Positive results for early language and pre-literacy intervention

A new study published in Child Development has found positive results for an intervention designed to improve early language and pre-literacy skills in children in Denmark.

Dorthe Bleses and colleagues conducted a randomised controlled trial of three variations of SPELL (Structured Preschool Efforts in Language and Literacy), to evaluate to what extent the intervention increased children’s language and pre-literacy skills compared to business as usual. SPELL, which is a Danish version of an existing programme, Read it Again-PreK!, is a 20-week storybook-based intervention for children aged  three- to six-years-old. Twice a week, children receive 30-minute lessons in small groups which include a before, during, and after reading activity to address the lesson’s objectives, which is delivered via an iPad-based digital learning technology.

For the trial, 6,483 children from 144 childcare settings were randomly assigned to one of three variations of SPELL, or continued with business as usual. Pre- to post-test comparisons showed an impact of all three interventions for literacy skills (effect sizes = +0.21 to +0.27) but not language skills (+0.04 to +0.16), with little difference among the three variations.

Source: The effectiveness of a large-scale language and preliteracy intervention: The SPELL randomized controlled trial in Denmark (2017), Child Development doi:10.1111/cdev.12859

Does encouraging contingent talk benefit language development?

A study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examines whether language outcomes for low socio-economic status (SES) children can be improved by encouraging contingent talk (how often the parent talks about objects in the child’s current focus of attention) through a low-intensity intervention.

In a randomised controlled trial with high- and low-SES families, 142 children aged 11 months and their parents were randomly allocated to either a contingent talk intervention or a dental health control. Families in the intervention watched a video about contingent talk and were asked to practice it for 15 minutes a day for a month. Families were visited in their homes twice when children were 11, 12, 18 and 24 months. Questionnaires were also collected by mail at 15 months. Parent communication was assessed at 11 months (baseline) and after one month. Infant communication was assessed at baseline, 12, 15, 18 and 24 months.

At baseline, the amount of contingent talk children hear is found to be associated with SES, with lower-SES parents engaging in less contingent talk. At post-test (when children were 12 months old) all parents who had taken part in the intervention engaged in more contingent talk, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Lower-SES parents in the intervention group reported that their children produced more words at 15 and 18 months. However, effects of the intervention didn’t persist at 24 months. So while parents’ contingent talk is increased through the intervention, and this is effective in promoting vocabulary growth for lower-SES infants in the short term, these effects are not long-lasting. The study concludes that follow-up interventions may be necessary to produce benefits lasting to school entry.

Source: A randomised controlled trial to test the effect of promoting caregiver contingent talk on language development in infants from diverse socioeconomic status backgrounds (April 2017), The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry doi:10.1111/jcpp.12725

One versus two years of ExCELL in preschool

While the effects of preschool programmes have often been studied, it is less common to find studies examining the effects of programme duration on student learning. Annemarie Hindman and Barbara Wasik from Temple University, Pennsylvania, examined the effects of providing one year versus two years of the teacher professional development programme Exceptional Coaching for Early Language and Literacy (ExCELL) on the language development and learning outcomes of three- and four-year-old children in the US preschool programme, Head Start.

ExCELL provides teachers with individualised coaching by providing a background in the concepts underlying preschoolers’ language and vocabulary development, evolving into ways to develop these skills in the classroom. Teachers are provided with curriculum materials and an academic year of month-long coaching, each month cycling through a group workshop, a coach modelling targeted techniques in the classroom, the teacher using these techniques independently, and finally the coach observing the teacher and providing feedback.

In the present study, 159 four-year-old children in Head Start experienced either one year (n=88), starting at age four, or two years (n=71), starting at age three, with teachers using ExCELL. Children were in 10 Head Start centres in the urban Northeastern United States in adjacent neighbourhoods with demographically similar populations. Almost all students and teachers were African-American and all were native English speakers.

At four years old, children were tested in the spring and autumn using standardised tests measuring vocabulary, sound awareness, and alphabet knowledge. Results showed that although the four-year-olds who had already received one year of the programme entered their second year with stronger vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and alphabet knowledge than their peers who had not yet experienced the programme, by the year’s end, these peers had caught up to them. The authors state that these findings suggest that ExCELL is most effectively taught in the second year of preschool.

Source: Is dosage important? Examining Head Start preschoolers’ language and literacy learning after one versus two years of ExCELL (2016), Early Childhood Development and Care

Practical support for preventing gang and youth violence

The Early Intervention Foundation has released two new reports on gang and youth violence, based on international evidence. The authors emphasise the importance of early intervention and of providing high-quality, evidence-based support to children and young people at risk of involvement, delivered in the right way by the right people.

The first report looks to identify who is potentially at risk of involvement in gangs or youth violence. Findings are grouped into five domains – individual, peer group, community, school, and family – with the strongest risk factors associated with the individual. This includes behavioural risk factors (eg, violent activity, exposure to and consumption of drugs and alcohol) and explanatory risk factors (eg, psychological issues such as symptoms of ADHD, hyperactivity, self-esteem, levels of aggression, and an inability to say no to peer pressure). The likelihood of involvement increased in line with the number of risk factors.

The second report identifies what types of programmes or interventions appear to be most effective in preventing involvement. Skills-based and family-focused programmes were found to be amongst the most robustly evaluated and effective types of programme. Mentoring, community-based, and sports-based programmes to tackle youth crime and violence appeared promising, but have a limited evidence base. In contrast, approaches based on deterrence and discipline (eg, boot camps) were ineffective, and may even make things worse (eg, increase the likelihood of offending).

Sources: Preventing Gang and Youth Violence: A Review of Risk and Protective Factors (2015), Early Intervention Foundation, and What Works to Prevent Gang Involvement, Youth Violence and Crime: A Rapid Review of Interventions Delivered in the UK and Abroad (2015), Early Intervention Foundation.

Interventions for children with autism: what works?

This systematic review from the Campbell Collaboration examines research on the effectiveness of early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI) in increasing the functional behaviours and skills of young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The core elements of EIBI, which is one of the better-established treatments for ASD, involve (a) a specific teaching procedure referred to as discrete trial training, (b) the use of a 1:1 adult-to-child ratio in the early stages of the treatment, and (c) implementation in either home or school settings for a range of 20 to 40 hours per week across one to four years of the child’s life.

The researchers looked for randomised controlled trials (RCTs), quasi-randomised controlled trials, and clinical controlled trials (CCTs) in which EIBI was compared to a no-treatment or treatment-as-usual control condition. Another criterion was that study participants needed to be less than six years of age at treatment onset and assigned to their study condition prior to commencing treatment. One RCT and four CCTs with a total of 203 participants met the criteria and were included in the review.

After analysing the research, the authors concluded that there is some evidence that EIBI is an effective behavioural treatment for some children with ASD. However, they say that additional studies using RCT research designs are needed to make stronger conclusions.

Source: Early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD): a systematic review (2015), The Campbell Library.

What works in the early years?

This synthesis of research from the US Institute of Education Sciences (IES) describes what has been learned from IES-funded research grants on early intervention and early childhood education. Their findings include the following:

  • There are critical associations between features of pre-kindergarten (Reception) classrooms – such as the quality of teacher–child interactions and the nature of teachers’ feedback to children – and children’s outcomes. For instance, the extent to which teachers are observed providing emotional support to children in their classroom is positively associated with children’s growth in social competence.
  • Parents’ and teachers’ support for children’s learning contributes to young children’s outcomes. As an example, one study showed that the extent to which parents were involved in their children’s schooling and their perceptions about their children’s teacher were related to their children’s academic and social competence.
  • Classroom teaching can be improved by providing professional development to teachers. Improvements may be seen in general measures of the teaching environment or in more specific ways, such as teachers’ use of assessment data to design individual teaching plans.

Additional findings are discussed in the full report.

Source: Synthesis of IES Research on Early Intervention and Early Childhood Education (2013), Institute of Education Sciences.