Reading Revolution is a shared reading out loud programme that is taking place across Aotearoa in a wide range of venues – from libraries to retirement villages, the Auckland City Mission and U3A (University of the Third Age).

Reading Revolution was started in Aotearoa in 2015 by former librarian Kate Middleton. In 2013, Kate listened to a Radio NZ programme with Age Concern that talked about social isolation and loneliness among our older population and the impacts of that loneliness. As a librarian, Kate knew that our libraries were places that older people were already frequenting and felt comfortable in, and she started to think about how we could use free community spaces like libraries to socially connect isolated older people living alone in our communities. Subsequently, as part of her master’s thesis, Kate discovered the work of The Reader Organisation (TRO) in Liverpool and, following a significant life event, Kate’s whānau encouraged and supported her to attend TRO training in the UK. Once there, Kate quickly realised that TRO was bigger than just addressing older people’s loneliness and isolation as group members told her that shared reading also helped them with chronic pain, mental health issues, depression, dementia and addictions. Kate brought the concept back to Aotearoa and then set about translating the concept into a local setting.

There are now 20 Reading Revolution groups across Auckland and many other groups in different parts of the country. Each group has about 12 people and a trained facilitator or leader.

Kate says the groups need to be small to allow accessibility and to accommodate personalities. “Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of a larger group. The leaders select and bring the reading books to each session and then start the reading out loud process, followed by questions for the group to start the discussion. After that, participation is voluntary and some people do just come to listen.

“We make an offering and then participants choose how to pick that up. For some, the experience of being read to is quite comforting and for others it’s a reintroduction to literature and learning.”

Kate says that reading out loud is a quite different experience to reading by yourself. “Reading out loud makes you slow down and process the words as you go along. It’s almost like playing a completely different sport and most people find it fun to experience something they love in a different way – it becomes a social experience.”

Training to be a leader takes place over three weeks with leaders undertaking online modular training.

The group’s ultimate goal is that members are better able to support themselves and others, and as a result we have stronger communities. Jodie Williams works in the Community and Heritage team at Nelson Public Libraries and is a trained leader with Reading Revolution.

Nelson Public Libraries were already running a dementia-friendly shared reading group when Jodie heard about Reading Revolution.

“I was very interested in the concept of shared reading, and I went along to the dementia group session at the library where I soon realised I needed training in how to facilitate a session.”

She completed the four-day training course in Hokitika. “The specialised training has enabled me to listen more closely to others and to encourage participants in their journey. With Reading Revolution, you both read and engage at a slower pace and that’s a skill that you need to learn. The slowness is what allows time for your thoughts. The training also emphasised that everyone’s contribution in the group is unique.”

Reading’s role in promoting mental health and wellbeing has been well documented in recent years, with research showing that reading provides a unique and powerful form of relaxation, and this healing property has been known for thousands of years – with the inscription above the library door in the ancient city of Thebes saying, “Libraries: The medicine chest of the soul”.

“One of the issues we face as a society is that the very people who would most benefit from all the good things that come from reading for pleasure, those who are struggling with their mental health, who may really feel alone, are known to not read as much. There are barriers to them accessing reading,” Jodie says.

“In a shared reading group we are, metaphorically, holding hands, with the hand reaching out to us from the book. We’re not just shaking hands, having a superficial chat, we’re properly holding hands – feeling emotions we may not have had for years, empathising with how a character in the book feels, and learning who the other people in the group are.”

She says shared reading adds a richness to what we are reading and builds a sense of trust and intimacy. “A connection is formed between participants that is quite different and can feel quite deep.”

Jodie currently runs two groups in Nelson. “One of the groups I run is a dementia-friendly group and we have a number of residents from the retirement village who attend. I have had it reported back that following a session there is a lot less agitation and more engagement among the group and a general sense of calm.”

Future plans for Jodie include a one-on-one shared reading service, inspired by the Scottish Book Trust.

“Shared reading has been quite transformational for me,” Jodie says. “It has changed my reading habits. I sink more into the books I am reading and the language. I think it has softened me as I realise the ‘gold’ that every individual brings to the session. It’s really enjoyable and there’s a unique sense of uplift from working together and creating meaning.”

If you’re interested in the concept of shared reading and want to know more, Kate Middleton will be at the ACE Aotearoa Conference in June 2024. Another great reason to make sure you attend.