How to choose and evaluate interventions for promoting language skills

Pre-school language development has a profound impact on life outcomes. We also know that the gap between children with poorer and better language skills when they arrive at school persists throughout their schooling. The fundamental importance of supporting early language development has, quite rightly, resulted in a myriad of possible interventions that might help to close this early language gap. But how do we know which interventions are doing any good?

For selecting an established intervention, The Communication Trust curates a wonderful database called WhatWorks, which reports which interventions are supported by evidence, with a range of interventions listed that support general language development, as well as specialised provision for children with special educational needs. 

But if you are using, or planning to use, an intervention that doesn’t yet have evidence, then you can consider evaluating the intervention yourself. This seems like a daunting prospect, but again, The Communication Trust have resources that provide a short and accessible guide on how to design and run an evaluation.

The guide follows a series of issues to address before, during and after the intervention. We summarise them here:

1. Who is the intervention for?

The first step is to identify the group you are trying to support. Is it all children, children from certain backgrounds, or children with particular support needs? In each case, you’ll need to be able to describe the set of children involved in the intervention.

2. What are you hoping to change?

Second, be clear as to what you are trying to change. For instance, are you addressing children’s speech, or trying to improve children’s vocabulary, or improve sentence comprehension? On this point, it is important to understand how you will be bringing about that change – justification for why your intervention may work. Here at LuCiD we are working to establish what factors affect children’s language development, based on theories of learning. How will learning be affected by the intervention you have in mind? Have a look at our latest research on language learning, from words to sentences to conversations.

3. When will the change occur?

The third step is to think about when the change will occur. Short-term or medium-term changes, at least as a first investigation of an intervention, are more cost-effective.

4. How will you measure the change?

Fourth, decide how to measure the change. This will involve using tests that are reliable measures of the change you want to detect. It also involves testing before as well as after the intervention. In addition, it requires comparing the intervention group to another group that does not undergo the same intervention. The ideal design here is to perform something called a “randomised control trial”, but in earlier stages of gathering evidence for an intervention, smaller-scale comparisons of change between groups provide an important step.

5. How will you check the intervention is running as intended?

Fifth, you need to ensure that the intervention is being applied as you intended, requiring some training of the people who will deliver the intervention. It is very helpful to have some measure of how the intervention is actually being implemented, through careful training and support of the people delivering the intervention, and monitoring that the delivery is taking the form intended.

6. Share your findings (regardless of the results)

Sixth, and finally, tell others about your results. Even if an intervention is not as effective as we thought it might be, it is useful for others to know about this so that they can also use evidence in their practice.

Following these steps helps us as a community to determine which interventions make the best use of practitioners’ valuable time and resources in boosting children’s early communication skills.


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