Everyone agrees that parents should read with their children. But how should they go about it? Diana Hinds reports on a project that aims to find out.
What happens when parents read with their children? Little is known about the process, even though helping children read at home has become established practice over the past 20 years.
The Literary Taskforce, in its preliminary report last year, claimed parents have a key role in promoting children's literacy, and the Government has proposed home-school contracts, committing parents to read with their children for at least 20 minutes a day.
As yet unpublished research by Exeter University's Pamela Greenhough and Martin Hughes compared reading with a teacher and reading with a parent. Part of a three-year Economic and Social Research Council-funded project, the study involved 32 children from eight schools in the west of England.
The children, with an average age of six years four months, and a range of abilities, were observed reading with a parent at home, and with their teacher at school. Parents and teachers were interviewed before and after reading.
The researchers sought answers to several questions. Are some approaches to reading more effective than others? Do parents feel confident about their role, and are they getting enough help and support from schools?
They found that parents were more concerned with helping children decode words, using cueing strategies and phonics, whereas teachers were more likely to read the text and discuss it with pupils - an activity the study calls "conversing".
Conversing includes adults expressing their own responses to books, identifying characters or items in the pictures, helping to make sense of the story (for instance, explaining words or phrases or referring to the child's own experiences), and "priming" the child - talking about aspects of the story still to come.
The study found some parents "conversed" much more than others, and this related directly to the parents' own views on literacy. Parents from the high-conversing group, some of whom had spent a relatively long time in formal education, were more likely to regard reading as valuable and enjoyable for its own sake. Those in the "low-conversing" group tended to see literacy in a more functional way - something that would help you get by in life, or get a job.
Comparing parents' and teachers' responses to children's errors, the study also found that parents were more concerned with monitoring children's performance and getting them to do as much as possible on their own. Teachers, on the other hand, wanted to maintain the flow of the story, helping the child read in a more collaborative way.
But the researchers were unable to work out if these differences in behaviour affected children's progress. Talking about books with children - conversing - "appears to be valuable in helping children become readers", says Martin Hughes. "But the benefits may become apparent only at later stages, when the demands being made of reading become more complex."
And the research raises the important question of what schools are asking parents to do. Do they assume parents should become more like teachers in their approach to reading? Or do parents have strengths of their own that need to be developed?
At a seminar to discuss the findings, John Bastiani, a home-school relations specialist, said: "The research implies that we need to concentrate not so much on getting parents to help children read, but on the way they go about it. Parents tend to see their job as a technical exercise, and haven't been encouraged to adopt a wider view of what reading is about."
Sheffield University's Peter Hannon said: "Many parents stick to a fairly narrow range of strategies when reading with their children, and it would be helpful for them to become aware of more. This research provides a basis for talking to parents about the possibilities."
Reading workshops are increasingly popular with schools and literacy specialists as a way of talking about approaches and modelling ways of reading. These are far more effective than guidelines sent home on a piece of a paper. The research seems to suggest workshops of this kind could be the way forward.
Mrs A describes her daughter Alisha as outgoing, positive and assertive. She says Alisha loves reading, and always has her head in a book. But reading with her daughter takes ages because Alisha likes to talk about the book, especially the pictures.
"She likes to express what's going on and tell you all about the picture. Or she'll stop halfway through and say, 'Look at that, have you seen what he's wearing?' Then we have a conversation about this, that and the other, and the time's gone."
This observation was borne out during a videotaped reading session, which involved frequent stops for "conversing".
Mrs A is typical of the high conversers in the study - she enjoys reading, and makes time for it.
"The children go to bed about seven. Then I have a couple of hours to myself, watching TV and relaxing. Then I go to bed and read for about an hour before I go to sleep," she says.
But Mrs A did not enjoy reading at school. She left school after taking her CSEs.
Mrs B describes her daughter Emmie as very loving and a chatterbox. But on the basis of the video recording, reading a book together includes little or no conversation.
Emmie's mother provided support for her daughter's reading. She listened carefully, pointed out any mistakes and helped her correct them. Often just pointing out a mistake allowed Emmie to correct it herself. If Emmie needed more help, Mrs B helped her work out the sounds of the word. She also gave her daughter positive feedback that the reading was correct and praised her reading. But there was almost no talk about what was being read.
Mrs B describes her role as "keeping quiet, letting Emmie read it through and helping spell out big words if she has a problem with them".
She believes learning to read is important and that being unable to read is a great disability, but she gives no more specific answer as to the value of reading.
Mrs B did not enjoy school, and like many of the low-conversing parents, reads little herself.