What does shared reading do for families?

As discussed above, shared reading had a role in developing and managing aspects of family life such as helping to establish and embed routines into the day. It was not surprising to find that parents would often use shared reading at bedtime to settle their children and signal the end of the day; parents who did this spoke with conviction of the importance of shared reading as part of the bedtime routine, often claiming that their children would simply not go to sleep if they didn’t read together at night. However, shared reading was also used to help manage aspects of the day, such as ensuring that each parent, within two parent families, got to spend time with the child at some point in the day, or that each child in the family got to spend some time on their own with a parent. Shared reading was also used to bring calm to fractious moments, and to inject fun and entertainment into others. What became clear as we became increasingly close to the dataset as a whole was that the ways in which parents used shared reading to manage family life was specific to the everyday needs, routines and practices of individual families.

Shared reading was used in families to support the practical management of everyday life, but we also found that it provided other benefits for families that were not immediately so apparent. In particular we found that shared reading provided opportunities for families to ‘display’ (Finch, 2007) their agency and indeed ‘familyness’ to each other and the outside world. For example, some parents told us that they started reading to their children from a young age because it was a comfort to them to know that they were carrying out a customary parent-child activity. This helped these parents to display their parenting to themselves as well as others, which helped affirm that they were ‘doing family’ (Finch, 2007), which in turn provided comfort and pleasure. In other examples (see Amy’s story discussed in Chapter 5) shared reading allowed people who were not blood relations, such as a new partner, to enter the family unit and display that they were now part of this family, through the manifestation of this family activity. In brief, shared reading provided families with the means to display to themselves and the outside world that they are a family and ‘it works’ (Finch, 2007: 73).

The final major finding in this study, with regard to the benefits of shared reading for families, related to the parents’ own relationship with reading. We had a number of questions in mind as we set out on this study and one of these was to investigate if having a seemingly poor personal relationship with reading could inhibit parents in reading aloud with their own children. The data from this study clearly showed that this was not the case for the parents in this study. As explained in Chapter 8, about a third of the parents in this study reported that they did not enjoy reading for themselves, or had had what might be regarded as a ‘poor’ relationship with reading when they were a child, yet they all went on to develop strong shared reading relationships with their own children. Moreover, in a number of cases, parents reported that their own relationship with reading had strengthened as a direct consequence of their shared reading interactions with their children.

We know that some young people do not enjoy reading for themselves and may find aspects of the school discourse, such as being made to read aloud in class, particularly discouraging. This is reflected in research that has shown that large numbers of young people leave school each year with a poor sense of identity of themselves as a reader (Alvermann, 2001), and/or have been identified as ‘unsuccessful’ in literacy-based assessment (Greenleaf & Hinchman, 2009). Yet this study has shown that there is no reason to assume that this will make these individuals less likely to read with their own children, given the fact that shared reading with young children appears to carry a very different definition of ‘reading’ to that offered by the school discourse. As highlighted at the beginning of this chapter shared reading with young children in the home can be understood in terms of the Four T’s; flexibility in how texts are used, space to generate a quality of talk between parent and child, an opportunity to spend protected time with a child and the generation of a sense of togetherness that was characterised by a warm sensory exchange. What is more, for some of the parents in this study, reading within this construct appeared to result in these parents having an improved personal relationship with reading for themselves.