This page covers the first (efficacy) trial of Abracadabra (ABRA), which tested whether it could work in schools under best possible conditions. To read about the second (effectiveness) trial - which tested a scalable model under everyday conditions in a large number of schools - click here.
Abracadabra (ABRA) is an online toolkit composed of phonics, fluency and comprehension activities based around a series of age-appropriate texts. The trial assesses a 20 week programme of lesson plans using the ABRA activities (referred to here as the ICT programme). The trial also assesses the impact of an offline, paper version of the same programme (referred to here at the non-ICT programme).
The study was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and Nominet Trust as part of a funding round focusing on the use of digital technology to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.
An online reading programme to improve early literacy
London School of Economics
Organising your school
Language and literacy
The EEF tested the ABRA online activites in a programme of 20 weeks of lesson plans, a small group literacy programme that is administered by specially trained teaching assistants and takes a balanced approach to teaching literacy involving both phonics and reading comprehension. We funded the project because it takes an evidence-based approach to literacy, and because the ABRA software is free, meaning that ongoing costs to schools would be low after the initial training for Teaching Assistants.
Our evaluation tested the online, ICT programme, alongside the paper-based, Non-ICT alternative using the same activities and texts. Positive effects were found for both, equivalent to two to three months of additional progress, with a larger impact for students eligible for free school meals. The findings are consistent with the evidence from the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, which indicates that technology is most effective when used to facilitate new approaches to teaching and learning, rather than as an end in itself, and with our Key Stage 1 Literacy Guidance, which recommends a balanced approach to teaching reading.
An impact on attainment was still observable a year after the intervention, as measured by nationally prescribed teacher assessments at the end of Key Stage 1.
The EEF is likely to fund a further trial of ABRA to test its impact when delivered at scale. Many schools already purchase commercial reading programmes and may wish to consider the ABRA training and free software as an alternative with promising evidence.
The children who received ABRA, or its offline alternative were found to make two and three months’ progress in literacy respectively compared to the children who received standard provision. This positive result would be unlikely to occur by chance.
For both ABRA and the offline alternative, the impact for children eligible for free school meals and children with below average pre-test outcomes was larger than for all pupils.
Successful implementation contributed to a well-designed and delivered training programme which emphasised fidelity and consistency, enforced by ongoing support from the project team.
The process evaluation found that both the ICT and non-ICT interventions may be best delivered in groups of similar rather than mixed ability. The process evaluation also suggested minor changes to the intervention to make it more culturally relevant to British pupils, and to remove some repetition in the non-ICT programme.
Future research will examine whether ABRA or the non-ICT intervention can be successfully delivered at scale, and will look at longer-term impacts through assessing Key Stage 1 data from this trial.
Full project description
Abracadabra (ABRA) is a 20-week online literacy programme composed of phonic fluency and comprehension activities based around a series of age-appropriate texts. Four 15-minute sessions per week are delivered by a teaching assistant (TA) to groups of three to five pupils. This report summarises the findings of a randomised controlled trial assessing the impact of ABRA on literacy outcomes for Year 1 pupils. The trial also assesses the impact of an offline, paper and pencil version of the same intervention (referred to here at ‘the non-ICT intervention’). There were 51 participating schools and 2,241 pupils at randomisation, and a total of 48 schools and 1,884 pupils were included in the final analysis (84% of the initial pupils at randomisation).
The trial took place between October 2014 and May 2015. Fifty-one schools were randomly assigned to either receive some version of the intervention or to act as a ‘control’ school delivering business as usual. In the schools receiving the intervention, pupils were randomised to receive one of the following options: (1) ABRA, (2) the non-ICT intervention, and (3) standard literacy provision. The process evaluation involved observing sessions to understand a variety of factors in the intervention. These included an evaluation of which elements contributed to successful implementation, the perceptions and experiences of TAs and project leads, levels of pupil engagement, and the mechanisms behind the estimated impacts. This was an efficacy study, due to the involvement of the developer in the delivery of the programme. The study was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and Nominet Trust as part of a funding round focusing on the use of digital technology to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children.