EEF research finds encouraging young children to engage with pictures, texts and questions during story time can boost early language development

Getting young children to engage with pictures, texts and questions through interactive reading approaches can accelerate their early language development, with some making up to seven additional months’ progress. This is according to an updated version of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Early Years Toolkit, launched today (Wednesday 8th February).


The updated Early Years Toolkit summarises findings from the best available international evidence. It is designed to support early years professionals to use their resources to improve learning outcomes for their children, particularly those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.


The Toolkit includes evidence on ten topics, including parental engagement (+ five months) and giving children extra hours of early years provision (+ three months). For each topic, it presents an average impact in months progress, alongside information on cost and the strength of the evidence base. 


According to the Toolkit entry on “communication and language”, approaches that support early language development – such as interactive reading and teaching and modelling vocabulary – can have a very high impact on learning and are inexpensive to implement.


Interactive reading strategies could include encouraging young children to think about what happens next, or to relate stories to their own experience. Vocabulary strategies could include explicitly labelling the different parts of an object – such as a flower – and encouraging young children to repeat the different words.  


These high potential approaches to early communication and language are explored further in a brand-new resource, the Early Years Evidence Store, also launched today. Developed as part of the EEF’s work supporting the Department for Education’s Stronger Practice Hubs, the Evidence Store takes a deeper look at priority themes for early years learning and development. It explains and illustrates how different evidence-informed approaches can be put into practice with children in early years settings.


According to pre-pandemic estimates, the attainment gap between socio-economically disadvantaged five-year-olds and their classmates was around 4.6 months in 2019. Research by the EEF found that there were, on average, three more children per class, not reaching the expected levels of development by the end of reception class in 2021, when compared to pre-pandemic levels.


The release of the updated Toolkit and the new Evidence Store are part of the EEF’s increased focus on early years education, in recognition of the crucial role that early years provision plays in combatting education inequality.


Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:


“Giving every child access to great learning and development opportunities in the early years is absolutely crucial to making sure they achieve their potential. Early years professionals play a central role in this mission. But, with the sector facing a number of immediate challenges, they shoulder a huge amount of responsibility in their day-to-day working lives.


“We want early years professionals feel empowered to use education evidence to their advantage, so that they can make informed choices about the strategies they adopt in their practice.


“Through our renewed focus on the early years – and the new resources we’ve launched today – we hope that the EEF can play a role in providing meaningful and timely guidance to all those working at this crucial stage of our education system.”   


Dr Lesley Curtis OBE, Headteacher at Everton Nursery School and Family Centre, said:


“Here at Everton Nursery School and Family Centre we constantly use education research to inform and improve our practice.


“Using evidence provides opportunities for all staff within the Nursery School to reflect and question their practice at a deeper level. This in turn impacts on the life chances of young children through having high quality reflective educators”.


Liz Bolt, Manager at Roberttown Community Centre and Pre-School, said:


“I think I would say that to truly make a difference for children, we need to know what works (everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere). To evaluate this, we need to see evidence of research, its application and effectiveness, and look at how this relates to our cohorts of children and their specific needs.”


Rob Newton, Associate Strategic Director at Huntington Research School, said:


“Every early years educator will recognise much of the content of the toolkit and evidence store as fundamental components of their practice.


“These updated and new resources shine a research informed spotlight on aspects of that can potentially make the biggest difference for our youngest children.


“They can really support practitioners to continue to improve practice and provision in their settings.”