Over the last 5 years Sheffield’s in-patient wards have become places of literature and books for at least one hour every week. In 2011 The Reader delivered a training session to 8 staff and volunteers some of whom were service users to equip us to run reading groups. The training was funded by the Trust charity. Three groups were set up on the acute mental health wards.
In 2014 a Reader in Residence was appointed on a short term contract to set up and develop five more reading groups and to also deliver training to twelve staff and volunteers to ensure the sustainability of the project.
Shaun Lawrence, who was recruited as the Reader in Residence at Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Trust has now established reading groups on four more wards and in one community setting. There are now reading groups on acute wards, older adult ward, psychiatric intensive care unit, a dementia ward, a forensic unit and a group in the community. Shaun also trained more volunteers and staff to ensure the sustainability of the project. There are now over 20 trained readers delivering groups in 8 settings.
I am a Service Director in the Trust and at 5pm every Tuesday I shut my office door and head over to Forest Lodge, a low secure forensic unit for 22 men and I’m armed with a short story or extract from a book and a couple of poems. Tuesday evenings have become a highlight of my week. Each week I join a member of staff from Forest Lodge to jointly run the group.
The group will have anything from 1 to 5 service users taking part. The format is for a short story to be read in two parts with it broken up to allow discussion. This is followed up by a one or two poems that are also read aloud and discussed.
In a recent group we read an extract from Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee. The story is set in a rural Cotswold village at the end of the First World War. The setting of the story is quite a contrast from a Forensic Unit in a Yorkshire city. The three participants in the group included a man from an Islamic tradition, a working class white man and mixed heritage young man from the inner city. Maybe Cider With Rosie wasn’t an obvious choice to read but it worked. Whatever story we read always seems to work.
The discussion between us all was lively and thoughtful. We discussed childhood memories, fishing on the rivers and ponds of Sheffield and friendships. When I was reading each of us had our own photocopy of the text and we all followed the words being read. One of the characteristics of the reader groups is the way everybody just enjoys listening.
Sometimes staff on the wards comment that it is the first time a service user has been able to just sit and concentrate for an hour. There is something really nourishing about being read to that seems to be able to bring a small group of people together. In the groups in Sheffield we normally have two trained readers which allows all of us to have that shared reading experience.
But why is this a useful pursuit?
Firstly, I think it is worthwhile as service users often report being bored when on a hospital ward. So the reading group provides an opportunity to take part in an activity. It has a value as a creative and pleasant activity is demonstrated by the returnees each week and the feedback after each group.
There has been some research from the Reader Organisation that demonstrated that shared reading groups tackle loneliness, isolation and inactivity. There is evidence it increases self confidence of participants. Research indicated that 74% of service users said shared reading had improved mood. 81% said they found it easier to relax and 70% said the groups helped them to understand people better. http://www.thereader.org.uk/media/63887/final_gir_sroi.pdf
There has also been evaluations of reading groups in criminal justice settings that indicate 69% feel more confident about resettling in the community and 89% feel they have opportunity to express themselves with confidence in a group after participating in shared reading. http://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do-and-why/criminal-justice.aspx
Shared reading in Sheffield is now firmly established but we want it to spread further. We have set up a Steering Group where the volunteers meet every couple of months to offer mutual support and discuss ideas. The Reader is working with Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust to explore ways to expand the project in the future.