Aims, structure and framework


  1. To develop methods of working with parents to promote the literacy development of pre-school children (particularly those likely to have difficulties in the early years of school).

  2. To meet some of the literacy and educational needs of the parents so involved.

  3. To ensure the feasibility of methods developed.

  4. To assess the effectiveness of the methods in improving children’s literacy development at school entry and afterwards.

  5. To disseminate effective methods to practitioners and to equip them with new skills.

  6. To inform policy-makers about the effectiveness and implications of new practices


The REAL project had two phases. In the first phase (1995–96), early years educators working in schools and young children’s centres across the city collaborated with Cathy Nutbrown and Peter Hannon to develop a range of methods for working with parents.

As a starting point, the project looked at methods already being used in schools and centres and ideas already developed by members of the project team. Together, they created a bank of new methods and resources designed to address the literacy needs of parents and preschool children (Weinberger et al., 1990; Nutbrown et al., 1996; Nutbrown and Hannon, 1997). Working groups focused on different strands of pre-school literacy and different target populations to devise and evaluate literacy activities involving parents and children.

The most promising methods developed in phase one were used in phase two to develop an 18-month ‘long duration, low intensity’ early literacy programme of work with families.

Based on the ORIM framework, the programme had five main components

  • home visits by programme teachers

  • provision of literacy resources (particularly books)

  • centre-based group activities

  • special events (eg group library visits)

  • postal communication between teacher and child.

The core of the programme was similar at all schools but was shaped by local community circumstances and teachers’ styles. A total of 88 families from those ten schools, plus one other school specifically chosen for its bilingual population (eight families working with each teacher) participated in the programme.

Teachers were funded for release one half-day per week to work with the families in their group. Adult learning opportunities for parents were also developed. We thought carefully about the appropriate form of adult education to be incorporated into the programme: it had to be voluntary in the sense that, whether or not they participated for themselves, parents could be involved in the child-focused part of the programme.

We offered two opportunities to all parents in the programme:

  1. Information, advice and support to access local adult education from various providers.

  2. A course devised on the REAL programme and accredited by the Open College Network.

We tried to make these opportunities as relevant and attractive as possible to families.

Teachers from the programme schools participated in a specially devised professional development programme which included five days at the start of the project followed by monthly twilight meetings during term time. The teacher working at the bilingual school was experienced in her own right and had other links with the University team, so participated in the twilight meetings but not the initial five days.

It was of crucial importance that the teachers who made up the project team felt equipped and confident to develop and implement the programme with families.

An experimental design

Phase two of the REAL project family literacy programme included a randomised control trail (RCT) design. The main reason for using an RCT design is that this was the way to identify any benefits that occurred in children’s literacy scores as a result of the programme.

Originally, a sample of 176 families with three year olds had been drawn at random from the waiting lists of 11 schools in areas of social and economic disadvantage, in a northern city in England. All schools were in areas (electoral wards) above the national median on the government’s index of multiple deprivation. Five were in the most deprived 2% of such areas nationally.

At each of the 11 schools, 16 children aged around three and a half were drawn at random from pre-school waiting lists (virtually all families in the areas were on such lists). All but nine families were white mono-lingual.

All families agreed to participate in a University research study on the understanding that half of them, selected entirely at random, would be invited to join a pre-school family literacy programme with the remainder serving as a control group.

The literacy skills of all children were assessed before and after the programme. There were eight children in each school in each group. Both groups of families cooperated fully in the study and programme take-up was very high. Attrition in the two groups over the 18-month period of the programme was less than 10%. Two families from the programme group and three from the control group were lost to the study.

Family literacy

The REAL project was a family literacy initiative which saw parents’ and children’s literacy as inextricably linked. The project believed adults should have opportunities to develop their literacy and learning as well as that of their children.

The project was more inclusive than the model of family literacy being promoted at the time by some in the US and UK, where programmes were restricted to families whose parents accepted adult literacy tuition.

The REAL project was successful in reaching children in disadvantaged communities, regardless of whether their parents were deemed to have literacy difficulties, regardless of whether parents agreed that they had such difficulties and regardless of whether they wished to do anything about them.

Though an element of the programme was designed and offered specifically to parents to support their own learning, parent participation in adult literacy tuition was not a precondition for families being involved in the REAL project. This is important in understanding not only the development and content of the programme that was offered, but also its guiding ethos and value base.

The ORIM framework

The project used the ORIM framework (Figure 1), which arose out of earlier work to develop literacy work with parents (Hannon, 1995; Hannon et al., 1991). Using the ORIM framework, the aim was to facilitate changes in the thinking and practice of teachers and other early childhood educators.

The ORIM framework distinguishes various strands of early literacy (environmental print, books, early writing and key aspects of oral language). These are not the only strands that can be unpicked within literacy but, as will be seen later, they are a useful focus.

The framework also identifies four key roles for parents whereby they can provide opportunities, recognition, interaction and a model of literacy for each strand of early literacy.

This framework has provided a basis for schools and centres systematically to plan practical work with parents which supports and extends their literacy role with their children. Work can be focused in different cells of the framework; for example, focusing on work with parents on providing opportunities for early writing) to ensure that all important aspects of early literacy are the focus of attention and action at different times.

Figure 1: The ORIM framework