The new OECD study that could improve early intervention

12 Mar 2020, 11:41

As the OECD publishes its first early learning study, Caroline Sharp looks at what we’ve already learned and how it could impact schools

Primary teachers will be acutely aware that what happens in children’s early years lays the foundations for their future personal and academic success. Being able to recognise and support children’s development early on is therefore crucial, now and in the future.

In a positive boost to the evidence base in this area, OECD today publishes findings from their first International Early Learning and Child Wellbeing Study (IELS), which collected data on the cognitive, self-regulation and social-emotional development of five-year-olds. England were one of three countries to take part, along with Estonia and the United States.

In total, 2,500 children from 191 primaries in England took part in a range of interactive stories and games delivered on tablet devices. Teachers and parents were also asked to assess children’s development in some aspects of social-emotional development.

The report gives valuable insights in a number of areas, but four aspects really stood out.

A low to moderate use of computers is associated with higher levels of emergent literacy

First, children’s development across different areas – literacy, numeracy, mental flexibility, working memory and several aspects of social-emotional development – was found to be highly inter-related. This suggests that if children are doing particularly well, or indeed experiencing difficulties, in one area (numeracy, say), they may be doing so in others (such as self-regulation).

Second, consistent with previous early years studies, IELS found differences in development between groups of children, particularly in relation to socio-economic status. Eleven per cent of the sample had low birthweight or were born prematurely. The study found that these children had lower levels of emergent literacy by around 2.5 months of progress and lower working memory by around 3.5 months of progress, suggesting a rich opportunity for effective intervention at school and policy level.

Third, IELS confirms that children’s development benefits from an enriching home learning environment, and shows which aspects of that are particularly valuable. Reading to children at least five days a week was strongly associated with children’s emergent literacy development as well as their ability to identify others’ emotions (a key aspect of empathy) and their prosocial behaviour, and short, regular sessions were found to be most effective. While schools can’t directly affect the home learning environment, IELS provides strong evidence that supporting parents in their efforts to do so will pay educational dividends.

Finally, and on an inter-related point, IELS tells us that a low to moderate use of computers, tablets or smart phones – between one and three times a month – is associated with higher levels of emergent literacy than using them weekly or not at all. But parents told us that many five-year-olds are using them more often than this, and few hardly ever use them, suggesting that moderate use of digital devices is appropriate, as long as it does not get in the way of other valuable activities, such as conversing with children and reading them bedtime stories.

There is much more to be gleaned from the data collected during the study, and the NFER team is currently undertaking further analysis. This includes information on children’s persistence and physical development and how these relate to their development in other areas, due to be published later this year.

IELS gives us a lot to digest and reflect on and overall the 124-page report provides us with a range of valuable insights. It has already confirmed some hypotheses and challenged some assumptions, and there is reason to suspect it will continue to do so. It represents a substantial contribution to the growing evidence base on early childhood development, moving us beyond assumptions and beliefs, showing us how children in England are faring, and signposting promising avenues for policies and practices to support them to fare even better.


NFER was contracted to carry out IELS in England by DfE. However, this article has been produced solely by NFER and does not necessarily reflect the views of DfE.

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  1. Peter Lewis

    I am amazed to discover the findings of the research. I had always thought that good food, a stable background and loving parents worked against child development and that that was a way of indoctrinating the young and creating social class divisions. I am also amazed that reading to children every night in a secure environment has an impact on the intellectual and emotional development of children. I also thought that depriving a child of their electronic devices was a way to stunt their emotional growth and induce feelings of anxiety and anger. Allowing children the chance to get outside and play I always thought was a complete waste of time and far from developing children it created situations where they could come to harm thus reducing their social stability. Wow! what a fantastic set of findings IELS has come up with. I am sure that it was worth every penny it cost to undertake, providing real evidence for us to be able to manipulate the curriculum to create a level playing field in the classroom where all children can progress equally without fear of contradiction and failure all achieving the set goals simultaneously at agreed development milestones. I look forward to more groundbreaking discoveries coming from the researchers in due course,

  2. Susan Maran

    As a retired Headteacher of an Infant & Nursery school I was especially rewarded working for NFER on the IELS project.The well managed programme of activities over 2 days allowed the TAs & children to build a rapport to help gain accurate results.
    The synopsis of outcomes are interesting, with some elements as I would have expected – socio-economic & premature births impacts on development & of course the impact of parental support.
    I was interested in the impact on emergent literacy of low – moderate use of tablets etc, I hadn’t anticipated that.
    I would be very interested to know how similar the findings were across the 3 participating countries.
    I hope this project aids future positive outcomes for all young children embarking on a lifetime of learning.