Research evidence strongly shows that parents and carers sharing books with young children has a positive impact on their wider educational attainment. The EPPSE[I] study of 3,000 children found that reading to children in the pre-school years was one of seven key ‘early home learning’ activities that were strongly linked to better attainment for children on entry to school and to better attainment at age seven, age eleven and beyond. The Millennium cohort study[ii], a nationally representative study of 19,000 children born around the start of the new century, also found that children who were read to daily at the age of five performed better on tests of verbal, spatial and non-verbal ability and also had lower scores for socioemotional difficulties, when compared to children who were read to just once a week. The evidence for shared reading is strong, but what makes the simple process of sitting together to share a book so powerful?
Nutbrown and Hannon, researching ways of working with families to support early literacy[iii], noted that parents and carers interacting with children around familiar books was ‘key to enhancing children’s knowledge and love of reading’. Actions such as pointing to the text as it is read aloud, talking about the story and encouraging children to join in were found to provide a strong foundation for children’s own reading development. Yet reading together is not just about children first learning to read. Reading aloud to children, listening to them read aloud and discussing books needs to continue beyond the point where a child can read a book independently. Any primary teacher will say that parents and carers have a key ongoing role to play in supporting children to extend their vocabulary, gain a fuller understanding of the text and develop the skills of inference and deduction: the ability to perceive the deeper messages within a book that are not explicitly written in the text.
However, the benefits of shared reading can also extend beyond a child’s progress in literacy: research carried out by NCB for Booktrust[iv] showed that foster carers who read with their looked after children felt that the process of reading together had a positive impact on the relationship between them. But what is the magic ingredient, the alchemy, that makes books so special? Let’s look at some classic children’s books to find out more.
Firstly, books can use the power and magic of narrative to teach social and emotional concepts in a way that even the youngest children can understand. In Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s illustrated picture book, ‘Room on the Broom’, a witch warmly welcomes a succession of lone animals on to her broom as she travels through a fairy-tale landscape. Her acceptance and tolerance mean that there is room on the broom for everyone. Generosity, care and being kind to others: all valuable lessons for young children! Yet these lessons are not laboured, they lie comfortably beneath the comic richness of the rhyming verse and some fantastic illustrations. The climax of the story is when the motley crew of small animals works together to face down a terrifying dragon, saving the life of the witch who has been so generous and caring to them all. Reading this book aloud, together, a parent or carer can act out the wonderful drama of that moment, revel in the delicious language, or, when the time is right, talk about the underlying messages in the text.
Book characters can also model some of the characteristics that help children to cope with the world: resilience, persistence and a willingness to learn. Jill Tomlinson’s classic tale ‘The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark’ shows a baby barn owl, Plop, gradually overcoming his fears of the dark by learning from others. Plop begins with what might be described as a ‘fixed mind-set’: he is determined that he does not like the dark and plans to become a daytime barn owl! Yet, with the patient persuasion of Mrs Owl, the reader sees Plop venturing further from his nest and learning a little more every time he leaves the security of his home branch. This gentle narrative of the benefits of persistence, keeping an open mind and learning from others is paralleled by Plop’s developing skills as an aviator. The first chapter sees him fall off his branch and tumble to the ground; the final page sees him take flight alongside Mr and Mrs Barn Owl on his very first night-time hunting trip. Reading this beautifully-illustrated book together means that adults can help children to draw out and reflect upon these underlying themes.
Books can also offer children, as they mature, the opportunity to think about the bigger issues of life: human relationships, change and loss. Yet this comes with a note of caution. The emotional power of narrative means that books might trigger upsetting memories for children who have undergone traumatic life events. This may particularly be the case for children who are looked-after, adopted or who have suffered bereavement. A popular text for upper primary aged children, Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ features the traumatic separation of a child, Michael, from his parents and his encounter with Kensuke, who has also suffered a significant loss. It is a beautifully written tale with a poignant ending, but the themes of separation, loss and longing may be challenging for some children to first encounter in a classroom environment. However, if foster carers or adoptive parents take the opportunity to read and discuss books with children prior to them being used in the classroom, this may enable children to talk about challenging themes in a safe environment. Likewise, if schools and adult carers work closely together, teachers can be forewarned about themes or topics that might prove upsetting for a child and consider ways to handle these sensitively in the classroom.
Reading together is not only beneficial for children’s wider development, but it is an opportunity for parents and carers to guide children through the wonderful world of books, to act as their navigator as they travel through new landscapes, meet extraordinary characters or encounter themes that can shape their wider development. Don’t miss out!
Susan Soar leads the Fostering Potential project for The Fostering Network and is also an associate of the NCB Early Childhood Unit.
Booktrust resources to support reading in foster families are available at https://www.booktrust.org.uk
[I] The EPPSE study. (2008). Final report from the primary phase. London: DCSF. See also the EPPSE study website.
[ii] Hansen, K., Joshi, H., and Dex, S. (2010) Children of the 21stCentury: The first five years. Bristol: Policy Press. Also see the Millennium Cohort Study website.
[iii] Nutbrown C., Hannon, P., and Morgan, A. (2005). Early Literacy Work with Families. London: Sage.
[iv] Rix, K., Lea, J. and Edwards, A. (2017) Reading in Foster Families. London: NCB