Having explored sociological perspectives as applied to reading in the previous chapter, we now turn to look specifically at what is known about shared reading practices and the factors that influence parent-child reading in the home. Beginning with an overview of what is meant by the term ‘shared reading’, we examine what is currently known about the reasons why parents do and do not read with their children. Recognising the limitations of this research, we then draw on the iconic studies of Heath (1982) and Brooker (2002), as well as more recent research, to show how shared reading activity connects with factors such as culture, ethnicity and social factors. In order to illustrate this, we focus attention on the ‘bedtime story’, showing how activities such as bedtime stories are deeply embedded in a socio-cultural discourse. Together this shows that shared reading is a highly complex phenomenon, influenced not only by social and cultural structures, but by the unique and specific features of everyday family life.

Defining ‘shared reading’

As mentioned in the Introduction, it is surprisingly difficult to find a definition in the literature for the term ‘shared reading’. Though the focus in this book is on shared reading with young children, it must be acknowledged that the term is used to describe the sharing of text in groups, many of which are made up of adults. This, for example, is particularly evident in the work of The Reader Organisation, who orchestrate shared reading groups within a wide variety of contexts such as criminal justice settings, care homes, community centres and hospitals. With an emphasis on reading aloud, The Reader Organisation define shared reading as:

... a powerful group experience that sparks connection, reflection and discovery. By providing a creative and safe space to explore our inner lives and develop meaningful relationships with others, Shared Reading improves wellbeing and builds community.

While it is clearly the case that shared reading is an activity that can take place within groups of adults, this book is concerned with home shared reading practices with young children. We are therefore defining shared reading as an activity where a child is engaged in focusing on a text with another person (usually an adult) for a sustained period of time. During this time, the joint attention on a text will usually results in a shared construction of meaning.

As discussed in this book, and elsewhere, the fact that we now live in a ‘digital age’ (Merchant, 2007; Starkey, 2012) means that the texts used in shared reading may be digital or paper-based. Some argue that we are currently living in a period of transition from paper to screen, with Mangen and van der Weel (2016:117) stating that ‘screens are replacing paper as the main reading substrate’ and this is influencing reading in early years as well as primary and secondary education. While this may well be true in a variety of contexts, we take the view in this book that the texts on offer to parents and children for the purposes of shared reading are not transitioning from screen to paper but may simply include both. What is more, the research evidence suggests that there is little value in trying to distinguish between different types of media in the context of shared reading activity. We know that many young children are now reading on screen, for example, using apps on tablets (Merchant, 2015), and we also know that paper-based books are still regularly purchased by adults and read to their children (Egmont, 2013). In other words, we know that digital and paper texts are used within a shared reading context. Given that research that has attempted to understand the benefits of sharing screen texts in comparison with book texts has produced inconsistent and often conflicting results (Yuill & Martin, 2016; Ross et al., 2016), we are less concerned with understanding differences between digital and paperbased reading, but are focused on the aim to support families in using text, in whatever form it takes, within shared reading activity.

Having established in earlier chapters that shared reading involves joint and focused attention on a text, it is relevant to point out at this stage that the activity has been further categorised as ‘reading to children’ and ‘listening to children read’ (Martin-Chang &c Gould, 2012), thus highlighting the directionality of the reading as being either adult-to-child or child-to-adult. While these activities are quite different from one another, research suggests that children gain different things from listening to a story in comparison with reading a text to an adult. For example, a number of studies report that adult-to-child reading does not, in itself, lead to a measurable increase in children’s reading and writing skills (Aram &c Biron, 2004; Aram & Levin, 2002; Frijters et al., 2000). This sits with the fact that research has shown that the amount of child-to-adult reading that takes place in the home is a stronger predictor of children’s reading skill, than adult-to child reading (Hewison&Tizard, 1980;Tizard, Schofield & Hewison, 1982). What is more, as studies have also shown that both parents and teachers tend to focus on ‘meaning-related rather than code-related (text) information’ (Hindman et al.,

2008, p. 330), when reading to children, this suggests that adults give more attention to ‘literacy acquisition training’ (Martin-Chang & Gould, 2012: 855) when children read to them.

At first glance, this could appear to suggest that child-to-adult reading is more beneficial than adult-to child reading, however this far from the case. As already stated, adult-to-child reading is strongly associated with the development of children’s oral language (Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2001; Bus et al., 1995). What is more Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002) demonstrated that children’s exposure to books helped to develop vocabulary and listening comprehension skill, which in turn influenced their reading in the third grade. While this may well be the case, this also suggests that aims for shared reading are heavily embedded in a concern for the acquisition of literacy skill; however, as this book goes on to demonstrate, this is to radically underestimate the affordance of shared reading activity. Indeed, further studies have shown that reading to children is associated with a host of benefits including ‘bonding’ and ‘enjoyment’ (Audet et al., 2008) as well as promoting a love of reading (Weinberger, 1996).

Together this suggests that it is probably not helpful to spend much time distinguishing between adult-to-child reading and child-to-adult. Firstly, a focus on this distinction suggests that the activities are mutually exclusive, yet this is not necessarily the case; it is perfectly possible for adult-to-child and child-to adult reading to take place within the same activity. For example, even in their comparison of adult-to-child and child-to-adult reading sessions, Martin-Chang and Gould (2012) found that there was considerable overlap between the two; for example parents were reported to be less likely to focus on the printed text when they were reading to their children, in comparison with their children reading to them; however, they did still acknowledge the printed text, even though this tended to be given a secondary role during adult-to-child reading.

Secondly, while it is useful, for the purposes of definition, to consider the directionality of shared reading, much of the research indicates that the activity is somewhat adult-led and adult-directed. This seems to be the case whether the child is reading to the adult or not. Yet it would be a serious mistake to assume that shared reading is always initiated by adults or that young children are always at the mercy of the adults’ management of the activity. As discussed in Chapter 6 later in this book, the research reported in this book found that much of the shared reading activity conducted in the home was in fact child-led. What is more, many of the parents reported that this was something that they valued and wanted to encourage. It is therefore really important to be aware from the outset, that shared reading is not something that is always done to children; as this book will go on to demonstrate, shared reading is often an activity in which even the youngest children are able to exert agency. They can, and do, have control over what is read, who reads with them, when and where they read and how the activity is structured.

Shared reading is therefore a literacy event, or indeed family practice, where a text is central in the joint production of meaning between people. But there is more to shared reading than the basic components of person and text; we must acknowledge the various ways in which the activity is ‘relational’ (Gergen, 2009). By this we mean recognising that social life can be more fully understood when we see the self as a point of intersection where many different relations meet. Therefore, as Papacharissi (2012) neatly articulates, we are evolving ‘beyond individualism to understand societies as webs of relations rather than as assemblages of connected or disconnected individuals’. In this respect, understanding shared reading is about understanding the relationship between the readers and the goals and purposes they each have for the shared reading experience. It is also about the individual relationship each reader has with the text, for example understanding how each participant in the activity connects personally with the text being read. Moreover, each reader has their own relationship with ‘reading’, which will in turn influence the activity. This is discussed in detail in Chapter 8, which reports on the ways in which personal relationships with reading influenced the shared reading activity of the participants included in the study reported in this book. But before we examine these ideas in more detail it is useful to consider what is already known about the reasons why parents read with their children.