The Effectiveness of an Enhanced Book-Gifting Intervention for Improving Reading Outcomes for Children in Care

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Social Sci, Edu & Social Work


Educational outcomes for children in care are poor and there remains a consistent attainment gap between them and the wider child population. This gap is now well-recognised internationally and a number of initiatives have emerged to tackle this issue. However, the evidence base regarding which interventions are effective in addressing the educational outcomes of children in care remains very limited. This proposed study seeks to make a significant contribution to this evidence base and the development of educational interventions that are effective.

Book gifting programmes are widely used to improve the literacy levels of children in care. The most popular schemes in the UK typically comprise six personalised packs of books and other materials posted to the children once a month for six months. It is thought that children will develop a love of books that will enhance reading activities and ultimately improve reading skills. Qualitative evaluations of such schemes demonstrate that they tend to be well-received by children and carers. They are relatively cheap and well placed to achieve significant impact. However, the one evaluation of such a book-gifting intervention, by members of the current research team, using a randomised controlled trial design, found that it had no effect on children's reading skills or attitudes towards reading.

This present study will build significantly upon the findings of this initial small-scale trial. The study will seek to develop an alternative book gifting programme - Reading Together - that will focus on 7-9-year-old children in foster care. Alongside sending them book parcels, the programme will incorporate an explicit role for foster carers in supporting children's engagement by encouraging paired reading activities between the foster carer and child. More structured one-to-one tuition has been found to be effective in accelerating children's learning by approximately five additional months' progress. If foster carers are given explicit guidance in relation to activities to follow with their foster children, then it is suggested that this type of paired reading may also be effective, especially if delivered in combination with the book-gifting programme.

The intervention will be offered in two formats - one involving a guidance manual for foster carers on how to support their children's reading, and the other that supplements this with direct training for the foster carers in paired reading. The effectiveness of both formats will be assessed using a randomised controlled trial involving over 500 foster children recruited from between 15-20 local authorities in England. The children will be randomly selected to either: receive Reading Together with the carers' manual; receive Reading Together with the manual and also the training of carers; or to continue as normal and not to receive the Reading Together programme at all at this stage. For those in the third group - the control group - they will receive the intervention as soon as the trial is completed. Through the trial, there will be pre- and post-tests of the children's reading skills and attitudes. Alongside this, a detailed qualitative process evaluation will also be conducted. This will play an important role in helping to make sense of the findings from the trial.

Two Advisory Groups - one consisting of expert advisers, service providers and foster carers, and the other of children in care - will assist the research team on all aspects of the study. Overall, the study aims to: develop an effective intervention for improving reading skills; reduce the attainment gap for children in care; and contribute to our understanding of how foster carers can contribute to their educational attainment.

Planned Impact

The key beneficiaries will be: children and young people in care; foster carers; social workers; teachers; Virtual School Heads (VSHs); Local Authority/Trust managers; policy-makers and voluntary organisations.

The children in the study will benefit directly from being involved in an intervention that: a) seeks to improve their educational outcomes; and b) seeks to document their detailed experiences and perspectives in a way that will shape and inform the future delivery of this type of intervention.

Foster carers involved in the trial will benefit directly by providing them with practical advice and giving renewed attention to their caring role. Their perspectives and experiences will also be used to inform future interventions of this type. The publication of a handbook for foster carers will help them support young people in care to read. Furthermore, foster carers, the children they look after and social workers, will have the opportunity to benefit through being consulted with every 3-6 months throughout the research process.

Professionals will benefit from the knowledge and wider discussions regarding support for the delivery of interventions through effective inter-disciplinary networks. This will inform decision making in care planning meetings. VSH's; local authority/Trust managers and voluntary organisations will benefit through access to knowledge which will inform their decisions about budget allocation.

The research team will target key organisations and charities including Fostering Network, CoramBAAF, ADCS and the Professional Association of Virtual School Headteachers. The applicants' work with a range of stakeholders will also provide key opportunities to influence practitioners and policy makers with the research outcomes through discussion, seminars and knowledge exchange events. Winter is Chair of the advisory group for The Fostering Network Northern Ireland and a non-executive Board member of the Guardian ad Litem agency. Sebba is a member of the CoramBAAF Research Group and the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) Research User Group and has two-monthly meetings with the Children in Care Policy Team in DfE, giving her direct access to key service providers. The Rees Centre Advisory Group includes senior government, charity and local authority officials who will benefit from the outcomes. Social media will be used to enhance ongoing engagement with the wider communities of practitioners and young people and blogs, Twitter and webinars will enhance the knowledge exchange achieved.

Social workers, teachers and managers, who share corporate responsibility, will also benefit. Policy makers, local authority/Trust managers and VSHs will benefit since the government in England invests approximately £50 million a year (£1,900 per child in care) through the Pupil Premium Plus. This is managed by the designated VSH for the benefit of children in care's educational needs. As yet, there is almost no evidence base to inform the expenditure of these allocations. Voluntary organisations that also make resources available will benefit. In Northern Ireland, government funding has been made available since 2006, to support foster carers as the first educators of the children they look after. The scheme, Fostering Achievement, is supported by positive anecdotal accounts, but no robust evidence of impact on outcomes.

The research team is drawn from universities that are involved in the delivery of undergraduate and postgraduate training to education and social work students/professionals. They will ensure that the findings are integrated into their teaching on these programmes.
Description 1) BACKGROUND: There now exists a considerable body of international evidence demonstrating the consistently poor educational outcomes faced by children in care. These poor outcomes emerge early and worsen as children grow older, with the effects lasting longer term into adulthood. One popular intervention aimed at addressing this has been the use of book-gifting. However, there is limited evidence that book-gifting, on its own, is effective in improving reading outcomes for children in care. Moreover, previous research suggests the need for book-gifting programmes to be enhanced through including a direct role for foster carers to support their children's reading when receiving the books.

2) OBJECTIVES AND MAIN OUTCOMES: This study sought to design and evaluate the effectiveness of an enhanced book-gifting intervention - 'Reading Together' (see: - that supplemented existing approaches to book-gifting by incorporating a paired-reading component for foster carers to undertake with their children and also providing the children with choice in relation to the selection of the books they receive.

Within this, the study sought to assess what level of support is required for foster carers and tested two approaches: one that provided foster carers with a Handbook providing guidance on how to undertake paired-reading and access to short online instructional videos; and another that supplemented this with the provision of an in-person training.

The study focused on measuring the effects of Reading Together on the primary outcome of children's levels of reading comprehension and also included a number of secondary outcomes (reading accuracy, reading rate, receptive reading and attitudes towards reading). In addition, the study explored whether any effects found for Reading Together were associated with the children's gender or age and also the foster carers' previous levels of education.

3) DESIGN: A three-armed randomised controlled trial was employed, with children recruited through local authorities and, within each local authority, randomly allocated to either: the Handbook arm, that provided three book-gifting parcels over the course of nine months together with a Handbook to foster carers; the training arm that included the three book-gifting parcels and Handbook and supplemented these with the provision of a direct training session for foster carers; and a control group.

Children in the control group continued as normal for the duration of the trial and then received the Handbook-only intervention once post-testing was completed. The aim was to secure a final achieved sample of at least 528 children (176 children for each arm of the trial). Calculations suggested that this would be sufficiently powered (80%) to detect a minimum effect of d=.19. Alongside the trial, a qualitative process evaluation was undertaken, interviewing and tracking 30 children and their carers during the course of the programme delivery.

4) SETTINGS AND PARTICIPANTS: The original plan was to recruit children through local authorities in Northern Ireland and England. However, it was not possible to undertake the study in Northern Ireland and thus the trial focused on England. English local authorities that agreed to participate in the study were asked to nominate children that met the eligibility criteria of being between 7-9 years of age and in foster care and where their social worker felt that they would benefit from the programme.

5) RESULTS: The recruitment of local authorities proved to be more difficult than had been envisaged originally due to a number already offering book-gifting programmes and thus not being eligible to participate or citing other existing demands. A total of 22 local authorities eventually agreed to participate in the study helping to secure a final achieved sample of 266 children, randomly allocated evenly within each local authority to one of the three arms of the trial.

The Reading Together programme was delivered in a phased manner in each local authority and the trial ran from July 2019 to December 2020. The latter stages of the delivery of the programme in most local authorities were impacted by the national lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and post-testing had to be undertaken remotely, using video calling facilities, rather than being conducted face-to-face.

Overall, the trial found no evidence that Reading Together (either with or without the provision of in-person training for foster carers) had any additional effect on the reading skills and attitudes of children that received the intervention as reflected in the measures used. Whilst children did not make gains above and beyond those expected, those in both the intervention groups and the control group did progress on their maturational trajectories as expected over the timeframe. These findings should be viewed with some caution due to the lower sample size that was achieved and hence the fact that the trial was statistically under-powered.

The qualitative process evaluation found that the Reading Together programme itself, including the book-parcels received, the Handbook and the in-person training provided were all well-received by the children and foster carers respectively. However, the delivery of the programme was fundamentally impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown.

The demands associated with the closure of schools and children learning online from home, supported by their foster carers, were so challenging that foster carers felt it was too much to expect the child to participate in a reading session once they had completed their school work online.

It was not possible to sufficiently monitor and measure levels of programme fidelity but the qualitative interviews suggested that whilst foster carers did engage in some reading activities with their children, this did not tend to follow the guidance provided on paired-reading. Moreover, huge variation was found in foster carers' confidence and capacity to support home learning in general and reading specifically.

6) CONCLUSIONS: Ultimately, the findings of this study are inconclusive regarding whether a book-gifting programme, enhanced with the introduction of paired reading, can be effective in improving the reading skills of children in foster care. Whilst the trial found no evidence that Reading Together was effective, it is not possible to determine whether this was due to the ineffectiveness of the programme itself or the profound impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown on the children and their foster carers.

The evidence from this study and elsewhere suggests that book-gifting programmes are popular and well-received. There is also clear evidence that paired-reading, when delivered with fidelity, is effective in improving reading skills amongst children. The hypothesis that underpinned this present study - that a book-gifting programme enhanced with paired reading can be effective in improving reading outcomes for children in care - therefore remains plausible and worthy of further exploration and study.

In reflecting upon the findings of the qualitative process evaluation of this present study, a number of recommendations are made for how such work could be progressed further. These include: giving consideration to more targeting of the programme; strengthening the intensity and fidelity of the programme; reflecting further on the support needs of foster carers and the role that peer support and the supervising social worker may play in relation to this; and considering further potential outcome measures in relation to exploring the more affective components of the programme and their potential impact on attachment relationships.

7) TRIAL REGISTRATION: The trial protocol was registered in the Registry of Efficacy and Effectiveness Studies on 8 September 2019 (Registry ID: 1776.1v1). See:

8) FUNDING: The trial was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (Project Reference: ES/P008240/1).
Exploitation Route The impact of Covid pandemic on the main trial has meant that it is not possible to generalise from the findings in relation to the wider effectiveness of the "Reading Together" intervention. However, the study has demonstrated that the intervention is well-regarded by children, foster carers and teachers and that it is feasible and possible to deliver at low cost. Whilst the intervention was delivered in untypical circumstances (namely during lockdown), several important issues have arisen regarding the intervention that have wider applicability. These are currently being explored further through ongoing work with key stakeholders and through our current and future publication plans. To date, two key articles have been written and submitted to journals for publication. Moreover, with the lifting of lockdown restrictions, we are planning to explore the implications of the findings further with others through conference presentations and other stakeholder events. We also feel strongly that there remains considerable merit in the "Reading Together" intervention that was designed through this project and that further funding now needs to be secured to refine the programme in the light of the findings of this present study and to run a second randomised controlled trial to evaluate its impact.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education

Description With the study now completed and the findings reported, the research team are exploring the implications of the findings with key stakeholders (principally in the fields of education and social care). Whilst it is too early to report any impacts from these, it is important to note here that this work is ongoing. Although the main study was impacted significantly by Covid, there remain important lessons applicable to supporting the education of children in foster care in the home environment and the research team remains committed to working on ensuring that these help shape policy and practice. Further updates on these activities will reported here (ResearchFish) when available.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Progress Update for Project Advisory Group (February 2020) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a brief written update on the progress of this project for the Project Advisory Group.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020