to the learning environment.

Feedback highlighted how small group interaction with young children allowed practitioners to be more responsive, have more conversations with children, and to follow their areas of interest.

One participating school commented that the project gave the children with the poorest language increased opportunities to talk and interact, giving them vital practice in communication skills.

Following the recommendations of project leads and the language and communications programmes, staff at St Hughes Catholic Primary in Liverpool set about transforming the learning space. They rearranged furniture to create a more open area for children to use independently for a variety of activities including role-play, turn-taking games, and retelling stories using stick puppets and books. The area was also used for adult-led small group activities.

Clever rearrangement of furniture and shelving created a more enclosed and clearly defined reading area, while a child-level working wall of vocabulary was created for use during adult-led small group sessions.

Other effective strategies included chatterboxes – simple boxes of toys used to stimulate conversation with and between children.

Staff also received CPD to encourage both dialogic reading (which means that rather than us reading and the child listening, the child is encouraged to become the story-teller, with the adult listening and questioning) and shared reading where appropriate. Many staff reported that this had given them permission to share books with children to encourage language rather than writing.

One staff member said: “All staff are confident in supporting children to develop their vocabulary ... on a daily basis we introduce new vocabulary, explain the meanings of words, use pictures to support meanings, label objects verbally, encourage children to use new words and model language that children are not yet using.”

The impact

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. The findings were evaluated by the University of Cumbria’s Health and Social Care Evaluations (HASCE).

Staff were asked to grade their children’s progress across the range of learning areas at the project’s conclusion using an online questionnaire. The questionnaire asked them to grade children’s progress on a scale of Level 1 (negative impact) to Level 5 (substantial impact of more than 15 percentage points difference).

The University of Cumbria evaluation noted that data from the communication and language strand revealed a significant impact: 97 per cent of all participating children made some positive progress.

The project was as effective for children identified as disadvantaged: 97 per cent of participants reported some level of impact – with 58 per cent at a high level of impact.

And the project had an impact on 90 per cent of children with SEND, while the schools reported that 68 per cent of children with English as and additional language (EAL) 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.

Schools reported that the literacy strand had some positive impact on every child identified as SEND. The impact of this strand on the learning of EAL children was also high. Researchers said that Talk for Writing was particularly effective for children with EAL.

Agents of change

Researchers concluded that the programme’s success depended on the effectiveness of the project lead role in each participating school. The researchers said that these roles appeared to have a key part to play in identifying and sharing good practice through training and CPD.

We still need to do more to work out why there are differences in impact between different groups, but overall the findings show that the project made a significant, positive learning impact on a range of children.

The University of Cumbria researchers said that the project was particularly successful in the way staff gained new knowledge and how they were supported to translate that knowledge into practice.

  • Amanda Quirk is early years development manager at Warrington Primary Academy Trust (WPAT), a MAT consisting of six primary schools in Warrington and Widnes. Visit

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