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Empowering staff to enhance oral language in the early years: Cluster randomised trial

Dockrell, Julie; (2023) Empowering staff to enhance oral language in the early years: Cluster randomised trial. UCL Institute of Education: London, UK. Green open access

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Abstract

Talking Time© is a universal intervention targeting the oral language skills of children aged between 3 to 5 years of age. The intervention is designed to support early years’ practitioners to deliver a programme of engaging structured activities to children in small groups in the nursery setting. Talking Time© was originally conceived and implemented in a quasi-experimental study in three nursery schools in London (Dockrell et al., 2010). The manual and professional development (PD) were expanded to incorporate recent research evidence. The updated programme was designed to equip staff with the knowledge and skills needed for flexible, high-quality implementation using evidence-based ways of talking with children, and support them in adapting and embedding the programme into regular classroom practice. After postponement of the first trial due to the COVID-19 pandemic (2019-2020), the current cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT) ran from September 2021 to July 2022. Forty nursery schools from the lowest quintile of deprivation in London and the Northeast were recruited, with a final sample of 36 schools randomised into intervention or business-as-usual (BAU) groups. Although significantly challenged by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the trial was completed with reduced numbers of planned participants (children and settings), alterations to the format of the staff training and with a shortened intervention period. Baseline and follow-up data captured the effect of the intervention on child language, child behaviour and practitioner-child interactions. Analyses evaluated the main effects of Time (Baseline vs Follow-up); Condition (Intervention vs BAU) and Language Status (Monolingual English vs Dual Language Learners). The success of the intervention was determined by a significant interaction between Time and Condition – hereby referred to as the intervention effect - demonstrating larger gains for the intervention group compared to the BAU group at follow-up. The intervention effect was measured on three different outcome levels: assessments of expressive vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and oral narrative skills at the child level; improved adult-child interaction during book reading at the practice level; and improved parent/carer-report of language and behaviour. An implementation and process evaluation (IPE) captured programme implementation, adaptation and future feasibility via staff reflections, surveys and interviews. Key findings: • Baseline child data clearly demonstrated the need for a targeted universal intervention to support oral language in the early years. Nursery children in these deprived areas were below average on measures of receptive and expressive language; approximately 17% of parents/carers reported a concern with their child’s language; and only 37% of children were read to every day at home. • Dual language learners (DLLs) had poorer oral language performance than their English-speaking peers but appeared to have strengths in phonological awareness at baseline. • There was significant growth over time on standardised language tasks for all children (i.e. those in the intervention and BAU groups). Children who were DLL demonstrated greater improvement in receptive and expressive language than their peers. This potentially highlights the benefit of attending nursery for children who are DLL, to help improve their English language skills. • Over and above children’s general language growth, the Talking Time© intervention significantly improved children’s expressive vocabulary, assessed by a bespoke measure of target object and action words. This is noteworthy because the target words were implicitly embedded within the flexible intervention activities and materials: staff were unaware of the target words and their introduction and use was not prescribed; and vocabulary was introduced via shared book reading and guided play rather than being formally taught. There was also a trend for improvement in children’s expressive language as measured by a sentence repetition task. • No effects were identified for other standardised measures of oral language. However, these findings cannot be considered conclusive. The challenges of COVID-19 meant that the intervention programme did not run fully as intended, despite huge efforts and great commitment from participating schools. Recruitment was also affected. Further research under less challenging conditions, with a larger sample size – and also potentially a longer time frame and additional follow-up time-points - are needed to examine effects for the standardised language measures. • Parent/carer reports of language use identified a significant intervention effect for items identified on the home language scale for children who were DLL. With a small return rate this finding should be interpreted with caution, but it could indicate some transfer effects of the intervention, suggesting that exposure to quality adult-child interactions in early years settings in English has an effect on children’s reported language development in their home languages. • Participating practitioners were asked to share a story book with children at baseline and at the end of the study. In the baseline measure, nursery staff demonstrated a range of practices. An intervention effect was identified for the average number of conversational turns and the proportion of prompts used. Staff in the intervention group also reduced the extent to which they read directly from the text in comparison to the BAU group. These findings indicate the Talking Time© intervention influenced a shift in use of oral language exchanges with children and encouraged practitioners to follow the children’s lead more. • Nursery practitioners’ perspectives supported these positive findings, with staff reporting benefits of intervention for both practice and child outcomes, particularly for children with additional language needs. • Overall Talking Time© was well-received by schools and was feasible to implement. Nursery staff reported finding both the materials and professional development helpful, with the mentoring element identified as particularly supportive. Staff reported using programme materials flexibly as intended and that their confidence in adapting activities and materials grew over time. Delivery of the programme among the majority of schools was high. • However, wide-ranging implementation challenges were also highlighted. Levels of COVID-related staff and child absence were high and schools varied in the degree with which they implemented the programme. As noted above, these may have influenced the potential of the programme to impact on child language outcomes. • While the primary constraints of time, staffing and child absence were related to (or exacerbated by) COVID-19, others related to wider school, staff, child or programme factors. These offer learning for how best to support practitioners in future programmes, and for the future refinement of Talking Time©. • Overall, the Talking Time© intervention produced positive results in challenging circumstances. The Talking Time© programme had a significant positive impact on targeted expressive vocabulary embedded within the activities indicating that language-supporting adult-child interactions can occur through provision of a flexible and an adaptive intervention programme. No intervention effects were identified for the standardised measures of language, although there was a trend for children in the intervention group to have greater gains on the Sentence Repetition task. Importantly adult talk in the intervention groups changed significantly. Intervention practitioners invited more contributions from children and used techniques for extending the length of these conversations. By corollary there was significantly more talk by the children in these group discussions in the intervention group. Future evaluation in less challenging contexts – and assessing a wider range of practice and child outcomes - is needed to further examine the potential of the approach.

Type: Report
Title: Empowering staff to enhance oral language in the early years: Cluster randomised trial
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Publisher version: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/departments-and-centres/...
Language: English
Keywords: Oral language, preschool, universal intervention, social disadvantage
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education > IOE - Psychology and Human Development
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10170459
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