Jane Davis is changing the way people relate to literature, to each other and to themselves through a shared reading model called Get Into Reading, which brings small groups together on a weekly basis to read books and poems aloud. Run in care homes, libraries, hostels, mental health centers, schools, and prisons Get Into Reading brings literature to where people are. At the core of Jane’s approach is the insight that reading can be used as a therapeutic tool to help people articulate their thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. Through the Get Into Reading model, Jane is redefining the value of literature and the role that reading aloud can play in improving mental health, community, and wellbeing.
The New Idea
Jane founded The Reader Organization in 2008 to transform how, why and where people access literature. She believes that books are an untapped resource, which can help us to better understand ourselves and those around us. Through the Get Into Reading program, Jane has pioneered a new use of shared reading, where small groups come together to read books and poems aloud. Each shared reading group is led by a trained facilitator who chooses literature to read according to the group’s interests and ability level. The facilitator then reads the text aloud leaving participants to choose when and whether to speak, and whether to join in reading. At any time during the session members are encouraged to break away from the text to share their personal insights and reflections.
The shared reading model that Jane has championed is fundamentally different from other reading groups in a number of ways. Firstly, the focus of Get Into Reading groups is on discovering a connection with good literature. Whether this may be a Shakespeare play or a modern Salman Rushdie novel, Get Into Reading groups read books that comment on human nature. Jane believes that the content of these texts gives people access to an emotional language they may never have had, which in turn helps people to articulate their own thoughts and feelings. Secondly, the process of reading aloud empowers people to share insights and emotions, which are triggered by the text, allowing an individual to have personal thoughts in public, but behind the protective screen of the book or poem. As texts are read aloud instead of individually, those who are illiterate, who struggle to concentrate or have poor eyesight, can still take part in shared reading groups.
Jane believes that reading aloud, regularly, in small groups offers a new way of bringing people together. The fact that each group meets on a weekly basis enables strong social ties to form between individuals, who would not ordinarily share their life experiences with one another. The book or poem therefore acts as an equalizer, providing the group with a focus, which paves the way for conversation. What’s more the process of relating to the text makes it easier for group members to empathize with one another as they share their own personal stories and emotional responses. In this sense, Jane is repositioning reading, moving it away from an individual activity to a group activity, which can bring people from all walks of life together to build strong mutually supportive communities. Her vision is for shared reading groups to become a common tool in any setting, from psychiatric wards to school classrooms to working environments. With 350 Get Into Reading groups already meeting weekly in the UK, Jane is succeeding in creating a culture of shared reading across social and cultural boundaries.
Modern society is on a track of individualization and increased loneliness. Shifts in employment practice, a rising divorce rate, urbanization, and an ageing population are increasing the potential for loneliness and social isolation. Most social ties fail to cut across class, age and race categories. Secular society has failed to replace the role that religion once played in countering individualization: building empathy, shared meaning, and social ties within a community.
Social cohesion is not just a value, but a public health concern. With the stresses of modern life, it is easy to feel disconnected from our own emotions and from each other, making us more vulnerable to mental illness. We lack structures that enable people to hold deep discussions and surface personal experiences of stress, anxiety, or trauma. Inability to articulate these problems and realize that they are all part of the normal lived experience contributes to lowered mental health in our communities. Anxiety, depression, and loneliness are on a trajectory of growth and one in every four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem within one year, according to leading mental health charity SANE.
Mainstream mental health services focus on treatment as opposed to prevention. Not only is this extremely costly with the NHS spending £270 million (US$337M) last year alone on anti-depressants, but it also fails to address the root cause of the problem. Alternative measures such as therapy or self-help groups are often prohibitively expensive, with long waiting lists for free treatment. Many people will not even go to a counseling session or self-help group due to the social stigma attached to having a mental illness. Society’s current failure to create a structure for people to share emotions and develop empathy has widespread effects, influencing individuals and their mental wellbeing, but also influencing societal outcomes on a larger scale from business ethics to public policy decisions.
Literature has the unique ability to convey complex ideas and emotions through the use of storytelling and characters, yet it is a largely untapped resource. It has not traditionally been perceived as a therapeutic tool. When mass printing was invented, reading literature was a shared experience and authors like George Eliot were as famous as David Beckham is today. But now, the academic way literature is taught in schools alienates many young people and social groups. For the majority of people that do read they tend to do so individually, which does not have the same social or therapeutic benefits as reading with others.
Jane’s ultimate aim is to bring about a reading revolution in the UK, making shared reading groups a new norm in communities across the country. To fulfill this ambition she has developed a threefold approach, which centers on scaling the number of shared reading groups The Reader Organization deliver directly, increasing the number of people they train to run groups themselves and embedding the model into key institutions such as care homes and NHS trusts.
The first part of Jane’s strategy focuses on growing the number of shared reading groups that The Reader Organization is funded to deliver. Typically groups are either sponsored by philanthropic foundations or commissioned by local councils, NHS trusts, private healthcare providers, or prisons. To date the groups have focused on five key areas: mental health and wellbeing; criminal justice; local communities; young people and the elderly. However Jane’s vision is to make it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to take part in shared reading sessions. In the space of just five years Jane has succeeded in spreading the Get Into Reading model across the country, with groups taking place now every week in Durham, Merseyside, London, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Scotland, and Belfast. Part of the reason for the organization’s rapid growth is a result of their scaling strategy, which empowers local entrepreneurs who are passionate about the model to lead its expansion into new regions. Jane works closely with each local entrepreneur once they have demonstrated their commitment to the model by running their own reading group and creating a strategic regional plan. She then recruits the most successful local entrepreneurs as staff members. In this way shared reading groups have grown organically, where interest is greatest.
However, Jane knows that she will never be able to bring about a reading revolution through her organization alone. The second part of Jane’s strategy therefore focuses on developing the necessary tools and training to let others run shared reading groups themselves. As a result, Jane has developed a three day “Read to Lead” course that trains volunteers in how to run their own reading groups. The course is open to anyone who is passionate about literature and is designed to be experiential so that members see the benefits of shared reading first hand. Participants are charged market rates to attend the course and for those who cannot afford to pay a limited number of bursaries are offered. The Read to Lead course therefore provides a sustainable income stream for the organization while it empowers any individual with the skills and understanding to set up their own reading group. After the initial training, participants’ receive continued support from the Reader Organization through an online forum, where facilitators can share their experiences of running shared reading groups with one another. To date more than 600 people have been trained to run shared reading sessions independently, from probation officers and nurses to psychiatrists, teachers, and librarians. Through the Read to Lead program Jane is creating a movement of changemakers; training facilitators from a diverse range of backgrounds to set up shared reading groups in their own communities and places of work.
For shared reading groups to become a recognized preventative approach to improving mental wellbeing it will be important for Jane to be able to concretely demonstrate their impact. To date a number of papers have been written about the therapeutic benefits of the Get Into Reading model in relation to both depression and dementia. Yet Jane wants to make a tight medical-economic case, which will enable mainstream health services to commission shared reading groups as an alternative to anti-depressants. As a result, The Reader Organization is currently running a pilot scheme with six GP practices across Liverpool to provide shared reading groups on prescription. This observational study enables patients with mild to moderate mental health problems to attend a weekly shared reading group as an alternative to, or alongside drug treatment. Beyond proving the model’s effect on health and wellbeing, Jane is also keen to establish the socioeconomic case behind shared reading groups. Preliminary data shows that shared reading groups improve: individual mood by 81 percent, concentration levels by 77 percent, recollection by 66 percent and level of social interaction by 84 percent. In order to further strengthen the research being carried out into the Get Into Reading model and externally validate their impact, Jane has partnered with Liverpool University to set up the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems.
The final part of Jane’s strategy focuses on embedding the practice of shared reading into key institutions such as care homes, schools, universities, mental health trusts, and prisons. The Reader Organization works with these organizations to deliver training for their staff on how to run shared reading groups. Each training course is specifically tailored to focus on the particular needs of the organization and the sector they work in, whether that may be mental health, young people, elderly care and dementia, criminal justice, or the corporate sector. Working at an organizational level to create a culture of shared reading means that Jane is able to scale her model far more rapidly. For example The Reader Organization has recently been commissioned by a major healthcare provider to train care home staff in a number of locations across the country.
Beyond running bespoke trainings, Jane has also developed a Reader in Residence program to fully embed the practice of shared reading within key organizations. During each placement, the Reader in Residence designs a Get Into Reading activity, as well as providing in-house training for staff. For example, Mersey Care NHS Trust commissioned a Reader in Residence in 2007 to run shared reading groups in their in-patient mental health wards. Since then, shared reading groups have spread across their services to out-patient settings, day services and even to their high-secure hospitals reaching patients with dementia, mental disability and alcohol problems. Currently there are 34 groups active in any particular week--run by staff that have been trained in-house by the Reader in Residence.
While Jane’s primary focus is to create a reading revolution in the UK, she believes that the Get Into Reading model could be replicated on an international level. Indeed the Reader Organization has already been commissioned to carry out trainings in Denmark, Australia, and Belgium. Jane’s strategy for international expansion is to work with local entrepreneurs who participate in the training and are keen to replicate the model in their own countries, including raising their own funding.
Jane grew up in a challenging setting as the eldest of four children in Merseyside, Northwest England in the 1960s. She ran away from home at the age of 12, after trying to cope with her single mother’s battle with alcoholism. By the age of 18, she had a daughter of her own and joined a women’s housing cooperative as part of the Female Liberation movement of the mid-1970s. Jane launched a number of entrepreneurial initiatives, including a women’s paper. Ultimately literature helped her achieve autonomy from the constraints of this highly politicized setting.
Throughout her life, Jane turned to reading literature to find insight, stability, and strength. After leaving school with only 2 GCSE’s, she eventually decided to go back to college reading English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Whilst studying as an undergraduate she felt bitterly frustrated by the way that literature was taught and analyzed academically. To her, it seemed that the real value of reading was lost in literary critique and theory. As a PhD student Jane developed evening classes to offer a new way to get adults to engage with literature. As opposed to other literary classes, Jane encouraged her students to read personally without critically interpreting the text. She was surprised by the emotional response this generated, with class members sharing their life stories and experiences with one another.
After seeing the impact that holding open conversations about texts could have, Jane decided to set up a literary magazine, The Reader in 1997, to promote the idea of shared reading. She convinced high profile authors and members of the public to contribute to the magazine free of charge, writing pieces that explored their personal relationship with good books—content that differed greatly from the normal literary critique that competing magazines published. Over time she built up a consistent membership group of 700 people that subscribed to the magazine, and made the publication available in community centers and libraries. The Reader is still in print today, some 15 years later. However Jane felt that the magazine never achieved what she originally intended—to demonstrate that shared reading could have a profound effect on changing people’s lives.
Jane therefore decided to hand over editorship of the magazine and focus on taking her shared reading classes out of university buildings to where people are. In 2002 she launched two weekly groups in a poor neighborhood of Wirral, asking people to nominate participants who did not usually read. In the first week alone, group members had very strong personal reactions to the text and fellow participants stepped in to comfort one another. Jane resolved to bring this tool of reading aloud together to as many settings and people as possible, and started working full-time building what is now The Reader Organization.