Attending social groups can improve health and wellbeing after retirement

P1000151New research has suggested that taking part in social activities, including book groups and church groups, is linked with improved levels of health and well-being for people after retirement – and can be as important to health as staying physically active.

Researchers from the University of Queensland tracked the health of over 400 people aged 50 and over in England for six years after they had retired, comparing their health and quality of life with people of the same age who were still working. The study, published in the online journal BMJ Open, found that membership of social groups was associated with quality of life, and for every group no longer attended after retirement there was a 10% drop in a person’s quality of life six years later. As an example, if a person belonged to two separate social groups before they retired and continued with them for the next six years, their risk of death was found to be 2%. However this rises to 5% if they gave up membership of one group, and even higher at 12% if they stopped attending both.

The study also looked at how changes in exercise and physical health after retirement can affect a person’s risk of death – and found that the impact was the same as giving up membership of social groups. The researchers suggested that “practical interventions should focus on helping retirees connect to groups and communities that are meaningful to them.”

“I’ve got arthritis, which used to make me incredibly miserable, and I was always at the doctors moaning basically because I didn’t have anything else to do really, but I find if you have another interest and start meeting new people it does have an impact on how you actually feel, and you do feel better because you’ve got something nicer in your life than you had before.” – Shared Reading group member

“The group is the only time in my week that the conversation stimulates my mind and I never know what we will be talking about, it’s always something different.” – Shared Reading group member at a community centre in Barnet

P1000157It’s great to hear the findings of this study encouraging social inclusion, which supports research on Shared Reading from our partners at the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS) at the University of Liverpool. The cultural value of Shared Reading groups as a participatory and voluntary experience was examined, both in the impact it has on individuals and in creating a community. A number of factors unique to Shared Reading – such as the ‘liveness’ of the literature being read solely within the group itself, and the creativity and emotional responses that emerge from reading in action – combine to give benefits to group members in their social and cultural lives, which include re-invigorating a sense of purpose and improving an individual’s sense of value and meaning in life. Reading aloud in the groups offers a sense of achievement to members, as well as forging connections and friendships through discovering stories and poems together. The full report from CRILS is available to download on our website.

Shared Reading helping people to live longer? These findings would suggest that it’s at least a step in the right direction.

The new research from the University of Queensland can be accessed on BMJ Open.

Shared Reading in Libraries

P1000169‘Well I just love coming. It’s something to look forward to. It makes you think…when I’m here I don’t think of anything else.’ – shared reading group member in Melton Mowbray Library, Leicestershire

Each week our Shared Reading groups are taking place in libraries across the UK, connecting people of all ages and backgrounds with literature and one another. From groups improving health and wellbeing in West London to groups that help stimulate memories and reconnect older people with those closest to them in Wiltshire and the South West, shared reading in library settings is creating a variety of positive impacts for individuals and within local communities.

Take a look at how Shared Reading works in libraries across the UK

Researching Reading Groups

Are you a facilitator or a member of a Shared Reading group? A small collective of experienced researchers with backgrounds in education and lifelong learning are currently exploring the part that libraries play in supporting reading groups, including shared reading groups, in the community and in promoting reading for pleasure. Their research will document what is currently happening and highlight best practice in this important area of libraries’ work.

To help, they want to find out more about why people join Shared Reading groups and why they keep coming. If you have a story about your experience of Shared Reading in libraries, please do get in touch.

For more information, please contact Lesley Dee:

Here are some examples of what’s happening around the country

During shared reading sessions, people may identify with the experiences revealed by characters in literature and find a way of linking it to their own lives – perhaps subconsciously. Over time, and with the help of the support of others in the group and the texts that are read, they may feel confident enough to find their voice on difficult subjects and discover different perspectives within themselves. A is one of our regular group members at Seacombe Library, Wirral:

P1000174“A, who attends the group each week, is a keen reader and it’s always a pleasure to share a story with him. Recently we read an extract from Dickens’s Great Expectations that introduces the reader to Miss Havisham and her self-imposed seclusion at Satis House. I asked A what he made of Miss Havisham and why he thought she lived her life in that way. ‘She could be scared’, was his response. I agreed with him and asked why he thought that was the case. ‘Because she’s stuck in the past; she still wears the same clothes and doesn’t want to move on’.

I asked A to imagine he were Pip and standing before Miss Havisham. ‘What advice would you give her?’ I asked. ‘To move forward slowly’. I thought this was a really insightful comment, and perhaps one that mirrors A’s own experience. We ended the group with A asking if he could keep his copy of the extract so he could read it again in his own time. It was with this request that I realised how much the group had meant to him.”

It’s not only our readers who are benefitting from sharing stories in their local library, but also volunteers – over in Leicestershire, our project with Leicestershire Libraries is almost entirely run by volunteers, creating hundreds of reading experiences and lasting friendships across the county, including the weekly group in Oadby Library:

“What was the best thing for me was seeing, possibly for the first time, the real benefit of shared reading. B said she just listened with her eyes closed to me reading which she found very helpful. By the end of the session her colour had literally returned and she forgot herself and, helped by D’s personality and the literature, became animated and laughed. Equally S and D had apparently been reading poems to each other the previous day and D has joined a poetry appreciation group, inspired by reading poetry in our group.”

An Evaluation of a Literature Based Intervention for People with Chronic Pain

chronic pain study 1 72dpiThe latest research into the effects shared reading is having as a non-medical, literature based intervention into health conditions has been published by The Reader Organisation and research partners.

The study, carried out by a partnership between the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems (CRILS) at University of Liverpool and The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen NHS Hospital Trust, investigates the impact of shared reading for people living with chronic pain when delivered in a clinical setting. As part of the research, The Reader Organisation held a regular shared reading group at Broadgreen Hospital for patients with chronic pain who had been recruited from pain clinics around the Trust.

Intital results from the study, which was examined in a seminar at last year’s National Conference, have proved to show positive impacts in the relationship between shared reading, alleviation of pain symptoms and improved psychological wellbeing, with factors such as absorbed concentration upon the literature, a sense of community, comradeship and social connections being established and an enhanced quality of life all emerging for patients taking part in the group. The study follows previous research from CRILS which focused upon shared reading in relation to mental health conditions and is the first time data has been collected on physical health and a literature-based intervention.

People living with chronic pain have three times the average risk of developing psychiatric symptoms such as mood or anxiety disorders, and in turn depressed patients have three times the average risk of developing chronic pain. One of the contributing researchers, Dr Andrew Jones from Broadgreen Hospital, commented that the study gave a positive indication for patients with chronic pain:

“Early indications are showing that the reading group is making a difference to people in our hospital. But there is something intangible, a deeper impact beyond that, which we can’t measure using existing qualitative research methods. While there is already evidence of the mental health benefits of shared reading, little is known about the benefits for physical health, but the link between chronic pain and psychiatric symptoms indicate it could help.”

The study contains several first-hand accounts from patients who took part, talking about their experiences of attending the group:

“It’s my little island…a safe haven…it’s very informal and comfortable”

“I don’t have pain when we are discussing or reading the story…the whole thing is read out and I don’t have any pain.”

“I’ve really, really got to concentrate…and that’s what it makes me do. It makes me concentrate and listen.”

Though more research is needed into exploring the relationship between chronic pain, reduced symptoms and a shared reading intervention, this initial study gives positive indication that further work can be established and could be extended to dialysis wards and other areas of physical health at Broadgreen and the Royal Hospitals. The shared reading group set up for the study at Broadgreen proved so popular that The Reader Organisation has been commissioned to run sessions there for the next three years.

‘An Evaluation of a Literature Based Intervention for People with Chronic Pain’ is now available to download on our website, where more can be found out about our research projects with CRILS:

CRILS will be at Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s National Conference 2014, examining footage of shared reading groups in action as part of their AHRC funded research project on the cultural value of shared reading as opposed to other cultural activities. Places are still available for you to hear more about the relationship between literature, shared reading and its effects on individuals, communities and organisations at The British Library Conference Centre on Thursday 15th May:

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:

Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom

068A new study has found that children who regularly read for pleasure are more likely to perform significantly better in school subjects than their peers who read less.

The research by the Institute of Education at University of London is the first study of its kind to examine the effects of reading for pleasure on the cognitive development of children over time. Researchers discovered that children who read for pleasure made more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10-16 when compared with those who rarely read. The reading behaviour of 6,000 young people was analysed, as were the test scores of children from the same social backgrounds at ages 5 and 10. The study discovered that children who read books often at age 10 and more than once a week at age 16 gained higher results in all three ability tests at age 16 than those who read less regularly.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the research is that a child’s own reading for pleasure was found to have a greater effect on cognitive development between the ages of 10-16 than their parents’ level of education. The effect of reading books often paired with going to the library regular and reading newspapers at the age of 16 made four times the difference to progress in school than the advantage gained from having a parent with a degree.

Dr Alice Sullivan, one of the researchers who carried out the study, noted:

“It may seem surprising that reading for pleasure would help to improve children’s maths scores. But it is likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information and affect their attainment in all subjects.”

060All of The Reader Organisation’s projects with children and young people are focused on reading books for pleasure. We work both in schools in Liverpool, Wirral and Scotland fostering a love for reading, as well as in one-to-one sessions within and outside of the classroom. Our aims are to develop a life-long love of reading for pleasure in children and young people and to create a culture of shared reading amongst parents, carers and teachers. We’re developing a reading for pleasure revolution with teachers of the future at Liverpool Hope University, so the news that reading for pleasure makes a real difference to pupils is something we’re welcoming.

Many of the children and young people we read with on a regular basis have gained a number of positive effects from regular reading for pleasure. W, a looked-after child with learning difficulties is just one of them:

When I first started reading one to one with him, his reading ability seemed so low that I felt concerned about finding a book that would be appropriate for his age as well as his ability. As it happened, in our first meeting I had taken the book Skellig, by David Almond, which I had almost written off as being too difficult for him. However, he liked the cover, so I thought, well, let’s give it a go. I started reading it to W, and almost immediately, he was hanging off every word. He was just soaking up the story, and watching my face – I wondered if he had ever been read to before.

We have a reading ‘trick’ now, where W, when he is reading, follows the words with his finger and taps under words he doesn’t know. I then whisper the word to him, and he repeats it and continues with his reading. His reading is getting better and better, and his vocabulary is widening – but what is more important in our sessions is his enjoyment of the book. W is expressing more and more feeling and thought through the book.

W’s story shows that not only does reading for pleasure have an measurable effect on ability and comprehension, but it is first and foremost a fun and enjoyable activity that enhances a child’s confidence and brings out more of themselves.

Read W’s Reader Story in full, along with others about some of the children and young people we read with, on our website, where you can also discover more about our projects in education settings across the UK.

Get Into Reading: Reducing Implicit Prejudice

Four women talk about The Unforgotten Coat outdoorsThis week, we were pointed towards a rather insightful article about a piece of psychological research by one of our partners in Belgium, Dirk Terryn. Dirk has been part of our ongoing work in developing a shared reading partnership with the city of Antwerp and the wider region of Flanders, led by the city council’s education service, which has played a huge role in taking the work of The Reader Organisation to an international level.

The research, which was carried out by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and published in their journal Psychological Science, focused on the prevalence and tendency of implicit prejudice; particularly across different cultures and ethnicities. The article (which can be read here) describes how this sort of prejudice is often caused by a lack of knowledge or lack of understanding about a particular (or indeed, several) culture(s), and how the APS research showed that increased connection and exposure to members of a cultural group is likely to decrease our prejudice towards it.

More specifically though, the research showed that even a brief opportunity to take part in another’s culture can vastly improve intergroup attitudes, even months down the line. Cues for participation or connection as small or insignificant as, for example, a shared birthday, have been shown to bring people together, eventually even leading them to share common goals and motivations.

In a way, this is what The Reader Organisation is trying to achieve through Get Into Reading, our shared reading scheme that takes place in a variety of settings throughout the country, every day and every week. The bringing together of people from various backgrounds and walks of life to sit within a small group of about 5 – 8 people is what, first of all, creates an opening; an opportunity for communication and social connection between those very people.

After that, the various perceptions and meanings that are often steadily teased out from the text which the group may be reading is the second step. This is essentially the creating and strengthening of shared meanings, often across social and cultural boundaries , which is what Get Into Reading is all about. Members of a group can and often do find that they have things in common, which inevitably leads to social relationships being forged outside of the group. And over longer periods of time, many begin to share personal feelings or anecdotes that are unwittingly brought to the surface by the nature of the various texts.

The researchers at APS do note, however, that the positive effects of the study are very much dependent on people feeling that they have “freely chosen to participate and engage in cultural activities”. Making people feel obligated to take part can, therefore, reduce these benefits and even possibly have an adverse effect.

Group members are not encouraged to participate in Get Into Reading groups with the aim or motive to improve their understanding of another’s culture. Reasons for attendance at a GIR group will obviously vary massively for many people, being highly dependable on the setting, nature and purpose of the group; not to mention the personal reasons of the readers themselves. But multicultural interaction does take place regularly across GIR groups, and is without a doubt one of the most valued benefits.

Just take this view from a London-based reader who moved to the UK from Madrid and decided to participate in a GIR group to familiarise herself with British culture and have more opportunity to practice her English. She said:

It’s nice to arrive and be greeted with such kindness. The reading of fragments that are then discussed at a not-too-big a table with a cup of tea in hand creates an intimate atmosphere conducive to sharing impressions, feelings and experiences. Our coordinator, Val (also Penny and others), plays a key role as she keeps the cadence, encourages us to talk, touches points to develop and contributes, like the others, with her personal experiences that enrich the conversation. Val’s high intelligence, skills and sensitivity make it a particularly pleasant and interesting experience.

My group has been very generous to me and Val and the other members take the time to explain to me what I might miss because English is not my native language, because I did not grow up here, or for whatever reason. The time shared has favoured the development of personal relationships and more than once I have found myself sharing concerns as well as good and bad personal news.


We may perhaps say then that multicultural interaction is a secondary outcome, or ‘byproduct’ of Get Into Reading…it strives to improve connections amongst people within communities, which may or not include those from contrasting social and cultural backgrounds. This is the beauty of Get Into Reading – the fact that no two groups are ever the same in their composition, and the fact that new and unforeseen outcomes are making themselves known all the time.

Reducing implicit cultural prejudice may just be another of these many wonderful outcomes. While it is perhaps not always the aim, it is certainly always most welcome.