After talking to some other mothers on Facebook one day, I became interested in learning about the shared reading practices of Australian families. I wanted to know who reads out loud to Aussie kids, how long our children are being read out loud to, whether shared reading is decreasing and what would encourage families to do more shared reading. I found some data but not a great deal and there were some issues with some of what I did find so I decided to do my own little study and publish the results on my blog so that others could learn from it.
If you’re reading this and you completed my survey, thank you so much for your help! I hope you find the results interesting. I plan on monitoring shared reading trends over time and will update this post if I notice any significant changes. If you’d like to be notified of any changes, please provide your email address in the space provided at the bottom of this post.
If you would like to participate in this survey, you can find it here.
There were 217 responses to the survey, representing approximately 217 Australian families. The number of families represented is approximate because those families that had different responses for children in different age groups were encouraged to complete the survey multiple times.
The majority of respondents had at least one child aged between 3 and 5 years. Only 8 respondents had one or more children aged 6 months or less. Only 20 respondents had one or more children aged 13 years or over.
90 respondents (41%) did not have any children aged 6 years or older. If we assume that children under 6 years of age do not have sufficiently developed reading skills to read out loud to other siblings, then at least 41% of respondents could not have their children read out loud to each other. (The actual number is likely to be higher as some respondents with at least one child in the older age brackets would only have a single child – the survey did not ask the number of children in each household)
Only 3 respondents did not have at least one child aged under 13 years of age.
Who reads out loud to Australian children?
According to the results of this survey, most Australian children are read to by the adults in their family, whether that be one parent (32% of survey respondents), both parents (29%) or a parent/s and extended family members (26%) such as grandparents and aunts/uncles. Having said that, the results showed that many Australian families (14%) also have siblings read out loud to each other at least some of the time. This is reasonably high given that 41% of respondents did not have any children aged 6 years or older. Interestingly, only 2% of respondents said that extended family members and siblings read out loud to other children in the family.
A number of respondents noted that people other than members of their families also read out loud to their child/children. Given respondent demographics, it is no surprise that daycare educators and teachers (school) were the most commonly reported non-family people who read out loud to Australian children. I am sure more children are read to by their pre-school and school teachers than was reported but given parents/carers don’t generally see this happening (unless they volunteer at the school) I was not surprised that more people didn’t think to include them in their response to the survey.
I was, however, a little surprised that more people didn’t include librarians in their responses. Many, if not most, libraries have a story time program for children who aren’t old enough to attend school. As parents/carers are required to supervise their children during these events, I would have thought that most people who regularly take their child to story time and similar programs would have thought to include librarians in their response to the survey. The low number of survey responses that included librarians could have been due to:
- oversight (perhaps respondents just didn’t think of it – though as I said above, this is probably less likely to be the reason)
- respondents not thinking that librarians make a significant contribution to their family’s shared reading experience
- low number of respondents taking advantage of story time programs
Whatever the reason, the results of this survey indicate that there may be a bigger role for librarians in the lives of Australian families.
It was encouraging to see that the vast majority of survey respondents (57%) read to their child/children every day of the week. Having said that though, given that reading out loud is highly beneficial for children and 43% of respondents do not read to their child/children every week, there is certainly room for improvement.
Now you might think that children who can read by themselves don’t benefit from shared reading, but there are still plenty of reasons to continue reading out loud to an independent reader. Children in the upper age range for this survey (13-17 years) might not need to be read out loud to every day but only 3 people who responded to this survey did not have a child in a younger age group.
Note: Unfortunately, I doubt this survey is representative of the whole Australian population. I gathered participants from Twitter and a variety of Facebook groups that I had access to. As a result, the types of people who responded to the survey invitation are the types of people who use those social media platforms and therefore it cannot be a truly representative sample. For instance, the survey doesn’t cover disadvantaged groups of people who do not have internet access and a number of past studies have shown that disadvantaged social groups tend to have reduced access to books and undertake less shared reading. Similarly, the opt-in nature of the survey means that those who participated generally have an interest in reading out loud to their children. Indeed, only one respondent reported that they never read out loud to their child/children. Nevertheless, the reasonable sample size does mean that the results are likely to be representative of the types of people who use Twitter and Facebook and who are interested in reading out loud to their kids.
Length of shared reading sessions
Children’s author and qualified literacy expert Mem Fox recommends reading out loud to children for at least 10 minutes per day from birth. Given this, it’s encouraging to see that 71% of respondents to this survey said they read out loud to their child/children for more than 10 minutes on every day that shared reading occurs. Unfortunately, 13% reported that they read for less than 9 minutes per day so there is still some room for improvement. If you’d like to increase the amount of time you read out loud to your child/children, keep an eye out for my upcoming post with tips on how to include more shared reading in your daily routine.
When do Australian families read out loud to their children?
Nearly half of the 214 people who answered the question ‘does [your family’s] shared reading time usually happen all at once or is it spread over multiple sessions?’ reported that shared reading happens only (or mostly only) at bedtime in their household. Given how busy many families are these days, I was not surprised by this.
Only 7% of respondents said they read once a day but not at bedtime. This illustrates how strongly the concept of a bedtime story is ingrained in our culture.
The rest of the respondents were roughly evenly split between those who read at multiple times during the day and those who do a mix depending on the day’s schedule. While it was fantastic to see a proportion of respondents read multiple times per day, I was particularly pleased to learn that many families modify their reading routine depending on what the family is doing throughout the day. Busy families could choose to only read out loud to their children once per day but these families obviously value shared reading time enough to ensure their children are read out loud to at least once on each day that shared reading time occurs and to also include additional shared reading sessions if their schedule permits.
Over the next few years, I would love to see the number of people reading to their children multiple times a day increase. Bedtime stories are a great idea, particularly if they help children sleep better, but so many children are too tired to properly appreciate stories right before bed so reading at at least one other time during the day often means children get more out of shared reading. In addition, reading at other times of the day shows children that reading is not just something you do to help you sleep; it helps them understand that reading is something to value in its own right.
The most popular reading material chosen for shared reading sessions among respondents of this survey was picture books. Given that so many of this survey’s participants had at least one child aged 7 months to 7 years, this was not at all surprising. Similarly, short chapter books and longer novels were quite popular, which is no doubt also due to the demographics of this survey’s respondents.
I was pleased to see that 71 respondents read random, everyday material out loud to their children. This is a great way of helping children learn about the world they live in and to build broader literacy skills. It’s also a good way to incorporate more reading out loud into a busy schedule and can be very useful for children that don’t sit still for long periods of time.
Given the prevalence of movies that are based on comic books, I was quite surprised that only 20 respondents noted that they read comics to their children.
Not many people chose to include additional items in their response to this question (only 13 respondents). Despite this, there was quite a bit of diversity in the material reported. Responses included school readers, jokes and riddles, news articles (quite popular), instructions and manuals, graphic novels, the Bible (also popular), blog posts, video games, subtitles, research, and myths and fables. I think ‘video games’ is a particularly interesting response to this question. It might not be traditional reading material but I can see how reading out the instructions, subtitles and other words that pop up on video games could be a really useful way to incorporate more shared reading into the routines of children that really resist story time.
Changes to shared reading practices
When asked how their shared reading practices had changed, roughly a third of survey respondents selected each of the available answers, namely that their family’s shared reading practices had decreased, increased or remained constant. Most of the people who chose ‘other’ noted that their children do more or most of the reading out loud now. Some people who said that their practices had remained about the same also noted that they either do shorter sessions more often as a result of time pressures, or longer sessions less often because their children are older now and so can concentrate for longer and also prefer longer texts.
Shared reading has decreased
The most common reason respondents gave for a decrease in shared reading time was that their children can now read independently so it was no longer necessary for them to be read out loud to. Most of the survey participants that gave this response had at least one child aged 8-9. While the value of being read out loud to begins to dwindle in high school, children in this age group still have a lot of language and literacy development ahead of them so can still derive substantial benefits from being read out loud to. Alarmingly, a number of respondents that gave this response had at least one child aged 3-5 and/or 6-7. Regardless of how fluently these children can read, it is highly unlikely that children this young would not benefit from being read out loud to.
One comment, that was made by a few respondents, was that part of the reason the adults in their family spend less time reading out loud to their children is that they need to focus on getting the children to read their school readers. Clearly, somewhere along the way these families have formed the impression, or have been encouraged to believe, that children reading out loud from take-home readers is more important than parents/carers reading out loud to their children. Given how little many families enjoy the books often used as school readers this is very disappointing. Furthermore, what children learn from listening to competent readers as they recite any form of written word is equally as important as children reading out loud to develop their independent reading abilities and arguably more important than children reading from the kinds of books often selected as school readers. This shows that some parents/carers don’t truly understand the value of reading out loud to children.
There were a number of other comments that reinforce the notion that some parents/carers don’t understand the fundamental benefits of reading out loud to children. For instance, one respondent said “my child can speak well now so we read for a little while and then have a discussion about what happened that day as part of the bedtime routine”. While it is great to hear that this family is partaking in the valuable activity that is discussing what happened during the day, this comment implies that the respondent believes that reading out loud to children is most beneficial before a child has learned a basic level of verbal communication. It appears that this respondent doesn’t understand that reading out loud contributes substantially to the development of a child’s language and literacy skills beyond the very basics of speech.
Shared reading is the same
Most respondents said their family’s shared reading practices have remained fairly consistent because the family enjoys it, the parents/carers believe it is important and/or it is part of the family’s routine. Many also said it just ‘works’ for their family.
A number of respondents noted that shared reading is an important way of bringing their family together, which highlights the fact that reading out loud to children isn’t just important for their intellectual development. Some of the most interesting reasons why some survey participants continue to read out loud to their child/children the same amount as they have previously included: “it’s a nice calm activity for when my daughter is tired” and “reading is the main form of entertainment in our house, and as [our child] can’t yet [read independently], it’s only fair that someone does it for [our child]”. It was particularly heartening to read the latter reason given that so many people these days spend a lot of time watching tv, interacting on social media and playing computer games.
Shared reading has increased
Overwhelmingly, it seems, Australian families increase the amount of shared reading they engage in when their child/children’s enjoyment of the practice increases. Quite a few respondents also noted that they have increased the amount of shared reading in their family as their children’s concentration has increased (because that enables them to read for longer). I was pleased to learn that some participants read out loud to their children more having discovered the many benefits associated with the practice. This does, however, also indicate that more can be done to educate new parents and carers so that they realise the benefits from the get-go. After all, research indicates that it’s best to begin reading to children from birth if possible.
Quite a few survey participants noted additional reasons for an increase in shared reading. One common reason was that they now have multiple children of different ages who like different books so they have to read at least one book that each child chooses. Another common reason was that their children like to have longer books read to them. Perhaps the most interesting reason reported for the increase is that the respondents’ children can now learn through reading.
Most of the people who chose ‘other’ said that time pressures affect how much shared reading their family engages in. A couple of respondents also noted that shared reading tends to be reduced on days when their children are tired or emotional.
What the future holds
The majority of respondents, regardless of how their current shared reading time compares with previous allocations, said that they would read out loud more to their children if they discovered that their children wanted more shared reading. While it was good to learn that many respondents felt this way, I was slightly dismayed that more than half of respondents did not give this reason. Given 35% of respondents said they would read out loud more if their family had more time, some of those who did not agree with this statement undoubtedly believe their family just doesn’t have time to do more shared reading than it currently does. Unfortunately, this is going to continue to be an issue as long as families are so very busy. If you are in the same situation, you might enjoy my post on how to incorporate more shared reading into one’s daily routine.
What worried me most about this part of the survey, however, was that time pressures do not account for all of the respondents who did not indicate they would read out loud more to their children if that was what their children wanted. What other reason do these parents and carers have for this response? 12 % of respondents said they would read out loud more if they discovered there were benefits to them doing so, so clearly some respondents wouldn’t read out loud to their children more even if their children wanted them to because they don’t think their kids would get any additional benefit. I thought this was a shame. Do these parents/carers think there is an upper limit to the benefits their children derive from being read out loud to? As to the rest, perhaps they believe there are more important things they or their children could be doing. Or perhaps they know their children would rather be read to than do chores, homework or other less desirable but important things. I was at least happy to see that only 2% of respondents indicated that nothing would convince them to read out loud more to their children.
I was particularly interested to learn that so many respondents (more than 1/3) would read out loud more if their children found more books that they wanted to have read out loud to them. This indicates that either their children struggle to find books they like or perhaps many of the older children prefer to read books themselves where they can. In any event, this is a good indication to publishers and authors that we need more books (children’s middle grade and young adult) that make good read-out-loud books.
Some survey participants also noted they would be more inclined to read out loud to their children if they found books that they would like to read out loud. While fewer respondents reported this (13%), it is still an indication that we need more books that are engaging for both children and adults.
At the end of the survey, I gave participants the opportunity to add further comments about shared reading. Some of these comments were very interesting and/or insightful.
For instance, one respondent noted that non-fiction books written for children, such as books on dinosaurs, are not co-located with the rest of the children’s books in libraries. Discovering this information had a huge impact on this family from the sounds of it and I have no doubt other families would benefit from learning the same thing. This indicates to me that libraries could do more to help visitors find the kinds of books they are looking for. Something as simple as a sign in the children’s section of a library describing where children’s non-fiction books are located might really help families.
One respondent noted that their family reads a lot because they have received a lot of books as presents. This is a great tip for anyone wanting to encourage more reading – give books as presents and often they get read out of a sense of obligation but this can spark a real love of books. A similar thing happened with my group of school friends. Someone was gifted the first Harry Potter book but she didn’t want to read it. Her mother told her that she had to because it was a gift and it turned out that she loved it. Not only that though, she got the rest of our group of friends hooked on it. I love Harry Potter and owe a debt to the person who gave my friend that first Harry Potter book.
A number of people mentioned the benefits of the various state/territory reading challenges. Clearly, these challenges are valuable to families. I was particularly interested to read that one family participates in the Victorian Premiers’ Reading Challenge every year, despite living in another state, because it’s the only challenge that “recognises the efforts of preschoolers and the fundamental importance of early literacy skills”. On the one hand, it is a shame that all the challenges don’t include this aspect but I was very pleased to hear that at least one family takes advantage of the resource despite living elsewhere.
Quite a few people mentioned that their children also read out loud to them. This is, of course, a fantastic practice and I agree that this is every bit as important as carers reading to their children. One respondent also said that as their child has aged and has become less interested in being read to, their family has started each reading the same books and then discussing them when everyone has finished reading them. In that way, the family is still able to share stories even when they’re not reading them out loud to each other. I think this is a fantastic practice and is something I’d love to see more people doing. I know when I was at school I loved talking about books I’d read with my brother who also loved reading the same kinds of books. Even as adults who live in different countries, we still do this sometimes and I find it a great way to bond with him.
A teacher who completed this survey noted that she has become convinced that reading is mostly learned at home. While I have limited experience in this area, what I experience I do have indicates that she is right. There is only so much time in the school day and learning to read takes so much time that I think it’s unreasonable to expect that teachers take on the whole burden of teaching children to read. There’s also a lot of research showing how important it is for children to be exposed to reading and books in the home so I think this view is very well supported scientifically too.
One person said that their children are curious, enjoy learning at preschool and school and are confident learners. This person heavily attributes this to their family’s shared reading time and also notes that reading has shaped their children’s interests. Once again, there is plenty of research that agrees with this person’s experience.
One person noted that their family reads so much that it can be hard for them to find books that are suitable for their child who is a very advanced reader but is sensitive to suspense and scary characters. I’ve come across a few parents recently who have been hunting for new books for their children to read for this exact reason so I suspect this situation is not uncommon. Writers and publishers take note – we need more books that cater for this!
One of my favourite responses, which I’ll quote exactly, was: “reading opens up the world, and reading together allows us to experience that together”. What a great sentiment and so true! Another great response, which I think does a good job of summarising the key reasons why carers should continue to read to their children even once they can read independently, was: “It doesn’t matter if your kids can read themselves, keep reading. Shape their ears to the sound of words, grammar, syntax, stories. Enjoy the time together. Enjoy words.”. One person said: “Reading is like breathing”.
One person makes a very interesting observation. They said that their family does shared reading first thing in the morning and that it helps them to be calmer, more contented and less demanding. This person noted that on the days they skip their morning reading session, the children are more emotional and their behaviour is significantly worse. So many families have story time before bed as a way to calm their children before sleep so it makes sense that reading first thing in the morning can have a similar effect. Wouldn’t it be great if more families tried this.
Where to now?
In writing this post, I’ve deliberately stuck to reporting the results of the survey I conducted. If you have any thoughts on the survey or the results, please leave a comment below or you could send me an email.
If you’d like to learn more about reading out loud to children (such as the many benefits, when you should do it and how you can do more of it), you can view my related blog posts here.
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