Making it REAL: Raising Early Achievement in Literacy (REAL), Sheffield

Themes this local practice example relates to:

  • Early Years
  • General resources

Priorities this local practice example relates to:

  • Narrowing the gap in outcomes for young children through effective practices in the early years
  • Improving children’s attainment through a better quality of family-based support for early learning

Basic details


Organisation submitting example

Sheffield Local Authority

Local authority/local area:


The context and rationale

This submission describes the practice and evidence from Year 1 of the Making it REAL project, which continues until 2012.

REAL (Raising Early Achievement in Literacy) is an approach aimed primarily at three and four year olds and their families. It encourages participation in, and enjoyment of, the four key aspects of early literacy – books, early writing and mark making, singing songs and rhymes (phonological awareness) and reading and engaging with environmental print. The aim is to enhance young children’s progress in early language, literacy, and social development, by building parents’ confidence to provide strong early home learning environments, and engage with early years’ settings. Raising literacy achievement in Sheffield is a major focus for the local authority. The Foundation Stage Profile results for children at the end of the reception year showed relatively low levels of attainment, with 40% (2007) and 45% (2008) achieving a good level of development.

REAL was selected because it is the only model that focuses very specifically on early literacy and home visiting, and because of its strong evidence base. It was evaluated as a specific early literacy intervention by the University of Sheffield, and achieved clear increases in early language and literacy achievement in comparison with a control group. These effects extended to age 7 for children with mothers who had no educational qualifications. (Nutbrown, C., Hannon, P., and Morgan, A. (2005). Early Literacy Work with Families: Policy, Practice and Research. London: SAGE Publications.) 

Children and families were invited to take part in four Children’s Centre areas – most based within the 30% most deprived areas of Sheffield. Teachers and practitioner pairs identified 16 children in each centre who would benefit from additional support in early language and literacy development and/or social development, and invited their families to take part.

Each family was offered a series of up to four visits at home, and invitations for all the family to four literacy events. REAL uses ORIM as its supporting theoretical framework; working with parents to enhance opportunities (O) for literacy; recognition (R) and support of progress; interaction (I) with children through play activity and real experiences; and modelling (M) of literacy behaviours.

The practice

The original REAL research was based on an 18 month long intervention, with families receiving as many as 10 visits. The ‘Making it REAL’ project in Sheffield has used a reduced model of four visits to children and families and four events over eight months.

In Year 1 – Sheffield LA worked with the University of Sheffield, Oldham LA (who ran a parallel project) and the National Children’s Bureau to provide three development days during the autumn term for practitioners and local authority officers. The days revisited and explored aspects of early language and literacy development, the ORIM framework, and provided planning time for enrolment of families, home visiting and literacy events.

64 children and their families were enrolled on the project in Sheffield and then received a series of up to four home visits between January and July 2010, and invitations to four special literacy events. REAL builds on what parents already do at home to help children learn. The friendly, respectful relationships developed between practitioner, parents and children are central. The REAL/ORIM framework provides a theoretical and practice foundation which is interpreted by professional teams to fit local and individual needs.

One centre’s programme of activity is outlined here as an example.

The local authority provided a team leader to co-ordinate activity across the four centres and to convene and chair three planning meetings during the year. The head teachers and heads of centres gave commitment and support to the project, releasing two members of staff from each centre for home visits and events (for the equivalent of 12 days). Professor Cathy Nutbrown from the University of Sheffield supported the practice development and evaluation processes.

Evidence and evaluation - making a difference to children, young people and families

The intended outcomes were: increased parental confidence and engagement in centre activity, improved outcomes for children’s social and early language and literacy skills, and increased confidence and skills for teachers and practitioners in working with families and enhancing early literacy. These were measured through practitioner assessment at the beginning and end of the project year, and questions to children and parents.

Practitioners asked children the name of their favourite book and they observed how often children were seen to share and enjoy books, to mark-make, to sing songs and rhymes and to notice and talk about print, using a simple scale – never, rarely, sometimes (at least once a week), or often (most days). All five measures are evidence-based indicators/predictors of later reading and literacy success. At the end of Year 1, 58% of project children could name a favourite book title, compared with 11% at the beginning, and 78% were seen to share and enjoy books most days (often), compared with just 25% in the autumn term. 67% of children were seen to mark-make often (early writing), 64% to sing rhymes, and 36% often to notice and talk about environmental print – these latter three strands of early literacy had particularly low ‘start points’ of 16%, 14% and 3% respectively. 

At the beginning of the project 45% of children were observed as having low or extremely low levels of involvement (showing interest, concentration). The difference here is particularly impressive with 97% observed as showing moderate, high or extremely high levels of involvement at the end. This has real significance for children about to enter reception classes. 

Children’s involvement levels (concentration and interest) were also assessed by practitioners using an adapted model of Laevers’ Involvement Scale. (Laevers, F. (2005). Well-being and Involvement in Care Settings: a Process Oriented Self-Evaluation instrument. Leuven: Leuven University, Research Centre for Experiential Education.)

Parents’ level of confidence to talk to teachers/practitioners was assessed, and a record made of events parents attended in the centre. Parents were also asked open questions at the end of the year about whether the project had resulted in any changes to how they helped their children learn at home. 

66% of parents now regularly attend events at the centres, compared with 8% before the project, and 86% are confident in talking to teachers and practitioners (compared with 35% before the project began).

40 families responded to specific open questions about the project – either in written or verbal form. All parents said they felt more able to help their children and had more ideas of what to do. They all had something to say about what they do differently and were able to highlight changes in their children – these were very varied but the most common comments involved more interaction and enjoyment of books, stories and rhymes and noticing and using more environmental print. 

Family involvement in activity was high, and retention and participation rates very good (61 families remained active throughout – with some 54 families having 3 or 4 visits). This low attrition rate compares very favourably with other family learning approaches (e.g. family literacy courses requiring regular attendance combined with adult literacy tuition). 

Additional benefits have included greater participation of fathers in children’s early learning. 17 fathers took a regular part in home visits and many more attended events. Families have also been linked to other local services – parents have, for example, enrolled on English language classes, and at local libraries. Many families show real commitment to continue helping their children learn as they enter reception classes.

Practitioners were also asked to rate their own skills, knowledge and confidence using a simple self-assessment scale. The 8 practitioners all felt confident or very confident about home visiting and talking with parents about their child’s learning at the end of the first year, and evaluated their own knowledge of how to support early literacy as strong or very strong (this compares with 5 practitioners rating themselves in this way at the start). None of the team had experience of taking learning directly into the home, and so have all increased their skills and abilities in this. They are all very committed to the approach, absorbing elements into their general classroom/centre practice.

Sustaining and replicating your practice

The project is currently funded, until 2012, by the Big Lottery Fund.

More Children’s Centre teams will be trained in the approach and adopt aspects of REAL.

Teachers, advisors and practitioners experienced in delivery will disseminate REAL more widely across their authority. Other Children’s Centres and some schools have expressed interest in REAL, and adopted some aspects of the approach. Some have sent staff to the initial training in Year 2, started to use some of the ideas around the four aspects of literacy and embedded these within practice – e.g. sharing more ideas with parents in workshops and events, making greater use of environmental print in teaching. 

Some have reconfigured teacher and practitioner time to include some home visits and events, absorbing costs within centre budgets.

The main messages from the practitioners’ own evaluations of working on the project are:

Increasing parents’ own confidence is the key to the project’s success; home visits and building strong relationships with practitioners are seen as crucial. Parents appreciated practitioner time and the fact that they were listened to. There was a real sense of working with families, ‘not just telling them what to do.’ It’s been a particularly effective approach in involving families learning English as a second language. Fathers’ involvement has been very strong and many younger and older siblings have benefited from inclusion in home visits and events. Many members of the extended family have also been engaged.

Children have benefited from the individual planning for learning needs – in conjunction with parents’ own observations of their children’s interests and response. More boys were involved than girls (72:56) – and boys were all seen to make good progress.

The main messages from parents’ feedback in response to the following questions are:

Question: What do you do differently now, or more of?
Answer: We read more books and more often, use the library, use different types of books, talk more about the book whilst reading. 
Do more things together with children – go on more walks, point out and read print, cook, draw, make things, garden, sing more rhymes.

Question: How do you feel the project has helped you and your child/ren?
Answer: All commented on enjoyment – many would have liked more visits and events.
Feel more confident and have more ideas on how to help children.
Children talk more and ask more questions.
Children more interested in books, notice words around them more.
Children are more confident/concentrate more/are more independent.

The costs of delivery mainly involve the release of staff for home visiting. Costs per children’s centre in this specific project involve the release of one teacher plus one other practitioner (nursery officer, family support worker, teaching assistant) for 12 days in order to deliver 64 home visits and four events (plus 3 training days). This provides sufficient time to involve 16 families in the more intensive work. Other families in the settings and centre have benefited from events and changes to teaching and learning practice more generally. An amount of money for equipment is also beneficial – and to finance elements of workshops and events.


Approximate costs for release of one teacher plus one other member of staff per day are on average £280. Release for 12 days activity totals £3,360.

Added to this are release for three days’ training and one evaluation day – an additional four days, totalling £1,120.

An estimate for equipment and event cost is £1,000.

This gives a total cost per centre of £5,480. 

The essential elements of implementing REAL are:

• Development/training sessions both in REAL as an approach and in the elements of working with families (especially home visiting). 
• Local authority-wide support and commitment – and active support from heads of centres and head teachers.
• Time to come together to plan, share and celebrate success, and evaluate progress.
• Teacher (to lead education practice) and other practitioner teams.

Contact Us

t. 020 7833 6825

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