Reading In Practice – Extending students reading and learning through community engagement
Project completed: August 2010.
This project aimed to help students get more involved in reading by encouraging them to take their skills and enthusiasm out to the wider community. (The Reader Outreach Unit, in association with which the project was run, delivers over 40 weekly literature-based reading groups to communities ranging from young people excluded from school to asylum seekers to people with dementia. 14 student volunteers were placed as reading-group assistants in contexts as diverse as: a dementia care home: hospital ward for the elderly; drug rehabilitation unit; mental health day centre; YMCA; psychiatric day centre; GP surgery; neurological rehabilitation unit; local school; community centre. Students generated reading materials for presentation to their peer-group (in training) and for their reader-group (on placement), which contributed to themed reading packs for use by future facilitators and to a database of texts (managed by one of the student recruits). The students also kept reflective journals throughout their training and placement and worked on an article about their experience for The Reader magazine. The project was showcased at the English Subject Centre event English in the Community (December 2009) which was co-organised by the project co-ordinator.
The project benefited the English literature community in providing a model for engaging students in the reality of literature (encouraging wider reading) and alerting them to its potential value in the wider world. ‘It makes poetry seem more valuable’ said one volunteer. Another said ‘I’m really enjoying it, and it’s actually teaching me about poetry. In tutorials, people try and get in their technical terms to look clever, but at the group, people actually talk about how the poem makes them feel’.
Involvement in the reading groups helped students both to be better integrated into the wider community and to interact more with students from other disciplines, cultures and other countries. Having to deliver reading groups to different and challenging audiences outside their own discipline and social and ethnic group improved the students’ subject knowledge and brought them a greater sense and understanding of the diverse culture environment of their local community, broadening their network of friends and colleagues.
A key aim of the project was to help change the focus of engagement with texts as a merely academic exercise which is only connected to exam results, marks, and right answers, and help students realise the necessity for literature and its serious study in the larger world. One student designed a 3rd-year dissertation project around her reading-group experience, and evidence from students’ journals/reports suggested that the benefits were academic and personal in equal measure:
‘I am now a bit clearer about what it is that literature does for us that is so important. I’ve always known but never really had to, or felt the need to express it in a clear way. Exam papers and essay questions are usually more particular and less philosophically orientated. But I see how in reading a story or a poem a voice speaks to us and it happens only in our own mind. So, even if we are surrounded by thousands of people reading the same book, or surrounded by people who are just milling about, the voice that speaks to us or the voice we relate to is for our ears only. We don’t have to worry about what other people think or say about what the voice means, what matters is that each of us has our own receptive inwardness, a relation that is subjective and unique to us. Because of this we can allow literature to say things to us that it would be too uncomfortable to hear from some-other outside of us. As a result literature has the capacity to make us think and feel in new ways, it can inspire us to dream, to see our selves and others differently, to act and live differently, to become more.’
‘I became involved with The Reader after receiving an e-mail from the English department asking if any students would be interested in becoming facilitators for reading groups in the community. After six weeks of training I was assigned to a Get Into Reading group based at the Lauries centre in Birkenhead where I acted mostly as an assistant but was also given the opportunity to lead a session. The group consisted largely of elderly people and people who suffered from mental and physical disabilities. The personal benefits gained from taking part in the ‘outreach project’ have been infinite. Not only have I extended my reading but I have also learnt to study, or rather respond to literature in a different way than I normally would inside the classroom. More generally, the project has given me the opportunity to develop my communication and organisational skills which I have quickly learnt are firmly placed on the top of an employer’s list of desirable attributes in employees. I have absolutely enjoyed this experience and am disappointed that my contribution to The Reader has come to an end. It was a joyous surprise to witness just how beneficial these reading groups are to people and how vital and important reading is to them. I regret that I was unable to volunteer in this way in my first and second year at university and would advise anybody to become involved.’
- Lists of poems and short stories suitable for use in academic and community reading groups, categorised by theme. These form part of a larger database kept by The Reader Organisation. Selected texts have been recently published in an anthology, A Little, Aloud
- A report of students’ learning based on their diaries.
- Publication of report on and from the project in The Reader magazine, issue 35 (Autumn 2009).
Prof P.M. Davis
School of English, University of Liverpool
Dr Josie Billington
School of English,
University of Liverpool L69 7ZR
- Dr Jane Davis, The Reader Organization (Outreach unit, School of English, University of Liverpool) and Get into Reading Project
- Lindsey Dyer, Director, Mersey Care NHS Trust
- Shyamal Mukherjee, Medical Director, Wirral PCT
- There were many other community project partners – Asylum Link, YMCA, The Ark Shelter, Women’s Aid, Carers, etc.