Understanding the motivations and barriers to shared reading with young children

This project explores how parents feel about reading with young children at home.

Photograph of father reading to baby

We know from existing research that reading with children before they start school can help their language development.

A number of other associations – from learning to read to the development of a positive emotional relationship between parents and children – have also been highlighted.

However, we also know that there are differences in who reads with children, at what age reading starts, how often reading happens and beliefs about how shared reading should be done.

We want to understand these differences.


We are using a qualitative approach, talking to parents with three- or four-year-old children about their family lives. Much of the existing research that has been carried out around shared reading has been quantitative or observational. We think that talking to parents about their experiences has the opportunity to provide new insights into the barriers to shared reading at home.

Because parents will be able to talk about many aspects of their lives, we expect that the research will cover a lot of different topics, such as:

  • understanding parents’ own relationships with reading
  • understanding how parental experiences of childhood may influence their parenting behaviour today
  • parental beliefs about young children’s interactions with books
  • the role that parents and other adults play in children’s encounters with books

We hope to understand not only the everyday things that may get in the way of parents reading with children, but also the roots of the attitudes and beliefs that guide their behaviour.

Preliminary findings

Having now analysed data gathered from the first cohort, we have a number of initial findings. These can be summarised as follows.

Many parents read with their children, but they do so in many different ways. Reading can be an important part of family life. It can be part of the daily routine, e.g. the bedtime story.

Parents are motivated by different factors, such as parental enjoyment, child enjoyment and the desire for their child to learn to read.

Most parents (regardless of social class) reported that they would be led by their children and would share books because their children asked them to. Half of the families read as part of a bed-time routine – this was more common within the middle-class families.

Some parents stated that they read with their children primarily because it was a ‘nice thing’ to do. Others reported that they were motivated by the desire for their children to learn. This was sometimes about learning to read or for their child to learn about literacy and language, but others claimed that they wanted their children to learn about things like numbers, science or moral education.

Many parents reported that they wanted their child to enjoy and be confident in reading, regardless of whether they had enjoyed it themselves as a child.

Reading was largely considered to be a child-centred activity. Participants stated that children would demand certain books were read with them and would request to be read with.

In many cases (and this was especially the case for working-class families) parents were motivated to read because it was enjoyable. Parents enjoyed the activity of reading to the child, seeing their child enjoy the activity, gaining positive feedback from their child (either in terms of their child’s enjoyment or their learning) and the closeness they felt when they read with their child.

A major barrier to reading was therefore when parents experienced ‘negative’ feedback from their children. This included a child showing a perceived lack of interest in the activity, parents’ perceiving that the child was rejecting the activity (eg. pushing the book away) and parents’ believing that the child was not understanding the book.


Parents enjoyed seeing a positive reaction from their children and wanted the activity to be child-led. When parents felt they were gaining negative feedback, or an absence of feedback, this served as a barrier to reading. Given that this was more likely to be the case with babies and young children, many parents reported that they delayed reading with their children until they felt they were old enough to participate in the activity.

Other barriers to shared reading included parents’ believing that the way that they shared books with their children was not of value and factors such as poor health and being too tired or too busy.

Implications of preliminary findings

  • There is a need to promote reading for pleasure as a viable motivation for reading
  • Parents need to be supported in how to deal with no feedback/ perceived negative feedback from their children
  • Parents need to be helped to find ways in which to make the experience enjoyable for them as well as their children
  • Parents need to be encouraged to continue to read with their children in their ‘own ways’.
  • There is a need to support families who are struggling with difficulties such as health

What will happen with the research?

This is part of a wider programme of research across several collaborating institutions. Taken together, the research projects will understand how to promote children’s language development using family-based shared book reading. The research that we are doing will help to inform the development of interventions to support families around their home-reading practices. The outcome of this study will depend on what parents tell us; this information will be used to inform various reading programmes and strategies to help other families to engage confidently in shared reading activity.

Principal Investigator

Rachael Levy


 +44 114 222 8154


Jenny Preece


+44 114 222 8130


Economic and Social Research Council


March 2015 - March 2018

REF 2021 illustration

Research Excellence Framework 2021 results

The results demonstrate our research and impact excellence across a broad range of disciplines and confirm that our research is having a significant positive impact on lives across the globe.