Reading for wellbeing and social inclusion

IMG_5504Although I have been looking at city-wide initiatives, I wanted to look at one specific programme Shared Reading, run by the Reader Organisation. This meant Liverpool and a chance to look at the beautifully renovated Albert Docks, the Mersey (and Beatles shop, but not the Beatles experience). I did see the Fab Four’s statutes at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel, from the back of a  quick city tour bus.

IMG_5522Shared Reading is reading aloud in the community, primarily to people in small groups but occasionally 1:1. The intention is connecting people to literature and our common humanity, to improve health, well-being  and social inclusion, rather than improving literacy per se. 

The take up  appears to be very  diverse, which is part of why it could be of interest to Auckland. The Reader Organisation is a partner organisation in Liverpool’s City of Readers, promoting reading for pleasure in schools. They  are collaborating with health trusts to take Shared Reading into aged care facilities and dementia units and programmes for children in care. In a few health settings there are now full time Readers in Residence.  There are pilot projects for parents in prison and recently released inmates and a couple of companies have set up shared reading groups to improve communication across staff hierarchies.  

Readers (Reader Organisation staff, some volunteers or staff trained inside other organisations)  run  1.5-2 hour weekly sessions.  Some of the volunteers are unemployed, recruited specifically to give them confidence and skills as part of a pathway to work.

Usually,  groups have 8-12 people and these groups need the same care and nurturing as other adult learner groups – a warm and friendly environment, a tea break, sometimes cake!  The sessions are intended to be  ‘intimate and safe’. Participation is free. Readers are asked to commit to 3 days training and to running sessions for a year with a group.

The readers stop periodically to encourage listeners to talk aloud about what they are hearing, to share feelings, to discuss what the author is trying to say. Typically, when a group starts, the reader uses short stories for a couple of weeks as a way of exploring listeners’ interests.  And most sessions finish with a poem, offered as a wind-up (a bit like a chocolate fish or a biscotti at the end of lunch – a little something).

One  principle is to use fit for purpose high quality literature, material pitched to each group. What might be read to a group of  older unemployed people won’t fit children in care or a group of sole parents. Readers are trained to select material; they keep records of listeners’ progress; and keep notes on what sections of literature have an impact to the listeners.  Listeners have copies of the material in front of them and are encouraged to follow along and take turns in reading. Accessing multiple copies of books requires partnerships with libraries and book publishers.    This harks back to the  adult education ‘great books’  campaigns of the past.

A second key principle is slow reading, reading that is at a pace that enables people to connect to the ‘voice’ of author and the ideas.

The Reader organisation argues that Shared Reading has a very positive effect on listeners. The Centre for Research into Reading and Society has run some small scale case study research which found increased social interaction and confidence, reduced visits to doctors, improved relationships with care staff and general improvement in mental health and well-being. A larger scale research project starting in 2015 is needed to provide more robust impact data.

Shared Reading may not be about literacy directly, but it is sufficiently interesting to consider how it might fit in with making Auckland a more skilled and literate city. And there is already a local connection! A keen West Aucklander has just attended a three day  Read to Learn training session and is planning to set up a pilot group in the west.  I will be following this up.

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