Sandra lives in Wirral with her two foster children, Ollie, 14, and Callum, 12.

Each week, both boys read one-to-one with a Reader volunteer as part of the BBC Children in Need-funded Reading Heroes project. Here she describes the difference that the Reading Heroes project has made:

“Ollie has a learning disability and when he came to me he had a reading age below 10. He has been with me for three years and has been reading weekly with Sally for just over two.

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The Reader gave everything I’d lost back to me – Brenda’s Reader Story

In February 2019 we spoke to Brenda, a Volunteer Reader Leader and Shared Reading group member. Calderstones has been a huge part of her life in so many ways, this is her Reader Story:

“I’ve been coming here since I was eight years old,” she explains. “I played here as a child when there were rowing boats on the lake you could hire. I even went to the theatre at the old Mansion House.”

She had a professional career and has been a lifelong volunteer – lending her business aptitude to organisations helping support local people. She and her husband were something of an institution, fundraising and leading a local health initiative together.

“I’d always lived with somebody – I’d lived at home with my parents, then got married. Suddenly there was no one – in some ways no purpose,” she says.

“I’d just seen a noticeboard about The Reader and thought ‘I wonder what that’s all about?’. When I went inside they said ‘there’s a group about to start – would you like to join in? You don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to come back if you don’t like it.’

“The Reader Leader was just so welcoming. The warmth was out of this world. So I did the group and loved it. Then I started going to other groups as well.

“It was Charles Dickens’ Domby and Son that really made me think ‘this is my husband. I understand this man – I’ve lived with this man’.

“I was getting rid of all that anger through that book. And everyone put up with me. It got me through a horrendous period. The Reader gave everything I’d lost back to me. Everybody here does magic. It saved me.”

After reading one-to-one with older and younger people, and covering the odd Shared Reading group, something changed.

“One day about two years ago, someone had left, so there was no one to run our group anymore. So someone at The Reader asked ‘how about you takeover?’.”

“I’m just an ordinary bod in the group,’ I thought. I haven’t had any training. Would I be able to gain their trust and respect? But I felt like I’d got so much from the organisation; I really wanted to give something back.”

Her fellow group members said they’d let her do it on two conditions – that she must not be pressurised and could stop anytime, and that she could still have a cup of tea with the group. She laughs, “It is social, this thing, we all want to go to the café afterwards and carry on talking.

“I’ve always realised it was more than a book club. At a book club, you talk about your kids and holidays, and only spend 10 minutes speaking about the book you’re supposed to have read. In Shared Reading – we stop – until we’ve sorted out what’s going on. You’re getting so much more out of the text.

“It was only when someone noticed I was hogging the photocopier copying short stories and poems that they suggested ‘you want to start a book’. And a light went on – it’s so much easier, you don’t have to find something new every week!”

“I’ve learned such a valuable lesson about watching people as they’re being read to – to pick up on reactions. You can see the enthusiasm – that they’re excited about what’s going on, arguing about the characters and their personalities.”

“I enjoy matching poems to books – but it can be hard. But then, even if you can’t see something in the poem – somebody can match it, they’ll say ‘oh I can see why you’ve chosen this one!’.”

“Whenever we take a break they say ‘Can we carry on with the book?’”.

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The Reader Leader who packed up her things and took Shared Reading to France

The Reader has trained people to Read to Lead all over the world and already has Shared Reading communities from Sweden to New Zealand.

We haven’t yet made the stride across the channel to our nearest neighbour – or we didn’t think we had – until we learned that one former London-based Reader Leader has packed up her handbook and taken the practice there herself. Continue reading “The Reader Leader who packed up her things and took Shared Reading to France”

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Reader Story: Louise, Volunteer

Louise, Oswestry

My favourite word is ‘joy’ or ‘joyful’ – it sums up how I want to live my life, to find joy in simple things and after 58 years of trying I think I’m doing a pretty good job of it now. But it did take 25 years of clinical depression and several traumatic events, including the loss of a sibling, an abusive relationship and a long spell in a psychiatric unit to get there.

I was extremely lucky to have an amazing childhood, spells of living abroad, seeing and experiencing many different things, I have always had the support of fantastic friends and family – not everyone has been that lucky. Throughout that journey there’s been one constant- books.

I was that child who read under the covers at night with a torch and went to the library every week, The Secret Garden was my favourite. As a teenager I felt so sophisticated reading Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, how grown up reading French novels! Now my favourite book is The Man with the Dancing Eyes by Sophie Dahl – not a literary heavyweight but it’s constantly by my bed and I reread it several times a year. It’s a cross between poetry and prose, and it’s illustrated – a feast for all the the senses and it’s perfect whether I am happy or sad or thoughtful or frivolous.

I work in a small town library and I’m lucky enough to see the difference literature can make to peoples’ lives on a daily basis. I know three ladies who’ve undergone Read to Lead training in the past and I attended a Shared Reading group they’d started up locally. I could see how special and powerful these sessions were – when the opportunity to take the training came up this year I was thrilled. I’ve been volunteering with an Age UK lunch club and WRVS Stroke Club and I knew Shared Reading could be so beneficial for them. My mum had dementia and I used literature as a way to engage and communicate with her, when she went into a care home I visited regularly and would lead a ‘story time’ session with the residents.

“The whole Read to Lead course was fantastic, the course leaders were brilliant – I’ve never been on the receiving end of such skillfully delivered and amazing training. I came away feeling that I had been given something very special and powerful to take home with me.”

I would definitely recommend it to others, in fact I already have – I’ve been telling people about the whole experience of Shared Reading ever since. Even on a train in Italy, I told a mother and daughter about it – the daughter is a mental health nurse in Bristol and I think my enthusiasm rubbed off, she wanted to Google it straight away.

Since the training I’ve held a taster session at an Age UK lunch club and they want me to come back on a monthly basis. I’ve been fortunate to have an existing Shared Reading network in my home town and I’ve covered for colleagues a couple of times but I’m looking forward to starting my own group very soon. I’ve also held a taster session in a local library for National Libraries Week and we’ve gotten some funding through to read with children in a local school for six weeks. Read to Lead has opened so many exciting doors!

Although obviously apprehensive to start with, because you can appreciate what it takes to run a session well, I’ve really enjoyed it. The training we received was so thorough and the resources provided are excellent, which makes it easier. I spend a lot of time preparing, you appreciate that when you do the training, how important the preparation is.

From the three sessions I’ve been involved in so far I have been staggered by how much individuals, people I’ve not known previously, are prepared to share their feelings, emotions, thoughts – it’s been a privilege and although I often come away quite exhausted, I’m also full of joy at the power literature has on people. One woman told me: “I always thought I was stupid at school because I couldn’t take things in quickly. Today, because we have read slowly, I understood it. I’m not stupid.” Another said that having a story read to her made her feel sad because she’d not had that as a child but at the end she said: “Please come back, I want to do that again, it has made me feel lovely.”

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Reader Story: Vicky, Volunteer

Vicky, Cumbria

After 20 years as a university English Literature teachers I gave it up for several reasons… stress, motherhood, frustration at the politics, the lessening focus on teaching, and because we live in a remote part of rural Cumbria.

I love words. I write, I read and teach creative writing workshops. I also have three kids under the age of 16 so don’t have an awful lot of spare time but a friend, Kate, was setting up the Kirkby Stephen Community Arts and I got involved as a volunteer. We bring professional theatre, films, workshops, reading and talks to the local community and the first year has been a huge success. I knew about The Reader and was really interested in volunteering but there weren’t many opportunities in Cumbria. I was Kate who told me about the Christmas Challenge funded programme to create Shared Reading groups for older people. I thought about the three care homes in my town, my own parents have passed away so my family has little contact with older people. I recognised that I didn’t have much experience working with older people, but it sounded like such an interesting opportunity and I felt like I wanted to do it.

“I hoped the course could help me gain the skills I’d need for this new environment and to stimulate me to think differently. I wasn’t disappointed. The three day course was really well run – every session was relevant and informative, I love it. The tutors were excellent and brought out the best in everyone. It was really good to try out the skills they taught us in the sessions – nerve-wracking ar times, but so useful. We watched a video of a Shared Reading group in a care home – that was invaluable. I learned a lot from the other people on the course too.”

I was struck by how well-run and friendly The Reader is as an organisation – every contact I’ve had has been met by someone cheerful, efficient and enthusiastic and the lovely little touches, the way everyone mentions what they’re reading in their email signatures for example.

Since the course I started going into a local care home the very next week and in the very first session an elderly lady called out to me “Are you posh?” in an interrogating tone. Later she asked me if I was I was a preacher, she said “I’d like to have been a preacher.” They sound like arbitrary comments but they revealed a lot for me, this lady saw something in me – the way I dressed or things I carried – which signaled ‘posh’ to her and I sensed the hostility or fear in her question, it’s really useful to recognise that. I go every Thursday afternoon now and read with about six residents. They often look as if they’re asleep, they don’t engage much but it’s extraordinarily rewarding. The other day I started reading a poem aloud and one lady, who has not spoken in four weeks, joined in and read aloud with me. I think in future I’d like to work with the other two care homes in my town. I’d also like to set up another group, perhaps teenagers mixed with older participants in their 70s or 80s.

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Reader Story: Zena, Volunteer

Zena, Kent

I live by the sea in Folkestone in Kent, with my Autistic brother and my dog Basil. I have a chronic illness and 18 months ago, I made the decision to leave my job, take some time out to manage my symptoms and to create a better lifestyle for myself.

Whilst recuperating I rediscovered my passion for reading. As a child I loved getting lost in the stories of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. I’ve carried that love of reading with me into adulthood and although at times I’ve lost touch with it due to illness and lack of concentration, I’ve always returned to the wonderful embrace of books.

Some books really speak to me, connect with my situation and help me through difficult times and others are great for escapism – like Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, a brilliantly compelling read which was impossible to put down. I also really connected with Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls as I experienced a lot of grief as a child and wish I’d had this book to read then.

“I found it so powerful that I was still able to connect with those feelings of grief – it felt very cathartic. This was part of my motivation to set up my own project to help others.”

Reading has been so important and helped me so much, I wanted to share that experience with others. I set up Reading for Wellbeing to work with vulnerable groups, using Shared Reading as a tool to help people discuss, process and get a different perspective on their own situations. The Reader’s Christmas Challenge funded Read to Lead came up at the perfect time as I was getting ready to retrain and refresh my skills.

I’d recommend Read to Lead to anyone. The three day training programme was great, we took on a lot of information but it still felt relaxed and I found the large amount of practical application really useful – techniques for reading aloud, the type of questions to ask the group that will generate discussion. By the end I felt really enthused and the idea of Shared Reading as a powerful way of working with people really made sense.
It also really helped to boost my confidence and guided me how to tackle poetry more effectively – by the end of the three days I felt so much more comfortable with poetry and I could really see how I could use all these skills in my own groups. I was able to put them straight into practice too as I had two groups the very next day and the results were amazing! The groups really engaged and I was able to keep them on track throughout the whole session.
I am already running groups with a homelessness charity, a domestic abuse service and a mental health group. I feel much more confident in what I’m doing and I’ve challenged myself to pick stories and poems I might not have used before. I feel like the people attending the groups are getting far more out of the experience too.
Next, I’m going to be giving taster sessions to local housing services and offering Shared Reading groups to residents there. I think a lot of people see reading as something educational or out of their reach, I really want to people of all backgrounds and abilities to see that reading can make a difference for their health and well-being. I don’t have a literary background, I hope that helps my group members see reading as something accessible to everyone.
“I had a wonderful moment with an individual in the domestic abuse group I deliver while reading Jenny Colgan’s A Very Distant Shore. A group member who usually doesn’t say much asked what a refugee was, when I explained, they replied “that’s like me, I’m escaping something and starting again.” You could really see them thinking about it, processing the idea – they made a wonderful and very powerful connection with the story.”
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Reader Story: Stephen, Pheonix House, Wirral

This is Stephen’s Reader Story in his own words:

“Without the Shared Reading group, I don’t feel that my recovery would have been possible.”

I needed something, somewhere I felt comfortable to escape to, to start meeting people, away from home and other distractions and this fell into my lap just when I needed it.

The Shared Reading group has not only re-kindled my love of reading but it has provided me with a forum for my thoughts which until this, I internalised. It has connected me with people as I had distanced myself from everyone through drinking and the anxiety following stopping.

The books, stories and poetry, whilst not necessarily dealing with my own problems directly, raise issues similar to my own which I have found myself addressing vicariously, assisted by the thoughts, suggestions and ideas of other group members. It has brought structure to my life, something that disappeared because job loss and drinking.

Discussions, raised on points from the story or poem, often range far from the subject matter but are just as important for me as they encourage me to think and interact on all levels. Without the Shared Reading group, I don’t feel that my recovery would have been possible. Listening to someone tell a story, read a play or recite a poem holds my attention for far longer than anything else can, giving me food for good thoughts and distracting my attention away from my issues and addiction triggers.

*Please note that all our Reader Stories are anonymised.

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Reader Story: Debbie, Care Quality Commission

Debbie Westhead is the Deputy Chief Inspector of Adult Social Care North Region for the Care Quality Commission. She joined in at a Shared Reading group in a care home in Wigan.

“I was impressed with the professionalism of The Reader and how they engaged with people most of whom were living with dementia. The group was small; seven residents, one relative and care assistant. A poem was read out and people were invited to discuss. The concentration amongst the residents was immense and you could hear them thinking.

Every now and again one word sparked something in the memory. For example reference to the lake referred to in the poem reminded one person of Ireland and they spoke about holidays there as a child; reference to the water reminded another of the times she spent boating; a sentence in the poem ‘deep hearts core’ really resonated with people with one saying it was where memories were stored that were good and another stating the memories could be good or bad and there could be hurt with the memory.

It was truly fascinating and I would encourage any care home to make contact with The Reader as the service is free and it is making a difference, if only for an hour, to people’s well-being.”


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Reader Story: Lauren, Communications Intern

Lauren joined the Marketing and Communications team as an intern in Summer 2016, choosing to extend her internship beyond the initial three months. On leaving The Reader, Lauren secured a full time Marketing role in Liverpool. 

Being a Communications Intern at The Reader and spending six months based in Calderstones Park was an amazing experience throughout. If you’re considering applying – I really would! 
Being in the Marketing Team, you are offered an array of exciting opportunities that will teach you invaluable skills, not only about Marketing but also about yourself and how beneficial charity work truly is.
Before my internship, I didn’t really know all that much about the wonderful world of Marketing, but now I’m a Social Media Marketer, all thanks to the help and support of the amazing team. If I could do it all again, I would in a heartbeat.
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Reader Story: Poppy, Liverpool Hope University

It felt safe reading it and talking about it in the group. I’d definitely encourage young people to read it – it’s real.

Poppy* had been a quiet, shy, though attentive, member of a Shared Reading group for PGCE students at Liverpool Hope University, always present and interested, but very rarely offering comments in discussion and never reading aloud. But something happened after the Christmas break, when the group started reading Patrick Ness’ novel A Monster Calls.

After a few weeks of reading, during which Poppy had become more and more engaged in the book and our discussions, she shared with the rest of the group her connection to the book’s main character, Connor, whose mother is terminally ill with cancer. She said:

“When my mum was ill I felt like he does – I didn’t know what I wanted people to say to me, and I couldn’t express what I was feeling to anyone.”

At the end of the year Poppy came to me at the end of our very last Shared Reading group, when we finished the novel and said:

I wanted to keep coming to the group to find out what Connor does, how he makes it right in the end, and to kind of encourage him along. It felt safe reading it and talking about it in the group. I’d definitely encourage young people to read it – it’s real.

*Please note all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Neil, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“Some guys on the wing said I was doing this group to get out of work. I came the first time and I enjoyed the atmosphere and what I got out of it. I wanted to come back.”

Neil* has been involved in the group since the first week. He has said that he likes the stories we read but that:

“They’re more interesting because we’re talking about them.”

His confidence has increased and he has contributed more and more to discussions since that time. He shares stories from his own life – about a time when he was homeless, for example. And he has read aloud for us despite being very shy to do this at the outset.

He has a very keen interest in the language in the texts we read – particularly in the poetry – and lingers over the words/techniques that he thinks the writer is using well:

“I really enjoyed Stopping by Woods by Robert Frost. The use of verbs, language…it’s so poetic.”

And he has written some poetry since he began the Shared Reading group and has shared this with the group very proudly at the end of our sessions.

Neil shows a keen interest in ‘bettering’ himself, in learning and education. When we were reading The Bet by Anton Chekhov and discussing how the prisoner in the story passes his time, Neil said that the education programme in the prison had enabled him to get some qualifications that he hadn’t achieved when he was younger, as he left school at 15. He had welcomed the chance to do this.

When it comes to the Shared Reading group he clearly sees it as a learning experience that is of great value to him:

“We’re all learning to communicate better. That’s a really important tool.”

“I think all the stories we read teach us that we shouldn’t judge people we come into contact with. We make judgements all the time – we do when we’re reading about characters in the stories. We all need to take people as we find them.”

“You hear a lot of chat about people’s crimes in this place. In this room we’re talking about other things, so many other things. And we’re listening to each other. I’ve learned that we’re all essentially the same.”

* Please note all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Robert, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“I’ve felt more relaxed in this room than in any other place in this prison. This is as ‘normal’ as life can be while we’re here.”

Robert* is in his 80s and is the oldest member of the Shared Reading group. He joined during the fourth session and has attended every week since, always walking into the room with lots of ‘hellos’, a big smile and a ‘glad to be here’ attitude.

The whole group enjoys listening to Robert’s stories from when he was young – and from throughout his life. He tells them very well and it seems to give him a lot of pleasure to reminisce. The younger members of the group in particular are fascinated to hear about how the world was different for him as a young man. And the other older members always check their facts about days gone by with him. He has shared brilliant stories about his time in the army, in Germany, as a bus driver, dating etiquette in the 1950s and about what Manchester used to be like.

Conversely, Robert said one session, when we were reading a story about race, that he found it very hard to know what language to use these days so as not to offend people. He said that when he’d been younger ‘coloured‘ and ‘negro‘ were words that were acceptable. But when he had used these words lately people – including his family – had been upset. He said that he felt upset as he had no intention of offending people but that he didn’t understand what were the right and wrong things to say and why. Much good discussion ensued. The younger members of the group had lots to say on this topic, so the learning from the inter-generational discussions has happened both ways.

Robert has admitted to his love of the Shared Reading group and how it helps him cope with being in prison:

“I’ve felt more relaxed in this room than in any other place in this prison. This is as ‘normal’ as life can be while we’re here. I look forward to it every week. It takes me to places.”

One week Robert had been to the library and borrowed a collection of funny poetry, to which he treated us to some dramatic readings.

* Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Norman, Read to Lead Graduate, Highlands

Norman is Prison Literacies Liaison Officer in the Library Support Unit at the Highland Council. He attended the Read to Lead Residential in September 2009. This is his Reader Story in his own words:

Read to Lead training has expanded and enhanced the nature of my work, no doubt. I’ve always had a broad definition of what literacy is, and was used to running groups as part of my job, but Read to Lead and the Shared Reading model added a whole new dimension to my role. I now run a group at HMP Inverness Porterfield, and have been so impressed by seeing the model at work that I secured funding to commission a special Read to Lead course in Inverness in March 2011.

Training in the Shared Reading is essential: the process seems simple, when it’s done well, but beneath this there are complex capabilities involved.

Norman has given permission for his name to be used in this Reader Story

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Reader Story: Gordon, Read to Lead Graduate, Westminster

Gordon is Learning Support Librarian at Maida Vale Library, Westminster. He attended the Read to Lead London Open Course in January 2011. This is his Reader Story in his own words:

This course equipped me with the whole range of skills and, just as importantly, the confidence needed to run a Shared Reading group at Maida Vale Library. On a very practical level, I’m now better at reading aloud to children, something I do a lot of in my job as a librarian. In particular, in tune with the course mantra I now read more slowly, which reveals the delights of the story in a very immediate way.

Most gratifyingly, the sense of accomplishment and purpose which I get from running my group has spilled over into a general increase in my job satisfaction.

I have to say that the absolute best thing about the training was the wonderful atmosphere of mutual support and generosity, skilfully engendered by the trainers and embraced both individually and collectively by the trainees. Everything fitted together in a perfect blend of theory and practice.

Gordon has given permission for his name to be used in this Reader Story

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Reader Story: Patrick, Prospect Park Hospital

In a quiet moment after the session he said he was ‘thankful’ for being reminded that he was ‘still able to feel’.

Patrick* attended 11 Shared Reading sessions. At first, he could not always concentrate sufficiently to follow the pages; sometimes he had to leave part way through, to return a little while later. An assistant psychologist described him as ‘impenetrable’ when he first arrived on the ward.

Gradually, he seemed more at ease, relaxing into the group, never saying very much but becoming more absorbed in the stories and poems that were read aloud.

In his penultimate session in the group, he responded quite dramatically to reading an extract from My Left Foot and Walt Whitman’s poem, A Noiseless Patient Spider. He was moved to tears by each of these texts and spoke very openly to the group about the emotion that had been evoked by the words of both pieces.

In a quiet moment after the session he said he was ‘thankful’ for being reminded that he was ‘still able to feel’.

It was a powerful reaction and one which felt dependent upon those first weeks in the group, as if they had somehow provided a sort of accrued experience which had led to a deeper level of response, one which was just waiting to happen. Patrick was discharged a few weeks later.

*Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Conor, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“I don’t like being in groups and talking about myself. But doing it, being in this room is conquering those fears. It’s therapeutic for me.”

Conor* joined the Shared Reading group during session four. We were reading a Deep South-set American story, A Worn Path. Conor volunteered to read a section of it aloud and did a fabulous American accent – much to everyone’s pleasure.

Conor has attended every week since. He is a thoughtful member of the group. He is not always the first to jump in with an opinion, but when he does say something it is well considered. He has shown an interest in how people behave towards one another, equality, and the way the world works (or doesn’t) in this respect. While reading Shereen Pandit’s short story She Shall Not Be Moved, Conor said:

“The way the narrator doesn’t give a seat to the white woman as some sort of ‘revenge’ – that’s why we’ve got all the problems in the world that we have – the mentality that says, ‘You did this to me so I’m going to behave like that to everyone who looks like you.”

And his empathy with characters is strong, he reflects here on Carol Ann Duffy’s Stealing:

“He wouldn’t be doing this [stealing a snowman] if he had things in his life – like friends, family, a job. He’s lonely.”

Conor’s confidence in sharing his thoughts and his own experiences has grown steadily over his participation. His announcement that he believed in marriage during one of our discussions led to poignant exchanges and advice about relationships being given to him by the older members of the group which he gracefully accepted.

He has talked about his less-enviable habits, like being anti-social when he’s on buses and shutting himself down against talking to strangers, and how his mum embarrasses him: “She’s loud, she takes over a room!”

Interestingly, he very recently said:

“I don’t like being in groups and talking about myself. But doing it, being in this room is conquering those fears. It’s therapeutic for me.”

He added:

“It’s life imitating art. We’re like those characters in that film The Breakfast Club, a group of very different people who are forced together. But then they start finding out how similar they are, the things they have in common. They open up to one another. That’s us.”

*Please note that all our Reader Stories are anonymised.

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Reader Story: Marty, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

“Marty seems to be getting loads out of the group. When I popped my head around the door before [into the meeting] I could see it on his face – just how much he’s enjoying it and into it.”

Staff member, Greater Manchester Probation Trust

I first met Marty* in mid September. When I went to talk to hostel residents at the morning meeting about the new Shared Reading group, I recall how he fixed me with a distinctly disinterested gaze!

A week later Marty was in the main office at the hostel when I arrived. One of the hostel workers said, “Give it a go. I think you’d really enjoy it.” Marty looked very uncomfortable and put-on-the-spot but grudgingly said, I’ll go for 10 minutes. That’s all.”

That particular day the session was one of the more disrupted variety. During the session Marty was pestered by two other residents who had arranged to borrow his bike plus a fire alarm meant we had to evacuate the building for a good 10 minutes – both perfect opportunities for Marty to make a bid for freedom! However, he stayed for longer than his pledged 10 minutes; he stayed for the duration of the session. He was a real pleasure to have in the group, asked direct questions about the text when he wasn’t clear, listened to others keenly and expressed his views in a very articulate manner (so much so that two other group members said at different points: I think exactly what you’ve just said, Marty! You put it so well!”).

He talked about having a near-death experience, seemed moved by a poem we were reading and challenged another group member’s theory that “real poetry rhymes!” At the end of the session before leaving the room he said, “That was really relaxing.

When I arrived the following week the residents’ meeting was still in full swing. However, Marty came out of the meeting early – and seemed keen on getting cracking with the Shared Reading group (he was very smiley, friendly and chatty – not a hint of mistrust – and one of his friends commented to me, “Marty’s been non-stop reading since your group last week!”).

Two of the regular group members were still in the meeting. Marty said as I set off to find them, “Tell them they should be here! That meeting was pretty heavy – this will relax them, get it out of their heads.” A week later I overheard Marty and another hostel resident talking about the Shared Reading group over a game of pool as I was coming to find them (they didn’t see me). Both of them were saying how “relaxing” they were finding it.

Since his first reluctant attendance Marty has been to every Shared Reading group session (bar one where he had a probation appointment), relates politely and respectfully to every one (being one of the best listeners in the group and responding sensitively to very personal things that other group members talk about), articulates deeply thoughtful and intelligent responses to the texts we read – airing views on war, death, disability, loneliness, friendship, family and prison amongst other topics.

His confidence in participating seems to be growing week on week and his mood during sessions – the way the texts and the interaction with the group affects him – is ever positive. Today, Marty was the first member of the group to offer to read a section of our novel aloud. He did a fabulous job and his willingness to do this paved the way for two other group members to follow suit!

*Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Harvey, St Mungo’s Learning Community, Glasgow

“Teachers overhearing from their rooms or passing by are astounded at how positive and enthralled Harvey has been, especially as his default setting in class is to be so reticent and dour.”

Harvey lives in his sibling’s more exuberant shadow and is by far the least confident of the two. Whilst his peers have all been selected to read in groups, Harvey’s teachers decided he would benefit most by having some exclusive time and reading in a one-to-one session.

When I first met Harvey, he was incredibly stony faced and made little to no eye contact throughout the entirety of our early sessions. However, as we progressed he began to enjoy the short stories more and really valued having an hour without his brother or any of his peers close at hand. The big breakthrough for Harvey came when reading the Skellig extract from A Little, Aloud for Children. Harvey loved the suspense and horror of finding a decrepit man in his garage and was gripped throughout. At the end of the session when I asked him for a mark out of 10 he gave it an 8. When I asked him why only an 8 he said I’d give it 10 if we knew who the man was”. When I told Harvey that this was an extract from a longer story and that we could read it and find out if he liked he beamed from ear to ear and nodded, repeatedly saying “Yes!”.

Since then Harvey has given the story 10 out of 10 each week, been really articulate in his responses to meeting Mina, his concerns for the baby and how it must feel to be Michael. Teachers overhearing from their rooms or passing by are astounded at how positive and enthralled Harvey has been, especially as his default setting in class is to be so reticent and dour. Each week he remembers exactly where we have left off and sits smiling for an hour as we continue with the story.

*Please note all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Gail, Liverpool Hope University

I met Gail* when we began our first Shared Reading groups with PGCE students at Liverpool Hope University. She told me that she wasn’t a keen reader and in general, didn’t really like reading or see the point in it. Over the weeks however, I could see Gail becoming more interested and engaged in the story we were reading. It was The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce. In the last group session we had before the Christmas break, she told me:

“Coming to the reading group, and reading this book, has made me remember that I do really enjoy reading – and how much fun it is to find a story you can get lost in. It’s why I’ve asked for a Kindle this Christmas, and I’m going to read the book with my little cousin!”

*Please note all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: William, Looked After Child

“…that’s like me, when I was taken away from my family, I didn’t want to go, but it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know that until I was safe somewhere else like Skellig”.

William* is 12 and has learning difficulties which mean that he finds it very difficult to read. He is a Looked After Child. 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 William, 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. As he mostly looked at me when I was reading, rather than at the book, I made sure I was making as much eye contact as I could with him by raising my eyes from the page when I could – this way, we could communicate through our facial expressions whilst reading, and William certainly had a lot of response in his facial expressions!

When I stopped and asked William open questions like, ‘what did you make of the man in the garage? I wonder if he is a man!’, William chatted away showing that he had been following the story completely.

I always asked William gently but without any pressure if he would like to have a go at reading, and one day he said yes. He read very, very, very slowly, and haltingly, as the majority of the words he didn’t know. But, we got to the end of the page. I praised William a great deal for this, as it had been an admirable effort. I assumed that he had not understood what he was reading because of the way he had read it, and meaning to cover what had happened in the page, I checked first by saying “What did you think about what was going on there then?”, ready to jump in with an explanation if he shrugged. But, to my surprise, William had understood every word he had read. This was a great lesson for me to learn – that a child’s reading ability does not always reflect their level of comprehension. William was obviously a very quick to understand, mature child, and this demanded a book like Skellig.

We have a reading ‘trick’ now, where William, 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.

William is expressing more and more feeling and thought through the book. In a recent week, he said that, when the man in the garage is taken by the children to a safe place, that’s like me, when I was taken away from my family, I didn’t want to go, but it wasn’t right, but I didn’t know that until I was safe somewhere else like Skellig. The connection that William made with the book connected W with me, too, and with his own feelings – it gave him a starting point for understanding and expressing his own, very important experience.

*Please note all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Paul, Looked After Child

“I think he loved the respect that went with reading this type of stuff together – by giving him the older, harder literature, I was saying to him that he was mature enough for reading serious literature with me.”

Paul* is 10, and is a Looked After Child. When we first started reading together, he couldn’t be bothered with books. He quite enjoying spending time with me and playing games and chatting, but would get very disgruntled when I started reading to him, and would do anything he could to distract me away from books.

This situation went on for months – all of the books I were bringing were, I thought, fun, bright books, Roald Dahl, Jeremy Strong, Frank Cottrell Boyce – books that I thought he would like because they were quite funny and, I felt, quite relevant to the modern child. But none of them were working! He would protest, ‘I hate reading’, ‘reading’s boring!

Until, one day, I brought The Reader’s new publication, A Little, Aloud for Children. This was a breakthrough book for Paul. To my surprise, it was the really dense, older, trickier stuff in the book that grabbed his attention, and the darker the better – he loved it! The stuff that was as far from modern reality as possible. His favourites were Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Invisible Man by H.G Wells. I think he loved the respect that went with reading this type of stuff together – by giving him the older, harder literature, I was saying to him that he was mature enough for reading serious literature with me.

The length of the extracts worked well too – there was a real sense of achievement when we had finished each story, and he would love deciding which one to read the next week. This excitement with the book lasted every week, right until we finished our one to one sessions.

I was holding an awards ceremony for children who I read with one to one, and when I told Paul that I would be reading a poem to everyone at the ceremony, to my great surprise he asked, ‘can I read one, too?’ I explained that there would be up to 50 people there, but this didn’t faze him. When Paul got up and read Amulet by Ted Hughes with much gusto to the audience at the ceremony, and followed this by a little bow, the power of one-to-one reading for pleasure really hit me. Now that Paul’s one-to-one sessions have ended, he is voluntarily attending a reading for pleasure club every Friday after school.

*Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised.

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Reader Story: Lindsay, Tesco

Lindsay, Tesco Community Champion at Heswall, attended the A Little, Aloud workshop in Liverpool followed by a Masterclass a few months later, and has since gone on to facilitate fortnightly Shared Reading session for older people in Fairfield Nursing Home close to her store. This her Reader Story in her own words:

“Since the workshop, I’ve been reading with several ladies every fortnight, which is just the right amount of time to fit in with my 18 hour week. It has been very rewarding to hear their life stories and to know that you are giving somebody in your community a positive experience. Customers have recognised me in the care home when they’ve been visiting their family, and I’ve felt proud of being part of something so special.

This isn’t something I would have imagined myself doing, and yet now, it’s become a part of my job that I look forward to and feel incredibly passionate about. I’ve learnt a valuable skill that is bringing huge benefits to people in my community and I think that all Tesco Community Champions should have the chance to do this because it really is an interactive, rewarding experience unlike anything else we do in our job.”

Lindsay has given permission for her name to be used in this Reader Story.

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Reader Story: Jane, Kensington and Chelsea

Jane attends a Shared Reading group in Kensington and Chelsea, this is her story in her own words:

The reality of life is we have to take hold of what it deals us and we can’t pass the cards back.

Two years ago I was introduced to Shared Reading through Kensington and Chelsea Library bibliotherapy services. It was a time in my life where depression seemed to over take normal life and rip reality to shreds: normality, work, family, and me, all the bits that gel together to make me.

During this time among medical help and counselling sessions I decided to give Shared Reading a go. I have always loved books and to discover the group was held at the library which for me was a “safe” place where I felt secure, the point of reading aloud embraced me.

I could step out of the terrifying place my mind was in, let go of fears holding me and step inside the book. Nobody judged me, just offered me a new brighter road of adventure (they even showed me the way to the kettle, now what more can a girl ask).

There have been times when leaving home has been a battle and loneliness seems like a raging river without any island, but I soon realised that books could be a life boat and an amazing safe environment. I can climb aboard some totally amazing authors and titles which I never dreamt I would open, let alone to read aloud, and enjoy the golden treasures of authors such as Lawrence, Dickens, Hardy, Shakespeare, George Eliot, John Steinbeck, Andrea Levy, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and many many more.

It’s rather like an enchanting forest where I can take my place, where words become friends and I can be strong and week by week, the beauty enfolds me in so many amazing novels like flowers in bud hiding their beauty and trees standing in their long lasting roots of power. Unfolding with novels some accented, some new, futuristic, happy, sad, we may often see their beauty but the wonder is we can revisit them time and time again relaxing in their safety. Poetry being the icing on the cake of course, rather like a menu that lasts forever with something for every taste but leaving us hungry for more.

Since attending I have taken an opportunity to share a passion that’s very close to my heart and that is to read to children in a story time session. This has proved so valuable, therefore helping me to regain my confidence. The power of taking hold of the joy children feel when they listen to stories just for them for me is totally priceless

Well my friends I do hope you have a taste of what Shared Reading means to me. If I can leave you with a final image of our group, it’s rather like a jigsaw where every piece is different but plays a vital part. Take a moment to reflect. Of course being a Shared Reading group we have poetic licence so the picture on the puzzle may change from time to time but the vision is of a truly outstanding puzzle that contains some page-turning tales and means a lot to so many people including me.

I often wonder if Dickens could tune in or perhaps even Skype us at a Shared Reading group what would he make of it all … I just know he would most certainly be over the moon!

Jane has given permission for her name to be used in this Reader Story

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Reader Story: Marie, Plymouth MIND

“This group has become the highlight of my week and I clear my calendar to ensure I can make the sessions”

Marie* is in her sixties – a devoted mother and grandmother who has been coming to MIND for many years.

She describes herself as a very private person by nature who has a social phobia and performance anxiety which has isolated her. She was feeling quite isolated when she decided to join the Shared Reading Group. It took her a long time to get to know people at MIND and she was happy sitting slightly apart with a cigarette and just “being” as she describes it .

She realised that her social side was being neglected, especially as she was a single parent. When she started the Shared Reading group, Marie says, she was keen as she loves literature but was nervous at the start with a new group.

For the first few sessions she felt herself unable to read in a group setting – felt she had a block. Then one week, she says something made her want to take the bull by the horns- a “do or die” feeling . The first few times she read weren’t easy because of her social phobia but she then experienced a sea-change in the way she felt and started to relax.

Marie is now one of the most competent readers in the group. We have recently had a new member which she says can be tricky, but she is still reading confidently and fully participating in the discussions.

“I have come to learn the power of words in our lives – and the power of silences. They go deep into our psyche. This group has become the highlight of my week and I clear my calendar to ensure I can make the sessions.”

*Please note that all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Shared Reading in HMP Low Newton

In preparation for RISE (Reading in Secure Enviorniments –  a collaboration with seven national literary festivals to bring contemporary writers to criminal justice settings) we read Jean Sprackland’s poems for a few weeks.

This focus on one poet is a new, rewarding, departure for the groups. Themes were explored, comparisons made, and we came to really know Jean’s subtle, gentle, funny yet serious voice. As one reader put it; I really like these poems because they’re real. They are real life”

Mattresses talks about everyone’s life but has a darkness that resonates with the women reading here. On the first reading one woman couldn’t hear the mattress but only a tale of a broken woman, lost and discarded. The others listened politely, sensitively, but then the group moved on, back to the text, and the talk returned to mattresses, how they are an ‘archive’ of the everyday and everybody. The same woman’s expression changed to one of surprise: the idea that there could be other things to the poem, any poem, than what struck her at first reading was genuinely a new one.

Another, deeper, insight followed: “I saw me”. What had been evident to everyone else in the room startled this woman to a laugh, and you could see her visibly awaken to new insights about herself and the potential of poetry.

In another group the darkness helped to draw a listener in, intriguing her despite her previous hostility to what she described as the ‘irrelevance’ of poems.

“I like people’s stories, and now I’m going to pass a mattress on the way the out and wonder what secret’s and stories it can tell.”

Someone else quickly responded “I wouldn’t want anyone to know the stories my mattress could tell”, with mischief and bravado in her eyes. This was greeted with a smattering of laughter, but I wondered if it was my imagination that I saw a trace of embarrassment in the truth that hid behind the joke as she looks away.

Another reader looked up thoughtfully, “we don’t want to think about the stories of the mattresses here, we want to block out the previous occupants.”

The others nodded in agreement, talking about their dislike of an older style of prison mattress, ‘…reeking with secrets.’ The new plastic covered ones are much better, all agreed. Hard, not particularly comfortable, but they’re impersonal and let you forgot they’ve been shared.

Even better the plastic surface can be wiped. One woman, usually very quiet, described kneeling on the floor and washing her mattress down when she first moved into her cell. There was another pause and then she held my eye, Not that it was dirty like, just for the peace of mind, you know, psychological cleaning.”

* Please note, all Reader Stories are anonymised 

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Reader Story: Derek, Cornwall

Derek first attended a Shared Reading group in Outlook South West, a psychological therapy service in Cornwall, and now comes to a group every week in the library. The group facilitator asked him what Shared Reading meant to him:

How would you describe yourself and your needs before joining the group?

I have OCD – it’s a fight for me and I was a little depressed.

What made you come to the group?

I saw a notice at Outlook South West and thought it looked inviting. I’m not well read and I wanted to find something to help me over a bad period – I also have skin cancer.

What was the group like for you?

It was an awakening – so many interesting people and it was so varied – we can learn from each other. The pleasure of having someone not as a teacher but who was clever at bringing you into a story – it’s a new awakening.

What makes you keep coming?

I’m really happy to quietly enjoy – you can get involved or you can sit and quietly enjoy yourself. I’m sorry it’s come so late in my life.

Because it’s important, I feel, there’s so much enjoyment there – you learn so much from other people. I never knew poetry could be so enjoyable – I hope it continues, it’s so good – It’s a friendship.

How would you describe its effect on you?

It’s helped a lot – my wife has seen the difference ( you should really ask her ) and I’ve got her involved with it at home.

The facilitator did ask Derek’s wife if she had noticed a change in him since he’d joined the Shared Reading group:

Oh yes, it really has helped. He gets so depressed about his OCD and can’t cope if things don’t go right. When he’s been to your group he’s a different person, so cheerful and full of it all, talking about the stories and poems. He looks forward to it so much – meeting different people has been so good for him. I’m so pleased he’s going – he won’t let anything get in the way of it. 

*Please note all Reader Stories have been anonymised

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Reader Story: Tom, Wirral

“If you told me this time last year “you’ll be reading poems and enjoying it” I would have said “stop talking crap!” But I love the poems now – I can’t believe I’ve gone from a group member to an assistant and am about to do the admin training… it’s just all ballooning out for me!”

Tom* is a member of a Shared Reading group in Wirral, and completed The Reader’s Big Lottery funded training to become a Shared Reading group assistant volunteer.

We met to discuss his Personal Development Plan from the training course, detailing any progress to date and possible goals for the future. During our conversation Tom confessed he was suicidal this time last year, but feels volunteering and being a group member has provided the necessary support and opportunities to help him come out of this difficult period in his life. Tom has recently requested to complete our admin assistant training programme, to gain new skills and improve his future job prospects. He had this to say about Shared Reading:

“I came to Shared Reading through St Cath’s Church in Tranmere originally. I felt nervous at first, it’s not something I’d done before, but it was such a friendly group – with tea and biscuits and everything – it was a good way to break down the barriers. I’ve noticed a vast difference [since I’ve started coming to the groups]; I used to be on anti-depressants but because of getting out and getting stuck into a book I’m off them now. It’s so much better than being stuck on tablets, health-wise I’m so much better because of it.

I’m still shy but I’ve got so much more confidence, I don’t mind voicing my opinion and don’t worry about being made a fool of now. I’m really pleased I’ve started coming. I was on the verge of suicide last year and now I’m a completely different person. If you told me this time last year “you’ll be reading poems and enjoying it” I would have said “stop talking crap!” But I love the poems now – I can’t believe I’ve gone from a group member to an assistant and am about to do the admin training… it’s just all ballooning out for me!”

*Please note, all Reader Stories are anonymised

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Reader Story: Anne, Volunteer, Rubens House, Barnet

Anne is a volunteer on the Barnet project, she has told her Reader Story in her own words:

The Shared Reading group at Rubens House, a Jewish Care home in North London, has been running since summer 2012. It goes from strength to strength. We have nine regular attendees, a mix of men and women, all in their eighties and nineties, many of them quite severely disabled. While a few are in the early stages of dementia, most are able and keen to enter into deep debate about the texts we share.

We are lucky that the manager and all the staff at the home are extremely supportive of the group. There is always staff representation at the sessions, and a care worker is currently training to be a Shared Reading facilitator, and will co-facilitate with me from the New Year. From that time there will be two Shared Reading groups at the home, the existing one, and another for residents with more advanced dementia. Volunteers are currently being recruited for this.

Staff tell us the group has had a very positive effect on members. They talk about it all week, apparently, and about the texts we have shared. One, whose dementia we thought precluded much understanding, has started reciting poems with great enjoyment between our sessions. Even the music events the home arrange do not have the same impact.

‘Mondays have taken on a completely new aspect. I’ve got something to look forward to now, for the first time in years’, one member said to me recently.

Every story and poem has created an enormous degree of interest and discussion, both on an intellectual level, and in terms of personal responses. This is a very empathetic group. Even those few members who do not speak very much show by their body language that they are feeling the stories and poems.

The Loudest Voice by Grace Paley inspired fascinating conversations this week. The story is about a Jewish girl who is asked to take a leading part in her school’s nativity play, and the reactions of her parents and neighbours. Group members all related to this situation. Some spoke of their enjoyment of Christmas carols at school, something never mentioned to their parents. They were unanimous in their approval of the religious tolerance of the father in the story.

In fact this is a tolerant group in lots of ways. I very much admire members’ forbearance and respect for each other. There are always plenty of people volunteering to read, and some are astonishingly good readers, while others have great difficulty reading a few sentences. Sometimes words are barely audible, sometimes whole paragraphs get muddled up, or missed out, or repeated. No one shows any impatience. Nor do they when members constantly lose their place as they try to follow the text, or say the same thing over and over. We have visitors to the group almost every week. Members have taken these constant changes very courteously in their stride.

On a number of occasions we have all struggled initially to grasp the meaning of a text, especially with the poems, but this is a group with an impressive amount of perseverance, and between us we have worked it out. Blank looks and even expressions of dislike on a first reading change to nods, smiles, excited talk, and a justified sense of pride.

We recently shared the opening chapter of My Left Foot by Christy Brown, to see if it would be suitable as a first book to share. Everyone loved it. There is never any shortage of discussion with this group, but on this occasion the level of engagement was amazing. We’re all waiting with bated breath for the books to arrive. I know we will get lots of pleasure and interest, and indeed quite a lot of sorrow from the book. I hope to arrange a showing of the film for when we get to the end.

I feel very privileged to work with this group. The members are truly inspiring. Some of them say they love the group because it keeps them learning. It keeps me learning too, all the time. I have learnt to break up texts more often than I have in the past, because memory and comprehension levels are big issues in a group where everyone is very old. I have learnt more about ways to help generate understanding. And I have learnt a lot about some remarkable people.

Anne has given permission for her name to be used in this Reader Story

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