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Reading at home and at school
As discussed in the previous chapter, through our conversations with the parents in our study, we were able to build a picture of what shared reading actually was for these families - we were able to understand what it looked like and how it operated. Having identified this as the Four T’s, we now consider how each component (text, talk, time and togetherness) relates, or not, to schooled constructions of reading.
We found that the parents in this study used texts in various ways to engage their children in meaningful literacy events. The text was focal to the activity in that it centred joint attention between parent and child, but the ways in which parents used texts was very flexible. Parents did read the words in books, but they were also comfortable in deviating from the print and would inject their own stories, songs and games into the activity. In brief, we found that the text often acted as a catalyst to facilitate communication between child and parent as well as encourage engagement in the activity in general.
This differs substantially from the ways in which texts, such as reading scheme books, are often used in the early years classroom. For the child starting school, many of the texts that they are faced with are books that come with the expectation that they must be rigorously decoded. These books are not there to facilitate conversation. The reader is not expected to deviate from the text, to add their own dialogue, to guess what words might say or miss out words or pages. These books need to be read sequentially and with accuracy. This reading is also linked with assessments and concepts of proficiency judgements.
This is not to suggest that teachers do not read to their children, indeed many do, but this is very often seen as an addition to the literacy curriculum rather than a vital component within it. Similarly, many early years classrooms are well stocked with picture books that children can access and, in many cases, even take home. But if a child has come to believe that ‘real’ reading is the decoding of print in reading scheme books, or the ability to read words on a worksheet, then this may have an impact on their engagement with texts outside of the reading scheme and/or outside of the school environment. This was clearly the case for Josh in Suzy’s story.
Given that parents and teachers generally want children to engage confidently with a variety of texts, enjoy their interactions with text and have motivation for reading, then it underlines the importance of maintaining shared reading in the home after a child starts school. Of course, children must be taught how to decode print and indeed many children enjoy the process and enjoy the fact that they are progressing with this skill. But it is really important that children understand that this is a skill that will help them to read - rather than come to believe that this is reading. By continuing to enjoy the joint interactions with text that characterise shared reading between parent and child, children will be encouraged to recognise the various ways in which reading happens and value them as part of their everyday lives.
One of the crucial and defining features of shared reading was that it encouraged talk. The data in the project showed that the talk may have been centred on the text; however, parents also reported that shared reading also provided a space for parent and child to simply have time to talk about the day or anything else that was happening in their lives. Crucially, this talk was valued and was regarded by many as an important part of the shared reading experience.
This again differs from school in a number of ways. Firstly, when a child is being asked to read to an adult in school, the expectation is that the focus will be on the task of decoding the print. While children’s talk is not always discouraged as such, limitations on time and resources and a concern for meeting statutory targets, generally means that the focus will be on the reading rather than the talking. What is more, the primary school classroom is not always a place where children’s talk is valued. This was evidenced in a study conducted by Charlotte Wilders who studied six 6-year-old children in order to understand the impact of transition from an early childhood education setting to the first year of primary school, in a European school in Belgium (Wilders & Levy, 2020: 7-8). Wilders found that rules and rewards within the primary classroom were particularly contentious for these children, and this was especially clear in relation to rewards for ‘working quietly’ in the classroom. The children reported that the teacher would give a sticker to tables of children who were working quietly, with one boy clarifying ‘when you’re like chatting a lot she (teacher) doesn’t give you a sticker’. For one child in the study, Katie, this was particularly problematic as she described herself as ‘shy’ and was working hard to communicate more freely with others. Consequently, the conflicting demands of trying to speak more, while also attempting to earn group rewards for ‘being quiet’ caused considerable tension for her. As a result, Katie ended up concluding that ‘stickers annoy me sometimes’, which was not surprising given that what Katie really needed was to be supported in talking more, rather than rewarded for being quiet.
Again we want to be clear that we are not suggesting that every classroom discourages children from talking - and we do appreciate that there is a need for quiet moments in the school day - but this does show how important shared reading in the home is, as it provides an opportunity to encourage children’s talk after they start school. This is important in terms of language development but also, as many of the parents in the Shared Reading Project voiced, it provides an important opportunity for parents to bond with their child, understand how they are feeling and generally engage in daily communication.
Linked with talk, many of the parents in this study told us that they valued the time that shared reading provided for them to spend with their children. As we have already discussed, shared reading seemed to offer parents a slice of protected time to spend with their child that may not otherwise have happened. As children start school, it may become even more difficult for parents to find time to spend with their child alone, especially if they have several children. This suggests that shared reading can support parents in finding time to spend with their children, given that the inclusion of regular shared reading activity can help to solidify routines into the day, which can ensure that parent and child have some time to spend together each day.
What is more, on the subject of time, even though many early years teachers try to ensure that they ‘listen’ to individual children reading at various points during the week, this is not the same as regularly sharing a whole text with a child on an individual basis. This rarely happens in classroom environments -there simply is not enough time. This again highlights how important it is for parents to continue spending time with their children, enjoying sharing a text together in a context that is free from the proficiency judgement that can emerge from the reading curriculum in schools.
Shared reading provided an opportunity for parent and child to bond and enjoy being together. As discussed in the previous chapter, the joint focus on a text often resulted in parent and child being physically close together, which roused the senses and encouraged closeness. Parents in the study greatly valued this and cherished the opportunity to connect with their child in this way.
The concept of closeness is not something that has been discussed in much detail in relation to primary school education. Physical closeness is not especially encouraged within the formal education system. What is more, as we write this concluding chapter, we are in the midst of particular unrest with regard to the notion of physical closeness due to the Covid-19 crisis. Anyone who has lived through the events of the Covid crisis will be aware of terms such as ‘social distancing’, ‘bubble’ and ‘remote’, all of which describe the current drive to keep individuals physically distanced from one another as far as possible, so as to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. ‘Lockdown’ has seen children across the world being kept at a distance from their schools, but as children now return to their classrooms we are aware that the quest to keep distance from others is penetrating every aspect of children’s education.
For example, there is debate about the wearing of face coverings, seating arrangements in the classroom, the size of groups, play-time arrangements and how teachers can interact with children. At the time of writing, we do not know with any certainty what the next few years will bring in relation to the Covid crisis, but what we do know is that we can expect a ‘new normal’ to persist for some time to come.
It seems very likely that for the foreseeable future, the notion of physical closeness and personal contact is something that will be discouraged in schools as well as in other aspects of children’s lives outside of the home. Yet close contact is a human need and is a necessary factor in a child’s emotional and physical development. Shared reading provides an opportunity for this closeness to happen. This again supports the assertion that parents should be encouraged to continue reading with their children for as long as they can.
This book has drawn on interviews with 29 parents in order to understand how shared reading operates within the everyday lives of families. We have shown how parents read with their children, what motivates them and what they need to sustain shared reading activity. We have also seen how important shared reading can be for the whole family, including establishing everyday routines, displaying constructs of ‘being a family’ and even supporting some parents’ own relationships with reading. But above all we have seen how important shared reading can be for children.
This is the reason why we feel it is vital that practitioners from across disciplines, including, but not limited to those working in education, are able to encourage and support parents in reading with their children. Our conversations with parents has shown that shared reading works. It therefore seems appropriate that we close with some of the words from one of our participants (Lisa) who summarises many of the sentiments expressed in this book:
To be honest it’s quite relaxing, to just go up to her room with her and read a book. Yes - reading - yes. I love reading with her, mainly because I know she enjoys it .... that’s why I like reading with her.
I think it’s just made her talk quicker, things like that, like her communication skills and stuff. I think it’s very important to read and carry on reading.... So, I’ll carry on reading with her until she asks me not to. Just seeing her enjoying it and seeing how much her talking and her writing and things like that are coming on. And do you know what I think? I think that’s all down to reading...