Scheme trains parents to boost literacy skills of disadvantaged children

Joanne Parkes
Tuesday, June 29, 2021

National Literacy Trust supports parents and under-fives to “chat, play and read” as part of DfE-funded social mobility initiative.

Parents get the confidence they need to support their children’s learning at home
Parents get the confidence they need to support their children’s learning at home
  • Families are targeted in shopping centres and parks in 12 areas of high disadvantage and with lower than expected literacy skills

  • Trained volunteers and professionals show parents everyday activities and signpost to online tools and early years services


Addressing the early language gap is “the thing that would make the most difference for social mobility in terms of educational performance in children and young people”, says Judith Parke, head of home learning environment at the National Literacy Trust (NLT).

With this aim in mind the charity, which works to give disadvantaged children the literacy skills they need, has teamed up with the Department for Education via its three-year initiative Hungry Little Minds.

It operates under the umbrella of the NLT’s Words for Life campaign, which provides parents, children and young people with activities and support to improve language, literacy and communication skills.

When Hungry Little Minds launched in 2019, the DfE said it would “tackle the barriers some parents face in supporting their child’s learning at home, including time, confidence and ideas for things to do”.

Parke explains that the events are designed to positively boost parental confidence by seeing the techniques being demonstrated.

She says: “The idea is to give parents simple ideas that they can do every day that promotes chatting, playing and reading and we are working with the DfE, promoting it in targeted areas.”

The NLT set about training volunteers to help demonstrate the activities in places like shopping centres, that families would naturally go to, in the following key areas: The Wirral, North Yorkshire Coast, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Croydon, Cornwall, Manchester, Black Country, Peterborough, Swindon, Birmingham and Doncaster.

NLT’s evidence and policy manager Mel Crew says: “All the localities (a mixture of NLT hubs and local organisations such as food banks, women’s refuges, early years settings, family hubs community organisations and art galleries) recruited local volunteers to help with the campaign – some of these were parents themselves.”

Volunteers’ responsibilities included sharing campaign content on social media pages or creating videos of themselves reading to their children to be posted on Facebook. Some of them also delivered leaflets and resources.

The format is “drop-in” and so there is no formal sign-up that could pose a barrier. The charity works with early years settings to promote the events so families know where and when they will be and there are plenty of passers by who are drawn in.

Events and volunteering officer Lisa Clissett explains that in shopping centres, a range of activity stations were set up, covering areas including reading, sharing books, sensory play, mark making and singing.

Clissett says: “The aim was to have someone facilitating each station to model the activity and language, while encouraging parents or carers to work with and support their child.

“The activities that were modelled were then given out with a book for the family to use at home, the idea being that they could continue this which would impact the home learning environment.”

The shopping centre events worked well in between lockdowns, but to reach more people when this has not been possible, the work has been taken online and into parks.

“We carefully select where those parks are and think about how they’re used, maximising the investment of time but also the families that we’re really trying to target,” says Parke.

Clissett reflects on the benefits of having supportive local services.

“I have worked with a local parks area who have really supported our work and have been keen for us to have a presence in the park whenever restrictions allowed,” she says.

“We made up packs with self-led trails, craft materials, activity booklet and a book.

“We spent time talking to each family about the packs and how they could use them, enabling them to be confident with their child and get the best out of the resources.

“Throughout this time we have been sharing key messages about the home learning environment, explaining what is meant by this and how they can do more of what they already do.”

Virtual events have had their upsides, too. Clissett says: “At face-to-face events adults can sometimes stand back and leave the facilitator to support their child, but in the virtual event it fell to the adult with the child which was what we were aiming for.

“The aim was to model stories but also how to extend the book into a simple activity expanding the child’s learning.

“These have been on the same day and time each week so families had some routine.”

Supplementing this, material to prompt similar interactions has also been displayed inside buses, through a partnership with transport company Arriva and resources have been handed out and used to initiate conversations at food banks and refuges.

Taking forward the place-based theme, over the summer of 2021, 12 story trails have been prepared to connect parents and young children with a particular green space by following instructions to find objects.

For ongoing support, parents are encouraged to sign up to a newsletter and signposted to digital content and relevant local activities.

Parke says: “Some events would happen on a semi regular basis, for example once every six weeks, but there is also signposting into local provision, which is why we work in this place-based way.

“It allows us to say: ‘Did you know there’s a rhyme-time in the local library? Are you in touch with someone about the two-year-old offer?’ That can all happen in a much more targeted way.”

Parke is keen to distinguish between a programme that parents might enroll on – and the charity does offer these – and this style of work.

“This is about trying to reach the families who are not engaging or engaging with very few services,” she says.


In the year to March 2021, the initiative has reached around 20,000 families with physical materials alone.

It has not been possible to measure outcomes due to the short period of the programme, but the charity relies on wider evidence that initiatives that influence behavioural change are effective, such as those that “nudge” healthier choices.

The charity also carried out literature review of the effectiveness of place-based approaches in improving outcomes for families, supported by consultancy Wavehill (see below).

This led to the development of an assessment tool which was used to measure the effectiveness of Hungry Little Minds.

Crew says: “Because this has been a process rather than impact evaluation, we don’t have a baseline position and follow up data on parents’ behaviours, so we are unable to present evidence on the extent to which the 12 areas have changed parents’ behaviour in the home.

“However, we have been capturing feedback from parents through interviews and surveys, and this suggests that the campaign has been effective in improving parents’ knowledge, motivation and confidence.”


  1. Enabled localities to be more flexible and adapt to the challenges of Covid-19. The locality leads developed new digital content skills and creatively engaged families. Localities delivered more than 57,000 books and resources to the families who needed them.

  2. Resources were tailored to local contexts, such as with dual language books designed to be accessible.

  3. Resources were delivered to families experiencing loneliness and isolation during a time when many support settings were closed during the pandemic.

  4. Locality leads used their local knowledge to make the most of local assets, identifying and drawing on the strengths of other organisations, and using those partners’ contacts and skills to reach families.

  5. Localities brokered new local partnerships, connecting organisations who had not previously worked together, creating the potential for future collaborative working.

  6. Local activity is needed to tackle some of the barriers that might prevent parents engaging in the home learning environment.

  7. The campaign influenced how early help/years services are delivered and helped improve practitioners’ ability to support parents.

  8. Localities were able to think more strategically about how the campaign could improve and enhance current provision.

  9. Working in partnership meant that families were given a clearer, more joined up offer of support, ensuring there was a consistent message about the importance of the home learning environment.

  10. NLT was able to steer and direct local activity, secure and produce campaign resources, and convene local areas to share learning.

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