ABRA- Guest blog by Janet Vousden, Coventry University

12 March 2018

Decades of literacy research have shown us the core skills required to become a good reader: children need firstly to be able to decode the print on the page, but then also move on to a more fluent stage including reading with proper expression, and of course they need to understand the meaning of what they are reading. Research has revealed effective strategies for developing these core skills. For example, understanding that words are composed of different speech sounds that can be recombined and blended to make different words, and learning the systematic relationship between letters and sounds will set most children on a successful path to decoding. Having an adult model reading with expression and the opportunity to practice themselves will help children become fluent. Improvements in vocabulary and understanding that stories are structured with beginnings and endings, and characters and settings will all help children to make sense of what they read.


Mostly, children acquire these skills in the normal course of their primary education, and if they don’t, there are interventions available to target specific needs. But what about more balanced interventions that include aspects of decoding, fluency and comprehension that can be given to all children early on in their education to boost development?

At Coventry University, we decided to test that idea, funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). We wanted to use a strong evidence base to develop an intervention, and so we created a balanced reading intervention aimed at all Yr 1 children, using a suite of online reading activities and stories (called ABRACADABRA, or ABRA for short) developed by Concordia University in Canada. ABRA was developed based on decades of literacy research highlighting the types of knowledge and skills that promote the core reading processes evident in good readers. The activities are derived from research showing their effectiveness for developing phonics, reading fluency and reading comprehension. The activities in ABRA are linked to texts that are suitable for early readers.

The EEF funded intervention was delivered by TAs in 50 schools in the West Midlands. Coventry University trained the TAs to deliver the intervention and supported the TAs through the intervention (although once up and running, little support was necessary as we provided lesson plans for the whole intervention). This delivery model mirrors more closely what happens in real life in schools (e.g. TAs delivering interventions), and has the benefit of developing the skill set of the TAs, a valuable knock on effect for the schools as the intervention remained free to use after the EEF funded study finished.

We made the intervention available in two forms: an ICT version that was delivered through the ABRA website, and a paper version using the same activities and stories, but delivered using traditional resources such as paper, cards and magnetic letters. TAs delivered 15 minute sessions to groups of four pupils, four times a week for 20 weeks, either using the ICT or NON-ICT version. The sessions were supplementary to their normal literacy and any other literacy provision that schools were using.

What did we learn from this study?

In terms of hard facts, at the end of the intervention (1 academic year), the ICT (+2 additional months progress) and non-ICT (+3 additional months progress) programmes led to improved reading attainment measured by a standardised reading assessment. The improvements were larger (+5 additional months progress) for disadvantaged children.

In terms of the process we observed, we found that using a well-designed and delivered training programme that supported TAs to deliver the intervention in a consistent way was beneficial to its success. Our experience of the study highlighted to us the need for quality CPD for TAs – many of the TAs involved had not received such thorough CPD to deliver interventions in the past. Yet the fact that the success of our intervention was partially credited to the CPD received by the TAs shows just how important CPD is for anyone involved delivering interventions to pupils.

(A full EEF report can be found here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/our-work/projects/online-reading-support/)

What now?

The EEF are funding a new effectiveness trial of ABRA that will test whether a scalable version of the training and resources can produce similar results. Together with Nottingham Trent University and the National Literacy Trust, Coventry University are recruiting schools from Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Teesside, Nottinghamshire, and the West Midlands to take part in the new study. The new study will follow very similar lines to our first study, one exception being that the new study will not be restricted to TAs as any suitable member of school staff will be trained to deliver the intervention.

The new study will commence in Sept 2018, and run until the summer of 2019. For further details, please contact Professor Clare Wood (our school recruitment lead) on clare.wood@ntu.ac.uk

Shireland Research School will be hosting an ABRA information Roadshow after school on 24th April. Interested in finding out more? Book your space here



Posted on 12 March 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence

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