Reading in the Early Years: Why starting shared reading early matters and the role of Bookstart Baby

What our research with families from low-income backgrounds in the UK tells us about the importance of shared reading in the early years, and how our Bookstart Baby programmes can support this.

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Our new analysis indicates that families who start sharing books and stories together early are more likely to develop a long-lasting shared reading habit. It also shows the important role Bookstart Baby, BookTrust’s offer for every child aged 0-12 months in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has in helping families to start their reading journeys early.

Wider research shows that getting families reading together from the earliest moments brings unique immediate and long-term benefits. Early shared reading supports bonding between children and their parents, stimulates brain development and improves wellbeing in families. It helps children to reach early speech, communication, language and other development goals.

Read more about the benefits of reading

What does this research tells us?

Importance of starting shared reading early for longer-term reading habits and children’s development.

We know that shared reading reaches its peak when children are between two and four years old, but the frequency of children being read to daily after the age of four drastically reduces and continues to decline throughout childhood (see Reading in the Early Years).

Our new analysis shows that the earlier families start sharing books and stories together, the more likely it is that children will continue being read to daily beyond the age of four. 66% of children who had their first reading experience in the first year were still being read to daily at age 5-7, compared with 49% of those who were first read to at 12 months or older. Starting shared reading earlier increases the likelihood that children will continue to experience regular shared reading opportunities throughout childhood and the chance to enjoy the profound and wide-ranging benefits of reading.

Starting shared reading in the first year is not only important for longer- term reading habits but also crucial for children’s development. A wide body of evidence shows that a child’s brain doubles in size in the first year of life. This development is heavily influenced by the quality of the bond between children and their parents and carers, which can have long-term effects on children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.
Shared reading in the first year boosts parental warmth and positivity, enabling parents and carers to provide their children with the nurturing care needed to build positive attachments.

Research shows that shared reading improves 0-12 month old children’s speech, communication and language skills.

Impacts of Bookstart Baby and delivery practitioners on getting families to start shared reading early.

Bookstart Baby has supported families with newborn babies for over 25 years.

We work with an extensive network of early years professionals to bring playful, interactive books and activities to newborn babies, sparking early reading moments in families. Every year, health visitors, libraries, registrars, and many other early years professionals give out more than half a million Bookstart Baby packs, reaching 90% of all newborn babies in England and Wales.

Our findings demonstrate that there is a positive association between families receiving Bookstart Baby and whether they start sharing books and stories in the first year.

Bookstart Baby provides families with valuable access to books from the earliest moments, boosts parental confidence, and positively affects reading behaviours.

Our findings show the interactions families have with early years professionals positively impacts reading with families.

When health visitors and other early years professionals encourage parents and carers to share stories and show them how to do it, they become more motivated and more confident.

Over a quarter (28%) of parents and carers tell us they don't find reading with their children easy. However, the majority of parents and carers who were given tips and advice by early years practitioners on using Bookstart Baby report the programme's positive impact on their confidence and how much they read with their children.

  • 80% say the pack made them feel more confident about reading and sharing stories with their children.

  • 76% say the pack prompted them to read and share stories more with their children.

How BookTrust is supporting families to start shared reading early

Bookstart Baby is a core element of BookTrust’s new and evolving Early Years portfolio. Following extensive research of what works to get families reading together with families of diverse structures and circumstances, we have developed and extended our offer for children aged 0–6. 

We work to ensure that every child gets the best start on their reading journey. We provide families based in Wales books and activities in both English and Welsh. We provide Bookstart Additional Needs packs for children aged 0–2 and 3–5 who are deaf, blind or partially sighted, and with conditions affecting their fine motor skills. We also offer Dual Language books and guidance to families who have English as an additional language. In 2022/23, 98% of local authorities in England used our additional needs books and resources and we provided dual language books in over 30 different languages.

Download Reading in the Early Years: Why starting shared reading early matters and role of Bookstart Baby (pdf)

More research

Our research and evaluation helps us to continually learn about how to inspire children to read for pleasure. Explore research and reports across early years, primary, secondary and wider reading for pleasure. Find out what impact our programmes have on children and families.

Find out more