Time to turn off the TV and get kids into reading

For many a frazzled and tight-on-time parent, the small black box (or sleek silver 42 inch plasma) in the corner of the sitting room is a God-send, reliably there to switch on whenever tiny tots need to be amused or quieted for half-an-hour before teatime. Yet over time, the minutes pile up and too much reliance on reaching for the remote can have unfortunate effects on children – and their relationships with parents.

American researchers have discovered that television can be a distraction not just for kids but for adults too, whether it is being actively watched or is featuring mainly as background noise. In particular the presence of the turned-on television has a considerable negative impact upon the flow of interaction between parent and child, which in turn has stark consequences for the development of children’s speech. Amongst a study of over 300 children aged between two months and four years, parents were found to have spoken significantly less to their children while the television was on; every hour of TV exposure translating to a loss of 500-1,000 words. Children who watched increasing amounts of television also said less and had fewer conversations with their parents – having an alarming impact on the progress of speech and social skills.

Conversely, regular reading sessions at home have been proven to have quite the opposite effect on child development as well as parent-child communication. In a separate study at Ohio State University it was found that while more time spent watching TV links with a decreased amount of communication between mother and child, mothers who read together with their children converse more and do so in a particularly distinctive way. When reading aloud to their children, mothers were found to use an active and engaging communication style which encouraged responsiveness from children, thereby stimulating greater amounts of conversation. Parents who read aloud also help to expand their children’s vocabulary by introducing them to words that may not be typically heard by children in everyday speech. One of the researchers leading the study, Eric Rasmussen said:

“Mothers who are responsive to their infant’s communication promote a positive self-perception for the child as well as fostering trust in the parent. Positive responses help the child learn that they can affect their environment.”

Yet more evidence that shared reading really does make a difference in a number of ways – and the earlier it begins the better…! Although, you may want to start with physical, pliable books before involving the Kindle or iPad, given that personal contact is privileged over excessive technological stimulation in the early years…

Reading With Children – Benefits on a Grand Scale

Just in case you haven’t noticed, plenty of The Reader staff ran the 5K in Liverpool the weekend before last, raising money to support our work reading with looked after children. We were recently given compelling evidence by Young Person’s Project Worker, Anna Fleming, of how this work helps young people in care massively. Of course, this is not the only example of such work and knowing what the money raised was going towards was a great motivation for the unfit members of the team whilst training and on race day itself. (Not naming any names, not out of politeness, but it would be quicker to name the people in shape).

A mixture of adrenaline, fear, excitement, dread and distraction.

A July 2010 report from The University of York named ‘Estimating the life-time cost of NEET: 16-18 year olds not in Education, Employment or Training’ indicated that fairly modest investment in ‘youth support projects’ can save massive amounts of public money in the long run.

As the title suggests, the report focuses on 16-18 year olds, but includes an alarming statistic with regards to children in care:

In 2008 only 14 per cent of looked after children obtained 5 A*-C grades at GCSE compared to 65 per cent of all children.

Roughly speaking that’s just under a fifth of looked after children doing as well as the national average in their examinations, a series of results that have a massive impact on an individual’s future. Hopefully since 2008 this gap in the figures has narrowed somewhat, but it is discomforting if not surprising, that so many people should be held back by a factor as arbitrary as their domestic/familial situation in the 21st century. The Reader Organisation’s one-to-one work with looked after children aims to remove these obstacles, giving children the chance to read exciting and enjoyable material in a relaxed environment outside of school.

One of the nation’s biggest problems at the moment is unemployment, especially for young people. Those leaving care and/or and school without the best grades or a college/university place are likely to struggle. The University of York looked at how much NEETs were likely to cost the taxpayer over their lifetimes. The least conservative estimates arrived at a public finance cost of £32 billion and resource costs of £76 billion – similar to the budget of a small/medium government department at the time.

In the Executive Summary of the report, the research team said that cuts in youth support projects could have damaging effects financially and for society as a whole as costs covering unemployment and criminal justice would increase massively. One case study showed that failure to prevent a young offender drifting into repeat offending can cost £2 million, whilst a modest investment of £7,000 can prevent this.

The research findings above are yet another reason to thank all of those who sponsored our 5k run. Not only are you helping to provide positive experiences for young people, but you are helping to protect them from falling into the 86% and establishing something closer to the equal footing in life these people deserve.

You can still sponsor our runners retrospectively by clicking here.

Is Fiction Good for You?

Emeritus Professor at Toronto University, Keith Oatley was on the Today Programme, erm, today, discussing the remedial power of fiction.

Oatley worked in a small research group, examining how fiction might be good for wellbeing. Oatley and his colleagues looked at how the amount of fiction people read was related to levels of empathy and social understanding, concluding that there was a positive correlation between the amount of fiction people read and their social abilities.

Oatley discussed how this contradicted notions of ‘bookworms’ locking themselves away for hours whilst reading and not making any time for friends. In fact, reading has the ability to help people deal with the social world that surrounds them.

Oatley said fiction was comparable to a ‘flight simulator’, because the immersion of the individual into another world and experiencing characters’ emotional and social encounters can help them understand their own lives. In Oatley’s newly published book, Such Stuff as Dreams, he describes how fiction can engage our minds in thoughts not only about those around us, but ourselves.

This offers further support to The Reader Organisation’s ethos and ongoing projects, providing shared reading groups and reading events utilising novels, short stories, poetry and plays, benefiting the wellbeing of those we reach. Our evaluations prove that we are helping people and research from the likes of Prof. Keith Oatley provide further evidence of the intrinsic link between fiction and wellbeing.

Medical Humanities PhD at University of Leeds

The School of English and the Faculty of Medicine and Health at University of Leeds have come together to offer a funded PhD studentship in Medical Humanities.

Research for the PhD will focus on one of two areas, either

a)      the representation of everyday Medicine and/or Health in 20th or 21st century cultural narratives, especially those in literature and/or film;


b)      A study of the role of literature (or literature and film) in an aspect of therapy.

Possible topics within these areas include mental health; clinical care and the relationship between doctor and patient in narrative, with research ideally investigating  aspects of working in health care/clincial settings, accessing health practitioners and patients.

For Home/EU students the fees are met by the School of English, with successful candidates receiving an annual grant of approximately £8,000.

Full details concerning the PhD can be found here.

University of Leeds offering a PhD that links humanities and literature with medicine indicates the growing trend of academics going beyond just researching the cultural impact of artistic and literary works. The Reader Organisation Trustee Professor Phil Davis has been bringing science and the arts together by studying the effects of Shakespeare on the human brain, analysing neurological responses to the great bard.

Hopefully research arising from the PhD at Leeds will provide even more support for the idea that reading fictional literature and classics can have a positive effect on wellbeing, and can be utilised in clinical settings to help people receiving treatment in areas of mental health, ageing and physical health.

Our ongoing evaluation of Get Into Reading has shown that humanities – in this case fiction – can have a positive effect on health and wellbeing. In these surveys readers have said that they felt more able to relax, cope with stress and gained more positive feelings about life following Get Into Reading participation.

As well as community groups we have Get Into Reading programmes based in dementia care homes and groups for people with mental health or addiction difficulties, all aiming to use reading as a positive force in these people’s lives. Any research investigating the relationship between humanities and wellbeing is welcomed by The Reader Organisation as the evidence base for our work expands.

Dear parent: why your dyslexic child struggles with reading

Professor Maryanne Wolf

On the Guardian‘s education blog today, Professor Maryanne Wolf explains, in a letter to parents of children with reading problems, how dyslexic children’s brains are organised differently:

It all begins with understanding that reading does not come naturally to human beings. We humans invented literacy, which means it doesn’t come for free with our genes like speech and vision. Every brain has to learn it afresh. Learning to read for the brain is a lot like an amateur ringmaster first learning how to organise a three-ring circus. He wants to begin individually and then synchronise all the performances. It only happens after all the separate acts are learned and practised long and well. In childhood, there are three, critical “ring acts” that go into the development of reading: learning about the world of letters; learning about the individual sounds inside of words (which linguists call phonemes); and learning a very great deal about words.

Read it in full here.

Professor Wolf will be speaking at our Reading for Wellbeing Conference on ‘The Pleasures and Perils of an Evolving Reading Brain’, on Tuesday 17th May, New Brighton, Wirral.

Empowerment Through Literacy: Literacy Shaping Futures conference

The 47th UKLA International Conference:

Empowerment Through Literacy: Literacy Shaping Futures.

The University of Chester

Friday 15th to Sunday 17th July 2011 

The UK Literacy Association’s 47th Annual International Conference will explore the many ways in which literacy shapes and empowers lives. It will provide an opportunity to examine, discuss and critique various approaches to learning and teaching in literacy across the globe, and to share good practice. The theme, ‘Empowerment Through Literacy: Literacy Shaping Futures’ will explore research and practice on the following topics:

  • authentic literacy teaching
  • multi-literacies and multimodal practices
  • adult literacy
  • virtual communities and literacy practices in and beyond the classroom
  • implications of change for  both policy and practice
  • the role of the literacy teacher and professional development
  • inclusion and equality
  • literacy and health and well-being
  • transitions

Josie Billington, Research Manager for The Reader Organisation, will be presenting the findings from some of our most recent research at this event.

Booking forms and more information are available at the UKLA’s website

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: katieclark@thereader.org.uk

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.