Shared Reading is a unique experience where a short story, poem, or novel extract is read aloud within the social atmosphere of a group. Then, people are invited to share their thoughts and feelings on the text.
Shared reading exposes us to great and varied literature and allows us to discover more about ourselves and others.
The history of Shared Reading
Jane Davis MBE left school at 16 with two GCSEs.
As a single mother, she returned to studying and earned a first-class degree and a PhD from the School of English at the University of Liverpool.
Jane worked as an English teacher at the university for 15 years and, in her Continuing Education classes, she realised the benefits that reading together brought.
Jane went on to develop the model for what was to become Shared Reading. In 1997 she launched The Reader magazine, in order to get her ideas about using literature for personal reflection to a wider audience.
The first Shared Reading group met in 2002 in Birkenhead.
In January 2008 Blake Morrison wrote about The Reader in The Guardian.
His feature generated widespread interest in Shared Reading and prompted The Reader to develop its training course, Read to Lead, for Shared Reading Group leaders.
Later that year, The Reader became an independent charity.
What's the difference between a book club and Shared Reading?
A traditional book club meets once a month to discuss a novel that members have read at home, alone during the intervening weeks.
The discussion generally focuses on the literary merit of the book and whether or not it was a ‘good read’.
Joining a book club is a great way to meet like-minded individuals and swap book talk.
Shared Reading is different because it digs deeper into the text and requires no reading alone at home; all the reading is done aloud in the group.
The group discussion will be less about literary merit and more about how the story or poem makes us feel, perhaps in relation to the characters or the setting of the piece.
What are the benefits of Shared Reading?
Everyone can benefit from Shared Reading. It makes us feel more connected to others.
The group experience of reading improves our wellbeing and gives us a sense of purpose.
And the exposure to lots of different texts often renews our interest in reading or enables us to read with a different eye.
Peter was enthused by being a member of a group at his local library, “I tend to read non-fiction, but this was something new and I could feel myself getting excited.”
As well as the popular groups in libraries and other community settings, Shared Reading is found to be beneficial in other environments too.
There are several groups within the criminal justice setting, such as prisons.
These participants find Shared Reading helps them think differently about things and also improves their ability to empathise with other people.
Tassie was part of a group that took place over National Prison Radio and she said, “We all connected with each other, we were helping each other work things out in the texts and it felt like we were kind of helping each other through life as well.”
Shared Reading can be used to help stimulate memories for those living with dementia and research has also shown that it can improve the emotional wellbeing of people with depression.
What happens in a Shared Reading session?
Shared Reading sessions are free, open to all and often include a cup of tea and a biscuit.
The trained Reader Leader will choose the texts in advance and distribute them to participants on arrival.
Each session will generally incorporate a short story or a novel extract plus a poem.
Some groups with longstanding regular members may choose to read a novel together; this can take several months, given that all the reading is done aloud and only within the group sessions!
The Reader Leader will start the session by reading aloud the first section of the text.
He or she will then pause and prompt discussion on what has been read.
Then members of the group will be given the opportunity to read the next sections of the text, with the Leader telling them how far to read until the next discussion point has been reached.
Reading aloud and taking part in the discussion are both optional.
There’s no pressure to take an active role in the session and no one is picked on to speak.
However, group members who are initially reluctant to speak or to read, often find that their general life confidence improves when they do find their voice within the group.
Shared Reading is not intimidating. It is not an English Literature lesson. A qualification in English Literature is not necessary to become a Reader Leader.
I am a Reader Leader and my formal education in English Literature ended with a ‘B’ at O’ level in 1979.
There are no right or wrong answers in a Shared Reading discussion; we help each other to make sense of any difficult parts of the text and everyone’s opinion is listened to and is valid.
One Shared Reading volunteer describes it like this, “Shared Reading is not a therapy but you’re going with a purpose, it’s beyond reading.
People are bringing their life experiences and the literature – it’s like a prism.
You’re looking through it and you just see yourself at first and then you realise that there are loads of other people and they’ve got all different reasons for going and enjoying it…”
How to get involved
If you’d like to try Shared Reading, The Reader website has a page listing groups who are now meeting in ‘real life’ and able to take new members.
During the pandemic, several groups moved to Zoom and some of these can be booked via The Reading Room.
It’s also worth exploring the rest of The Reader’s website for resources and to find out how to volunteer with The Reader charity or to buy The Reader magazine.