Agents of socialisation

The term ‘socialisation’ refers to the process by which individuals acquire the skills to fit into, and adhere to, society’s expectations; in other words, it is ‘the process of becoming social, the process of growing up and getting to know the world’ (James, 2013: 16). Given that socialisation is often about getting to know the world within which we live, it is not surprising that it is commonly associated with childhood; however, it is in fact a lifelong process as individuals become assimilated into different phases of the life course or societies. The sociologist Talcott Parsons (1951) drew attention to the functional aspects of society, asserting that the continuity of society relied upon the socialisation of children in order to replicate the social order. This idea has been explored by numerous scholars over the years and is of particular interest to philosophers, many of whom have argued that a main function of education is to produce ‘good citizens’ who then contribute towards a ‘good society’ and a ‘good life’. For example, Carr and Harnett (1996: 30) argue that one cannot separate ‘political philosophy’ from ‘educational philosophy’ as state education in particular can be regarded as politically motivated to reproduce the kind of citizens that are ‘useful’ to society and the development of a strong economy.

Social ‘norms’ exist in a whole variety of contexts and the perpetuation of these allow for certain structures to be reproduced within society. Children are of course heavily influenced by a number of factors originating from domains such as their homes, families, schools, religious communities and the media. Each of these have been described as ‘agents of socialisation’ and each been considered to play a particular role in the reproduction of knowledge, views, values, skills and so on. How children are socialised by the various domains within which they are situated, and the influence this has on their lives, is clearly a complex phenomenon. Our understanding of this can be traced back to the influential work of Bronfenbrenner, a psychologist who sought to understand how various external influences affect the family, and the development of children within families. His ecological systems theory identifies five environmental systems within which a young person interacts, showing how young people’s development is affected by the ‘bigger picture’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; 1986; 1990). For example, the macrosystem acknowledges the wider influences of society including the attitudes and ideology of a culture, while the microsystem includes factors such as family, peers and school. However, Bronfenbrenner then extends this to the mesosystem, which recognises the ways in which the relationships between these factors, whichever system they are situated in, can have an influence on the child. For example Bronfenbrenner (1986: 2) raises the point that ‘events at home can affect a child’s progress in school, and vice versa’. While this may appear obvious, research that has been designed to identify the influences operating in both directions has been relatively recent. In other words, Bronfenbrenner is claiming that the identification of the mesosystem has allowed researchers to understand the ways in which school experiences affect the behaviour of children and parents in the home, as well as the influence of the family on children’s performance and behaviour in school.

This is an important consideration in the quest to understand reading from a sociological perspective, as it highlights the need to recognise directionality within the different domains that influence perceptions of reading. Given that institutions such as schools and homes play a major role in the structure of children’s lives and are particularly central in influencing children’s perceptions of reading, we now look specifically at the ways in which these two domains, and the conversation between these domains, can influence perceptions of reading.

Schools and the socialisation of reading

It is a commonly held belief that one of the prime functions of early childhood education is to teach children how to read. What is more, it is also widely acknowledged that teaching phonics is central to this process; however, considerable controversy has existed for years regarding ‘the best way’ to teach reading and the role of phonics teaching within this. Debates became particularly heated throughout the 1970s and 1980s (see Moya Cove (2006) for an outline of the development of phonics teaching during this time), and debates concerning the teaching of phonics have become just as volatile in more recent years. Take, for example, Johnston and Watson’s research evidence from Clackmannanshire (SOEID, 1998), which claimed that children being taught to read using synthetic phonics achieved better results than those taught using analytic phonics. This resulted in a national review of the teaching of phonics in England, culminating in the publication of the Rose Report (DfES, 2005), which concluded that ‘the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach’ (DfES, 2006: 20). The impact of this has resonated to this day. For example, a recent study with experienced graduate level early years practitioners found that these educators believed that formally ‘teaching’ systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) to two-year olds was ‘best practice’ in preparing them for school (Boardman, 2019). In fact, these early years educators were actually investing in expensive SSP programmes to use with children under the age of three, as they did not feel they had any other resources to support the reading development of their children.

This shows that phonics teaching, and SSP in particular, has had a major influence on constructions of ‘reading’ and conceptualisations of what it means to be ‘a reader’. Kathy Hall (2006) helps us to understand how this has come about, arguing that these kinds of beliefs originate from differences in how people view knowledge. If an individual sees knowledge as something that is ‘fixed’, ‘certain’ and detached from the knower, then literacy becomes viewed as ‘an individual and linear accomplishment, made up of a discrete set of skills, like phonics, fluency and comprehension’ (Hall, 2006: 10). The impact of this is that teaching reading is then likely to be viewed as a something that is uniform, rigid and prescribed. As discussed above, the fact that some early-year educators believe that it is in the best interests of young children to introduce them to SSP before they are three years of age is testament to this view. But what if this was not how we view knowledge? What if knowledge - and this includes knowledge about the alphabet - is seen as something that is active, and learners are seen as being what Hall describes as ‘intentional beings whose wider knowledge, feelings, experiences and identities constantly filter their understanding’? Then teaching reading becomes a process which extends beyond asking whether children ‘can read’ and involves broader questions about what learners ‘do’ with their reading, and how they engage with it.

What becomes clear from this discussion is that the teaching of reading in school not only has an impact on how children read, but on children’s perceptions of what reading is and what it means to be a reader. To put this another way, when schools display a heavy emphasis on the teaching of phonics and fail to acknowledge what children ‘do’ with their reading, then this can have an impact on how children (and indeed their parents) come to define reading within the context of the school discourse. What is more, this can have a serious impact on young children’s perceptions of themselves as readers from their earliest days in school.

This was explored in detail by one of the authors of this book (Rachael), who followed two parallel cohorts of six children over the course of one complete academic year, in order to understand children’s perceptions of reading at the time of entry into the formal education system (Levy, 2011). Rachael followed the first cohort from Nursery into Reception, and the second from Reception into Year One. For purposes of clarity, as this study was conducted in England, this meant that the Nursery children were aged 3-4 years and the Reception children were aged 4-5 years. Reception, while still part of the Foundation Stage, is actually the first year of compulsory schooling, and is the year in which children generally begin the formal process of learning to read in the UK.

While some interviews were conducted in the children’s homes, most of the data were collected at school and involved the use of two main activities: the ‘Charlie Chick’ interview and the ‘Small World Play’ activity. The first research activity used a glove puppet (Charlie Chick) to mediate discussions between the researcher and the child. The children were told that the puppet knew very little about school but wanted to learn about it. In this respect the children were encouraged to take up the role of ‘expert’ and explain their understandings of concepts to Charlie Chick. For example, the puppet asked the children to show him what ‘reading’ is, as well as answer questions such as, ‘What is reading?’, ‘How do you learn to read?’ and ‘What does it mean if you can’t read?’ The ‘Small World Play’ activity was designed to encourage a dialogue between child and researcher, using a variety of ‘home-scenario’ artefacts to facilitate a play-orientated research conversation. The scenario scene included furniture (e.g. tables and chairs), a computer and a television as well as a family of dolls. Using the scenario as a basis for role-play, the children were encouraged to talk about the different kinds of activities the family would engage with in their home, including the reading of screen and paper-based texts.

This study found that the nursery children owned broader constructions of ‘reading’ than the Reception children and were therefore more likely to include strategies such as picture-reading within their own definition of reading. Yet, once the children entered Reception, many of these valuable constructions of reading were overridden by the dominance of the school discourse on reading. The study concluded:

Despite the fact that many of the children were clearly learning much about ways in which to find meaning from texts, as well as developing confidence and motivations for reading through the context of their own home discourse, the children quickly came to believe that ‘real’ reading was situated in the decoding of print in books. As a consequence, many of the children in this study came to believe that they were ‘non-readers’ or ‘poor readers’ from their earliest years in school, because they believed they were unable to fulfil the demands of the school discourse in reading.

(Levy, 2011: 63)

What is more, this study revealed that many of these children came to perceive ‘success’ in reading as strongly related to achievement within their reading scheme (Levy, 2009a). Also known as ‘basal readers’, a reading scheme is a series of levelled books that gradually increase in length and complexity in terms of vocabulary, sentence length and sentence structure. The children in this study widely reported a belief that the reading scheme existed to teach them to read; this meant that many of the children did not believe that they were ‘readers’ until they had completed all of the stages in the reading scheme and were awarded the position of being ‘on chapter books’ or being ‘a free reader’. What this study has shown is that despite the best of intentions, schools can socialise children from their earliest years into adopting an accepted definition of reading. While this may not have a detrimental effect on all children, for some it can result in a developing belief that they ‘not readers’ because they have not yet learned how to fulfil the requirements of the school discourse regarding achievement in reading.

While this research raised real concerns about the impact of the school discourse on children’s constructions of reading, it is important to remember that children do not just learn to read at school. Perceptions of reading are formed in both the school and the home. What is more, although the concept of socialisation has historically cast children as passive recipients within the process - therefore viewing the process as something being done to children, it is becoming increasingly recognised that children are key social actors in the school, home and beyond (James, 2013) and are fully involved in making social connections (Denzin, 1977). For example, James (2013) makes a compelling case for a child-centred theorisation of socialisation, which acknowledges that ‘it is not that “the family” can be said to socialise the child in one way or another as traditional socialisation would have it; rather, it is children who, by living with their family, come to learn about, reflect on and even help shape its particular values, attitudes and roles’ (72). Given this understanding, we now turn to look at the home and family in the socialisation of reading.

Homes and the socialisation of reading

We know that a child’s home environment is a critical factor in their educational journey, something that has been recognised by sociologists for a number of years now (Douglas, 1964; Bourdieu, 1992). Contemporary research has continued to suggest a relationship between children’s academic achievement and the extent to which parents are involved in their education, with greater involvement considered congruent with academic attainment (Morgan et al., 2009). While there remains much concern about the ways in which schools do, or do not engage successfully with parents, recognition of the value of the home is now starting to permeate educational policy (McNamara et al., 2000; Reay, 2004). This has resulted in the publication of a number of guides available for schools on how to involve parents and families in children’s schooling (e.g. Henderson et al., 2007; Epstein et al., 2008), most of which emphasise the benefits for children’s learning when parents and families are involved (Whalley, 2007; Harris et al., 2009).

Schools and educational organisations are indeed starting to recognise that there is much to be gained from working in partnership with parents, but this generally means that schools want parents to support their work, rather than taking time to understand what parents are already doing at home. This is particularly evident in relation to literacy, with many schools encouraging parents to engage in literacy activity that will support the literacy curriculum in schools. It is true to say that organisations such as The National Literacy Trust (2006) have stated that ‘parents are one of the most important literacy teachers’ and urge schools to ‘capitalise on and encourage reading that is done at home’ (Clark & Rumbold, 2006); however, there is little attempt being made to understand how literacy is constructed, developed and practiced in homes, and the impact of this on how children perceive reading.

Yet the home environment is incredibly influential in the development of children’s literate identities. For example, language socialisation studies have shown the powerful ways in which children are socialised in the home to develop social identities regarding features such as religion, gender, learning disability and authority (Goodwin, 1990; Gutierrez & Stone, 1997; Mehan, 1996). Studies have also shown how children arrive at school with their own unique reading histories, which they have learned socially and culturally from their families and communities (Minns, 1990; Levy, 2008, 2009b). This was also evidenced with great clarity in the iconic work of Heath (1982, 1983), which is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Given that this book is primarily concerned with understanding the ways in which shared reading practices operate in families with young children, the role of families in promoting children’s engagement with reading is a critical avenue for exploration. However, in order to take this discussion further, it is useful to consider some of the sociological literature that has focused on family practices more broadly, and the ways in which families display these practices in order to help us conceptualise reading as a family practice.