Barriers to shared reading

Given that there is such a substantial body of literature reporting the benefits of shared reading in the home, there is surprisingly little research into the factors that may prevent parents from reading with their children, or cause barriers to shared reading activity. From the studies that have attempted to understand this, barriers have been identified which fall into the three main categories of being ‘parent-centred’, ‘child-centred’ and ‘structural’ (e.g. access to books) (Lin et al., 2015).

In their cross-sectional analysis of variables associated with parents’ reading to young children, Harris et al. (2007) identified parent-centred barriers, such as parents being too busy and working, as factors that prevented them from reading with their children; however, it should be noted that these barriers received relatively low ratings compared with structural barriers. In a further study that explored that contextual factors and infant characteristics predicting whether parents read aloud to their 8-month-old infants, Karrass et al. (2003: 134) found that parenting stress and ‘general hassles’ were a barrier to shared reading in the home. Studies that have identified child-centred barriers have reported that parents find it hard to read to a child that seems disinterested in the activity or frustrated (Bergin, 2001); however, the literature is very unclear about the extent to which these factors, in isolation from other factors, actually prevent parents from reading with their children. The structural barriers reported in the literature included factors such as distraction in the home and a lack of access to reading materials, with Harris et al. (2007: 264) reporting that the participants in their study ‘indicated that the cost of books was their greatest barrier to reading to their children’.

It would be easy to assume that findings such as this provide ‘the answer’ to supporting families with shared reading in the home. For example, given that the cost of books has been identified as a barrier to shared reading, then it would stand to reason that the provision of books, especially to families on a low income, would encourage parents to read with their children. Indeed, there are a number of organisations that offer books to families with young children, with Booktrust and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library being major book-gifting organisations known for their work across the world. There is no doubt that these organisations provide a crucial role in encouraging reading in homes, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the mere provision of books will ensure that all families read with their children.

To return to Harris et al.’s (2007) study, they found that access to books was a major issue for many of the participants in their study, as mentioned above; however, they also found that despite the relative lack of books in many homes, very few parents reported that they used their local library. In addition to this, a sizeable proportion of the parents also reported ‘a lot’ of difficulty in selecting good books for their children, though self-efficacy in reading did nor seem to be an issue within this sample. Harris et al. (2007: 266) therefore concluded:

Thus, if mothers or significant others believed rhat reading may be beneficial to their children, if books were available at home, and if parents perceived fewer barriers, they were more likely to read books with their children regardless of fheir self-efficacy to select books and their education level. Although self-efficacy to select books was not a significant predictor, it was related to having more books in the home, a perception of fewer barriers and greater perception of benefits to reading.

This shows that the reasons why parents may not read with their children are not only tied to practical issues, such as access to books, but are influenced by their perceptions of barriers to reading and their perceptions of the benefits of reading. The concept of self-efficacy seems to be especially significant as Harris et al. are here reporting that self-efficacy in selecting books was connected to having more books in the home, perceiving fewer barriers to reading and having stronger perceptions of the benefits of reading to children. Building on these findings, Lin et al. (2015; 3) also found that mothers with a higher self-efficacy in reading perceived fewer barriers; however, they argued that self-efficacy in reading could even help these mothers to ‘buffer against’ other perceived barriers.

While these studies go some way in helping us to understand barriers to shared reading in families, this also underlines how complex and multifaceted the issue is. This chapter has highlighted a number of factors that may both motivate and discourage parents from reading with their children; however, it has also shown how shared reading is deeply embedded within social and cultural discourses. This means that shared reading activity, as some may see it, may simply not ‘fit’ within the context of everyday life for particular families.


We know that shared reading is highly beneficial for young children, yet we also know that not all parents read with their children. It is therefore important to understand the factors that not only encourage parents to read with their children, but the barriers that may inhibit, discourage or prevent shared reading from taking place in homes. As this chapter has shown, studies such as those by Harris et al. (2007) and Lin et al. (2015) have been helpful in identifying specific barriers to shared reading; however, in both these studies the research design restricted parents to selecting barriers from a list of preexisting factors rather than providing opportunities for parents to discuss how shared reading features in their everyday lives. This is important given that much of our current understanding about the ways in which shared reading is influenced by socio-cultural discourses has come from qualitative research that has taken time to understand how families work (Heath, 1982; Brooker 2002).

Our research was designed to enable parents to talk in detail about their lives with their young children and discuss the motivators and barriers to shared reading within the context of everyday family life. This study meets a clear need to understand how families considered to be living in areas of relative disadvantage, and from various cultural communities, perceive shared reading and implement it, as well as understand the factors that may influence such practices. The next chapter describes the research at the heart of this book and explains how the study was designed and how the data were collected and analysed.