Understanding reading as family practice and display

When one considers the socialisation of reading, and reading as a social practice, the role of the family is paramount. As discussed above, there is no shortage of evidence to suggest that the home and family are crucial in supporting children’s literacy, including their reading. The home plays a significant role in how children come to view reading, given that literacy is ‘learned socially and culturally within their family and community and that the types of literacy experience children encounter differ according to families’ social and cultural practices’ (Morgan et al., 2009: 168). However, if we are to truly understand the relationship between the home and children’s literacy learning, then we perhaps need to move away from the question ‘How is reading developed within the family?’ towards the question ‘What does reading do for the construct of family practices?’ In other words, this is not just about understanding what families do in terms of reading but involves an exploration which seeks to understand what reading does for families. But before any discussion about family practices can take place, we need to consider how the term ‘family’ is perceived and used, and the implications of this definition.

What is ‘family’?

Despite being such an everyday familiar term, it is hard to define the construct of ‘family’. Dictionary definitions are broad and speak of ‘social units consisting of parents and their children’, ‘the spouse and children of a person’ and ‘a household under one head’, which may include ‘parents, children and servants’ (dictionary.com accessed 24 May 2019). Clearly these definitions do little to demonstrate the complexity of ‘the family’, especially within modern society; Finch (2007: 67), drawing on the work of Williams’ (2004) ‘Rethinking Families’, pointed out that research in recent years has emphasised ‘the essential diversity of family composition and the fluidity of family relationships’, meaning that it has become increasingly difficult to ascertain what is meant by the term ‘my family’.

In recent years, studies into family life have moved away from viewing the family as a structure, and instead define family in terms of what they ‘do’ rather than what they ‘are’. Morgan (1996) was particularly influential in shifting sociological analysis away from the structural elements of ‘being’ a family, towards ‘understanding families as sets of activities which take on a particular meaning, associated with family, at a given point in time’ (Finch, 2007: 66). In other words, Morgan is arguing that ‘family’ is a ‘facet of social life’ and is therefore represented by ‘a quality’ rather than ‘a thing’ (Morgan, 1996: 186). Similarly, Finch (2007: 66) makes the point that ‘family does not equate to household’, arguing that it is more helpful to focus on the relational aspects of ‘the family’, rather than try to define who the family is. The word ‘family’ therefore acts as a verb (something that we ‘do’), rather than operating as a noun (something that we ‘are’).

This lens has illuminated how families continue to operate in diverse and challenging circumstances. For example, the concept has yielded rich insights into how families continue to ‘be family’ when a family member is dying (Ellis, 2013), has dementia (Hall & Sikes, 2016) or is in prison (Jardine, 2017). Together this encapsulates the notion of ‘family practices’, which Morgan (1996) describes as ‘often little fragments of daily life which are part of the normal taken-for-granted existence of practitioners [i.e. family members]’ (p. 190). This focus on what families do suggests that the concept of ‘family’ can be viewed in terms of daily practice and everyday activity; however, this is not without contention. It is also well known that ways of ‘doing’ family are socially and culturally situated (Morgan, 1996; Williams, 2004) and are embedded in discourses power (Ren & Hu, 2011). What this means is that certain family practices may be privileged above others. In order to understand this further, Finch (2007) went on to develop the notion of ‘family display’, which draws attention to the idea that family activities are not just performed but are also seen to be performed.

Displaying ‘family’

When we consider the notion of family display, with the emphasis on how family activities are seen to be performed, this raises the question of audience - who is the audience to this performance? The fact that Finch

(2007) argues convincingly that ‘family display’ exists because it provides evidence to its own members, as well as to outsiders, that individuals are ‘doing’ family and reaffirming relationships to one another, suggests that the audience may be external to the family but may well be the family itself. To put it simply, family activities may be displayed as a way of saying, in Finch’s words, ‘this is my family and it works’ (2007: 73). This is pertinent when we consider that parenting can be experienced and constructed as something of a moral endeavour (Shirani et al., 2012) and that there can be a pressure to not only be a ‘good’ parent, but to also be seen to be a good parent.

This was evident in a study of middle-class mothers’ preparation of lunchboxes for their children (Harman &c Capellini, 2015). Having researched eleven mothers from a primary school in England, Harman and Cappellini (2015) found that in the preparation of lunchboxes for their children to take to school, these mothers were ‘displaying, to themselves as well as external audiences (such as school-teachers and lunchtime supervisors, the researchers) that they are competent, caring mothers’ (776). Care was taken to ensure that the lunch they prepared was not only crafted to accommodate the individual requests of their children but displayed the characteristics of a ‘proper’ lunchbox, meaning that it had to meet accepted standards of being relatively ‘healthy’ and nutritionally balanced. Harman and Cappellini concluded that this showed that despite being part of a relatively hegemonic group of white middle-class mothers, anxiety about the display of their mothering meant that these women ‘felt under scrutiny and potentially under attack’ (Harman &c Cappellini, 2015: 778). Keeping with the theme of food, James and Curtis (2010: 1173) reported that they too found evidence of parents wishing to display that they were ‘doing family properly’ in the meals they prepared for their children, the display of having ‘family meals’ together and even in the food that was ordered when families ate together outside of the home. James and Curtis argue that as their research took place during a time of substantial concern about healthy eating and childhood obesity, and when issues about ‘poor parenting’ were also high on the political agenda, so it was probably no coincidence that their participants’ individual narratives reflected ‘the current political climate of widespread concern about children’s diets, childhood obesity and parental responsibility for children’s food choice’.

These studies show how aspects of family life can demonstrate to an audience that their family practices reflect the substance of ‘good parenting’. Of course, how one comes to make a judgement about what constitutes ‘good parenting’ is highly questionable, but what we do know is that these perceptions are steeped in discourses of power and control and are closely related to constructions of a social norm. This is clearly an issue for all parents; however, it is fair to say that normative constructions of parenting still tend to place a greater emphasis on mothers than fathers.

In the twenty-first century, gendered aspects of parenting continue to play out, with mothers occupying a prominent role in a society that remains, despite diversification, fundamentally rooted in the male breadwinner/ female carer model (Vincent, 2017). As Vincent (2017) suggests ‘parent is, in practice, rarely the gender-neutral term that it appears to be ... parenting responsibilities still fall most heavily upon women, and particularly upon working-class women’ (541). In appraisals of research on family literacy programmes, Nutbrown and colleagues note that ‘parent’ and ‘mother’ are used almost interchangeably (Morgan et al., 2009). Accounts of father’s involvement in childcare (Vincent, 2017) describe a multitude of approaches to parenting (as can be applied to motherhood of course); for example, some were unwilling to fully participate in childcare and some described a reluctance among mothers to relinquish control over a role that they valued; however, Vincent et al. (2017) concluded that fathers are increasingly choosing to be more involved in the daily care of their children (Vincent, 2017). This suggests that fathers, as a group, may have some element of choice in the extent to which their parenting is displayed to others.

There is no shortage of literature showing how constructions of gender continue to place a particular burden on women regarding the ways in which aspects of parenting are displayed and judged by society (Fine, 2010; Aveling, 2002). To illustrate, judgements about what constitutes ‘good mothering’ can begin from the moment a pregnancy is confirmed (if not before) and may include a focus on factors such as the mother’s diet, her weight, her daily habits and activities, her plans for feeding her baby and her intention to work after the baby is born. In other words, pregnancy results in women’s motherhood being on display, and therefore judged, well before their children are even born. Once the child has arrived, it is not a surprise to see that much of the literature on feeding children is focused on mothers as in Harman and Capellini’s (2015) research cited above, which resulted in these mothers reporting that they felt ‘under scrutiny and potentially under attack’ (Harman Si Cappellini, 2015: 778). As Levy (2016) pointed out in her historical reflection into gendered constructions, things have not changed over the years as much as we would hope, as social norms continue to dictate that home and children remain primarily the woman’s responsibility. This is evident in the fact that ‘mums still “go to Iceland” (this is a tag-line from a commercial for the British supermarket chain “Iceland”) in order produce satisfying meals that are compatible with a family budget, while the purchase of Kentucky Fried Chicken still allows mums to have “a night off” (a catchphrase in another British commercial)’ (Levy, 2016: 287).

While it is important that we do not forget that concerns about displaying ‘good parenting’ often weigh more heavily on mothers, it would be wrong to suggest that fathers do not feel these concerns too. For example, McKeown (2001: 3) argues that fathers are now ‘being judged against changing expectations of what it is to be a good father’, going on to define the ‘good’

(4) father as one who is emotionally involved with his child as well as being a provider. Clearly, concerns about displaying family practices as a mark of ‘good parenting’ is something that affects all parents, and this may be linked to societal constructions of gender and the judgements which are embedded within. Of course, displaying family practices does not just relate to issues of judgement though. What is clear from this discussion is that families perform activities for a variety of reasons, and one of those may be to demonstrate to themselves, and others, that they are a ‘family’. This is an important consideration when examining a component of family life, such as reading practices. When applying these ideas to the concept of reading, this shifts the focus from the question ‘How do families do reading?’ to ‘What does reading do for families?’ as now discussed.

What does reading do for families?

There has been a vast amount of research exploring reading and families, but it is fair to say that most of this has focused on the ways in which family reading practices support children’s language development (Sawyer et al., 2016; Aikens & Barbarin, 2008; Senechai & LeFevre, 2002). In contrast, it is hard to find research that has sought to understand what reading does for the family, yet this is exactly what needs to be understood if we want to encourage and support shared reading practices in the home. The first step is to recognise that shared reading does take place in many homes, but it may not necessarily be regarded as a ‘literacy’ activity; for this reason it is important to conceptualise shared reading as a family practice that may take place for a wide variety of reasons.

When one regards reading with young children as a family practice, we can begin to see that it is not just a literacy practice, but the activity provides opportunities for families to achieve intimacy and connections with each other. For James (2013), everyday activities such as sharing family meals and watching television shows together facilitate a sense of ‘connectedness’, something that Smart (2007) argues is crucial to socialisation. Indeed, research suggests that while parents read with their children for many different reasons, they often report that being ‘close’ with their child, and wanting to have an enjoyable time, is a main aim of shared reading activity (Audet et al., 2008). Similarly, Alexander (2013: 180) also found that the parents in her study spoke of shared reading as a way of connecting physically and emotionally with their children, with Alexander reporting that:

All of the parents talked about the importance of bonding by ‘snuggling,’ ‘cuddling,’ ‘being together,’ or other such expressions of physical closeness. The parents were also seemingly concerned with the growth of the child’s sense of security and trust, which is the foundation of his socio-personality and identity (Erikson, 1968) and critical to his cognitive development, as when they said that story time made the child feel ‘loved,’ ‘special,’ ‘safe,’ and ‘watched over.’

Further research indicates that reading can also help to establish routines and structure within family life, which is seen as being especially beneficial when the family includes small children. Studies have suggested that establishing regular family routines encourage organisation within the family, cohesion and a sense of belonging (Fiese, 2002), given that there is a degree of emotional investment in carrying out routines, which can help to cement strong family relationships (Fiese & Everhart, 2008). However, families may also develop routines as a way of managing aspects of everyday life.

This is particularly evident in relation to the ‘bedtime story’ (discussed in further detail in the next chapter), which is often used as part of a bedtime routine for young children. The medical profession recommends that families promote a regular bedtime routine ‘as a key factor in the promotion of not only healthy sleep, but also of broad development and wellbeing in early childhood’ (Mindell & Williamson, 2017: 93). The characteristics of a bedtime routine often include a bath, oral hygiene and a bedtime story, which together sends a signal to the child that the day is over and it is time to go to sleep. This was also highlighted by Nichols (2000) in her study of middle-class Australian parents’ involvement in young children’s literacy. Nichols found that these parents generally had two main agendas for story reading at night; like Alexander (2013) found, one was to create space to bond with their child, but a second function was to help settle their child for the night. For many of the parents in Nichols’ study, the evening routine was not necessarily easy, given that many competing demands were often placed on parents at this time of the day as they struggled to juggle meal preparation and household chores with settling young children down for the night. Nichols (2000: 320) reported that bedtime story reading therefore fulfilled another function, that of ‘of balancing the distribution of parenting labour at a labour-intensive time of day’, which enabled ‘one parent to undertake evening domestic duties without the additional responsibility of childcare’.

What is interesting to note in Nichols’ study, is that even though parents reported that the evening routine was often a time of ‘heavy’ demand, bedtime stories for their children quickly became ‘a highly routinised practice’, which was clearly prioritised in these homes. As discussed, reading at bedtime performed a number of functions including an opportunity to bond with the child and performed a role in settling children down to sleep for the night. However, Nichols’ data also suggested that for many of these parents, and mothers in particular, there was a social expectation that they would read with their children. This is exemplified in Nichols’ (2000: 317) observation:

In middle-class Australia, when a woman becomes a mother, she is expected to take up her literacy work. Advice available in magazines and books often assumes links between parenting and forms of literacy work.

This brings us back to the ways in which families come to display certain practices in order fulfil a social norm or expectation. Nichols is suggesting that society expects middle-class mothers to take a lead role in providing literacy education to their children, evidenced in the fact that a significant number of mothers in her sample said, without being asked, ‘that they had read, or believed in reading to children from the youngest possible age’ (318). Nichols’ study demonstrates how the practice of reading to young children is not only seen to be ‘good’ for children but is regarded by society as a feature of ‘good parenting’. This was repeatedly confirmed in Nichols’ data; for example, one participant reported that she had been ‘taught about early reading in the same instructional setting as she had been taught about birthing and infant care’ (381). Moreover another participant, the only one to have reported that she did not read with her young child, stated her awareness of the fact that she was contravening popular belief when she said, T know people say you should read right from the word “go” to babies, but I don’t think we ever did that much’ (318).

This suggests that shared reading may offer parents the opportunity to display their parenting and demonstrate that they are doing the ‘right thing’ for their children. However, this can be highly challenging for individuals who, for various reasons, may struggle to read with their child. This issue was raised by Skinner (2013) who conducted research with mothers with dyslexia; interviews with these mothers revealed that they had a strong desire to read with their children in order to perform the role of ‘good mother’, but felt that their dyslexia hindered their ability to accomplish this due to their own difficulties with reading. All of Skinner’s participants said that even though they generally enjoyed reading to their children, it was problematic, and they sometimes avoided reading for this reason. For example one participant reported, ‘I love reading aloud to him but I hate it when I’m reading it wrong’ while another said T always kind of made an excuse’ (Skinner, 2013: 89-90).

Skinner’s study reveals the tensions that can arise for parents who want to fulfil the requirement to execute their ‘literacy work’ (Nichols, 2000) but may be hindered from doing so. Yet there is surprisingly little research into this issue from the perspective of parents. As yet we know very little about the ways in which these social pressures may impact on parents within the context of their everyday family lives. What is more, while there is a great deal of research focusing on the benefits of shared reading for children (Baker, 1999; Bus et al., 1995; Sénéchal & Young, 2008), parents’ and children’s involvement in shared reading (Saracho, 2017; Martin-Chang & Gould, 2012) and factors influencing shared reading activity (Kucirkova et al., 2018; Lin et al., 2015), very little is known about what shared reading does for families. Yet, this is a critical starting point if we are to find ways of supporting families with shared reading activity in their homes. The research presented in this book was designed to do exactly that - to begin with families and understand how shared reading operates within families from various social and cultural backgrounds.


This chapter has shown how reading is a value-laden activity, embedded in discourses of power and authority and shaped by the various systems within which an individual resides. Moreover, reading is also a fluid construct, influenced by shifting textual landscapes and the needs of a changing society. For a child, this means that learning to read is a highly complex phenomenon. In this chapter we have shown how definitions of what reading is, and what it means to be ‘a reader’, can be found in both the home and school contexts, meaning that young children come to understand the various ways in which reading is defined, used, valued and represented as they navigate their way through these domains on their paths to becoming readers.

Given the dominance of the school discourse, it is particularly important to understand how reading operates within families, yet very little is known about the ways in which reading is constructed, developed and practiced in homes and what the practice does for families. This is especially true of shared reading with young children, which has tended to be researched from the perspective of ‘educational endeavour’, rather than understanding what it is, how it functions within families and what families gain from the practice. Having examined reading from a sociological perspective in this chapter, the next chapter builds on this by looking specifically at shared reading, exploring the ways in which complex dynamics of class, culture and ethnicity can have an impact not only on shared reading activity, but on what it means for families.