Maryanne Wolf: Reading is not Natural

It seems like the most natural thing in the world for many of us now but a long while ago, we had to teach our brains the processes of reading. And as we know, for many people, that can be a really hard task. Professor Maryanne Wolf, the Director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, who will be giving a headline talk at our Reading for Wellbeing conference next month, explains:

…reading is, in a way, a mirror to the human ability to go beyond what we were programmed to do…

Your Brain on Shakespeare

Ever wondered what rapper Snoop Dog, HBO’s TV series The Wire, and Shakespeare have in common?

Shakespeare, like rappers, and the slang used by characters in The Wire, changed words,  borrowed parts of words from foreign langauges, joined words together and invented entirely new ones. Shakespeare invented approximately 1700 words in his plays and poems.

Professor Phil Davis’ work on the ‘Shakespeared Brain’ has recently been featured on US blog, The Big Think. The interview tells us more about the impact of these creative inventions on our brain:

He is studying what he calls “functional shifts” that demonstrate how Shakespeare’s creative mistakes “shift mental pathways and open possibilities” for what the brain can do. It is Shakespeare’s inventions–particularly his deliberate syntactic errors like changing the part of speech of a word–that excite us, rather than confuse us.

Phil Davis, also editor of The Reader magazine, will be leading a seminar on the ‘Shakespeared Brain’ at the Reading for Wellbeing Conference on 17th May, with his colleauge from Bangor University, Professor Guillaume Thierry.

Contact Claire Speer to book your place.

‘Care and Compassion?’

Today sees the publication of a report which concludes that the NHS is failing to provide even the most basic standards of care for older people. The health service ombudsman Ann Abraham has compiled the report in order to

Illuminate the gulf between the principles and values of the NHS Constitution and the felt reality of being an older person in the care of the NHS in England

If you wish to read the report itself and the case studies which highlight the experience of ten individuals within the NHS, you can find it here, though I warn you, it makes very uncomfortable reading, as Ann Abraham herself points out:

The findings of my investigations reveal an attitude – both personal and institutional – which fails to recognise the humanity and individuality of the people concerned and to respond to them with sensitivity, compassion and professionalism…

The NHS must close the gap between the promise of care and compassion outlined in its Constitution and the injustice that many older people experience

But with impending budget cuts on the horizon the big question is ‘how is that realistically going to happen?  The NHS is expected to save up to £20bn in England alone, and with 27,000 posts already earmarked to be lost, it is inevitable that there will be an impact on frontline care.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today, Professor Raymond Tallis said this is not a problem specific to the NHS, it is present in the private sector too. He believes problems in elderly care are partly because

people only value the things that can be counted

He said we need to reflect in depth and without prejudice on these stories and think about priorities in care, and avoid responding with ‘general training’ and tick box exercises for nurses.

In a society that values “glamour” above all else, he said, “hands on care” was “the least glamorous thing to do”. You can listen to the interview here.

The Reader Organisation is working to deliver training to staff members working with elderly people in a range of settings including hospitals and care homes. Our anthology, A Little, Aloud, published last September is a wonderful resource for staff to use in reading one to one with someone they care for and we have designed a one day workshop in using the book.

There are a lot of people living here with a lot to offer, but we need to get that out of them, to ignite that spark. I think the poetry can do that and I’m here to learn how to use it.

Care Worker, Liverpool

What is striking about this training is that the focus is on recognising the humanity and individuality of people and creating a shared experience which allows real communication and pleasure for both the patient and the staff member. It is not a target driven exercise, but it cuts to the heart of the matter, and the real need for compassion in care.

For more details about this workshop and our training, please contact:

You can read more about A Little, Aloud including comments from people who have used the book to read about to someone they care for, on the A Little, Aloud blog.


Reading in the Bath

Well, not quite reading in the bath but reading in Bath.

On 1st March Angela Macmillan, Jane Davis and TRO patron, Blake Morrison, will be doing an event at Bath Literature Festival in March:

A Little, Aloud
Tuesday 1st March 2011, 1-2pm
Guildhall, Bath

Join Jane, Blake and Angela to learn more about the intimate connection between reading aloud and wellbeing, and the pioneering research that is being done in the field by The Reader Organisation. You will also have the pleasure of listening to a selection of brilliant readings from A Little, Aloud.

Click here for more details.

Call for support for people with dementia and their carers

A report published today by the Alzheimer’s Society calls for better support for people with dementia who are living at home.

There are 750,000 people living with dementia in the UK, two-thirds of whom live in their own homes in the community, while one-third live in care homes.

Based on a survey of 1,436 people with dementia and carers and 989 home care workers, ‘Support. Stay. Save.’ found that lack of support for full time carers was leading to people being forced to move into care homes or even be admitted to hospital, unnecessarily.

Kevin Whately, who is an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society pointed out that,

‘Reassuringly, this report also demonstrates that there is a care workforce out there which really wants to do everything it can to help vulnerable people such as those with dementia. However, they need more training and more time and we need to mend the crumbling system within which they operate.’

Training and Time are two words which seem to crop up again and again when talking about care for those with dementia and the lack of both appear key in creating the ‘crumbling system’ described here.

Get Into Reading is working with Wigan Memory Service to deliver reading groups for people with dementia who are living at home and their carers. Four members of the Memory Service team have undertaken training to facilitate GIR groups as part of a network of support groups which help people remain socially engaged in their local community and keep minds active. We are keen to develop this work across the UK and offer more people the opportunity to join a group. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact Katie Clark

You can read the full report here

Foundations of Bibliotherapy: Research Project

Grace Farrington is a project researcher at The Reader Organisation, she writes:

Poetry, “a kind of medicine divinely bestowed upon man” (John Keble).

I am currently at the beginning of a doctoral research project that will look at and aim to test the value of the foundations of bibliotherapy that are to be found within the literary tradition. Writers and thinkers such as the Victorian John Keble will be key to this research. Their work provides an existing tradition of thinking around the question of the use of reading to health. In this sense it is an ideal starting point for research.

As I am beginning to discover, current research on reading’s relationship to health covers a broad spectrum of interests. At present research in this area is growing, but is often carried out by individuals scattered across different disciplines, organisations and institutions. We would like to encourage and develop connections between these in order to enable a sharing and learning from each other’s research (and difficulties encountered along the way). If you are engaged in related research, or interested in developing a related research project, it would be really helpful if you could email me some basic details such as your name, how we can contact you, institutional affiliation and your specific research focus.

You can contact me by email ( I look forward to hearing from you.

Letters to the Editor

Not a letter to the Editor of The Reader, but a letter from the Editor of The Reader to the Editor of the TLS, on the subject of Research in the Humanities. Philip Davis says:

In my own experience, the attempt to launch an MA testing the claims of “bibliotherapy” – asking what kind of good it is that literature might do in the world of non-academic readers – found that the resistance from hard scientists was no greater than that from orthodox literature scholars.

Click here to read the letter in full.

“Reading as Mental Stimulation”

ONFICTION, Online Magazine on the Psychology of Fiction, recently published an article explaining how, when we read, we create a “mental stimulation of the events in the story.” The study, undertaken by Professor Jeffrey Zacks, Associate Director of Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at the University of Washington, St. Louis, and three of his colleagues, set out to determine “the brain processes of study participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans”, when reading. As detailed in this Live Science article by Andrea Thompson, the researchers took the following approach with their study:

The 28 study participants […] spent about 10 minutes reading four narratives, each less than 1,500 words, taken from the book “One Boy’s Day.” The words from the book were flashed onto a screen that the participants could read on a mirror in front of their faces.

[…]The researchers coded the four narratives for six types of changes “that people might be monitoring while they’re comprehending” — changes they would notice both in everyday life and possibly in reading, Zacks said. These changes included: spatial changes (when a location changed); object changes (when a character picked up a ball, say); character changes; causal changes (when an activity occurs that wasn’t directly caused by the activity in a previous clause); and goal changes (when a character begins an action with a new goal).

Monitoring such changes in the environment is adaptive, because it likely helped our ancestors to predict what might happen next: where prey might dart to next or what a predator might do. Similarly, today it helps us predict what might happen next in a story.

In other words, “reading a simple verb such as “run” or “kick” activates some of the same regions of the brain that would be activated when we actually go running or kick a ball.”

The Guardian published a related article back in January, which you can read by following this link.

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award

The School of English at the University of Liverpool, in partnership with The Reader Organisation has been awarded an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award. This project will explore the existing theoretical foundations for the practice of bibliotherapy, or reading as cure, in the English literary tradition and seek to translate theory into practice by using methods and materials suggested by the research base in shared reading groups in mental health contexts provided by Mersey Care NHS Trust.

The partnership with Mersey Care NHS Trust, which serves a population of one million across Merseyside, builds on a successful record of association with The Reader Organisation, which is now a nationally recognised centre for the promotion of reading as an intervention in mental health.

This PhD is likely to be the first if its kind to seek to reclaim English Literature as pivotal in relation to health and well-being, and, through a mix of practical and theoretical methods, to give the existing language of English Literature an equal place alongside social and biomedical sciences in the observation and analysis of human experience.

For more information on the PhD project and how to apply, please visit our website, or you can email Dr Josie Billington.


STOP THE TRAFFIK is a global activist movement campaigning to end the forcing of innocent people into slavery, sweat shops, sexual exploitation, or any other form of abuse.

Steve Chalke, Chair of STOP THE TRAFFIK and UN. GIFT Special Advisor on Community Action Against Human Traffiking, has composed STOP THE TRAFFIK: People Shouldn’t be Bought & Sold, a book which outlines the very real forms of exploitation that are alive in the world today. He argues that traffiking is not only a global issue but also a problem within local communities, and should be dealt with as such. Included are the personal accounts of those who have been tricked or forced into some type of illegal activity, and factual and background information on trafficking is provided to explain exactly what trafficking is, and what can be done to stop it. The book also includes a chapter written by Cherie Blair, human rights lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights.

STOP THE TRAFFIK: People Shouldn’t Be Bought & Sold is available now.