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WORKING WITH FAMILIES TO PROMOTE SHARED READING
So what have we come to understand about shared reading in families? Perhaps the most prominent finding is that this is a not a straightforward question to answer! Through our conversations with the parents participating in this project, we have learned that families read in different ways, for different purposes and with different motivations. Recognising that this is the case is probably one of the most fundamental, yet important points to emerge from this book, as this has major implications for how parents may be encouraged and supported in reading with their children.
The Shared Reading project explored the views and practices of 29 families, many of whom live in areas of disadvantage, through the context of in-depth interviews. While it would be foolish to suggest that these families represented a wider population as such, the themes within the data do have substantial implications for the ways in which practitioners work with many different families. By taking time to talk to these parents about their beliefs, practices, motivations and struggles, we came to understand how shared reading in the home may differ substantially from dominant discourses about reading which reside within school contexts.
As we approach the end of this book, this chapter summarises the main findings from this study and discusses the implications of these. In doing so, the chapter turns to the role of practitioners (by using the term ‘practitioner’ we refer to all those who may work with families in a professional capacity) and explores the ways in which parents may be encouraged to begin or maintain shared reading with their children. This research has shown that if we want to support parents in reading with their children, we need to begin with the family. The first part of this chapter therefore consolidates the main research findings before showing what this means for practitioners working with families.
What is shared reading in families?
One major aim of this study was to understand the features of shared reading within the families who participated in this study - or to put this another way, to explore what it looked like. Parents spoke to us with enthusiasm about the unique and individual ways in which they read with their children. They also spoke about their goals and motivations for reading as well as their concerns and difficulties. As researchers, we were in the highly privileged position of being allowed to learn how shared reading operated within individual families as well as being witness to the ‘bigger picture’ which emerged across the cohort as a whole. This picture told its own story about shared reading within a group of families, many of whom were living in relative disadvantage. Somewhat conveniently, this picture can be understood in terms of the ‘Four T’s’, these being text, talk, time and togetherness.
In the opening chapter of this book we presented a definition for the term ‘shared reading’. We stated our claim that the term describes an activity where a child is engaged in focusing on a text with another person (usually an adult) for a sustained period of time. Given that this joint attention on a text will often result in some kind of ‘shared construction of meaning’ (Yuill & Martin, 2016), this suggests that shared reading is not just about sharing a text but engaging in the shared generation of meaning which arises from the event. The project data indicated that this was very much the case for the families in this study. As the last four chapters have clearly shown, shared reading was, for many of the families, a dynamic activity that was surrounded by talk, laughter and play. Parents gave animated accounts of their individual shared reading activities, where they put on different voices, told their own stories or sang songs.
What became increasingly clear as we spent time with the whole dataset was that parents used texts in different ways to engage their children in meaningful literacy events. Indeed, words in books were read, and pictures were discussed, but many of the parents in this study also seemed happy to divert from the text and add their own narratives. In some cases this took the form of a parent inserting their child’s name into the narrative, while others created new endings for a story or added detail to the printed text from their own imagination. Interestingly, when talking about shared reading some parents spoke naturally about creating their own stories and not using a text at all. In other words, many of the parents in this study seemed to use texts in whatever manner was most likely to provoke the engagement of their individual child.
So what does this say about the role of text within shared reading? In Chapter 1 we discussed the fact that advancements in technology means that the term ‘text’ now includes digital as well as paper-based media (Bearne, 2003). We also know that many children are competent users of digital technology even before they start school (Marsh, 2005), which has led many scholars to argue (rightly in our view!) that schools do children a disservice by emphasising the decoding of print in paper-based books and fail to acknowledge the importance of digital texts within children’s lives (Carrington &c Robinson, 2009; Marsh et al., 2005). As we have pointed out elsewhere in this book, the parents in this study tended to talk largely about paper-based books and rarely spoke about using digital texts during shared reading activity. However, the results of this study suggest that in understanding shared reading with young children in homes, there is little to be gained from focusing on the actual texts that were used, but much to be gained from understanding how parents used texts, which tended to be flexible and responsive to the needs of their child.
As we have demonstrated, many of the parents in this study seemed to use the text as a catalyst to facilitate communication and engagement with their children. Of course, some parents did speak fondly about particular texts, such as certain books that they had enjoyed themselves when they were children; however, in describing their own shared reading activities with their children the emphasis was usually on their need to see their child enjoy the experience and engage with the activity. What is more, given that parents used texts flexibly in their shared reading activities, or in some cases did not use a physical text at all, this again places emphasis on the role of the text as a facilitator of a communicative exchange where shared meaning is generated, whether it be a paper-based book, screen text, picture or any other type of text.
As discussed above, one of the salient features of shared reading for these families was that it provided an opportunity for parent and child to communicate with each other. In particular parents valued the space that shared reading created for them to talk with their children. Many of the comments we received from parents in relation to this are echoed in Natalie’s words when she said that conversation with her son ‘goes off books’, meaning that the book was the vehicle for the talk that was generated during the activity. This was further clarified when she went on to say, ‘just because we’ve got books in our hand, we talk about the rest of the day’. Indeed, many of the parents in this study spoke of shared reading as a place where they would talk with their children about a whole variety of things such as what they had both done that day.
As explained in Chapter 8, the data indicated that shared reading with young children appeared to carry a particular definition of ‘reading’ that differed substantially from schooled definitions. Shared reading was seen to be flexible, open-ended and free, meaning that crucially it contained space for talk. The talk may have been focused on the text and parents did use the content of texts to activate dialogue; however, parents also used shared reading as a space to simply talk with their child about anything that was going on in their lives.
The talk that was generated from shared reading activity was not always parent-child conversation. Sometimes parents used shared reading as an opportunity to allow their voices to soothe or comfort children; this may have happened if the child was tired or unwell for example. In these cases parents told us that they were not expecting their children to respond within the activity, but rather they were reading with the express purposes of allowing their child to hear their voice. Some participants told us that they had read to their children since they were babies for this very reason - a few participants even reported that they had read to their children before they were born. This again shows how shared reading provided a unique space for parents to interact with their children in a manner that may not otherwise have been possible.
Linking with the above, when asked to talk about reading with their children in the home, many of the parents told us that they valued the fact that shared reading provided protected time for them to spend with their children. For some this was associated with a routine, such as a bedtime routine, while other parents told us that shared reading could happen at any time of the day. Whatever the case, many parents used expressions such as ‘our time’ or ‘his/ her time’ to describe their shared reading activity.
What is more, when asked about the value of shared reading, it was common for parents to talk about ‘spending time’ with their child, claiming that this was one of the most important outcomes of the activity. While some parents did talk about the value of shared reading in terms of factors such as child learning, it was far more common for the parents in this study to speak of valuing the time they were spending with their child. As has been emphasised in the above two sections, this time was cherished as it provided an opportunity for parent and child to enjoy each other’s company and communicate with one another. This leads us to the next feature of shared reading identified in this study, which we have chosen to call ‘togetherness’.
Almost every parent in the study spoke about shared reading as an opportunity for them to develop their relationship with their child; while many parents used the term ‘bonding’, others spoke about ‘being close’ being ‘intimate’ or having a ‘connection’. The bond that was shared between parent and child during shared reading appeared to run in both directions, with parents telling us that they were able to bond with their child and their child would bond with them. While it stands to reason that many other activities could facilitate bonding between parent and child, such as watching a television programme together, sharing a meal or carrying out a household task, the data suggested that shared reading offered a special affordance in this respect. This may well be because of the way that shared reading brought the four T’s together - parents valued the protected time that was often built into their day, to read with their child, where they would focus together on a text. The joint attention on a text facilitated a quality of talk to emerge, which in turn brought parent and child closer together.
What is more, the parents in this study also spoke about the physical connections that they made with their child during shared reading activity. Drawing on Mason’s concept of ‘sensory affinity’ we began to see how shared reading was a highly sensory experience for many of the families. The joint focus on a text often resulted in parent and child being physically close together (‘dead cuddle’ ‘snuggle in’), hearing each other (‘intently listen’ ‘we chat about what’s happening in the pictures’), seeing each other (‘you can see him taking it in’) and taking in the scent of one another (‘he’s all bathed and fresh and I can get in bed with him’). This again demonstrates why shared reading appeared to offer a special opportunity for parent and child to bond together; parents described an interaction with their child that enacted the senses allowing them to see, touch, hear and smell their child, all of which merged together to promote bonding.