Reading and writing: Making it REAL

Written by: Joyce Connor | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Making it REAL project offers some food for thought as to how we can encourage a child’s first steps in reading and writing. Joyce Connor explains

Firing a children’s interest in reading and writing at an early age, will pave their way for continued achievement at school. But what kind of support works with children of such a young age?

A family literacy programme, Making it REAL, seems to provide some ideas. It has been shown to make a difference to children’s literacy and improve the confidence of parents to play a part in their child’s development in reading and writing.

Primary schools providing pre-school education will have their own approaches to supporting the children who access their services, but the success of Making It REAL could inspire them to adopt new approaches.

A report on the third year of the programme, coordinated by the National Children’s Bureau, shows marked increases in the frequency with which children read, engaged with the printed word around them, did their own mark-making, and sang songs and rhymes. So what’s the secret?

The programme is based on Raising Early Achievement in Literacy (REAL) and worked with 530 children across 80 early years settings, including primary school nursery and reception classes, pre-schools, playgroups, children’s centres and nursery schools.

A founding principle of the programme is something that all teachers recognise – that what goes on at home has a dramatic impact on children’s learning.

The REAL approach recognises that parents are children’s first and most enduring educators. So practitioners work with parents to help them understand their role in supporting their children’s literacy development in four key strands: environmental print (the printed word around them), books, early writing and oral language.

In each of these areas, Making it REAL uses an easy-to-remember framework, ORIM, to help make sure that lots of different ways to support literacy are used. ORIM stands for Opportunities, Recognition, Interaction and Model.

  • Parents are supported to provide opportunities for children’s literacy development – for example, giving children books and mark-making materials, or helping them learn nursery rhymes.
  • They learn about early literacy development and how to recognise and value early achievements in, for example, early reading, such as spotting letters and logos out and about.
  • When parents do things together with their children such as writing a birthday card or postcard, they are interacting with their children around literacy.
  • When they make sure their children see them using literacy in everyday life, such as reading a paper or writing a shopping list, they are a model of literacy use.

By sharing this framework, practitioners were able to support parents and build their confidence to help their children.

An evaluation of Making it REAL for the Department for Education showed marked benefits for young children, including disabled children and those with SEN, children with English as an additional language, and two-year-olds. Practitioners reported an increase in the extent two-year-old children vocalised and used words after adopting the Making it REAL approach.

Practitioners particularly valued guidance on how to support bilingual children. This included encouraging parents to support their child to speak their home language rather than insisting on the child speaking English, which sometimes families had thought best; improving links between home and setting to help children feel more relaxed; and having staff who could speak the parents’ home languages.

A key ingredient of success were the home visits by practitioners to focus on literacy. By involving the parents more, providing them with ideas on cheap and easy activities to try with their children, and setting up resources such as lending and resource libraries, the staff of early years settings were able to enrich the home learning environment.

But beyond these aspects, the programme offered a more rigorous approach to identifying and assessing children who needed extra support. There was an increase in referrals to other services after Making it REAL, suggesting that the project played an effective role in helping staff identify as early as possible those children needing additional help.

Through Making it REAL, parents have become enthusiastic champions for literacy, sharing their understanding and experiences with other parents, providing reassurance, and even speaking to other families in their own language to support their understanding of ORIM.

With this is mind, NCB has developed training for parent volunteers and is encouraging all those working with Making it REAL to harness the skills and enthusiasm of the parents they work with to spread the word about REAL. Local authorities which have engaged parent volunteers in this way have found this a valuable way of extending the reach of projects and increasing parents’ knowledge of how to support their own children’s literacy development and their confidence in how to share what they know with others.

The approach is paying dividends and is successfully helping children to benefit from a stronger link between the expertise of teachers and early years practitioners, and the family members that children love learning with. Education, like so much else, begins at home.

  • Joyce Connor is director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children’s Bureau.


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