Socio-cultural background

Many of the parents in the Shared Reading Project spoke about their own experiences of being read to - or not - within the context of their own childhood. For some, they wanted to access the books that they had enjoyed reading when they were children, so they could share these with their own children. This suggested that for some parents, their enjoyment of reading and their enjoyment of shared reading began in their own childhood. This was important because the data suggested that this had a strong impact on the shared reading activity they then carried out with their own children. For example, Elizabeth told us that when she read certain books to her daughter it brought back ‘strong memories’ of being read those particular books during her own childhood. She went on to talk specifically about ‘the Allan Ahlberg books, like Peepo and Baby’s Catalogue’, which she remembered reading with her own mum. Similarly, Fiona stated that her daughter’s favourite book at the moment is Funnybones, which she also remembered enjoying as a child, which reminded her that she would like to read The Jolly Postman to her daughter because ‘I remember enjoying that one -1 don’t even remember who read it to me but I definitely remember it!’

Hannah reported that in looking for books for her son she has come across books that she enjoyed as a child such as Mrs Pepperpot, ‘the William Price books’ and Ant and Bee. She told us:

I used to love all those and you want your child to really like them. No amount of Mrs Pepperpot will make my son like reading Mrs Pepperpot - there’s some random sort of 70’s ones that parents appear with and you go ‘Oh I used to love that book!’. But they’re just not interested. It’s fair enough - they find their own way don’t they.

What is interesting to note here is that although Hannah enjoyed certain books when she was a child, much as she would like her son to also enjoy these books, she is also aware that these books may be somewhat dated and therefore lack appeal to children today. Hannah is therefore making the point that what she really wants is for her son to experience the love she used to have for certain books, even if he doesn’t love the same books as she did. Together this suggests that parents may be motivated to read with their children because they themselves have positive memories of being read to, and enjoying books, when they were children themselves. However, this raises questions about the role of parents’ own childhood experiences in their motivations and barriers to shared reading with their own children.

Having been asked about the reading that took place in their own childhood homes, the parents in this study reported huge variation in their own experiences of being read to. What is more, the reasons why their own parents did, or did not read with them when they were children were deeply embedded in socio-cultural discourses. To illustrate, Latika spoke in detail about her upbringing in India, where her parents’ ‘first priority was studies’, to the extent that there was concern that other activities would detract from study. For example, Latika reported that having friends was never a priority for her parents, and if she and her siblings made friends they would be told to ‘make friends who are good in their studies’. When it came to home reading, Latika reported that the only books that were read were ‘syllabus books’ or ‘books from school’, and that they did not have ‘storybooks and stuff like that’, saying ‘we don’t have all these things in India’. Latika told us that she tried to read novels when she was in secondary school, because her friends were reading them, but she did not read for long because she found them ‘so boring’. Interestingly though, when she did start reading these books, she reported that her father was dismissive of them, telling her that they were ‘not important’ and she should be focusing her attention on her studies instead. This led Latika to conclude that her parents believed that ‘reading books (for pleasure) is wrong’, although she also stated that her parents’ views had changed in recent years.

Latika actually went on to develop a very positive shared reading relationship with her own daughter - this is picked up again in more detail in the next chapter, which looks specifically at the ways in which parents’ own relationships with reading impacted on their shared reading relationships with their children. In Latika’s case, she went on to enjoy shared reading with her own daughter but was aware that this would have been unusual practice in her own home culture. For example, she reported that she wanted to get ‘into the habit’ of shared reading, because ‘we didn’t have that habit (in India) ... and I see everybody reading here’.

Bina also talked about the role of her home culture in relation to her shared reading practices with her daughter. Although brought up in the UK, Bina described her family as an Asian British household; she reported that her father spoke English and Kurdish, but her mother spoke mainly Kurdish. Like Latika, Bina and her husband both read regularly with their daughter and seemed to enjoy this, yet when asked if her parents had ever read to her, Bina responded ‘No - we don’t come from a culture that does anything like that’. However, Bina went on to report that her dad was ‘really into education’, and this meant that he was very happy to buy books for Bina and support her love of reading.

What we are seeing from this data is that activities such as shared reading are influenced by factors such as culture. This resonates strongly with the studies of Heath (1982) and Brooker (2002), discussed in detail in Chapter 3, which showed that activities such as bedtime stories are not ‘natural’ but are situated within specific discourses which are influenced by the culture of the family. However, like Brooker (2002) also pointed out, a child’s home culture is not in any way a uniform construct but is ‘a complex combination of family circumstances past and present’ (57). This complexity was highly apparent in the Shared Reading Project data. Both Latika and Bina did not experience shared reading within their own childhoods, and both spoke about this being related to the culture within which they were situated. This suggests that broad cultural expectations may act as a barrier for some parents in reading with their children; if shared reading is not part of a family’s cultural background then parents may not consider reading with their children. However, the data also indicates that this can combine with individual family cultures, meaning that the extent to which shared reading features within everyday family practices is unique to each family.

To illustrate, when Tara was asked if her parents read to her when she was a child her initial response was ‘I can’t remember them doing this’, which was quickly followed by this account.

They’re not very up on education and stuff. They’re hard workers, but anything educational - that’s not really their strong point. So it was like ‘you do what you’re told - you work’... Just go to work, do your job, pay your rent - that sort of thing.

Tara appears to be suggesting that activities such as shared reading did not feature within her own childhood, because this was quite simply not something that her parents would have done. From what Tara is saying, activities such as shared reading were seen to be part of an educational discourse that was detached from her parents’ way of life, which was focused on working hard in order to meet the financial costs of daily living. Interestingly, Tara went on to report, later in the interview, that her dad read books himself and was ‘always in the library’, clarifying that he did not read fiction but did read ‘a lot of biographies’. This shows that while reading did feature in Tara’s childhood home environment, shared reading did not. This raises questions about the extent to which ‘shared reading’ is seen as ‘reading’, or whether it is conceptualised as something quite different to traditional constructions of reading. This is an important question and is considered in detail in the next chapter. For the moment though, what is clear is that parents of young children today may well have come from homes where shared reading was simply not part of everyday family life.

When asked about shared reading within their own childhood homes, some other parents in the study talked instead about other activities that they engaged with. For example, Cathy reported that she could not remember being read to as a child but did have strong memories of sitting on a step with her family ‘with a duvet around us, watching a thunderstorm - those kind of things’. She went on to say that she enjoyed ‘me and mum time’ where they were ‘always snuggled up with loads of cushions on the sofa, or quilts’, so they could lay on the floor together and watch programmes like Little House on the Prairie. Similarly Mia (Barnwell cohort: lives with her husband and their two sons, the youngest of whom is 3 years and 5 months and the older who was of primary school age) also struggled to remember if she had been read to as a child, but she spoke of having strong memories of spending time together as family, especially when eating. She reported:

I think there’s some nice feelings, nice experiences you remember. For me personally - I know it’s a simple thing - but eating around a table ... I always make a big deal of eating around the table because I remember that. I remember my dad coming home and we always ate around the table ... My dad would be ‘right - tell me about your day’, and we’d end up arguing (laughs) ... but I always remember being sat around the table.

What is interesting to note is that even though these parents cannot remember being read to as children, the question of shared reading triggered other memories of being close to their parents and enjoying time together. This is important because, as seen in previous chapters, factors such as enjoyment were critical in motivating many of the parents in this study to read with their children. Yet what we are learning from these parents’ reflections of their own childhoods is that there are other family activities that can provide closeness and enjoyment other than shared reading - or possibly instead of shared reading. This may be especially likely if shared reading is not embedded in the culture of the family.

This raises two points. Firstly, this underlines the need for us to recognise that shared reading may not be part of the family discourse and/or family culture of the children and families with whom we are working. This is not in any way to suggest that these parents are not spending time with their children - they may well engage their children in a variety of activities that promote factors such as closeness and conversation. However, as raised in the introduction, it is important to remember that shared reading is particularly beneficial for young children. Having found that the talk occurring between parent and child during shared reading activity is often more complex than talk which happens during other activities (Fletcher & Reese, 2005), further research suggests that this may be linked to the fact that during shared reading activity, the text triggers a joint attention between parent and child that supports the development of language skill (Kucirkova et al., 2018; Karrass, Braungart-Rieker et al., 2002). This indicates a need for practitioners to understand how parents perceive shared reading and find ways to encourage parents to read with their children, based on their knowledge of the individual family culture and discourse.

Secondly, this data again highlights the fact that the role of enjoyment in shared reading activity cannot be overlooked. This chapter has shown that parents very often want to enjoy spending time with their children, which ties closely with findings reported in previous chapters which showed that enjoyment is a critical motivation for shared reading activity. This suggests that a lack of enjoyment, or a lack of child feedback to demonstrate enjoyment, could be a major barrier for some parents in reading with their children. This is discussed next.