Evaluation of NELI, the evidence-based Nuffield Early Language Intervention

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Researchers conducted a randomised controlled trial into the effectiveness of NELI, a language support programme designed to improve children’s vocabulary, listening and narrative skills.

They found that the intervention appeared to have a positive impact on children’s language skills, adding the equivalent of three months of progress in language skills compared to non-participants.

What is the issue?

The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers starts early in education and continues throughout schooling. Interventions that target spoken language skills in children’s early years have significant potential to narrow this gap.

The Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) is a language support programme designed to improve children’s vocabulary, listening and narrative skills. It is delivered by specially trained teaching assistants working with children in reception (4–5 year olds) individually and in small groups.

Previous evaluations, including an Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)-funded independent efficacy trial, found that NELI had positive effects on language skills.

How did we help?

RAND Europe was commissioned by the EEF to conduct a randomised controlled trial into the effectiveness of NELI. The study aimed to understand the impact of the intervention and assessed how effectively the intervention is implemented.

The team used a two-arm randomised controlled trial covering 1,156 students across 193 schools in England, recruited from a range of geographical areas and randomly assigned to a ‘treatment’ or ‘control’ group. Five children with the poorest language skills were selected from each class in participating schools to take part in NELI for 20 weeks.

What did we find?

NELI appeared to have a positive impact on children’s language skills:

  • Compared to children who did not receive NELI, children on the programme progressed on average an equivalent of three additional months in language skills and two additional months in early word reading.
  • Children with English as an additional language (EAL) on the NELI programme similarly made the equivalent of three additional months’ progress in language skills compared to EAL children who did not receive NELI.
  • Teaching assistants, teachers and headteachers agreed that NELI had a positive impact on children’s language skills, with teaching assistants commenting that they observed improvements in the vocabulary of children, as well as in their narrative and story-telling skills, their attention and engagement levels, and in their confidence when communicating.

Training and support for staff had a positive effect on children:

  • Surveys and interviews from the process evaluation showed that schools believed the training and ongoing support provided was clear, useful and sufficiently detailed for them to deliver the intervention effectively.
  • Initial training attendance was high, and while top-up training attendance was lower, the vast majority of teaching assistant survey respondents made use of ongoing support such as telephone calls, webinars or forums.
  • There was variation in the number of sessions that schools delivered to pupils, however when teaching assistants attended training and delivered a larger number of sessions, there appeared to be better language outcomes for pupils.

Feedback on implementation by staff:

  • A majority of headteachers, teachers and teaching assistants surveyed did report that it was challenging to fit NELI into the school timetable.
  • They also reported that TAs require several specialised skills, including the ability to communicate with children and build rapport, and the ability to make the intervention engaging, in order to implement NELI.