What is ‘shared reading’?

Despite the fact that shared reading has been fairly well researched, and this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 2, it is surprisingly difficult to locate a definition for the term in the literature. Given the discussion above, we take the view that shared reading describes an activity where a child is engaged in focusing on a text with another person (usually an adult) for a sustained period of time. We agree with Yuill and Martin (2016: 2) who argue that the joint attention on a text ‘fundamentally involves the shared construction of meaning’, suggesting that an element of shared understanding is created by the event. As discussed in the previous section, young children now engage with a variety of texts that include digital and multimodal formats (Marsh et al., 2005; Carrington & Robinson, 2009), meaning that family shared reading may now centre on technological devices such as laptops, mobiles and tablets (Aliagas & Margallo, 2016). It is apparent that the literature also suggests that much of the reading that takes place between young children and their parents still involves the use of books (Dickinson, 2001; Denny et al., 2010). For this reason, shared reading is often described in the literature as ‘shared book reading’ (SBR), ‘joint book reading’ or ‘parent-child book reading’ (Kucirkova et al., 2018). Even though many of the parents in this present study spoke largely about books, we feel it is important to use the word ‘text’ rather than book in defining shared reading activity.

Shared reading can be sub-divided into two quite different activities; reading to/with a child and listening to a child read. Both types of shared reading have their advantages, with Martin-Chang and Gould (2012: 871) arguing that they are both ‘fundamentally sound activities that create prospects for developing literacy appreciation and reading skill’; however, they tend to be born from different priorities and offer different opportunities for fostering literacy development. For example, ‘literacy appreciation’, which includes factors such as positive attitudes about reading, tends to be prioritised when adults are reading to children, while ‘skill improvement’ is more likely to be the focus of attention when children are reading to adults (Martin-Chang & Gould, 2012: 855). Similarly, de Jong, Mol and Bus (2009) and Mol, Bus, de Jong and Smeets (2008) also argued that there are likely to be positive, but different consequences associated with shared book reading depending on whether children are listening to a story or reading a text to someone else.

Although there are obvious links between these two different types of shared reading, this book is primarily concerned with reading to/with children, rather than listening to children read. One reason for this is that as children progress through their early years in school, the priority often seems to shift from reading to children, to listening to children read. As Wolfendale stated in 1985, the ‘time-honoured means of parents helping their children learn to read is by listening to them reading’ (35), and indeed most schools continue to ask parents to listen to their children read, especially in the early years, though it should be acknowledged that many schools also encourage parents to read to their children. But there is a shift in perception of value. It is often regarded as more important that children ‘practice’ their reading as often as possible, as this is the ‘real work’ of early years education, while reading to children is seen as being altogether more inconsequential. Yet there is substantial evidence to show that there are significant benefits in adults reading to children in their homes. For example, it has been recognised that sharing books with children facilitates a particular kind of talk because speech, during book-reading, is more complex than during caretaking or play (Snow, 1994). In other words, it is the talk that surrounds shared reading activity that is so valuable, as it provides opportunities for parent and child to talk about all kinds of concepts that may not have otherwise arisen. Snow (1994) summarises this nicely when she states that in shared reading the book becomes

... a microenvironment within which certain kinds of events are likely to occur, events like: learning new words, asking why questions, learning scientific facts, or seeing connections between one’s own life and others’ lives ... the talk is the site of the learning; the bookreading is important because it is the site of the talk.

(Snow, 1994:271)

Talk occurring between parent and child during shared reading activity is often more complex, in terms of sentence structure and vocabulary, than talk which happens during other activities such as free play, sharing meals and so on. This was evidenced by Fletcher and Reese (2005) in relation to picture book reading with children under the age of three. However, this is not just about the structure of language during shared reading activity. The text becomes a focal site of engagement for parent and child, offering numerous opportunities to talk about issues, experiences, events, concerns, identities and so on. It should also be noted that the text which is central to this activity may well be a book (in paper or screen format), but it could also be any other artefact such as a picture or photograph.

While the specific content of the talk will be dependent on the individual child, parent and text, the point to recognise is that shared reading offers unique possibilities for talk that are highly beneficial. This appears to be related to the kind of interaction that occurs between parent and child during shared reading activity, which can be described as joint attention (JA). ‘Joint attention’ describes a situation where parents and children are jointly fixated on a particular object and coordinate visual attention together. Studies into child development have suggested that joint attention has less to do with a child following an adults’ gaze but occurs when the gaze of both parties is coordinated and jointly focused on the object (Yu & Smith, 2007; Baldwin & Moses, 1996). This is critical when considering shared reading activity as the mutual focus on a text fosters joint attention between parent and child. This is important because further studies have shown that language acquisition is facilitated by joint parent-child attention, given that joint attention between parent and child is itself known to be a predictor of children’s language skills (Kucirkova et al., 2018; Karrass et al., 2002).

Shared reading clearly has language benefits for young children; however, these are not the only advantages. Further study has shown that shared reading can facilitate a number of social and emotional benefits including the fact that it can enhance the relationship between parent and child. This is discussed next.