Get a taste of Shared Reading in London

VolunteersThe Reader Organisation will be appearing at not one but two upcoming literary festivals in London, giving you the chance to experience shared reading alongside a range of other exciting book-based events.

Next week, we’ll be part of Finchley Literary Festival where one of our trained volunteers will be leading two shared reading sessions on Thursday 29th May at North Finchley Library. Our volunteer programme in Barnet is ongoing, sharing reading with people living with dementia and across generations within the community, and people within the area will get an opportunity to be part of one of our groups, similar to those currently running across Barnet.

The two sessions will take place at 1-2pm and 2.30-3.30pm, with a maximum of 9 attendees at each session. Both sessions are free to attend but booking is required. You can book online via Eventbrite on the Finchley Literary Festival website.

For those in the South of the city, we’ll be taking part in the Literary Kitchen Festival with shared reading taster sessions on Monday 16th, Tuesday 17th, Wednesday 18th and Thursday 19th June. All sessions will take place from 3-4pm at The Peckham Pelican and entry is free.

If you like what you hear at either festival then there are a range of open community shared reading groups happening weekly in Barnet and South London, as well as Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea. Take a look at our Reading with Us group map for a full list of groups in London:

You can also keep up to date with TRO’s work in the capital by following @TheReaderLondon on Twitter.

Looking forward to sharing reading with you Londoners!

Dementia and the Power of Words

English PEN: Dementia and the Power of Words
Wednesday 12th March, 6.30-8pm

Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA

Cost: £4

English PEN, the founding centre of a global literary network, is holding this special event which will take an in-depth look at how writers and artists are working with people with dementia, with a focus on the written word.

Writer and BBC presenter of The World Book Club and A Good Read Harriett Gilbert will chair the discussion about the possibilities and challenges of writing, reading and listening projects for people with dementia. The Reader Organisation’s London Project Manager Penny Fosten will be taking part in the panel, speaking about our work sharing reading with people with dementia and in care homes around the UK.

The Reader Organisation has been reading in a range of dementia care and older people’s care settings since 2006. Our project workers read literature, typically poetry, in weekly read-aloud sessions which allow members to listen the texts in a relaxing group environment. The groups provide a means of stimulation and social engagement, as well as helping to improve quality of life. Our research partner the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems (CRILS) has published a report evaluating the impact of shared reading in reducing the symptoms of dementia, which can be found on our website.

Penny will be joined by Susanna Howard (Living Words), David Clegg (Trebus Project) and Dr. Myra Barrs, former Co-Director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and the partner of poet James Berry. The evening will end with readings of James Berry’s poetry by author and poet Malika Booker.

Tickets cost £4/£2 for English PEN members. Visit the Free Word Centre website to buy your tickets and see the English PEN website for further information.

Recently, our Library Memory Groups for people with dementia and memory loss in Wiltshire in the South West were featured on BBC Radio Wiltshire. Rhiannon Fitz-Gerald visited one of the groups at Warminster Library, talking to some of our group members about the positive impacts shared reading has had on their lives and to those who they care for. You can listen to the excerpts at the links below:

The Reading for Pleasure Effect in Education

c. Paul Cousans
c. Paul Cousans

The Reading for Pleasure Effect in Education
Thursday 6th March, 4.40pm-6.30pm
Birkenhead Sixth Form College, Park Road West, Claughton Village, Prenton, Wirral CH43 8SQ

“I’ve started reading at home, I used to get nervous reading aloud but I’m dead good at it now.” – 11 year old reader in a shared reading session

Recent research has discovered that young people who regularly read for pleasure are more likely to perform better across all aspects of school subjects than their peers who read less, and English teachers, literary coordinators and school librarians are invited to join The Reader Organisation for this special free event exploring the positive effects of reading for pleasure in secondary schools.

The Reader Organisation has extensive experience of reading for pleasure with children and young people both in groups and one to one, in schools and other settings. The focus of all of our weekly read aloud sessions is entirely on enjoyment, taking the pressure off the young person reading which means even the most reluctant of readers can get involved. The informality of the sessions help to make reading enjoyable, encouraging a love of literature in young people while also building confidence, self-esteem, social relationships and reading ability.

Our work with children and young people in Wirral is particularly successful, with Readers-in-Residence operating in schools within the region. 100% of the young people we read with in Wirral schools said they looked forward to their reading sessions.

This special event is a showcase of The Reader Organisation’s work with young people in secondary education, giving a taste of shared reading groups and the positive impact shared reading can have on individual pupils as well as the overall environment of the school.

It’s free to attend but booking is necessary. For more information about the event and to book your place please contact Abigail:

Find out more about our work in schools and with young people on our website:

The Reader Organisation in Inside Time: An inside view of shared reading

inside timeThe Reader Organisation’s activity in Criminal Justice settings is expanding all the time, with regular shared reading groups being delivered in prisons, secure hospitals and offenders institutes throughout the UK each week providing opportunities to reform, rehabilitate and reduce reoffending through the reading of great literature in a safe environment. Not only does the use of shared reading in secure environments create a foundation for a collaborative approach to reducing criminal behaviour, it allows the space for offenders and ex-offenders to transform their attitudes, thinking and behaviour through a medium that has a direct personal impact as well as helping to contribute to stronger and safer societies in the long run.

Our work sharing reading within Criminal Justice settings is highlighted in Inside Time, the national monthly newspaper for prisoners in the UK. Inside Time creates a ‘voice’ for its readership – currently standing at an estimated 50,000 – providing articles and comments that seek to be informative, interesting and entertaining, and a key link to the outside world for its readers as well as connecting them with their family and friends. Amongst its contributions is cultural content including  a regular poetry slot, which has produced 5 volumes of the Inside Poetry publication.

Each month in the paper, a member of TRO’s Criminal Justice team provide an insight into a shared reading group session that has taken place through a poem or extract from a short story and a snapshot of the discussion that has accompanied the piece of literature. Always interesting and often revealing, the columns show how vital great literature is as a sounding board, connector between people, thoughts and emotions – and in many situations, as a lifeline.

Here on The Reader Online we’ll be regularly featuring the TRO Inside Time articles on a monthly basis, bringing you our latest column hot off the press and giving you a closer view of shared reading in secure settings. To begin the feature, we’re visiting a piece from the archives, originally published in September 2013. Wigan Project Worker Val Hannan takes us into a session at her group in Hindley YOI (funded by Greater Manchester West Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust), where the group shared the poem Making a Fist by Naomi Shihab Nye.

We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.

—Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

– Reprinted from Tender Spot: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008) by Naomi Shihab Nye, with kind permission of the poet

After I’ve read, the group take turns reading a stanza each. We begin with the epigraph: ‘We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.’

‘It’s strange,’ says C, ‘intriguing’.

‘It’s basically saying that everyone’s going to die’ says T.

C continues: ‘Some of us are alive but some of us are dead and we’re all going down the same path – we’re alive but we’re all dying.’

Suddenly F repeats the last stanza: ‘‘I who did not die, who am still living…/clenching and opening one small hand’ – This is me. It’s about me. It’s how I feel. I look at my hand – I always do that.’ F holds his fist up. ‘What’s that on my hand? Have I got blood on my hand? These thoughts are always at the back of my head.’

Lady Macbeth’s anguish is vivid in my mind.

‘It wasn’t premeditated,” offers T, seeking to comfort. Others nod, faces showing sympathy.

F says he is fine; he wants to continue.

We look at the first stanza.

‘What could the drum be?’ I ask.

‘It’s his pulse or heart beat getting slower,’ says T.

‘The narrator is only seven at this point – what about that?’

‘He’s getting scared and getting further away from home – going somewhere he doesn’t know,’ says C.

‘It could be about fate,’ says T. ‘He’s leaving his soul or one life behind.’

I ask about the image used to describe how the person felt: ‘My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.’

‘When I first came down to jail, I felt like that,’ says M. ‘My stomach had gone, I was only 12.’

I ask about the lines: ‘When you can no longer make a fist’?

‘This is when you can’t move, when you don’t have any strength.’

‘It makes me think of when you’re in your cell,’ says, C, ‘and you want to get out and you pound the bed and walls in anger and you can’t do anything and then you just get really weak and end up crying with the anger.’

They all agree with this and talk about how they often feel there is no release for their pent-up anger and frustration.

I ask about the image of the journey and why the ‘backseat’?

‘It could be the journey of life,’ says T.

‘It’s life as a car journey,’ says M.

‘But why the backseat?’

‘The back is in the past. The front seat is moving forward but you’re in the back seat of life when you don’t know what’s going to happen,’ says C.

‘What about borders – what could they be?’

‘It could be death – the border between life and death,’ says T.

‘Past and future,’ says M. ‘Childhood to being an adult.’

We focus on the final image: ‘clenching and opening one small hand.’

‘It’s your pulse, a heartbeat,’ says M.

‘It’s like stress,’ says F, ‘when you have to keep opening and closing your hand. I do it all the time.’

We discuss how our thoughts control the way we feel and conclude the worst prison is not a physical one, but the one we make for ourselves in our own mind.

You can find Inside Time on the web here:

Find out more about The Reader Organisation’s work in Criminal Justice settings, alongside Reader Stories from readers in various secure settings, on our website:

Reading and Volunteering

Four women talk about The Unforgotten Coat outdoorsOur shared reading projects across the UK are showing that reading is not only good for enriching the mind, but has a profound social benefit. Shared reading in Wirral is bringing an average of £6.47 worth of social value to group members for every £1 invested, improving their wellbeing, and huge impacts of regular shared reading sessions include increased personal confidence and self esteem, social engagement and participation in the community. Evaluations of our work have shown:

  • 75% of group members feel more confident about socialising
  • 96% see the group as an opportunity to meet people they wouldn’t usually meet in their day-to-day life

Also, over two thirds of group members reported that they are more likely to consider volunteering or have become a volunteer since being part of a shared reading group. It’s not surprising that reading relates to greater social activity – a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts in America found that literary readers are much more likely to participate socially than those who do not read, attending arts events at a higher rate and being over two and a half times more likely to do volunteer or charity work within their communities [NEA Research Division, Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (2004)].

The Reader Organisation has a volunteering programme that is fast expanding, and we currently run a range of schemes across the UK which give our readers a chance to become more involved as volunteers, spreading the joy and social benefits of shared reading even further, often to some of the most vulnerable people in society. In our volunteering programmes in Merseyside and Barnet, North London, volunteers can go on to read with older people in care homes and those living with dementia, making a real and measurable difference to lives that are otherwise isolated. As part of our North Wales project, we’re building a bank of volunteers who will help us to embed a culture of shared reading across the region over the next three years.

All of our volunteers receive support and training from The Reader Organisation staff and as well as benefitting the lives of others can further their own development.

“I feel very privileged to volunteer with this group. The members are truly inspiring. It keeps me learning too.”

“It’s a responsibility and it’s a joy. It’s a commitment and it’s a privilege.”

Find out more about volunteering with The Reader Organisation in Merseyside, London and North Wales by visiting our website:

You can also read more about some of our volunteers and their experiences in their own words in our Reader Stories:

We’ll be sharing more about our volunteering opportunities in Barnet, as they expand to include two new projects, in the coming weeks here on The Reader Online.

Creating an online City of Readers

G31A7051The Reader Organisation is very excited to be partnering up with Liverpool Learning Partnership to create a City of Readers. LLP’s initiative is to turn Liverpool into the UK’s foremost literate city, encouraging people of all ages to get reading and share their favourite stories with one another – something we’re always keen to do here at The Reader Organisation, and we’re glad to get on board with LLP to get Liverpool reading more.

We’ve already started getting Liverpool reading alongside LLP on the Liverpool City of Readers YouTube channel. In January, we held a 48 hour Readathon as part of our Impact48 weekend at Calderstones Mansion House and lots of readers gathered amongst the bookshelves at Calderstones to read one of their favourite poems or extract from a short story of novel. You can take a look at some of Liverpool’s readers online now, reading everything from The Great Gatsby to Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost to Fantastic Mr Fox. All you need to do is click to take a listen:

We’ll be looking for more readers throughout the year and many more videos will be uploaded in the days and weeks to come, so be sure to keep watching and listening! Stay tuned for more news about City of Readers as the project develops…

The Railway Man – and The Reader

the railway manIf you’re heading for an evening at the cinema soon, one of the choices on offer is The Railway Man, the latest film starring award-winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, and featuring a screenplay written by friend and patron of The Reader Organisation Frank Cottrell Boyce (Frank even recorded a reading of the opening of his book Cosmic for TRO while on the set of The Railway Man’s filming – very glamorous). The film has been in the Top 10 of the UK Box Office list since its release, and the book of the same name on which it is based has rocketed to the upper ends of many bestseller charts.

The Railway Man is the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer hailing from Edinburgh who was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Japan after the Battle of Singapore as part of World War II in 1942. During a period of torture in a series of prisons, he was taken to Kanchanaburi in Thailand and forced to work on building the Burma Railway – ironically, given that as a boy he was passionately and incurably interested in trains. The Railway Man tells of the consequences that came from his secret construction of a radio and a map during WWII, the emotional and psychological damage that lasted forty years since his release and an eventual meeting and reconcilation with the focus of his pent-up anger, the man who acted as interpreter during his torture. A truly extraordinary story of the capacity of humanity to overcome the worst, it is little wonder that it was chosen to be adapted for the big screen.

Eric Lomax died in October 2012 aged 93, having lived an incredible life. In his later years he lived quietly with his wife Patti in Berwick upon Tweed, no longer giving interviews about his autobiography. In 2009, he did however agree to an interview with Angela Macmillan, co-editor of The Reader magazine, about his reading life and the importance of books in his life, during times of both war and peace. From growing up in a house full of largely factual historical books to reciting poetry with fellow prisoners in one of the worst prisons he occupied in Singapore, Eric talked about the significance of reading to retaining his sense of normality and dignity throughout his ordeal, as well as losing the ability to read during the time when it had been one of the many things denied to him:

Reading made all the difference to our prospects of survival. There were a lot of individuals, as in any walk of life, who never read a book from one year to another. They had difficulty in surviving but anyone who had access to reasonable quality books could keep occupied for hours.

The instinct for survival was the strongest aspect at work in Eric’s mind throughout his time of imprisonment, but he did have informal discussions and trade notes on books with fellow prisoners, and reading as well as writing about his own life served to enrich and stretch a mind that could have very well been diminished by such traumatic experiences otherwise.

The full interview piece with Eric Lomax, ‘The Railway Man: Starting at the Essentials’ can be found in Issue 36 of The Readeravailable to buy through our website, along with a variety of issues from the archive:

Happy Poetry at Work Day!

dementia 1Did you know that today is the second annual Poetry at Work Day? Certainly a fact to cheer up a rather chilly Tuesday in January and make your day at work a little bit different by taking some time for a poem or two, or maybe even more.

Here at The Reader Organisation, you may not be surprised to know that poetry is part of every working day, not just for our Project Workers around the UK who share and read poems aloud in our weekly shared reading groups or on our courses where we are turning more people into shared reading practitioners, but in our offices too. Great literature truly is at the heart of all we do, and we make sure that we never lose sight of the power of poetry to bring some clarity, creativity and peace of mind within our busy working days as each team starts every one of their weekly team meetings with a poem. The most recent poem read in the Communications and Development Team meeting was Begin by Brendan Kennelly, appropriate for the still new beginning of the year and with an inspiring message to begin each of our days, working or otherwise:

Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.

Poetry at Work Day is spearheaded by Tweetspeak, who believe in the creative potential of poetry in the workplace – a key factor considering that a recent survey by IBM of 1,500 CEOs reported that creativity was the top quality they looked for in leadership and the ability to take businesses into the future.

There’s also the matter of poetry providing you with a new perspective, making you think differently about topics relating to work and life in general and giving you a chance to go to another place for a while throughout your working day. So for Poetry at Work Day 2014 why not swap your spreadsheets and emails for a poem instead, and share the benefits of a good poem with your work colleagues? We’ve got a wealth of material to get you started right here on The Reader Online with our bulging Featured Poem Archive.

Do you read poetry at work regularly? Have you got a favourite verse that gets you through the work day? Why not tweet us with your selection, or use the hashtag #PoetryatWork

Mindfulness as effective as medication for depression and anxiety

MRL_5280A new study has found that techniques of meditation, and in particular practicing mindfulness, can help towards lessening depression, anxiety and pain, and can be just as effective as medication in doing so.

Researchers from The John Hopkins University in Baltimore reviewed data from 47 clinical trials involving over 3,500 patients with a range of mental health and other health conditions, finding moderate evidence suggesting that as much as 30 minutes of meditation a day helped improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, with the same amount of relief being provided by meditation as had previously been discovered in studies examining the effects of antidepressants on the conditions.

Writing in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, lead researcher of the study Dr Madhav Goyal explained that meditation techniques emphasise mindfulness and concentration, allowing people to pay attention to whatever thoughts enter the mind and focus on the surrounding environment. Dr Goyal said:

“Many people have the idea that meditation means just sitting quietly and doing nothing. That is not true. It is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways.”

Though the study showed smaller levels of positive evidence indicating that meditation reduces stress and improves overall quality of life, the researchers are urging that medical professionals be more open in talking to patients about the role meditation and mindfulness could have in helping with depression and anxiety, particularly as it has fewer side-effects than drugs. The analysis is being seen as an example of an area which requires further scientific study to take the evidence from being purely belief based.

The results of the study follow the argument from Chris Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Health Care at University of Liverpool, that antidepressants are being over-subscribed to people who do not require them. Writing in the British Medical Journal, the academic and GP says that patients who are sad or distressed are being wrongly diagnosed by a tendency to rely on medication. He states:

“These pills won’t work for people with mild depression, or who are sad – but they have side-effects and we are seeing patients become reliant on drugs they do not need.”

Book close-upDr Dowrick is one of the researchers involved in ‘An investigation into the therapeutic benefits of reading in relation to depression and well-being’ (2010), a study carried out in partnership between University of Liverpool, Liverpool Primary Care Trust and The Reader Organisation. The report investigated how shared reading impacted upon patients with depression, in terms of their social, mental, emotional and psychological well-being, with regular shared reading over a period of 12 months indicating statistically significant improvements in wellbeing. Our shared reading projects are commissioned by health services across the UK and emphasise the rich, varied and non-prescriptive qualities of literature in helping people to discover more about the human condition and their own lives and situations, to help them in feeling better and understanding more about themselves.

Rather than being an individual exercise, reading within a group offers a shared experience – a focusing and broadening of the mind that engages on a variety of levels, increasing confidence, providing self-reflection and self-awareness, improving wellbeing and building social networks. Shared reading is bringing all of these benefits to patients in mental health settings around the country, as well as in local community settings, with 74% of people saying that shared reading has improved their mood and 81% saying it has helped them to relax.

You can read more about shared reading within Health & Wellbeing settings on our website, as well as the full ‘An investigation into the therapeutic benefits of reading in relation to depression and well-being’ report:

Impact48 and The Reader Organisation – 48 hours to get Liverpool reading

impact48_tightImpact48 and The Reader Organisation
6pm Friday 24th January – 6pm Sunday 26th January 2014
Calderstones Mansion House

Something big is happening at The Reader Organisation’s base at Calderstones Mansion House this January, as we join up with Impact48 to further the reading revolution.

2014 is Liverpool’s Year of Reading and as part of our partnership with Liverpool Council and Liverpool Learning Partnership we’re launching our City of Readers project which aims to get the whole city reading – through schools, through families, through businesses all sharing reading with one another. Over 48 hours we’ll be joining up with Impact48 to develop a website for Liverpool City of Readers, build apps and create a marketing campaign that will use social media to help promote the project.

Calderstones Mansion House c Dave JonesImpact48 events bring together a charity, a sponsor and a team of volunteers to spend a fun and challenging 48 hours making a positive impact to the organisation at its centre. Previous Impact48 events have worked with Music in Hospitals Scotland and Edinburgh Cyrenians, and we’re excited that they’ll be coming to Liverpool to spend a weekend at Calderstones, creating something big that will impact so many people.

48 hours will take a lot of motivation and people power to complete, so we’re looking for volunteers to get on board and be part of the weekend. Are you or do you know I.T and web specialists, software developers and app developers who could help us to realise our vision of city-wide reading using technology?

We’re also looking to kick start the City of Readers project and Liverpool’s Year of Reading by using the time to record 48 hours of reading and collect 4,800 books that can be used as part of the project. Anyone is welcome to come along, give us some time and some books, pop into the Mansion House for a chat, coffee and look around.

To register your interest to volunteer at the weekend at Calderstones Mansion House, head over to the Impact48 website.

You can also follow Impact48 on Twitter: @RealImpact48 and #impact48