Transforming lives by improving children's literacy

We've empowered practitioners, local authorities and parents with approaches to family literacy that have transformed the lives of thousands of young children.

For the last 20 years our School of Education has pioneered research into raising early literacy through work with families across the UK.

Enhancing early development

The research by professors Cathy Nutbrown and Peter Hannon demonstrated how young children’s literacy development could be enhanced through work with parents, especially in disadvantaged communities.

Their approach - known as REAL (Raising Early Achievement in Literacy) - is based on a conceptual framework referred to as ORIM. ORIM - now a well-known acronym among practitioners - stands for opportunities for learning, recognition of a learners’ progress, interaction to facilitate learning and models provided by those more proficient at using literacy.

Professor Nutbrown’s and Hannon’s work drew on aspects of literacy that, alongside ORIM, would meaningfully enhance their development, such as:

  • early writing
  • sharing books long before a child can read independently
  • engaging with print in the wider environment
  • aspects of oral language, such as storytelling and saying rhymes.

The findings from REAL have been shared, through collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau, with thousands of practitioners through training workshops. The 20-year research programme has also been reported in more than 20 publications since 1995, including a book, a professional development manual, a DVD, six research journal articles and ten professional journal articles.

REAL places families at the centre in children’s early literacy development and now more than 150,000 families have benefited from the ORIM framework as a result of the REAL research. The approach has had significant impact in helping parents to become better equipped to understand how to help develop their child’s engagement with literacy.

Through collaboration with the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), a follow-up project, known as Making it REAL, reported that the number of parents attending REAL-based family literacy courses is significantly higher than with previous schemes:

  • 59 per cent of parents participating in Making it REAL attended REAL events regularly
  • 75 per cent reported feeling more confident in discussing their child’s literacy development with teachers and practitioners as a result of taking part.

These figures are a vast improvement on the 15 per cent and 37 per cent respectively before REAL was implemented.

Professor Nutbrown said: "There can be no doubt that collaboration with the NCB, practitioners, local authorities and individual settings has contributed to the success of the Making it REAL project. And most importantly, REAL begins with building on parents’ existing knowledge rather than imposing a rigid programme. This is central to REAL’s ethos and practice.”

Developing family literacy in prisons

Another School of Education project - which is also led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown with her colleague Professor Peter Clough - involves helping imprisoned fathers learn about and contribute to their children’s literacy development.

Known as FLiP (Family Literacy in Prisons), the programme is a collaboration between the University, charities and prisons which began in two UK mens’ prisons.

FLiP’s methods are based on the ORIM framework developed for the REAL project. The ORIM model enables practitioners to facilitate literacy-orientated family visits, which enhance a child’s understanding of literacy while spending time with their father.

Working with PACT has been tremendous, and has led to further developments including training for PACT family workers and FLiP is now running in many London prisons and some in the North of England and Wales. REAL approaches have been successfully adapted for work with imprisoned parents and through this collaboration we can continue to have an impact

Professor Cathy Nutbrown

The evaluation of FLiP included interviews, feedback questionnaires and observations which helped researchers understand the views of the fathers, their partners and children.

"We learned from the original project that the REAL approach has a positive impact on boys. We also know that many imprisoned fathers struggle with literacy. Putting these two together led to the development of FLiP. We collaborated with PACT, the Prison Advice and Care charity to develop, run and evaluate FLiP."

The study showed that participation was very strong, with a waiting list of men wishing to enrol. As many as 93 per cent of fathers participated at a moderate to high level. Families also reported that they benefited from the literacy-orientated family visits and many children mentioned being given a book to take home as a treat from their fathers.

More profoundly, the research showed a resolve among the men who participated to think of their role as a father differently in the future.

It is known that positive family connections help offenders to desist from reoffending and therefore the implications of FLiP are that fathers may be less likely to reoffend having attended the programme.

Professor Nutbrown said: “Working with PACT has been tremendous, and has led to further developments including training for PACT family workers and FLiP is now running in many London prisons and some in the North of England and Wales. REAL approaches have been successfully adapted for work with imprisoned parents and through this collaboration we can continue to have an impact.”