The ORIM blog

Early Years’ Family Literacy Research Project at the Astrea Academy Trust
Led by Deb Shorthouse

Written by Kay Davies - in collaboration with Deb Shorthouse
The views expressed here are personal

December 2022

Introduction to the project at the Astrea Academy Trust

Deb Shorthouse is a teacher of 23 years and Doctoral student at The University of Sheffield. Astrea Academy Trust is a family of 26 schools across South Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire. In 2018 Deb attended an ORIM (Opportunities, Recognition, Interaction and Model) network meeting where she had the opportunity to network with other practitioners, gaining insight on how to develop a family literacy project across the trust. After working hard on a funding bid, alongside Astrea’s Head of Funding, £99,111.00 was secured for a 3-year project aimed at sustaining improved literacy outcomes for children in nursery. Funding is provided by SHINE – an education charity that works with teachers, schools and other organisation, helping disadvantaged children in the North of England. The link between research and practice is at the heart of the project and Deb is passionate about ensuring that theory can be practically applied in all aspects of the project.

“It’s important to be able to link theory and practice in our daily work with families.”

- Deb Shorthouse.

Why Family Literacy? What does the ORIM Framework offer?

The ORIM Framework (Hannon, 1995; Hannon et al., 1991) provides a flexible model, which can respond to diverse educational contexts, and allowed Deb and her team to steer the strategic development of the project, formulating and adapting the Research Questions as the project evolved and continues to evolve.

The starting point for the first year was the Research Question:

Can literacy outcomes for 3 year olds be improved through home visits?

A number of sub-questions also helped to focus the outcomes for the project:

  • Can parents feel more confident about engaging with their children on family literacy activities?

  • Can parents gain knowledge about child development to support literacy activities in the home?

  • Can teachers gain a deeper understanding of child development theories in relation to early literacy?

  • Can teachers apply this new knowledge professionally in their classrooms?

In the first year of the project four schools, with nursery classes, addressed these questions. The project began with training for nursery practitioners and involved non-contact time for them to plan and carry out the home visits and attend regular network meetings which gave the practitioners the opportunity to explore all aspect of the project, specifically looking at evaluation and engagement. Practitioners from the four schools visited eight of their families, conducting four visits throughout the year. The funding also bought a central stock of literacy-related resources and books for the schools. Extra funding was also sought to enable the families to be gifted a book during each visit and they received a bookshelf as a gift on the final visit.

The data collected was both quantitative and qualitative and practitioners were invited to keep a Reflective Journal throughout the project. Outcomes for individual children showed that the majority of children did show an increase in the number of statements achieved on their EYFS Assessments at the end of the school year. Comments from parents showed the positive impact that the project had in helping them to see the kinds of activities that they could be doing with their children. One parent commented, “You have given us so many ideas to use. We are inspired to try more now we can see what he is doing.” Practitioners’ reflections also noted the impact that working with children during home visits had on their progress in their everyday observations. These noted the children’s engagement and progress in literacy, such as being able to do something that they previously wouldn’t or couldn’t do, e.g. name writing.

For the second year, the Research Question that the project is addressing is:

Can parents’ behaviour change as a result of participation in the project?

Key research texts that have informed Deb’s work are Cathy Nutbrown’s Early Literacy Work with Families[1] and Home Learning Environments for Young Children[2] and Deb’s own research at The University of Sheffield. The schools that participated in year one of the project will continue in a second year and a further four Astrea schools will participate in year two. As in year one, practitioners from the eight schools visit the home of the participating families, working alongside parents in a facilitative role, on literacy activities based around the ORIM Framework. This provides an excellent structure for the roles that adults have within the four key stands of early literacy in the home: Environmental Print, Books, Early Writing and Oral Language. This year, ORIM, will also be built into the evaluation of the project enabling Deb and the team to measure impact that relates to the change in parents’ behaviour, specifically, how they engage with literacy activities with their child. The following evidence will be used to measure impact:

  • Case studies for individual children

  • Practitioners’ observations during home visits

  • Parents’ and children’s comments

  • Practitioner and parents’ questionnaires

  • Practitioners’ verbal and written reflections

  • The use of online tools that share children’s learning at home

  • Feedback during project network meetings

Deb has reflected on the progress of the project so far in relation to the children’s early literacy outcomes and parental engagement. Her comments included:

  • As the project leader this project has excited me and the whole team. We can see the ‘impact’ at ground level particularly in parental engagement with their children’s learning. The staff team have taken a very ‘nurturing’ approach and our retention of families working with us is very high.

  • There has been much interest and enthusiasm for the project throughout the trust and I have shared the project and its impact in Astrea’s internal newsletter and met with key individuals in the trust, such as the Astrea’s Phonics Lead, to share its aims and impact.

  • There are ongoing ethical issues which the project addresses as part of its practice and evaluation. For example, not every child will reach the ‘expected’ level at the end of their nursery year but we are still able to see progress in their individual attainment. Increased family engagement in literacy activities in the home is evident across all participating schools.

  • It may take longer to sustain and support some children but this project addresses real issues of equality and ‘narrowing the gap’ over time.

  • The practitioners working on this project are enthusiastic and dedicated. Regular network meetings offer valuable opportunities to share their knowledge and passion with each other and the visiting Project Managers from SHINE.

  • We are learning about our children and families every day. Some homes have no books or toys but the families are so willing to welcome us into their homes and want to make the learning work for their children. Being able to gift books to the families has been a really important part of the project.

This is a three-year project and the focus for the final year, which will involve all of Astrea’s 14 schools with nurseries, will grow out of 2022/23 data and evaluation processes. Deb is clear that the action research so far has shown that promoting learning in the home learning environment, with nursery aged children, does have positive and sustained impact on their literacy learning.

“I have been blown away by the skilled practitioners participating in the project. Their belief in the project and the passionate way in which they work alongside families has enabled the families to support their children’s literacy learning at home with increased confidence. We have a lot of data and stories to evaluate and to think about. Above all, we are able to fit the project’s research model around our children and families and adapt to individual and local contexts. It’s a very creative and effective process!”

With thanks to Deb Shorthouse and Astrea Academy Trust for sharing their story about Family Literacy.


Hannon, P. (1995) Literacy, home and school: research and practice in teaching literacy with parents. London. Falmer Press.

Hannon, P., Weinberger, J. & Nutbrown, C. (1991) A study of work with parents to promote early literacy development. Research Papers in Education, 6 (2), 77-97.

[1] Early Literacy Work with Families. ( 2005) Nutbrown, C, Hannon, P, and Morgan, A

[2] Home Learning Environments for Young Children. (2022) Nutbrown, C, Clough, P, Davies, K and Hannon, P.

© Cathy Nutbrown 2022