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Shared reading: what is being read

Even though we were careful to make sure that the parents in this study were able to talk about all the different kinds of texts that they may have shared with their children, including those on screen as well as paper-based texts, most of the parents spoke about sharing paper-based books with their children. This was not terribly surprising given that research has suggested that even though digital texts are widely used in homes (Marsh et al., 2005; Carrington & Robinson, 2009) much of the reading that takes place between young children and their parents still involves the use of books (Dickinson, 2001; Denney et al., 2010).

There was no doubt that many of the parents in this study spoke very warmly and positively about the books that they shared with their young children. Many of the parents told us that their children ‘loved books’ and that they featured strongly in the fabric of everyday life. Within the sample as a whole, parents told us that they bought books for their children online, in the supermarket and in bookstores. Several parents reported that the first books they acquired for their children were from the health visitor. Books were also handed down in families and passed on by friends, while some parents also spoke about ‘recycling’ books that they had had as children themselves. Not surprisingly these books were often spoken about with great nostalgia, which in turn had implications for parents’ perceptions of reading with their children - this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.

Books were also borrowed from schools and local libraries. Comments in relation to the use of a local library were particularly valuable in helping us to understand how shared reading featured as an everyday practice for some of these families. To illustrate, a few parents spoke about the integration of regular trips to the library as being part of their weekly routine. For example, Hadra told us that her husband’s excursions with their daughter would often include a visit to ‘the library, and then they will go to the pet shop’. Elizabeth also reported that she would often take her daughter to Babytime, which took place at ‘the central library at quarter past even on Fridays’ and involved singing and ‘looking at books in the library’.

The act of going to the library provided these parents with an opportunity to conduct an activity with their children away from the home, although Elizabeth also reported that going to the library was ‘nice’ because she then has access to ‘a whole load of books that we don’t have’, which she appreciated because she does ‘get bored reading the same things with him (her son) over and over and over and over’. Interestingly, this contrasted with Tania’s initial response to the question of going to the library when she stated that she used to think ‘I’m not going to take him to the library when I’ve got a pile of books at home’; however, Tania went on to describe how her views changed once she started taking her son to the library. She reported:

When we went in there, he was in there for about two hours -couldn’t get out of it! Loved it! Loved it - because the way it’s laid out. It’s got all comfy bits for reading. And he’s ‘Read this one!’, I think I read about four or five of them before we even left. But as I say, it killed a Sunday afternoon for us. You know what I mean -cheap and cheerful.

Together this suggests that parents may value the library as a resource in itself - a place where parent and child can enjoy passing time, as well as having the opportunity to read new books. However, other parents told us that they were not comfortable in borrowing books from the library for their children. Farah (Dalton cohort: British Iranian; lived with her husband and their 3-year-old daughter), for example, was worried that library books would be ‘dirty’, so she preferred to own books rather than borrow them. Bina’s concern about borrowing library books was very different. She told us that she had joined a library and got her daughter her own library card; however, once she had borrowed books and brought them home she became

‘scared’ that her daughter may damage the books. She came to the conclusion that she would rather ‘just have books where I’m not worried if she writes on them, or tears them’, which meant that she did not want to be ‘dealing with the library’.

What we learn from this is that even in this ‘digital age’ (Merchant, 2007), books continue to feature strongly within the practice of shared reading in families. As demonstrated in this chapter, and indeed in many of the chapters to follow, the books that parents and children share together are valued and enjoyed, but above all they are used within the context of everyday family life. While it is fair to say that most of the time parents in this study spoke about books in hard copy, when discussing shared reading practices, it was clear from the data that texts in a whole variety of formats were shared with children.

There were occasions when parents spoke about using digital texts with their children. For example, Farah told us that her daughter sometimes ‘doesn’t like books’ but does enjoy using ‘the iPad and mobile phone’. She went on to say that ‘the iPad’s very good’ because through using the tablet, her daughter ‘can now read the alphabet’ and when they are in the street her daughter is ‘trying to read the street name’. This shows how Farah’s daughter was clearly engaged with her reading on the iPad, evident in the fact that she was able to connect her reading on the iPad (where she was learning to read the alphabet) to a different domain (the street) where she was trying to read environmental print. Farah was not the only parent to report that she read digital texts with her child. Other parents spoke about sharing ‘nursery rhyme books that came with CDs’ (Tara: Dalton cohort: lives with her husband and three children aged 2, 4 and 8 years old), sharing books that come in ‘tablet form’ (Cathy, Dalton cohort: lives with her husband and three children aged 3, 6 and 11 years), sharing stories (Tania) and cartoons (Amy) on the mobile phone, watching television programmes together (Amal, Latika, Elizabeth) and using audio books (Cathy).

What is more, when talking about shared reading, several of the parents in this study naturally started talking about oral storytelling. For example, having spoken about the fact that her daughter tended to ask many questions during shared book reading, Latika described how she found it more engaging, and less frustrating, to make up her own stories to tell her daughter. Latika stated:

I made one story for her - a hunter story. I just came like, once upon a time there was a hunter, he goes to a forest and he was looking for some birds. The she (daughter) said, ‘but he only looks for a baby birds Moma, not all birds!’. I said ‘ok, baby birds then’. Then she said, ‘because my bird’s gonna protect her’ and I said ‘ok’, so she knows. The she says ‘Mummy, all the elder’s gonna protect the younger’, so she said ‘so the hunter’s only gonna pick the baby ones, not the Mummy or Papa, or, like, any older ones.

Similarly, Cathy also spoke about making up stories with her children. Interestingly, throughout her interview, Cathy spoke about her commitment to helping her daughter ‘to develop her understanding of the actual story, so she’s not just reading the words’. This may have explained why she was so keen on creating oral stories with her children. She went on to talk about occasions when she would make up stories with her children, such as:

We’re quite creative. If I just randomly go ‘once upon a time there was a little boy’, and then my daughter will finish the next thing, and then we’ll start just creating a story together.

Cathy also told us that sometimes they ‘could just get the salt and pepper pot and kind of just make up a story’, or sometimes they would make up stories ‘walking home from school, or we do it walking to school’. Cathy went on to tell us that she believed that children ‘naturally learn and develop through play’, going on to emphasise that ‘play hasn’t always got to be a physical toy in front of you’ but can be ‘skipping down the road, it can be singing silly songs, it can be reading’.

When we bring all of this together it suggests that rather than focusing on what was being read during the shared reading interactions that occurred in this study, it is more fruitful to focus on what was happening during the events. As will become increasingly evident in the next few chapters, the project data revealed that shared reading practices were highly individual and unique to the social and cultural context of the family. How parents read with their children was strongly connected to their motivations for reading and the ways in which they read.


This chapter has shown that for the families in this study, shared reading was not only part of their everyday family practice but had a role in structuring and managing aspects of family life. It was also clear that shared reading supported the act of parenting in various ways, as it was used to help impart values and solidify identities, as well as support the more practical elements of parenting such as cementing routines. By drawing on Mason’s (2018) concept of affinities, and exploring the role of the senses in promoting connections between people, it became clear that as shared reading is a highly sensory activity, it can also play a vital role in supporting the development of a bond between parent and child.

In conclusion, while some parents did talk about reading with their children for reasons of educational endeavour, the data strongly indicate that shared reading offered far more than this, and was, for many, an invaluable component of everyday family life. This raises important questions about parents’ own motivations for reading with their children. The next chapter addresses this by looking specifically at what appeared to motivate the parents in this study to read with their children, reflecting on what parents need in order to begin or sustain shared reading activity in the home.

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