Firstly I would like to thank my brother Christopher Whyley. He gave me the initial encouragement and helped me to establish self belief. My gratitude also goes to Claire Brown - student and friend - who gave me endless support and advice. Thank you also to the tutors and support staff at Plymouth University. Lastly, my biggest appreciation is for my husband Andrew and my three daughters Ellie, Abi and Chloe, this is a family achievement.
Abstract: Bookstart, a joint initiative, is funded by multiple charities, and includes Government support through the Sure Start programme. Free children’s books are gifted to families with children less than 5 years of age. The Bookstart mission is to encourage shared reading experiences between parents and children with the vision of embedding a positive approach towards books and reading. This small scale research study focuses on the Bookstart Programme.
My research shows that shared reading experiences with babies as young as 6 months old will help to expand early language, literacy, and emotional development and additionally offers parents opportunities to spend quality time with their children.
Findings from my participant families indicate that all the parents appreciate how important books and shared reading experiences are for children’s development and I have confirmed that the Bookstart Programme is effective in offering such valuable opportunities for families.
Is the Bookstart Programme an effective way to encourage shared reading experiences between parents and children? Introduction
The Bookstart Programme is an initiative that began in the early 1990’s which offers free books to families with pre-school age children in order to encourage shared reading experiences at home.
This dissertation outlines the origin and concept of the Bookstart Programme and examines how effective the Bookstart Programme isin encouraging shared reading experiences between parents and pre-school children. I compare opinions and data collected from Bookstart and non-Bookstart families and from one professional Bookstart co-ordinator.
My literature review includes current findings and theories from key books and journal articles which outline the significance of the early introduction of books to pre-school children.
My research in this area was driven by my desire to understand why some young children seemed to dislike reading. I have worked for several years as a teaching assistant and have supported many children with severe reading difficulties who were unmotivated or uninterested in books. I have often questioned why these difficulties and negative attitudes occur, especially when it is clear that the children have no underlying learning disability such as dyslexia. My own children are all avid readers, to the point where I have on occasions had to take their books away from them so that they could get some sleep. I always read stories to my children from a very early age and encouraged them to share their stories and ideas. But why do some children enjoy reading, whilst others dislike it so much? Do early experiences in the home affect children’s attitudes toward books?
Owing to the proposed research being short term, I am not aiming to establish whether the Bookstart Programme has long term beneficial results. However, I am hoping that the data collected will expand the debate on the value of shared book experiences. Is the Bookstart Programme effective in expanding children’s literacy, language and enhancing their social and emotional development?
For the purpose of this dissertation, data has been collected from children, parents and one Bookstart Co-ordinator. The methodology used was a combined approach of semi-structured questionnaires and non-direct participant observations of children during shared reading sessions.
The Bookstart programme was initiated in Birmingham in 1992 by a national independent charity called Booktrust. Designed as an intervention programme, it offered free books for babies. Central to the aims of the Bookstart Programme was the desire to encourage shared reading experiences between parents and pre-school children.
The concept of Bookstart was to provide a universal gift to every child:
a love of books, which would become a gift for life, and would benefit every child, culturally, educationally, socially and emotionally.
(Collins et al 2005: 4)
The Bookstart Programme, delivered by health visitors, librarians and project co-ordinators, sought to enable parents and children to share the pleasures and satisfaction that books offer, enabling parents to help build the foundations of their children’s literacy.
Booktrust commissioned Moore and Wade (1993) to research the effects of early book sharing between children and parents and how this impacted upon child development. In Moore and Wade’s view, children’s interest in books and their literacy development is very much influenced by family members. They suggest that, in families where books and reading are promoted as an activity of fun and enjoyment, there is a higher chance that these children will adopt similar attachments and inquisitiveness about books. Moore and Wade emphasise in their Bookstart Programme evaluation that structured intervention and training in a pre-school home teaching programme - where parents felt supported and encouraged - would foster feelings of confidence in parental abilities to support children’s reading.
…where access to books is difficult or attitudes to reading are not positive or where reading with very young children is not considered important, children may experience difficulties in beginning reading because they lack the ability to view a text as a focus of interest.
(Moore & Wade 2003: 5)
To overcome the problematic area of family access to books, the Bookstart Programme carefully selected and delivered books into communities via libraries, health visitors and early childhood settings such as Sure Start - a Government aided programme which aims to achieve better outcomes for children, parents and communities. One of the ways to help achieve these aims was to introduce Bookstart
In order to assess the potential effectiveness of the proposed Bookstart Programme, Moore and Wade undertook an empirical study of 300 children aged 2-3 years and observed family reading practices and its impact upon childhood development. The cohort families were represented by a culturally ethnic mix and included a cross section of professional and manual workers and unemployed groups. The families were given free children’s books. After an initial six month period, results from questionnaires indicated that ‘71% of parents bought more books for their children, 28% spent more time sharing books with their children, 57% of parents had book club membership and 29% had enrolled as library members for themselves and for their babies’ (Moore and Wade 1993 cited in Moore and Wade 2003: 5). Furthermore, in a follow-up study, which matched a select group from the original 300 families against a non-Bookstart cohort, analysis showed that the Bookstart children were more likely to look at books compared to the non-Bookstart children; parents gave a higher priority to purchasing books as presents; visited the library more frequently; more parents shared books with their children and there was increased frequency of parents sharing the whole text, talking about the story and encouraging language development by linking reading with other experiences. Also, the children were observed focusing on books, turning the pages, making comments about the text, pointing to text and illustrations, making predictions and joining in with the reading, asking and answering questions.
All results from the study showed that Bookstart families were advantaged over non-Bookstart families by a statistically significant level of between 5% and 0.1% levels (Moore and Wade 1993 cited in Moore and Wade 2003: 6). Moore and Wade summarized their findings by observing that Bookstart children were ‘consistently superior in all observed elements at pre-school’ (Moore and Wade 1993 cited in Moore and Wade 2003: 8).
Roehampton University was commissioned to evaluate the Bookstart Programme between 1993 and 1994. Researchers, Collins, Svenson and Mahoney interviewed families, health visitors, librarians and Bookstart Co-ordinators. Their findings showed conclusively that all professionals were supportive of the programme. However, organisation of the Bookstart scheme and partnerships between professionals varied across the three regions. Recommendations include further training of some professionals was necessary for the effective delivery of Bookstart.
Findings indicated that parents showed positive responses to the Bookstart scheme and agreed that the books had had a positive effect on their young children’s literacy development. Furthermore, the evaluation indicated that where children had accelerated reading skills, they ‘engaged in a diverse range of reading related activities’ (Collins et al 2005: 2). A further positive outcome of the study also concluded that, where parents highly valued books, this had a ‘positive impact on children’s reading’ (Collins et al 2005: 2). The evaluation showed however that in some cases, for reading to be embedded within the family, parents would need more than the gift of free books before appreciating the significance of shared book experiences. Additionally, the Roehampton evaluation observed some negative feedback from families who did not have English as their first language. Despite the translation of the Bookstart literature into some community languages, the supporting leaflets from the packs were not always readily available to these parents in their relevant languages. Consequently some families did not understand the importance of the Bookstart packs and the Bookstart philosophy (Collins et al 2005).
The Bookstart evaluation by Roehampton University (Collins et al 2005) concluded that shared reading experiences did have a multiple purpose. Language acquisition and early literacy skills increased when shared reading took place regularly. Parents too, benefited from having such close and often treasured moments with their children.
Moore and Wades’ (1993) research on early literacy confirms that there are considerable documented links between language development and book sharing.
For example, the frequency of reading aloud in the pre-school period is positively correlated with concurrent language skill and reading readiness and with later language and reading abilities in the infant school.
(Wells 1985 cited in Moore and Wade 2003: 4)
Wells (1985) observes that parents modify their speech when they are talking to young children; their pitch, exaggeration of tone and rising intonation all succeed in attracting the attention of the child listener. This can be seen to an even greater degree when parents read books to or with their children. Wells emphasises the close connection between talking and learning. And stresses ‘the most important feature of a child’s language experience is that it is conversational in nature’ (Wells 1985: 1) Moreover, Wells believes that when children listen to stories, before they are able to read, they gain experience and organisational structures of language -‘…the child is beginning to come to grips with the symbolic potential of language’ (Wells 1985: 134). Wells suggests that stories have a fundamental role in helping children to attach meaning to other events and experiences and that when children want to make sense of an experience, they need to construct a story out of it. The adult helps to make links and bring shape to the child’s experiences through narratives and ordering of events - ‘storying is one of the most fundamental means whereby human beings gain control over the world around them’ (Wells 1987: 197).
Stories provide a real purpose for extending control over language, all the more effective because they also tap one of the child’s most powerful ways of understanding, enlarging, and working on experience (Wells 1987: 203)
Evans (1997) reinforces the suggestion that reading to children assists in the development and refinement of language and communication skills. When adults model the correct use of language and surround children with opportunities to speak and listen, such as story time and nursery rhymes, they should also respond readily to children’s attempts at words. In this way their emerging communication skills will be consolidated.
Create an environment which promotes active listening and productive talking (Evans, 1997: 29).
As children experiment with sounds and rhythms, the words and structures of their native language will develop into recognisable communicative sentences. Children will begin to recognise that language can be used as a useful tool for social interaction and become increasingly more confident in their use of words.
A common view is that, in the first instance, it is the attitude of parents or significant others in encouraging inquisitiveness, enjoyment and sharing books that may inevitably lead the child to becoming an able reader. Using Bruner’s Scaffolding Theory (cited in Smith et al 2003: 503l) as a framework to develop reading through informal experiences, we can observe how Bruner’s ideas are consistent with the development of reading skills.
…scaffolding does not imply a rigid structure or didactic teaching method but rather a flexible and child-centred strategy, which supports the child in learning new things and which enables the child to have a sounding board for action.
(Smith et al, 2003: 503)
The Bookstart Programme can be said to support a scaffolding approach to learning. Through the resultant social interaction - the pleasure and intimacy - the child is motivated by the relationship and thereby encouraged to develop an interest in books. As the parent acts as an enabler - pointing out initial sounds, letting the child fill in the missing words, encouraging discussion - such as “what do you think will happen next?” - and reinforcing the sequential patterns of the story, the child begins to recognise that stories have a beginning, middle and an ending. As the adult gradually withdraws, the child becomes increasingly more independent and capable, will have a positive disposition and will be at a point of reading readiness.
In this way considerable meaningful ‘tuition’ takes place, but without formal teaching (Miller 1996: 34).
Children’s interest in their environment is motivated by the engaging experiences and enjoyment that they have at home with family members. There appears to be little doubt that babies and young children can be introduced to books and their interest further developed by encouragement from parents or caregivers. This can take many forms: contributing to shopping lists, looking through television guides, pointing at road signs on car journeys and looking at recipes in cookery books. Young children ‘play’ literacy games such as putting magnetic letters on fridge doors and activities like these sow the seeds of communication through the written word.
Williams and Lewis (1999:1) point out that ‘Young children may not have made the connection that the little squiggles on the page actually mean something, but they watch us engaging in this mysterious activity called reading on a daily basis’. They also note that ‘You will be able to tell when a child is interested’ (Williams & Lewis 1999: 5) by the fact that children will point at books, turn the pages over and make noises about the pictures, listening intently to the words being read to them even if they do not have the cognitive ability to understand the meanings of the words.
The baby will love hearing your voice…
They will probably be curious about the activity and notice your interest. You will be sharing your confidence in, and your enjoyment of, written materials with them. This is an important experience for any young child.
(Williams and Lewis 1999: 4)
Miller (1996), in a study of children’s reading development describes the home environment as being the place where literacy development in young children is nurtured. She emphasises that the key to children acquiring successful literacy development is primarily down to:
Parents who enjoy interacting with their children in ways which foster
Children who either initiate or are responsive to parental interactions
An environment in which such experiences are part of every day
(Miller 1996: 39).
Miller (1992) conducted a study of 31 children between 3 and 4 years of age who attended a playgroup. She aimed to encourage parents and children to regularly share books together. What surprised Miller from the outset however was the knowledge of books that children had already gained before they started their pre-school settings. She observed that many of the children could orientate a book correctly. Of the studied children, 28 could correctly identify pictures in the books and 22 of the children were able to identify writing. Whilst Miller was encouraged by her findings, she did acknowledge that all the children in her study were from families where most parents had professional jobs and none of the parents were unemployed. Miller added that in her study group the parents involved had already established regular reading patterns with their children and were members of libraries. Miller pointed out, that due to the keen interest that the parents displayed about reading themselves, some excellent attitudes towards books were already present.
What these children knew about written language and books had been learned from their experiences at home with their parents and other significant adults.
(Miller 1996: 11)
This highlights the unsurprising results from her study. The children were from predominantly “middle class” families where parents are perhaps more likely to have higher expectations and aspirations for their children and model good attitudes towards books. However, this is not to say that “working class” parents do not establish successful reading patterns with their children.
Furthermore, children with parents that have unreasonably high expectations of their children and promote premature reading development may encounter some reluctance from their children. Whitehead (1999) issues a warning when she discusses the potential dangers of inappropriate pressure put upon children to become literate, suggesting that unreasonable amounts of coercion may ‘make reading and writing narrow and pointless. This will undermine our children’s true literacy interests and strategies’ (Whitehead 1999: 49). Whitehead emphasises that early book reading should be a shared experience where both participants are active, the child pointing at pictures, choosing books, joining in the patterns and rhythms of the stories.
Early reading is most successful when children and adults share the pleasures of looking at books, reading them together and talking about them on many occasions.
(Whitehead 1999: 60)
Whitehead (1999), cautions against parents using books solely for the purpose of making their children more able readers. Whitehead suggests that a parent who exerts excessive pressure on a young child to learn to read may create negative feelings in the child which in time may interfere with establishing successful reading skills.
Opinion is divided about the right time to start formally teaching children. ‘Parents [in Scandinavian countries] are actively discouraged from engaging their pre-school children in early reading acquisition’ (McGuiness1998: 335).
In a study concerning the appropriate time to start formal education with regard to the relevance of compulsory school starting age (NFER, 2002), over half of 33 European countries have starting ages of 6 years. In 8 of the countries school starting age is 7 years. England is only 1 of 5 countries where obligatory schooling starts at 5 years. The study focused primarily on the advantages and disadvantages of school starting ages and how this impacted upon academic development suggesting that, whilst the teaching of more formal skills at an earlier age had initial academic advantages, such advantages were not sustained. The report concluded that children exposed to books at home, amongst adults who enjoy reading, tend to read earlier, but formal teaching of reading skills at an early age does not appear to give children a lasting advantage (Sharp, NFER, 2002: 20).
This view echoes the Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925) approach to child development, the philosophy of which taught that formal learning is inadvisable if undertaken prematurely, before the age of 6 or 7 years.
Before this age a child is still at a formative stage of physical growth and development, with structures in the brain still being refined and elaborated.
A young child's primary mode of learning should be through physical experiences and focussed on play and language maturity.
A Word-rich Experience as a Foundation for Literacy
Every person or group of persons who move into literacy build a foundation for reading and writing in the world of orality. Orality supports literacy, provides the impetus for shaping it. The skills one learns in orality are crucial because literacy is more than a series of words on paper. (Oldfield 2001: 114)
Steiner emphasises the whole development of the child, which should concentrate on the spiritual, moral and physical growth of the young child. It views education as a journey not a race.
Whilst the Steiner approach endorses a ‘free to learn’ attitude, (Oldfield 2001), it does not disparage the use of books for children under the age of 7 years but suggests careful judgement when selecting appropriate reading material for this age group. Illustrations should be emphasised rather than the text and books aimed at ‘educating’ children should be avoided - books that ask questions such as “What shape is it?” have no reality for the child (Salter 1987: 101).
They neither fire his imagination nor engage his fantasy. For the child they present what is only deadly dull meaningless information (Salter 1987: 101).
Steiner philosophy also suggests that quality books should be beautifully illustrated and hold true representations of the characters in the stories - animals should look realistic, Kings should look regal and ‘a man be a true representation of humanity’ (Salter 1987: 100). Furthermore, it is the telling of a story by the parent to the child rather than ‘reading the story’ that will herald a meaningful experience. Traditional tales, nursery rhymes and songs will appeal to a child’s sense of imagery and rhythm and are the exact opposite of educational books, they ‘speak not to the head but to the knowing heart, and as such they are the birthright of every child’ (Salter 1987: 105).
To conclude this literature review, it is quite clear from the work of Salter (1987), Wells (1987) Miller (1996), Whitehead (1999) Oldfield (2001) and Moore and Wade (2003) that shared reading experiences are multi purpose. Children benefit not only from extended reading and social skills but, most significantly, their language development improves. These milestones do not stand alone as one being more important than the other. Story-telling to children helps children to make sense of their world. It brings sequence and order to their lives and gives context to their experiences. Parents and children can enjoy treasured moments from these shared experiences and will develop a lifelong relationship with books.