In the second of two guest posts about innovative reading groups for children, Kingston University MA Publishing graduate Hattie Gordon shares her experience of Reading Force.
My earlier blog post talked about how shared reading experiences transform children’s perception of and relationship with books. The other side to the shared reading golden coin is that family relationships and bonds are usually enriched and strengthened by the process. Kingston University’s MA Publishing Course Leader Dr Alison Baverstock had improved literacy/perception of books and improved relationships and communication in mind when she set up Reading Force in 2011. A shared reading scheme for Services (Army, Navy, Airforce) children and their families, Reading Force was designed to ameliorate some of the stresses inherent in Services family life. Over 120 schools with Services children registered to take part in the scheme, alongside military welfare services.
If a parent is away from home on deployment or training, they take the book with them and read it too
Participating families form a book group amongst themselves, choose a single book and all agree to read it. If there are young children in the family a picture book is chosen, if there are teenagers a young adult novel, and so on. Crucially – and uniquely for a reading scheme – if a parent is away from home on deployment or training, they take the book with them and read it too. After all, people do not need to be in the same place to share the same story.
The shared book provides common ground for communication between family members, whether at home or posted away. If family members are separated, the title can be read over the phone or Skype, or discussed in emails, ‘e-blueys’ and letters. In Reading Force, as much emphasis is placed on talking and communicating about the book as on the actual reading of it; families are given specially designed scrapbooks to fill with their thoughts about the story, and what it felt like to share the reading experience with others. All forms of communication can be included in this scrapbook – emails, letters, and drawings and photographs – and completed versions can be entered into the Reading Force Scrapbook Competition. They are, of course, later returned to be kept by families as a memento of the shared reading experience.
“If Reading Force hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have read together. We’d be reading, but separately.”
Families’ responses to the project have been insightful. One father in the Navy said his evening chats on the phone to his daughter were transformed. ‘I used to get the yes, no, yes, no, nothing response, but this gave us something to talk about. If Reading Force hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have read together. We’d be reading, but separately.’ In other families, children of reading ages turned the tables and read to their absent parent over Skype. Several families who were not separated by postings stressed that it made them turn the television off and do something together as a family, ‘We enjoyed reading a book together because we had never done it before.’ Feedback revealed that many different ways of reading were adopted. In some cases family members took turns to read to one another each evening, in others older siblings read to younger siblings. Some read alone, coming together to talk about the book.
The driving philosophy of Reading Force is to support relationships and encourage dialogue, via books, during the stressful periods that are inherent in the lives of Service families: deployments, disruptions to education, adjusting to the absence of a parent (and then readjusting when they return home) and settling into new communities. Initial evaluation shows these aims have been positively impacted, but it is also interesting to note the varied patterns of reading adopted and what participants got out of the scheme. For both Young City Reads and Reading Force a book is the focal point of a hive of activity – reading, talking, sharing, and knowing others are doing the same thing (either in a city or in a family) – which seeds or compounds a pleasure in books and stories. The book is the key to a spirited process that perhaps becomes greater than the book itself.
Hattie Gordon is the Projects and Schools Liaison Manager for Reading Force. She completed the Kingston University MA Publishing in 2010, developing an award-winning dissertation, ‘Why do boys read less than girls? A study of male reading behaviour’.