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Sharing books with children: are we really sharing?

As we know, there is a commitment in the prime areas of the EYFS, especially to communication and language. With this in mind, I give a big welcome to my guest blogger, Michael Jones, who is a guru in the area of young children’s communication and language.

 Michael provides training on children’s language development and learning. Michael has a background in speech and language therapy and teaching and led the Every Child a Talker (ECaT) project in three different local authorities. Michael has published widely on the subject of language development. To find out more about his work visit http://www.talk4meaning.co.uk/

 Michael states:

“Most children love sharing books with adults. It can be one of the most effective and enjoyable ways to help children learn to talk.  But there are quite a few children who don’t enjoy sharing books at all: whether in a large group, or on their own with an adult. There are two possible reasons: the type of book they are given and what the adults do.


Great to talk about?           Great to read? 

Fiction v non-fiction books

We assume that all children will be drawn into sharing storybooks. However, following a story requires an understanding of the vocabulary of the book and an ability to follow the plot. You need to look at one page at a time, and if young children stop paying attention for a short amount of time, the story can begin to lose its sense. Children also need to remember the storyline, as they will almost certainly be asked questions at the end. This type of interaction does not appeal to all children. Some children respond better to books that have lots of illustrations, photos and diagrams: non-fiction books, such as the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness guides. These books do not have a plot, and children can look at any page in any sequence, and talk about facts. The book will still make sense, even if you look at pages out of sequence.

Really sharing books

A typical ‘book sharing’ session is not actually sharing at all! The adult usually holds the book and the child is largely passive: listening to the adult and answering questions. This may suit a lot of children who find it easy to get absorbed in a book and have well-developed language. Children with less experience of books, or who need support with language development, will often avoid sharing books and will have a short attention span during these sessions.

If a child is encouraged to choose the book he wants to look at and is allowed to hold the book, then he becomes active, and the adult passive. The child is then free to talk about whatever he likes.

Emma Nicolls explored in her PhD thesis the impact of sharing non-fiction books with children in Reception and Year 1. She spent twelve 15-minute sessions with individual children from two groups: those sharing fiction and those sharing non-fiction books. The children sharing the non-fiction books were encouraged to talk about their favourite pages.

By the end of the project, the children who shared non-fiction books were found to have a significantly increased understanding of vocabulary, compared with those in the fiction group. The fascinating thing was that the children’s vocabulary had increased in general, and not just in relation to the words in the books they had been sharing. Could it be that just by having regular chats with an adult, about books that really appeal to you, will lead to you having a greater understanding of language?

 Some reflections on this research

  • Fiction tends to be written in the past tense, while non-fiction books are in the present. This can make the non-fiction easier to understand.
  • Non-fiction books have specialist vocabulary and ‘content’ words, which can appeal to children and increase their vocabulary.
  • Non-fiction books do not have fantasy, and do not have a plot, making them easier to follow.
  •  Non-fiction books often have very powerful images that children can get very excited about and want to talk about. If it is their favourite subject; e.g. sharks, dinosaurs, Lego, Postman Pat or Moshi Monsters bringing their own knowledge to the conversation.
  • There may be less ‘pressure’ on children when sharing non-fiction books, as they don’t need to be able to read.
  • Does the non-fiction book encourage sustained shared thinking? (Sustained shared thinking is the basis of conversation development in children.)
  • Can children who do not enjoy books be drawn into books through sharing non-fiction books?
  • Does a book that doesn’t need to be read stimulate talk and vocabulary development more than a fiction book?
  • Can children with language learning needs benefit from sharing non-fiction books more than/as well as fiction?

The Contribution of the Shared Reading of Expository Books to the Development of Language and Literacy: Emma Nicolls. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Oxford, 2004.”

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  • Angela Jay

    Very thought provoking. When my eldest son was in Year one he prefered non-fiction but it was discouraged at school, even when I suggested that he at least was reading. (He is now twenty years). He is not ‘interested ‘ in books of any kind now. Maybe if he had been able to choose it may have lead to a different outcome. In my setting we have a variety of books in the book corner but I dont recall a non-fiction book being read/shown at story time. I will now try this to see what the children think and also see if it encourages some reluctant book corner 2-4 year olds to explore the area!
    Thank you
    Angela Jay

  • Carolyn Moncrieffe

    I would agree that non-fictional are very effective for children not only in commuincation and language, but also effective for developing sustained shared thinking. I have non-ficational books that I use with children which allows them to develop their thought and ideas without fear of getting it wrong. They are able to extend their thinking, and more often or not I have noticed that this leads into debate and discussion amongst children that helps clarfiy concepts and allow for deeper understanding. I have also noticed sometimes when I am reading a story with them they would turn the page even before I am finish, therefore it is not all about reading the text but instead discuss what is happening by using the pictures and illustrations. Children do share different views when they are given this opportunity. I would argue that these children will in turn be very imaginative and creative thinkers, resulting in them been very good ‘storytellers’!!!

  • Saffia

    Really interesting! It’s all about the conversation the book sparks isn’t it, and the child’s understanding and interest. Great point about when the child is passive and active. I have two boys, one who reads so much fiction I find it hard to keep him in books, one aged 7 who just reads Star Wars dictionaries! But he is engaged, and reading and learning all sorts of words and has lots to talk about. All books should be valued for what they can offer everyone.

  • sally King

    My daughter very much prefers rhymimg books which she learnt to complete the rhyming string from a young age. The books could be about any topic. In turn she is now making up wonderfully complex songs and poems and loves to use all sorts of interesting language in her every day play. I have begun to read Beatrix Potter stories to her and she saps up the more old fashioned style of writing. I do think that as parents and practitioners, what we expose our children do really shapes their language. I have seen great amounts of evidence to support the idea that non-fiction books take pressure off the child to have to follow a story line. Non-fiction can really spark interest and talking points. The effect is infectious and once one is drawn in the the others soon follow and want to know more. However, nothing beats that cosy one to one session with a child and a good story (to suit the child’s age of course). This goes way beyond just supporting a child’s language. On a personal and social level it can go so far.That’s a blog for another day however.

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