An evaluation of the impact on disadvantaged children’s literacy of the Headsprout Early Reading program and the ability of schools to run the program independently

  • Gerard McWilliams

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The research within this thesis centred on the impact of an evidence-based literacy intervention in comparison to teaching as usual methods for primary school children in N. Ireland. These children were considered disadvantaged based on their receipt of free school meals and struggling with literacy based on school assessments. The literacy intervention was the online Headsprout Early Reading™ program, designed to teach literacy via a phonics based approach over 80, 30 minute episodes. Chapter 1 examines the impact of poverty on life and specifically literacy, the impact of budget cuts on school, the use of technology and evidence-based practice in education, how children are taught to read and an overview of the Headsprout literacy program.
​​​​​​​Chapter 2 (Study 1) evaluated the impact of the Headsprout program on disadvantaged pupils in comparison to teaching as usual methods (n=123) within eight schools. Sentence reading age, phonics reading age and phonics fluency identification ability were assessed for all pupils at three time points during the research. Differences in pupil performance were analysed by statistical analysis to assess significance. The results demonstrated that use of HER improved performance on all measures significantly more than pupils receiving teaching as usual. Pupils using Headsprout made substantially larger gains on standardised reading assessments than pupil receiving teaching as usual.
Chapter 3 (Study 2) evaluated schools’ ability to use the Headsprout program independently with existing resources. Weekly time in use measures were tracked for the duration of the research. These results were analysed to identify between school and between month differences in use. The results indicate that although schools were able to use the program for the duration of the research, progress and completion rates differed between schools and slowed for all schools as the school year reached a conclusion. 
Chapter 4 (Study 3) was a qualitative study to elicit feedback from teachers on the challenges of using Headsprout in schools. Results from a written questionnaire completed by all participating teachers indicated that although there was a high level of satisfaction on the positive impact on literacy performance and confidence, issues with technology and pressure on teacher’s time limited the effectiveness of the program.
Chapter 5 discussed the implications of each study and their relevance to current literature and practice as well as limitations and recommendations for relevant future research in this area.
Date of AwardNov 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorClaire McDowell (Supervisor), Julian Leslie (Supervisor) & Una O'Connor Bones (Supervisor)


  • Evidence based practice
  • Education
  • Headsprout
  • Computer assisted instruction
  • Applied behaviour analysis
  • Literacy assessment
  • Funding
  • Free school meals
  • National reading panel
  • Teacher training

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