Looked-after children and reading

The reading attainment of looked-after children (LAC, also known as children in public care) has been a matter of concern for many years. This article gives a brief overview of the data about LAC’s literacy attainment and the reasons for their low achievement rates, then focuses on issues relating to reading materials and the importance of sensitivity in their choice. It highlights the impact of interventions that have made reading materials more accessible to looked-after children.

Some figures first, to give a context. There are around 90,000 looked-after children in the UK at any one time.1 Despite improvements over the last few years, outcomes for LAC are poorer than for the wider population. This is very apparent in relation to educational achievement. LAC fare much worse than their peers in literacy. In 2012, 67% of LAC achieved the expected level in reading at the end of key stage 1, compared to 87% of non-looked-after children. The achievement gap for writing was higher still. The gap in English results between LAC and others at the end of key stage 2 was even greater than at KS1: 60% achieved the expected level, compared with 85% of their peers.2 It is logical to assume that poor literacy levels are a contributory factor to low attainment later in life. Just 15% of LAC gained five or more A*-C GCSEs or equivalent, as opposed to 58% of non-looked-after students.3 Only 6% of care leavers went to university in 2011, compared with 38% of all young people.4 A third of 19 year-olds who left care at 16 were not in education, employment or training, far more than the overall rate amongst young people of 13%.5

There are many possible reasons for looked-after children’s low attainment in reading. It is important to recognise that for lots of LAC the issues cited here may relate as much, or more, to their experiences prior to coming into care as their experiences once in a foster or residential home, especially bearing in mind that three quarters of them enter care because of abuse or neglect.6

  • Many LAC have experienced enormous disruption to their education, sometimes including multiple changes of school.
  • Rates of non-attendance, suspensions and exclusions are higher for LAC than the general population in some areas.7
  • Many LAC have experienced trauma which has impacted on their ability to learn.
  • Over half of LAC have mental health problems, again with an impact on learning.8
  • A far higher proportion of LAC have special educational needs than the general population.9
  • Low expectations by carers and teachers can hold children back.
  • In relation to other things going on in many LAC’s lives, reading is not a high priority.
  • Some carers have low literacy levels (significant numbers of foster carers were themselves brought up in care) and, as a result, may not be the reading role models LAC need, may not read with or to them, may not support their reading and may have few or no books in their homes.
  • Because reading is difficult for many LAC due to these circumstances, and because many have never received the message that it is relevant or worthwhile, let alone enjoyable, it has negative connotations, and may be seen as boring and a chore.
  • In extreme cases, reading may be associated with fear, the phrase ‘Let’s read a bedtime story’ having been the route into sexual abuse.

With this backdrop, clearly reading resources for LAC need a great deal of consideration. The Right to Read project, a library-based initiative funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, generated valuable information about what works for looked-after children, in terms of ways to make reading attractive to them and the types of reading resources that can make a difference.10 The Letterbox Club (www.letterboxclub.org.uk), a Booktrust scheme bought into by well over a hundred local authorities in the UK, sends packs of books and other resources to looked-after children at given ages.11 They conduct careful research to find out about what recipients like. This article draws on the experience of both these initiatives, and a scheme of one-to-one reading support for LAC run by the Reader Organisation (www.thereader.org.uk) in North West England.12

Rose Griffiths, founder of the Letterbox Club, believes that looked-after children need both books that are ‘windows’, so they can understand other lives, and books that are ‘mirrors’, to help them understand themselves. Many looked-after children struggle with identity issues. The poet Lemn Sissay, patron of the Letterbox Club and himself brought up in care, has spoken often about the need for LAC to find themselves in books. He cites Batman and Superman as valuable literary super-heroes with a care background. He talks about Cinderella, Harry Potter and the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo as characters that can inspire. Tracy Beaker has been enormously important to many looked-after children. A girl living in a secure unit involved in the Edinburgh Right to Read project asked ‘Can I swap Fantastic Mr Fox for the second Tracy Beaker? I really like Tracy Beaker.’ I have heard a looked-after child say that she and others like The Story of Tracy Beaker because it makes them feel better about themselves, and because it has made other people understand them more, a reminder that books with looked-after characters are important for all children and young people, not just LAC. (For an older audience, Saving Daisy and Being Billy by Phil Earle feature teenage protagonists who are in care. These books are not issue-led, just great reads for LAC and non-LAC alike.)

A girl involved in the Reader Organisation project in Liverpool loved ‘Eric’, a pictorial story from Shaun Tan’s Tales from Outer Suburbia. Initially she could not understand why. Gradually she realised that she completely identified with its main character, a foreign exchange student who comes to live with a family he cannot communicate with. Only at the end does the reader find out that he has had a good time. The book made the girl happy: she realised her journey had been similar. Books for LAC need to be inclusive, but do not have to be an exact reflection of their lives to meet their needs. A teenage girl in the same scheme chose Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar from the books her reading partner brought for her to decide between, because the blurb interested her. She very much enjoyed it.

When the Letterbox Club chooses what books to put in the packs they send out to different age groups they of course consider reading levels and density of text, but overall appeal is even more important, so that recipients see books and reading as fun rather than work. They seek to provide books that will excite, knowing the value to children of reading and re-reading books of their own that they enjoy. They also explore the ideology of the book, inclusivity being a vital consideration. They look at the characters: are they strong; are recipients likely to identify with them? They want books, they told me in a recent discussion, that are ‘nutritious but not worthy’. They make sure that every pack includes plenty of material that is easy to read to help break down barriers to reading. Ketchup On Your Cornflakes, Horrid Henry and The Beano Annual are among the books selected for children for 2013. Where’s Wally? has been very successful, as are other books that do not have to be read cover to cover, such as joke books and poetry books. Poetry works well with children who aren’t experienced readers and has proven very popular with looked-after children and young people in the Reader Organisation scheme. Letterbox Club often includes poetry books and rhymes in their packs. Year 3/4 Letterbox Club members will receive Revolting Rhymes later this year. Younger ones will get a book of rhymes and Green Eggs and Ham, predominantly because they’re fun, but also because rhymes develop language and learning more generally.

Some Letterbox Club choices are deliberately aspirational. Hunger Games was chosen recently for older children. Although it is not an easy read, it was felt that many recipients would have seen the film, and that familiarity would help them to access the text and make them feel more confident about their reading. (Film and TV tie-ins are often chosen for these reasons.) Hunger Games is fundamentally a gripping adventure story, but has a number of features of interest to lots of LAC: strong sibling relationships, a mother with mental-health problems, a dead father.

The Letterbox Club is currently piloting a gifting scheme for 5-7 year-old LAC. Inclusivity is a guiding principle in choosing picture books, as it is with all their other reading materials. They look for images and text that do not focus on nuclear families. Just Imagine is likely to prove a very popular choice: extremely inclusive, good fun, not difficult to read and great for sharing. Room on the Broom and Red Apple are among their other choices for 2013, also both very inclusive. They like to include picture books in their packs for older children too, for ease of access combined with sophisticated content. Anne Frank by Angela Barrett was a recent choice. Illustrations are not just important in picture books. The Letterbox Club checks carefully to ensure age-appropriate illustrations.

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library (uk.imaginationlibrary.com), which sends a book a month out to looked-after children under five throughout Scotland and some other UK local authorities, also takes great care over its choice of reading materials. Sensitivity to individual needs is vital for anyone wanting to promote reading to looked-after children. Carers on courses I have given have expressed disquiet about We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, because it ends with everyone in bed together, something that might be problematic with children they look after. Other carers have said that they want the children they care for to see reflections of normal family life, and therefore would use the book, but be ready to discuss the issues it may raise. I have heard similar qualms about Dear Zoo. The repeated phrase ‘I sent him back’ in regards to all the unwanted animals resonates too negatively with some looked-after children. Practitioners have told me that Owl Babies is not appropriate for children whose mothers never come back. On occasion publishers have made small changes to their poetry books at the request of the Letterbox Club, for instance replacing a poem that might be problematic for LAC with a more suitable one.

A key finding of the Right to Read project was that reading resources were more likely to be well used if they were chosen by the children and young people themselves. Assumptions about what might be appropriate often turn out to be wrong. A librarian in the Midlands asked a group of looked-after teenage girls what books they would like her to get for them. The answer was books that would develop their self-esteem and help them move out of a cycle of deprivation, rather than the escapist reading she had thought they would want. Letterbox Club found Jacqueline Wilson’s Worry Website very popular with looked-after children. They were reassured to discover that they were not alone in having worries. The Sad Book by Michael Rosen, which openly explores grief, has been a big hit with many LAC. One teacher told of a boy who found it so comforting that he carried it with him wherever he went for many days.

In 2010 the Letterbox Club surveyed 11-13 year-old recipients to find out which of the books they had received they liked best.13 The findings are interesting:

Oxford School Atlas 97%
The Guinness Book of World Records 91%
Manga Romeo and Juliet 88%
Oxford School Dictionary 88%
Orange Silver Sausage: A Collection of Poems without Rhymes 76%
The London Eye Mystery 74%

While the popularity of The Guinness Book of Records is no surprise, this list shows us again that assumptions should never be made about what looked-after children might like. Other books gifted to this group in 2010 included Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief and The Hobbit, either of which might have been expected to have been more popular than some the books that were rated highly. The list also usefully highlights the importance to LAC of books that are of practical value. Dictionaries and atlases have also been very popular with LAC in year 3.

Many less experienced readers find non-fiction more attractive than fiction. A carer involved in Right to Read said ‘He’s enjoyed most the new books he’s been reading. He’s been reading really interesting books – mainly factual – finding things he’s been interested in. It’s given him more confidence to read and enjoy things. He’s had a laugh with it.’ A residential worker on a course I gave on looked-after children’s reading on which we explored lots of different reading materials was very excited about an internet-linked book on sharks. He knew that here was a book he could use to get children in the home he worked at excited about reading. The subject matter and the internet links would, he knew, be hits, especially with the boys. This is extremely important. The attainment levels of looked-after boys are significantly lower than those of girls. A boy in a children’s home which received books through the Edinburgh Right to Read project reported: ‘When it was snowing, me and Declan wanted to make an igloo but we didn’t know how, but we found a book, Pingu, in the education room with some pictures in it. We used that.’ Here is a child who had learnt the value of books. Another boy, who received a book about mammals from the Letterbox Club, was hooked on it for a long time, enthused by the facts in it. His carer shared his fascination. One of the books year 7/8 Letterbox Club members received last summer featured Olympic events, very interesting and relevant to lots of recipients.

When the Natural History Museum ran a project called Following Footprints a few years ago for looked-after children and their families, in which they explored and gave presentations on creatures of interest to them, the reading they did for research was at a very high level, because they were motivated. Some of the young people involved in the scheme showed me learned text books they had consulted, and described a great deal of online reading too.

Looked-after children have often missed out on experiences that are part-and-parcel of the lives of their peers. When a sixth form mentor in a school near me asked a very troubled 12 year-old girl in the care system what support she would like, and what she would find useful, the response was that she would like her mentor to read her fairy tales, as no one had ever read them to her before. The Letterbox Club frequently includes age-appropriate fairy tales in their packs, precisely so that looked-after children do not miss out on an important and valuable canon of stories, stories that explore universal issues with which they can identify, such as loss and abandonment.

It is worth highlighting here the need for training for carers, something demonstrated by Right to Read, so that they learn the value of sharing and supporting LAC’s reading. Without support, carers do not necessarily understand the role of books and reading, nor the contribution they can make. ‘Kirsty reads to calm down – I did not realise how keen she was on reading until we got the books in. She gets very frustrated and angry sometimes and reading helps her to relax,‘ reported a care officer involved in the Edinburgh Right to Read project. Letterbox Club is particularly successful when carers are fully involved.

Evidence suggests a big value for looked-after children of books that can be shared, surely important in terms of developing engagement with books. A 12-year-old recipient of books via Letterbox Club reported sharing the Guinness Book of World Records with his 10-year old brother: ‘I’d show him stuff that was a bit weird and stuff. Like the dog with the longest tongue.’ One girl’s foster mother said of the same book ‘She drove me mad with it.’ Where’s Wally? has generated lots of sharing. As the carer of a year 3/4 child put it: ‘We all had a go at Where’s Wally? – even the teenagers wanted to have a go.’ Foster carers have spoken to me on training courses about sharing recipe books and magazines very successfully with children for whom reading has not before seemed an attractive option. One looked-after child involved in Right to Read said ‘I feel better about my reading now, as I read a lot. I’ve had lots of magazines to try and I read lots of different things now.’ The sports pages of newspapers are often cited as useful. The Argos Catalogue is a great source of pleasure. A carer on a course explained how all seven boys she fosters, including one with severe dyslexia and autism, are keen readers. The reason, she said, was lots of shared football-related reading, programmes and the like, as well as books. Like all other children and young people, LAC are far more likely to want to read when the reading material is of direct interest to them. Relevant reading materials are vital for changing LAC’s attitudes to reading, and for developing their reading confidence and skills. As several of these examples show, it is important that the reading materials on hand are not only books.

For some LAC, printed material may be unattractive or inaccessible. Audio materials are often included in Letterbox Club packs, and have been very successful with some looked-after children. ‘He was listening to one CD each night at bedtime. He never seems to have enough of it’ reported one carer. Another said ‘Damon especially enjoyed the audio book – he finds reading quite difficult and struggles with comprehension. He’s of an age where he wouldn’t appreciate a bedtime story from me, but he listened to the CD at bedtime.’

No study has yet been done into the value of e-books with LAC, but it seems likely that they would encourage reading.

The impact for looked-after children and young people of having easy access to appropriate reading material is huge. The Right to Read initiative, which took books into LAC’s homes and engaged them in literacy-related activities, developed their self-esteem, their reading confidence, reading skills, and reading enjoyment. It helped young people view themselves as readers. They talked willingly about their reading experiences and preferences, requested specific books, expressed how reading made them feel, used libraries independently, and read for enjoyment more ‘They’ve all got the bug!’ said one worker about the books in their residential home. ‘They’re flocking to them now and taking them up to their bedrooms.’ A child in one home said ‘I want to join the library. Then I can be like Matilda in the book. She had lots of books and did magic.’ A teenager involved in another library LAC initiative told library workers ‘I’m really glad you’ve turned up. I could do with a good read.’ On one occasion, a woman brought up in the care system gave me a brief history of her life, including being taken to a secure unit in handcuffs at the age of 13. By 16 she was on the streets. It was books that turned her life around, she told me. There are particular benefits to LAC in having books of their own. Reading tests conducted before and after Letterbox Club gifting have demonstrated significant improvements, for instance tests in Northern Ireland showed a marked increase in looked-after children’s reading accuracy and comprehension.14 Teachers, carers and LAC themselves have reported big changes in attitudes to reading.

To sum up, looked-after children need and deserve books and other reading materials that appeal to their individual interests, that are relevant to their lives, and that meet their emotional needs. They need inclusive books, and books in which they can find themselves. Sensitivity over choice of reading material is vital. Like all other children and young people they need reading resources that are accessible and fun, as well as some that stretch them. And they need and deserve practitioners who make sure they have easy access to books and know how to make reading worthwhile and enjoyable. When these factors are in place, the barriers to reading that we saw at the start can be overcome.


1 http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/resourcesforprofessionals/ lookedafterchildren/statistics_wda88009.html
2 http://www.education.gov.uk/researchandstatistics/statistics/a00217266/
3 http://www.education.gov.uk/researchandstatistics/statistics/a00217266/
4 http://www.education.gov.uk/researchandstatistics/datasets/a00196857/children-lookedafter-by-las-in-england
5 http://www.education.gov.uk/researchandstatistics/datasets/a00196857/children-lookedafter-by-las-in-england
6 http://www.education.gov.uk/researchandstatistics/statistics/allstatistics/a00213762/children-looked-after-las-england
7 http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s001046/sfr30-2011at.pdf
8 http://www.youngminds.org.uk/assets/0000/1440/6544_ART_FINAL_SPREADS.pdf
9 http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/SFR/s001046/sfr30-2011at.pdf
10 Griffiths, V. et al. (2007) Right to Read 2001-2005: Summary of Current Outcomes. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation
11 http://www.letterboxclub.org.uk
12 http://thereader.org.uk/2011/10/21/testimonial-two
13 University of Leicester School of Education. (2011) Letterbox Green 2010: An Evaluation of the Letterbox Club Pilot for Children in Secondary School. London: Booktrust.
14 Winter, K. et al. (2011) An Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Letterbox Club in Improving Educational Outcomes among Children Aged 7-11 Years in Foster Care in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Centre for Effective Education, Queen's University Belfast.


City of Edinburgh. (2010) Reading Champion Report 2005-2010. Edinburgh: City of Edinburgh Council.

Griffiths, V, et al. (2007). Right to Read 2001-2005: Summary of Current Outcomes. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Poulton, L. (2012). Looked-After Children and Literacy, A Brief Review. London: National Literacy Trust.

Thebridge, S. (2009). Switched on to Reading: Warwickshire Libraries Working with Looked After Children and Their Foster Families - Final Project Report. Warwick: Warwickshire County Council.

University of Leicester School of Education. (2009). The Letterbox Club: Evaluation Report Part One. London: Booktrust.

University of Leicester School of Education. (2010). The Letterbox Club: 2007 to 2009 Final Evaluation Report. London: Booktrust.

University of Leicester School of Education. (2011) Letterbox Green 2010: An Evaluation of the Letterbox Club Pilot for Children in Secondary School. London: Booktrust.

Winter, K. et al. (2011) An Independent Evaluation of the Letterbox Club Northern Ireland. Belfast: Queen's University Belfast Centre for Effective Education

Books for children and young people referred to:

Campbell, R. (2010) Dear Zoo. London: Macmillan.

Carter, J. and Denton, G. (2009) Orange Silver Sausage: A Collection of Poems Without Rhymes from Zephaniah to Agard. London: Walker Books.

Collins, S. (2009) Hunger Games. London: Scholastic.

Dahl, R. (2013) Fantastic Mr Fox. London: Puffin.

Dahl, R. (2013) Matilda. London: Puffin.

Dahl, R. (2008) Revolting Rhymes. London: Puffin.

Donaldson, J. and Scheffler, A. (2002) Room on the Broom. London: Macmillan.

Dowd, S. (2010) The London Eye Mystery. Oxford: David Fickling Books.

Earle, P. (2011) Being Billy. London: Puffin.

Earle, P. (2012) Saving Daisy. London: Puffin.

Goodhart, P. and Sharratt, N. (2012) Just Imagine. London: Doubleday.

Guinness World Records Ltd. (2012) Guinness World Records. London: Guinness World Records Ltd.

Handford, M. (2007) Where’s Wally? London: Walker Books.

Leong, S. et al. (2007) Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet. London: SelfMadeHero.

Oral, F. and Raynham, F. (2008) The Red Apple. London: WingedChariot Press.

Oxford Dictionaries. (2012) Oxford School Dictionary. Oxford: OUP.

Plath, S. (2005) The Bell Jar. London: Faber and Faber.

Poole, J. and Barrett, A. (2007) Anne Frank. London: Red Fox.

Riordan, R. (2006) Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. London: Puffin.

Rosen, M. and Oxenbury, H. (2009) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. London: Walker Books.

Rosen, M. and Blake, Q. (2011) The Sad Book. London: Walker Books.

Seuss, Dr. (2003) Green Eggs and Ham. London: Harper Collins.

Sharratt, N. (2006) Ketchup on Your Cornflakes. London: Scholastic.

Simon, F. (1998) Horrid Henry. London: Orion.

Tan, S. (2009) Tales from Outer Suburbia. Dorking: Templar.

Thomson, D.C. & Co. Ltd. (2012) Beano Annual 2013. Dundee: D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012) The Hobbit. London: Harper Collins.

Waddell, M. and Benson, P. (1994) Owl Babies. London: Walker Books.

Wiegand, P. (2012) Oxford School Atlas. Oxford: OUP.

Wilson, J. and Sharratt, N. (2006) The Story of Tracy Beaker. London: Yearling.

Wilson, J. and Sharratt, N. (2008) The Worry Website. London: Yearling.