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Guest blog: Family Literacy Research and Home Learning by Professor Cathy Nutbrown

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Thursday, 14 May, 2020

In this blog I summarise some research which I have undertaken with colleagues at The University of Sheffield. The blog summarises key parts of our research and introduces two academic papers, three films, and a website with is packed with ideas for working with parents to support their children’s early literacy development. The papers, films and website resources are free to download.

A key challenge for early literacy education is to find ways to facilitate access to school literacy for children from disadvantaged families whilst also valuing their preschool family literacy experiences and their families’ informal teaching of emergent literacy. In 2019 Emeritus Professor Peter Hannon and Professor Cathy Nutbrown reported on a study of an intervention programme designed to enable early childhood educators to work with disadvantaged families to raise children’s literacy achievement at school entry.

The paper (1) introduces key terms and concepts relating to the programme, reviews meta-analyses of evaluations of family-based literacy intervention programmes, identifies four problems in the field, explains the conceptual basis for the REAL (Raising Achievement in Literacy) programme and its key features – in particular the ORIM (Opportunities, Recognition, Interaction, Model) framework. The paper reports an evaluation of the programme involving 176 families in an RCT (randomised controlled trial).

The focus for change in the REAL project was identified through a well-established and widely used conceptual framework developed in the School of Education (2),  who suggested that there are four key factors that help learners: having opportunities to learn; recognition of their achievements by others; interaction, particularly with others more proficient in literacy; and observing models of others using literacy in their lives. These four factors were referred to by the acronym, ORIM – Opportunities, Recognition, Interaction, and Model - and each could be applied separately to various strands of literacy.

Each cell in the framework above represents an area where families can facilitate the emergence of aspects of children’s early literacy. Almost all families in societies where print is ubiquitous will already be doing something in several cells but there are variations in how frequently, how deliberately and how successfully families teach in this way. For example, some families may create opportunities for children’s book-reading (by providing attractive books for them or borrowing books from a library) and parents may initiate shared book reading sessions but their capacity to do so may vary according to parents’ income, educational level and their own ability and confidence in reading and writing. Likewise children in some families may often see their parents providing a model of writing; for others it might be quite rare.

Peter Hannon talks about the development of the ORIM framework and the original REAL Project in a short film (3) which explains the theoretical underpinning of the practical ideas shared with parents through individual home visits where parents, early years educators and young children work in partnership. REAL approaches and how they can be shared with families are also captured in another film "Using ORIM with families in Early Years Settings", made in preschool settings in Dewsbury and two Maintained Nursery Schools in Sheffield, England (4), shows how settings can share aspects of early literacy and how to support it, with parents, even if they do not have resources to offer home visits.

The ORIM framework and REAL approaches have been used by practitioners for over 25 years in many different types of provision for young children and families, including schools, community groups and libraries. In recent years perhaps the most exciting development has been the adaptation of REAL for use in prisons.  Working with the Prison Advice and Care Trust (Pact)  Cathy Nutbrown and Peter Clough have used REAL approaches to identify how imprisoned fathers could be supported in their vital contribution to their young children’s literacy. The UK male prison population is represented by a tapestry of low levels of educational achievement, literacy, employment, family separation and divorce. In this context, a uniquely co-produced family literacy project, [FLiP, Family Literacy in Prisons] was developed and initially trialled in two men’s prisons. Our University-Charity-Prisons collaboration, ensured distinctive and diverse expertise in: early literacy, prison education, research design and prisoner and family support. This collaboration was a significant feature of the study, which sought to understand whether it was possible to adapt an established approach to family literacy (REAL), for effective use with imprisoned fathers.  The significance of the FLiP lies in the demonstration that theories of early literacy development can successfully be shared with imprisoned fathers, and related practices incorporated into the literacy-oriented family visits. A rigorous interpretivist approach highlighted the importance of prisoners learning about children’s early literacy development (5). Although the opportunity to see their children provides a strong motivation to enrol on the programme, we believe that the men’s manifest engagement with the ideas and activities in the workshops and the literacy-oriented family visits indicates success in adapting the original REAL programme for use in prisions: primary success lies in influencing fathers’ concern to support their children whilst incarcerated, and impact on their resolve to desist from crime and re-establish their fathering roles is also notable. A short aminated film (6) sets out the underpinning theory and approach in FLiP and offers the perspective of an imprisoned father, his daughter and her mother. 

Using the ORIM framework to plan and develop early literacy work with parents has led to successful projects around the UK and beyond. Practitioners working with parents in schools, preschool settings, libraries, and prisons have supported parents to enhance the opportunities for, interactions with, and recognition of children’s literacy development. Parents have said that are more knowledgeable about early literacy development and more confident about  how they can support and encourage their young children’s learning.

The ORIM network supports practitioners to share their ideas of practice and develop new initiatives (7), it was established in 2013 and has grown in numbers with members from around the UK and beyond. An annual meeting in May each year is an opportunity to share developments and evaluations of REAL based projects, many of which can be found on the REALonline website.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown is President of Early Education


  1. Peter Hannon, Cathy Nutbrown & Anne Morgan (2019) Effects of extending disadvantaged families’ teaching of emergent literacy, Research Papers in Education, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2019.1568531.
  2. Hannon, P. 1995. Literacy, Home and School: Research and Practice in Teaching Literacy with Parents. Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.
  3. Professor Peter Hannon talks about the development of the ORIM framework and the original REAL Project
  4. Using ORIM with families in Early Years Settings.
  5. Cathy Nutbrown, Peter Clough, Lynsey Stammers, Nadia Emblin & Summer Alston-Smith (2019) Family literacy in prisons: fathers’ engagement with their young children, Research Papers in Education, 34:2, 169-191, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2017.1402085
  6. Family Literacy in Prisons - Prison Advice and Care Trust
  7. To join the ORIM network email