How schools are taking language intervention programme NELI into nursery

Nicole Weinstein
Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Nicole Weinstein looks at how the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) is being developed for nurseries and how this works in conjunction with schools

NELI-N is built around the principles of shared reading and guided play and centres around 20 books.
NELI-N is built around the principles of shared reading and guided play and centres around 20 books.

When two-thirds of primary schools in England signed up to the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) to improve language and communication skills among Reception-aged children, it was testament to their commitment to invest in early help for those impacted by Covid-19.

Launched in August 2020 and backed with £17 million of Government Covid catch-up funding, 11,000 schools flocked to take up the offer of what is thought to be the world’s most well-evidenced oral language programme that has been shown to improve children’s language skills by at least an additional three months – and with benefits seen up to two years later.

‘Even in normal circumstances, we know that this programme is both needed and effective,’ explains Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation. Its success has led to the development of NELI-N, the nursery equivalent, which was trialled with three- and four-year-olds in 65 nurseries between 2021 and 2022.

A ‘positive result’ from the trial is expected to be unveiled later this year, Hillman says, with plans for ‘larger-scale trials’ and the potential to roll out the programme ‘more widely if the evidence is strong enough’.


According to the latest evaluation of the first two years of the NELI roll-out in Reception classes, published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in March, the programme was widely perceived by school staff as ‘beneficial’ for children’s language abilities and confidence.

However, around half of the second cohort of schools surveyed (those that started receiving NELI in Reception in 2021-22) completed its full 20 weeks during the second year, largely due to absences linked to the virus that ‘limited staff time and capacity’.

Sarah Tillotson, early years lead at EEF, says that NELI in Reception (NELI-R) requires around four to five hours a week of dedicated staff time. ‘Despite schools’ best efforts, fidelity to the programme was challenging to sustain during the pandemic when there were higher levels of staff absences,’ she adds. But Hillman points out that as with all programmes that ‘genuinely’ have an effect on pupil outcomes, there is no ‘magic bullet’. He says there are other programmes that are ‘lighter touch’, but there is no equivalent programme that ‘delivers’, particularly for children who need to catch up.

The largest EEF evaluation of the programme in May 2020 found that children made on average three months of additional progress in oral language compared to the comparison group. Tillotson says, ‘We have also been explicitly measuring the impact on children’s language development to understand if it is maintained when the programme is delivered at a national scale.’ The findings are expected to be published this autumn.


NELI-N combines the key elements of two successful existing interventions: NELI-R and Parent and Children Together (PACT). Unlike NELI-R, which is an intervention programme for children with the weakest language skills, NELI-N is an enrichment programme delivered to the whole class of three- and four year-olds, with additional targeted support for children with weak oral language. Both programmes run for 20 weeks and involve scripted interventions focusing on dialogic reading, teaching vocabulary, listening and narrative skills. Phonological awareness and letter sound knowledge are developed during the second half of the NELI-R programme.

Dr Gillian West, lecturer in language development and language disorders at University College London and managing director of OxEd and Assessment, the spin-out company from the University of Oxford that was set up to support NELI delivery during the Covid-19 recovery programme, says the whole-class enrichment element of the nursery programme was ‘so successful’ in the trial that it is currently being developed for NELI-R.

NELI-N is built around the principles of shared reading and guided play and centres around 20 books – classic tales, non-fiction and new fiction. ‘Ideas are often expanded into language-rich and engaging continuous provision,’ explains Dr West. ‘While NELI-R and NELI-N are quite different programmes, they work well in combination.’


Schools and settings receive handbooks, resources, flashcards, asynchronous training and mentor support. The mentors for both programmes include speech and language therapists and other language professionals, and the training consists of ‘upskilling’ nursery practitioners to deliver the programme, including developing understanding of how oral language develops and teaching techniques to scaffold language development in their sessions and in nursery.

Children are assessed through LanguageScreen, an app developed by OxEd, which helps identify those with the weakest language skills. In Reception, a targeted group of around three to six children receive three small group sessions and two individual sessions each week led by a teaching assistant.

There are three ‘strands’ of the NELI-N programme: whole-class sessions delivered by a trained practitioner five times a week; targeted intervention for children with the weakest language skills delivered in small group sessions three times a week; and weekly individual sessions. Delivery of the programme is in term time for Reception children, but models addressing specific traits for PVI providers, such as differing attendance time, are ‘being considered’, according to OxEd, which will be taking over the management of the nursery programme and its national roll-out ‘next school year’.

Dr West says, ‘In the past two years, we have trained and supported approximately 25,000 teachers and TAs in 10,000 schools with NELI in Reception. We hope to reach thousands of nursery practitioners and early years educators through the nursery programme.’

case study: Neli-N at Rosebuds Day Nursery in Liverpool

Ever since Neli the elephant, NELI-N’s nursery puppet and icon, entered Rosebuds Day Nursery in January 2022, she has been key feature of nursery life. Loved by children, parents and practitioners, the soft, loveable character not only leads the storytelling sessions but she goes on walks with the children and even has sleepovers at their houses. ‘Neli is a friend to those who are less confident and she’s been instrumental in helping children’s language and communication come on in leaps and bounds,’ explains deputy manager and EYFS lead Yvonne Langan.

The setting, in Garston, Liverpool, is the first PVI setting in England to trial the NELI-N programme for three- and four-year-olds. It has been so successful that it has now been embedded into everyday provision.

Children know how to listen and to actively participate.

‘The official NELI-N structure works on a five-day cycle,’ explains Langan. ‘Day one is the whole group story, and the other four days are learning sessions using a particular story page and a special word. We read the stories from the Smart Screen while the children sit on the carpet. The sessions are interactive with opportunities for questions and sharing experiences. They take around 20 minutes and we run the sessions twice a day – in the morning and afternoon – so that all children can attend. But during the special word days, there are lots of activities and active participation, so we may be in groups on the carpet or around the continuous provision. It’s not just about sitting down listening to stories – although NELI does have rules around looking, listening, sitting and being quiet, which are valuable skills in the run-up to starting school.

‘We have been blown away by the progress that children are making as a result of NELI-N. Their confidence to express themselves is the most noticeable. One little girl who has a stutter is now speaking in full sentences. Halfway through the course when we were covering Little Red Riding Hood, the special word of the week was Help. We put up an image on the screen of a life buoy in the water and asked, “How would this be used to help someone?”. She put up her hand and said, “I was in the park with mum. The water was very icy and a boy fell in it. My mum’s a nurse and she helped him.” The transformation in her language and fluency is remarkable – and the emotional reaction from her parents has been truly humbling. Although the event was fictitious, we find that children use their imaginations when they are presented with such visuals, spurring each other on to see who can come up with the best stories.’

Demi Tunstall, pre-school room leader, says that although NELI-N focuses on language and literacy, it covers all areas of the curriculum, particularly around identifying emotions and feelings. She adds, ‘Two schools have come in to observe the programme in action, both of them running NELI-R.

‘The feedback from teachers is that our children are confident, know how to sit still, listen and actively participate. Speaking on behalf of the pre-school teachers and managers that are trained in NELI-N, “We couldn’t imagine nursery without it. It’s helping with children’s confidence – and informing staff practice. We can’t thank the Oxford team enough for inviting us to be part of this amazing experience.”’

case study: Our Lady of Muswell Catholic Primary School

When Our Lady of Muswell in north London was involved in the first cohort of NELI trials in 2019, the school had already identified the growing language difficulties faced by children.

EYFS lead Lorraine Haugh, who worked with the NELI group of Reception children before moving into the nursery class to run the NELI-N trial in September 2021, says, ‘Some Key Stage 2 pupils were not able to speak in full sentences. We knew we needed to address this early on, so we signed up for the NELI trial because of its evidence-based track record. It’s a big investment in terms of time: the teaching assistant must undertake online training and is out of the classroom when they are leading the group and individual sessions.

‘All the children made huge progress in their language skills at the end of the 20 weeks. One child with English as an additional language has showed incredible progress in speaking. The Language Screen app flags up the children that are a concern. One child who flagged as a “major concern” loved playing in the home corner and would express herself during role play and familiar experiences, but she struggled to communicate on a one-to-one basis and would become easily frustrated. The individual sessions were invaluable for her. There’s a lot of adult modelling, speaking in sentences and consolidating key words, so children are hearing language and interacting with props like Ted, the puppet, who some might whisper to at the beginning, before building up their confidence to speak in the group.

‘What worked for us – which was not part of the official programme – was to incorporate the key words of the week into the Reception class. If one of the words is “envelope”, for example, the teacher would show children the item and the NELI group would name it. This gave them a sense of pride and increased their confidence.

‘It’s interesting to see in the second half of the programme, how their narrative skills develop.

‘Following on from the success of NELI in Reception, I moved into nursery where I delivered NELI-N to our three- and four-year-olds. There’s a different book each week and we introduce this on a Monday morning during carpet time. It’s scripted, so you talk about the pages as you read them and each day you introduce a new special word. There’s also a parent newsletter where we give ideas for activities at home.

‘It has fantastic cross-curricular links to areas like personal, social and emotional development and understanding the world. It’s great to watch children’s confidence grow as a result of being able to express themselves.’

NELI has cross curricular links to a range of activities at Our Lady of Muswell.

About NELI

NELI is a Nuffield Foundation initiative developed by Dr Silke Fricke (University of Sheffield), Dr Claudine Bowyer-Crane (National Institute of Economic and Social Research) and Professors Maggie Snowling and Charles Hulme (University of Oxford). They adapted approaches frequently used by speech and language therapists. The EEF and Nuffield Foundation oversaw the roll-out of the first and second years of delivery, with a team based at the University of Oxford and then at the university’s spinout organisation, OxEd and Assessment, managing the delivery of the programme.

The EEF has funded rigorous randomised controlled trials dating back to 2010. The Department for Education funded NELI in 2020 and as part of its wider Covid-recovery efforts.

For more information, visit Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) ( If you are interested in the nursery programme, register your interest at here

timeline of how neli has progressed over the past 16 years

2007: First impact evaluation which informed the design of NELI

2009-2012: Second impact evaluation funded by the Nuffield Foundation 

2014: Third impact evaluation funded by EEF

2020: Fourth impact evaluation funded by EEF

2021: Two-year process evaluation of the national scale-up funded by EEF

September 2023: Impact evaluation of the scale-up

More information

Nuffield Early Language Intervention Scale-up (2020/21)

‘Private and voluntary settings will be able to access early language catch-up scheme’, Nursery World 

‘“Catch-up” language programme announced for Reception classes’, Nursery World 

Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI), Nuffield Foundation 

Follow us on our social media – OxEd and Assessment (on LinkedIn and Facebook) and @OxEdAssessment (on Twitter and Instagram); NELI- Nuffield Early Language Intervention (on LinkedIn and Facebook) and @teachneli (on Twitter and Instagram) – for updates and information on language intervention and evidence-based assessments and interventions.

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