Speech and language: The 30 million word gap

According to one influential piece of research, disadvantaged children hear 30 million fewer words than their peers. Early years expert James Hempsall explores efforts to address the language gap.

In what has become iconic research, disadvantaged four-year-olds in the US were found to have heard 30 million fewer words than other children. This is a staggering and extraordinary idea. Researchers also identified a difference in the type and quality of interactions experienced by less well-off children with quality and quantity found to be of equal importance.

Although not without its critics - mainly around sample size and the estimates leading to the headline 30 million words conclusion - the research rightly focused our attention on what we all know - that early speech, language and communication deficits are powerful forces in holding children back, affecting their achievement and wellbeing into adulthood. This is something evidenced by a raft of similarly stark and convincing statistics published in the 25 years since the 30 million word gap study came out. These include research from the Institute of Education in 2006, which found the quality and quantity of children's vocabulary at age five is a strong predictor of how well they are doing aged 34. Meanwhile, nearly two thirds - 65 per cent - of young offenders have been found to have unidentified speech, language and communication needs.

Studies show children with larger vocabularies achieve more academically and display better behaviour. However, by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) a third of disadvantaged children have speech, language and communication delays compared with one sixth of their peers. UK children in receipt of free school meals and who live in disadvantaged areas are 2.3 times more likely to have a speech, language or communication need. Research by Ofsted found a clear link between disadvantage and poor "school readiness" including communication.

Children with poor vocabularies in their early years continue to struggle when they start school and are typically a year behind their peers - a gap that continues to grow through primary and secondary education, culminating in poorer GCSE results. What's more, their school lives are more likely to be characterised by difficulties including when it comes to paying attention, persistence, and forming relationships.


  1. Get the message right for all. Use low- and no-cost methods to raising public awareness of the importance of speech and language development. Messages need to be around the importance of attachment, conversation, responsiveness; the impact of dummy use, screen time, busy lives; and the difference between children's "activities" and quality relationships and interactions.
  2. Share information and resources. Everyone needs ready access to information so they know what to expect in terms of communication and language skills at different ages and stages of children's development. They also need tools to monitor if children are on track. There are plenty of evidenced intervention packages and strategies for those who aren't on track.
  3. Give parents the tools. Parents are the main educators of children in the early years and need to know how important early communication skills are and how to develop them when they are with their children. Settings can play a key role in providing information, resources, and suggestions for home-based activities. They also can kick-start partnership working with parents which is so beneficial to children as they move on to school.
  4. Connect to early years and childcare entitlements. The government-funded universal 15 hours, targeted 15 hours for two-year-olds or 30 hours childcare for working families all offer engagement opportunities to support families with early identification of speech, language and communicationissues, improve home learning environments, and develop partnerships with professionals.
  5. Make the best of the workforce. Use the skillset of your workforce to maximum effect so the most experienced staff work with the youngest and most vulnerable children - something often delegated to the least experienced and skilled staff. Enable all staff and volunteers to access training and qualifications that will help them support children's communication and language development.
  6. Develop targeted programmes and challenge expectations. Speech, language and communication is key for all children but some need more support than others. White working class groups - especially boys - are among those that tend to fall behind. For pre-school children with English as a second language, promoting use of their home language can be incredibly beneficial but families often tend to prioritise English.
  7. Monitor progress. Keep a close eye on children's progress to identify those who are falling behind and need extra support. Leaders need to ensure there are robust systems in place to do this and that staff are trained to use them.

Given early years and school curricula are delivered through spoken and written language, it makes absolute sense to equip staff and parents to tackle this problem. We not only need to recognise speech, language and communication needs, but also to know how to intervene where support is needed, and build speech, communication and language into everything we do in much bigger and better ways than we have before.

This has been recognised and acted upon by government. Speech, language and communication is a core issue within the Department for Education's early years social mobility plan and funding has been made available for a range of early years initiatives that recognise the significant impact of starting school with poor communication and language skills (see box). Investment is being made in national schemes to train health visitor and early years professionals to support families around speech, language and communication and a raft of early language and literacy schemes run by councils and charities.

One such scheme is TALK Derby, an Opportunity Area programme aimed at ensuring speech, language and communication needs are picked up early. Hempsall's has just started working with schools, early years settings and childminders to co-ordinate the programme, which will involve targeting assessment and training in eight wards of the city alongside efforts to raise awareness and promote action city-wide.

Despite targeted resources, the challenges are many, and also require local attention and investment. In particular, practitioners need initial and regular training to ensure good communication skills remain a priority in early years settings and schools. In the same way you cannot build a house without getting the foundations right, good exam and test results cannot be achieved without good communication and language skills. Speech, language and communication needs to be explicitly found in all curricula in order for teachers and early years practitioners to focus on it, and for Ofsted to inspect it.

Parents and the extended family as primary educators of children are vitally important. This is about much more than bedtime stories, significant as they are. Extending a child's vocabulary, promoting chat, singing and playing are key. But in disadvantaged households the stresses and strains of daily life can reduce the positive interactions and conversations parents have with their children, and the awareness of and ability to support good communication skills.

It is really important early years services work together as we can make a huge impact both as part of our day-to-day work with children and families, and by extending our focus into the home learning environment. But early years provision on its own is not enough and needs to be followed by high-quality education across the board. Appropriate support must be provided for children who do not reach the required levels in communication and language at the end of the EYFS. We also need to enable the teaching and learning of underlying skills that promote communication and language development. This includes personalised learning and "dialogic teaching" - where there is ongoing discussion between teachers and students rather than teachers doing all the talking.

Together we can ensure children's speech, language and communication needs are recognised, supported, addressed and their learning can be much more successful before they start school, during their school years, and through to employment and adult life. By doing this local authorities and their partners will save money down the line.

One example of a successful local scheme is Stoke Speaks Out - a multi-agency strategy set up in 2004 to tackle the high incidence of speech and language difficulties in Stoke-on-Trent. It supports attachment, parenting and speech and language issues through training, support and advice. It developed from local Sure Start centres that identified between 60 and 80 per cent of three- and four-year-olds had a language delay.

Stoke Speaks Out developed a multi-agency training framework for all practitioners working in the city with children from birth to seven years old or their families. The training has five levels, ranging from awareness-raising to detailed theory, and was jointly written by the project team of speech and language therapists, a clinical psychologist, a midwife, playworkers, teachers and a bilingual worker. All levels have an expectation that the practitioner will create change in their working environment. In addition the initiative has developed resources for parents, including a model for toddler groups to follow which enhances language development, and a website offering practical information for parents to help with children's language development. "Talking walk-ins" are drop-in sessions at children's centres where parents can get advice from speech and language therapists. As a result of the initiative, the percentage of three- to four-year-olds with significant language delay in the area reduced from 69 per cent in 2001 to 46 per cent in 2009. In 2016, researchers estimated the programme had generated a £4.26 return on investment for every pound spent.

Similar impacts have been achieved in other local areas. In Sandwell, a Time to Talk community-wide initiative reduced the percentage of children whose language gave cause for concern from 32 to 21 per cent. In Brighton and Hove, a two-year project called Talking and Learning Together developed a local, accessible and integrated service aimed at empowering parents, carers and early years staff to help all children to learn to talk. The results show a huge rise in the number of children entering Key Stage 1 with age-appropriate language skills, and a significant decline in the number of referrals to the speech and language therapy service.

On a national level, the Every Child a Talker programme built on initiatives like these and demonstrated rapid impact over a short period. Recent data showed it achieved a seven per cent reduction in children with poor language skills over just seven months in early years settings that took part, which is an impressive outcome. It is encouraging that some areas have managed to retain such approaches, despite financial pressures.

The evidence is here, we have government strategy and commitment, and there is learning from programmes proven to achieve results. All of us with roles that involve parents and children can take action as part of our day-to-day work to support change at little or no cost.


Concerns about poor speech and communication abilities among children entering reception was one factor that drove Redgate Community Primary School to develop its own nursery provision. "There were no schools in the area offering provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds eligible for funded places," says Louise Dean, early years lead at Little Squirrels Nursery. "My background is in early years and I knew what a difference it can make to reach children early."

Little Squirrels' team comprises specially trained language champions and teachers. Staff took part in Language Champion training delivered by the local authority. "The training covered children's vocabulary journey from simple babbling to putting words together," says Dean. "We looked at what to do if there were gaps, including how we could involve parents. Half the battle is making sure parents know that what they do at home is important, and how they can model new vocabulary for the children."

In February, Redgate's early years team gained accreditation as an Elklan Communication Friendly Setting. The award is given to schools which have trained and supported all staff in communication and language development. "A trainer came in for six sessions," says Dean. "One thing we learned was not to ask children so many questions - we try to make four comments for every one question as children can get quite overwhelmed."

Little Squirrels aims to help children develop their skills in a fun and interactive way with activities like "mud day" and "international dough disco day" involving playdough and music. "When we plan activities, we're thinking about what language we should use and how to model it for the children," explains Dean.

The first cohort of children who came through Little Squirrels are coming to the end of their time in Reception. "We can really see the difference," says Dean. "Children coming in from other settings had poorer communication skills. We have just looked at the data and 50 per cent of our girls and 40 per cent of boys are exceeding expectations in speaking by the end of reception. That is really good for us."


Funded by £49m from the National Lottery Community Fund, Better Start Bradford provides a range of projects for pregnant women and families with children under four in the disadvantaged areas of Bowling and Barkerend, Bradford Moor and Little Horton.

"Bradford's Early Years Foundation Stage data shows we fall well below the national average for communication and language development, with boys performing significantly worse than girls, along with children eligible for free school meals," says Rebecca Heald, language development manager at BHT Early Education and Training, which delivers a number of projects for Better Start Bradford. "Language poverty is unfortunately something children in Bradford experience daily. Not only are children not hearing enough words in total, as they are not being spoken to enough, they also hear fewer different words, producing smaller vocabularies and resulting in reduced understanding."

Talking Together is a targeted early intervention programme, developed by BHT and offered to parents of two-year-olds assessed as being at risk of language development delay. Language development workers deliver the programme at the child's home working with individual parents or carers. Six weekly hour-long sessions are followed by a review. If further support is required, an additional six-week programme is offered, followed by a further review and referral to specialist services if necessary. Referral to specialist support can happen at any point.

The programme uses the foundations of language - attention, listening, eye contact, vocabulary - as the focus for play-based activities with sessions on topics such as turn-taking and praise.

It has been delivered to around 1,250 children a year over the past four years, with the initial assessment reaching 85 per cent of families in the Better Start area. Of these, 35 per cent of children required a referral into the programme, and 11 per cent needed additional support. The home-based nature of the programme is key, allowing workers to support parents with resources to hand, says Heald. "Parents may see an all-singing, all-dancing activity in a setting and think ‘I can't replicate this at home'."



When children arrive at Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School, many are not attaining the expected level for speaking, particularly those from disadvantaged families. However, the school's figures show the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers has reduced from 46 per cent to 11 per cent by the end of reception while 88 per cent of disadvantaged children have made good progress in speaking.

This achievement is driven by high-quality interactions in the classroom, and a close relationship with Nottinghamshire's speech and language therapy team, says Juliet Clark, assistant head teacher at Robert Mellors. "We follow a play-based, child-centred approach, with an emphasis on wellbeing," she explains. "Children have to be settled and secure in their personal, social and emotional development before learning can take place." Recently, the school introduced provision for two-year-olds and hopes this will give disadvantaged children a head start developing their speech and language.

"The main thing we notice when children start is their poor vocabulary," says Clark. "They may also be behind in the amount of words they are putting together. At home we see a lot of forward-facing pushchairs, dummies, phones and iPad use, all of which limits interactions between children and parents which develop language."

Nursery rhymes, stories, and bags of everyday objects are all used to help develop children's vocabulary, and this year the school has introduced online journal Seesaw, allowing better communication with parents.

Children are also given "going home" bags with a book and related toy. Every child is visited at home before they join the school. "This is a crucial point in identifying speech and language issues," says Clark.

Nursery and reception staff have completed four training sessions offered by Nottinghamshire County Council and delivered by speech and language therapists. The Let's Interact course gives an overview of typical language development and helps practitioners adapt their interactions with children according to their stage of development.


Professional development for early years staff

Last summer the government announced a £20m training programme for early years staff in disadvantaged areas to support children's early language development, literacy and numeracy skills. Starting from January next year the Education Development Trust and training provider Elklan will train more than 3,000 early practitioners in school and childcare settings in 53 local authorities. Up to 60,000 pre-school children are expected to benefit.

Funding for councils

The Department for Education's Early Outcomes Fund for local authorities is supporting eight projects spanning 27 councils. For example, in Wolverhampton the council is working with the National Literacy Trust to involve professionals such as early years teachers, health visitors and speech therapists in running pop-up sessions for parents. In Swindon evidence-based early learning interventions such as the Peep Learning Together Programme are being used to support children with early signs of language difficulties.

Training for health visitors

£1.8m has been allocated to a Public Health England programme to provide new training on children's speech, language and communication delivered by the Institute of Health Visitors. The first wave will focus on 400 health visitors in areas with high deprivation and poor early communication results with 600 more health visitors trained from 2020 onwards.

Grants for voluntary and community sector

Children's charities and others are to get £6.5m via the Department for Education's Early Years Disadvantage Voluntary and Community Sector grants programme for 2018-2020 for projects that close the disadvantage gap or support young children with special educational needs and disabilities. Projects awarded funding include the Early Years Alliance's First and Foremost programme, which provides access to digital activities and support from early years workers, and the Together for Twos programme developed by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years. Meanwhile, children's communication charity ICAN's Change the Conversation About Language project will work with disadvantaged parents in three regions.

James Hempsall OBE is director and founder of Hempsall's, which provides training, research and consultancy on childcare and early years. www.hempsalls.com

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