Social and emotional benefits in shared reading

There is much to suggest that parents and children enjoy shared reading. For example, in the opening pages of her book Help Your Child Love Reading, David (2014) recalls her own experiences in reading with her son, saying ‘I can honestly say that reading to and with him is one of the most joyful and pleasurable things we do together’. While research has tended to focus more attention on the language benefits of shared reading, rather than the socio-emotional advantages, it is not hard to find evidence of the pleasure that can be found in shared reading, for both parents and children. For example, Scher and Baker (1996) found that only 4% of their socially and culturally diverse sample of parents reported that their first-grade children did not like having someone read to them, suggesting that this is something that children generally enjoy. Similarly, studies have also suggested that parents often value the affective dimensions of shared reading; for example, in their study of 119 parents, Audet et al. (2008) found that these parents reported that their goals for shared reading included bonding with their child, soothing their child and enjoying books, together with the more ‘educational’ goals to stimulate development and foster reading.

Research with babies and very young children has also shed light on the affective benefits of shared reading activity. Evaluating a book programme for mothers and their seven-month-old babies, Hardman and Jones (1999) noted that interactions around books with these young children were social rituals providing opportunities for social interaction and physical proximity. As there was a lack of emphasis on following a storyline at this early age, their observations suggested that the book facilitated social interaction between parent and child, which included the child touching, chewing and looking at the book. As a consequence, the value of the activity appeared to be in enabling social interaction and close contact, rather than developing skills in reading as such.

Shared reading can be a highly enjoyable activity, facilitating closeness and strengthening the relationship between parent and child. While this is a valuable aim in its own right, research also indicates that the stronger the affective-emotional relationship during shared reading, the more likely the language benefits for the child. This was seen in Britto et al.’s (2006) study of mothers reading to their children, which concluded that a mother’s praise and enthusiasm during shared reading encouraged the child’s verbal participation. Similarly, other research has suggested that a strong affective-emotional climate encourages the child to focus attention on the text and show enthusiasm for the reading experience. Children in these situations were also more likely to co-operate with the mother’s requests, which in turn led to more frequent shared reading activities (Bus et al., 1997; Leseman & de Jong, 1998). There are also suggestions in the literature that secure attachments between parents and children are associated with activities such as shared reading (Frosch et al., 2001); however, given that many of these studies tend to take a very binary view of attachment we do feel that caution is needed in making claims about the relationship between shared reading and parent-child ‘attachment’.

That said, when we bring this all together, we can see that shared reading has a number of benefits for both parent and child; while there is much to indicate that shared reading promotes language development in children, it also provides an opportunity for parent and child to enjoy time together and develop their relationship. What is more, the literature also suggests that the relationship between parent and child can influence the shared reading experience, with securely attached children being more likely to experience enthusiastic and focused shared reading activity. This may not be terribly surprising in itself, as it stands to reason that difficulties in the relationship between parent and child will likely be reflected in the activities that they share. However, given the importance of shared reading in terms of language development, and the need to encourage the activity in children’s homes, this does remind us that the relational aspects of shared reading must be acknowledged in research to understand how it operates in families.