2013 evaluation of Spirals groups in Oxford Children’s Centres finds that 77% of children who attended Spirals now have receptive vocabulary scores which are within normal limits, compared with just 30% pre-Spirals and Nearly 90% of the children increased their receptive vocabulary score having attended Spirals.
Evaluation of Spirals Project
October 2012 – July 2013
Laura Halstead – Speech and Language Therapist
Jenny Burke – Speech and Language Therapy Assistant
This project was funded and run by the Leys Children’s Centre and took place across four educational settings in Blackbird Leys. These settings were Windale Primary School, Orchard Meadow Primary School, Pegasus Primary School and St John Fisher Primary School. This is the fourth year that Spirals has been run across Blackbird Leys. The project also included the Cooperative Nursery in Blackbird Leys and Shepherd’s Hill Preschool, however, due to the age of the children, the data from these settings is not included in these findings.
The national facts and figures about communication and language development in our youngest children make up part of the backdrop to this project.
75% of heads of nurseries and schools admitting three-year-olds are concerned about
a significant decline during the last five years in children’s language competence at entry. (National Literacy Trust, 2001)
Teachers’ perceptions are that children’s talking and listening skills have declined over the last five years – particularly the ability to speak audibly and be understood. (Basic
Skills Agency, 2002)
Too many children are receiving a “disrupted and dishevelled” upbringing, according
to Head of Ofsted, David Bell. As a result the verbal and behavioural skills of the
nation’s five-year-olds are at an all-time low, causing severe difficulties for schools.
Many are unable to speak properly when they start school. (Sunday Telegraph, 2003)
Ann Locke at the University of Sheffield has highlighted “the enormous differences in
the quantity of language addressed to children from different socio-economic
backgrounds in their first two and a half years of life,” and emphasises the fact that
early spoken language underlies subsequent reading and writing.
An analysis of 350 Ofsted reports found that inspectors were concerned about the speaking and listening skills of half the four and five-year-olds starting school in
September 2003 (TES, 2004)
A survey of nursery workers showed that 89% are worried that the occurrence of
speech, language and communication difficulties amongst pre-school children is
growing. The lack of adult and child time spent talking together was highlighted as the
key reason by 92% of them. (I CAN, 2004)
Children’s early communication skills are regarded as the single best predictor of future cognitive skills and school performance (Rosetti, 1996).
Children who have speech, language and communication difficulties are significantly disadvantaged in their ability to access the national curriculum since “almost every educational skill presupposes the use of language”
(Dockrell and Lindsay, 1998).
Vocabulary at age 5 is the best predictor of whether children who experience social deprivation in childhood escape poverty in later adult life.
60% of young people in young offenders institutions have communication difficulties.
40% of 7-14 year olds referred to child psychiatric services had a language impairment that had never been detected.
2/3 of 7-14 year olds with serious behaviour problems have a language impairment.
In addition to these national concerns around speech and language development and the link to performance in education and later life, there are specific concerns around children from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are particularly relevant as Blackbird Leys is one of the largest council estates in Europe. Parts of Blackbird Leys, Greater Leys, Littlemore, Rose Hill, Barton and the City centre are considered to be amongst the 20% most deprived areas in England. Figures for children living in poverty are 31-57% in this area. The EYFSP full child collection 2009 data shows that much lower numbers of children living on the Leys achieved 6 or more points in the Foundation Stage Profile than in other areas of Oxford. One of the main aims of the Children’s Centre is to narrow this attainment gap and to improve outcomes for children aged 0-5 in Blackbird Leys.
The map shows (in red) the areas considered to be within the top 20% most deprived in England.
The recent reports by Frank Fields and Graham Allen strongly emphasise the importance of early intervention, especially for children from disadvantaged areas.
Aims of the project
The overall aim of the project was to have a positive impact on the communication and language skills of the participants.
The project also aimed:
- To raise the profile of the Children’s Centre within the local community, encouraging families to access other Children’s Centre services.
- To provide Children’s Centre input to a greater number of families in a wider variety of settings.
- To identify children who may need more specialist speech and language therapy input and to make timely and appropriate referrals in this case.
Children’s Centre Core Purpose
The aims of this project also fit with the core purpose of Sure Start Children’s Centres.
Improving outcomes for young children and their families, and reducing inequalities.
The Spirals project works to improve outcomes for young children and their families and to reduce inequalities by improving the child’s communication skills and confidence during the group.
Using evidence-based approaches to deliver targeted, family-centred support.
Spirals is an evidence-based approach and is targeted at those children of greatest need. It is delivered in partnership with the local Speech and Language Therapy service.
Sharing expertise with other early years settings to improve quality.
In running these groups in local early years settings and utilising staff from the settings as support for the group, skills and expertise are transferred to the staff involved. Also, the Speech and Language Therapy Assistant is available to talk to staff and parents on an ad hoc basis whilst in the setting if there are questions about communication.
Respecting and engaging parents.
Parents are given information about the project and are asked to give written permission for their child to attend.
Speech and Language Therapists work in partnership with Teachers, Teaching Assistants, Foundation Stage Coordinators, Children’s Centre Workers and Early Years Workers to set up and deliver the Spirals Programme. There is also partnership working with parents at various times.
The Spirals Language Program
The programme used for the sessions was
Spirals Language Development – Circle time sessions to improve communication skills. Marion Nash with Jackie Lowe and Tracey Palmer.
This particular package was chosen for many reasons. Firstly, the small group provides safety and security for children with low levels of confidence. The slow pace and simplicity of the language used in this programme are well suited to children with difficulties with listening or understanding language. Children are given more time to process and respond than would be possible in a whole-class environment. The sessions are based on positivity, praise and success; ensuring that children feel supported to try out new skills and feel recognised when they have achieved something new. The nature of the sessions support emotional development because the structure allows the practitioners to be sensitive to the emotional needs of each child. The sessions are intended to be repeated so that enough time is spent on each concept for every child to have grasped it before the group moves on. The sessions use a variety of learning methods and cover a variety of skills; including language, listening, attention, social, thinking skills and confidence. Most of all, the sessions are fun and interactive so the children enjoy participating.
Each weekly session lasts between 20 – 30 minutes and consists of approximately six activities. Ideally, each session should involve six children and be run by two adults in a quiet room with few distractions. The sessions are similar each week, creating a familiar structure for children to feel comfortable within.
The sessions were carried out by Jenny Burke, Speech and Language Therapy Assistant for the Leys Children’s Centre; Teresa Fieldwick, Children’s Centre Link Worker for Orchard Meadow School and Claire Ayling, Teaching Assistant for Orchard Meadow School. Teaching Assistants in all settings supported the sessions.
This year, formal speech and language therapy assessments were carried out on 56 out of the 63 children who participated in the project. The formal assessment used was the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS), used to obtain a percentile score for receptive vocabulary for each child. The BPVS was chosen as it is quick to administer and score. As there was not time to assess each child’s language in great detail, focussing on this specific area of language was deemed most appropriate because we are aware that vocabulary at age 5 is the best predictor of whether children who experience social deprivation in childhood escape poverty in later adult life.
Unlike the previous years of the Spirals project, this year two settings also volunteered to assess the receptive vocabulary of all other children who did not participate in Spirals and share that data with us so that we were able to look at the differences and make some rough comparisons.
Written parental permission was given prior to assessment and participation in the Spirals group.
Reasons for failure to collect full sets of data included participants being absent; moving out of the area or joining the group late.
The 63 participants were chosen in collaboration with the Teachers and leaders of the settings. The participants were aged between 3 and 5 years old.
7 of the participants were known to the Speech and Language Therapy Service at the start of the project (SLT 11%). The other children were chosen for a number of reasons, including low levels of confidence with talking, learning English as an additional language, poor language skills, poor speech skills, poor attention, listening and turn-taking skills.
The participants included children from a range of ethnic origins.
30 of the participants were learning English as either a second or third language (EAL 48%).
11 of the participants were on the Special Educational Needs register (SEN 17.5%).
Many of the settings had identified that these children would benefit from participation in a small group, but were unable to offer this themselves due to staffing, time or space constraints.
English as an additional language
Children who are learning English as an additional language should not, traditionally, have assessment scores quoted if they have not been assessed in their first language. However, it was not possible to assess these children in their own languages, so, due to the fact that they are in settings where they are expected to function in English and as the data is being used to compare them to themselves and their peers and not to give them a diagnosis of language delay/disorder, scores are quoted for EAL children in this evaluation as it gives a measure of progress.
Each setting was approached by the Children’s Centre to offer the service. As these settings had been receiving support to run Spirals groups since 2009, they were all keen to continue. Teachers, Teaching Assistants and Children’s Centre staff helped to get permission slips filled in. A letter was sent to parents to explain the details of the project. Jenny Burke (SLTA) then attended each setting on a weekly basis to carry out the groups.
The scores of the formal assessments are given as percentile ranks.
The bell curve shows the range of scores expected across the entire population, with the dark blue area indicating where most children’s scores will fall. The area between 10th and 25th percentile is the lower end and, typically, children scoring below the 16th percentile should be referred to Speech and Language Therapy. The area between the 75th and 90th percentile is where the most gifted children’s scores will fall.
A child’s percentile rank is expected to remain fairly constant unless external factors impact on their development.
Each participant’s score was rated as red (0 – 16th percentile), blue (17th – 25th percentile), green (26th – 100th percentile) where red is indicative of Speech and Language delay or disorder, blue is the lower end of average for receptive vocabulary and green is average for receptive vocabulary. Blue or green scores are within normal limits.
Out of the 56 participants assessed who went on to participate in Spirals;
- 39 started as red (70%)
- 5 started as blue (9%)
- 12 started as green (21%)
Out of the 56 participants above, 79% scored below the 25th percentile for receptive vocabulary. This has risen from 62% in 2011. This information helped to confirm that Spirals was necessary and appropriate for these children, but also highlighted the unusually high number of children in Blackbird Leys who begin their education with very poor levels of language.
A further 37 children who did not attend Spirals were also assessed using the BPVS. Out of these children;
- 6 children started as red (16%)
- 2 started as blue (5.5%)
- 29 started as green (80.5%)
As expected, the majority of children who were not chosen for Spirals scored within normal limits (green) for receptive vocabulary. There was a clear rationale for each child who scored below 25th percentile and was not subsequently included in Spirals.
Over two thirds of the participants began Spirals with low to poor levels of language.
In the two settings where data was collected for the entire intake, 43% and 65% of children started Nursery with low to poor levels of language.
Given the statistics for deprivation in this area and the high percentage of children in the lowest 25 percentiles, it is possible that many of these children come from low-talk families as described by Hart and Risley (1995) in their “30 million word gap” study which concluded that children from disadvantaged families hear on average 30 million fewer words than those from professional families by the time they start school.
All the improvements shown by the data are a result of the dedication and hard work of the staff in the Foundation Stages at each school as well as the added input of Spirals. Teaching Assistants and other staff members who observe Spirals are able to transfer the principals and skills that they have learned in the Spirals group into the main classroom. Collaborative working between Speech and Language Therapy team and school staff has been essential to these results.
Out of the 56 participants assessed, who then participated in Spirals groups;
49 participants made positive increase to their percentile rank (88%).
4 remained on the same percentile (7%)
3 regressed (5%)
Nearly 90% of the participants increased their receptive vocabulary score having attended Spirals.
Out of the 37 children who did not attend Spirals:
29 made a positive increase to their percentile rank (78%)
1 remained on the same percentile (3%)
7 regressed (19%)
The data cannot be truly comparative as the children not attending Spirals were chosen as such, however, the data is interesting as it shows that more children who attended Spirals made positive increases to their scores and fewer regressed.
More children who attended Spirals increased their receptive vocabulary and fewer regressed.
Out of the 56 participants who attended Spirals;
- 13 remained red (23%) – Speech and Language difficulties (decreased from 70%)
- 12 were blue (21%) – Lower end of average (increased from 9%)
- 31 became or remained green (56%) – Average (increased from 21%)
77% of participants who attended Spirals now have receptive vocabulary scores which are within normal limits, compared with just 30% pre-Spirals.
This graph shows the shift in the proportion of participants where there are language concerns from October 2012 to July 2013.
On average, all children made more progress than would be expected, but those in Spirals increased their percentile rank by more than those who did not attend Spirals.
The results for children attending Spirals ranged from a 20 percentile regression to a 61 percentile progression. The mean progress of all children attending Spirals was 19 percentiles.
In comparison, the group who did not attend Spirals averaged a progression of 15 percentiles and the results ranged from a 20 percentile regression to a 57 percentile progression.
This indicates that simply being in an educational setting with a good language environment generally results in an increased vocabulary for all children. This is no surprise as we know that the settings provide good language environments for all their children. However, it is surprising that children with the very poorest language skills at the start have made slightly more progress than those who were thought not to be in need of Spirals intervention.
Participants with a score below the 16th percentile are those of greatest concern as they are at greatest risk of prolonged disadvantage. These are also the participants whose scores should be hardest to affect change upon.
21 participants scored within the lowest 5 percentiles at the start, with 17 participants scoring below the 1st percentile. Only one child who scored below the 1st percentile in October 2012 did not make statistically significant progress and therefore remained below the 1st percentile. The average increase in percentiles for children in the lowest 5 percentiles was 18, only one below the mean average for the entire group who attended Spirals. This is an exciting result as it means that the focussed input is facilitating excellent progress in the groups of children who need it most.
Children with the very lowest scores made almost the same amount of progress as those who started with an average language score.
The six children who scored below the 16th percentile but were not chosen to participate in Spirals made an average of 25.5 percentile progress. All children in this category ended with scores within normal limits despite having not attended Spirals. This indicates that the Teachers knew the children well enough to be sure that they would make plenty of progress without having to attend Spirals. It may be that the Teachers recognised that it was their confidence rather than low ability that led to their pre-assessment score being quite low.
Teachers area able to appropriately identify those children who would benefit most from attending Spirals groups, despite some misleading language scores.
Of the 13 red children post Spirals, some are from households where no English is spoken at all; some are on the SEN register; some are being seen by Speech and Language Therapy for further support; 1 has been offered a referral to SLT but parents have refused.
Most children who continue to have low or poor levels of language are known to the SENCo (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) or being seen by the Speech and Language Therapy service.
The average progress for participants who are EAL was 19 percentiles, which was average for all participants.
18 children who are learning English as an additional language scored within normal limits post-Spirals without taking into account the EAL factor (72%).
Spirals seems to be particularly useful for children learning English as an additional language.
Communicating Results to Settings
Each setting was given a summary of the results for their participants before the end of July 2013 to ensure that data from the project was meaningful and relevant.
Hopes and plans for the future
l Settings to continue to support Spirals
It is expected that Spirals will continue throughout 2013-2014 across the Leys. Settings are asked to show their commitment to the project by providing a room, support person and by filling out the Teacher Checklists at the start and end of the project.
l More TAs to be trained up
TAs learn new skills from supporting with Spirals, which can be transferred into the classroom. TAs also play a valuable role in pre-empting situations and dealing with behavioural issues during the session if necessary as they know the children best. They can provide vital information about what a child’s strengths and needs are. TAs can be used to repeat part or an entire session at another time during the week.
l Thinking of ways to involve parents
In previous years of the project parents have been included by way of workshops and handouts. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to involve parents in Spirals this year but it is hoped that parents might be involved again as the project continues into 2014.