Decoding and comprehension skills mediate the link between a small-group reading programme and English national literacy assessments

Janet I. Vousden, Anna J. Cunningham, Helen Johnson, Sam Waldron, Sabrina Ammi, Claire Pillinger, Robert Savage, Clare Wood

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2 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Despite the fact that literacy instruction is a main focus of primary education, many children struggle to meet nationally set standards. Aims: We aimed to test which components of a comprehensive reading programme  mediated the effect of the programme on nationally assessed literacy outcomes. Sample: Following blind allocation, 516 Year 1 pupils from 40 schools were randomized to the programme group, and 908 Year 1 pupils, to a control condition. Methods: Pupils in the programme completed 20 weeks of instruction in grapheme/phoneme knowledge, decoding, and comprehension. Control children received regular classroom instruction. Results: Children in the programme group were significantly better at these taught skills after the programme finished (effect sizes: grapheme/phoneme knowledge, β =.33, 95% CI [0.09–0.57]; decoding, β =.26, 95% CI [0.09–0.43]; and comprehension, β =.26, 95% CI [0.05–0.47]). Improvements in the programme group’s decoding and comprehension skills fully mediated the improvements in national literacy assessments serving as a delayed post-test 12 months after the programme. Programme group pupils were 2.3 (95% CI [1.4–4.1]) times more likely to achieve/exceed the expected standard in reading, and 1.8 (95% CI [1.2–2.6]) times more likely to achieve/exceed the expected standard in writing due to an increase in the trained skills. Conclusions: These results provide strong evidence that a programme that incorporates decoding and comprehension instruction for typically developing beginning readers improves distal educational outcomes in reading and writing through increasing proficiencies targeted by the reading programme.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-130
Number of pages26
JournalBritish Journal of Educational Psychology
Issue number1
Early online date10 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. British Journal of Educational Psychology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Psychological Society


Funding Information:
Janet Vousden, Anna Cunningham, and Clare Wood now work at Nottingham Trent University, Helen Johnson now works at Lomond Educational Psychology, Sam Waldron now works at Birmingham University, Sabrina Ammi now works for Deloitte, and Claire Pillinger and Robert Savage now work at University College London. The research reported in this article was based on a registered RCT ( ) funded by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), UK. The EEF evaluation has been reported elsewhere (Johnson et al., 2019 ; McNally et al., 2016 ). We thank the Literacy Group at the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement for their help with running the trial. We thank Sandra McNally and Jenifer Ruiz‐Valenzuela at the Centre for Vocational Education Research, London School of Economics and Heather Rolfe at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research for leading the impact and process evaluation. We thank Anne Wade and Philip Abrami, and others at Concordia University’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP) for their technical support. We thank participating schools and teaching assistants. We thank Morag Stuart for implementing the non‐Web‐based version of the programme.


  • comprehension
  • decoding
  • distal educational outcomes
  • mediation
  • reading programme

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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