Reading Rooms is a low threshold in terms of access, high impact reading programme that was established by the Verbal Arts Centre, based in Derry/Londonderry in 2013. Its initiation started as part of the City of Culture, the UK’s first, where it engaged over 10,000 people in a general programme to get people reading for pleasure. The initial programme showed that Reading Rooms “provide a positive intervention through the literary arts to aid people’s health and well-being”.
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Reading Rooms uses a reading aloud and shared setting to encourage participants to share ideas, thoughts and feelings. It allows individuals to share experiences from their past, sparking memories, stimulating new thoughts and provoking conversations related to the short stories and poems being used by Verbal Staff and the facilitators who are all trained volunteers.
The programme’s core objective is to reach out, support and re-engage those who find themselves at margins due to deprivation, discrimination and other circumstances. Those at the margins are reached through four thematic strands; older people, dementia/disability and mental health groups, children and youth at risk and in care and finally through the criminal justice system.
Opportunities for older people to read for pleasure are usually limited due to health problems such as reduced cognitive function or visual impairment. Reading Rooms actively engages older participants both in the enjoyment of the short stories and poems as well as in the conversations that open up as part of the process. We use the Reading Rooms model to create a relationship centred approach that recognises the importance of maintaining personhood, relationships and connections to the community despite problems associated with older age.
Many older people, for example on diagnosis with dementia or recovering from a stroke, find that other people view and interact with them differently. Often family dynamics change. Families and carers become more protective, advocating for the person affected, and this in turn impacts on their autotomy and results on the erosion of personal identity. Through communication the Reading Rooms can support older people to retain their sense of personhood which helps sustain their relationships allowing them to retain a stronger sense of well-being.
Reading Rooms gives a voice to those where opportunities for conversation has been greatly reduced. For example, older people due to mobility issues may find their world becomes very limited and thus they have less to talk about. This can exacerbate the feelings of isolation and loneliness. The Reading Rooms also reaches older people who may be isolated due to living rurally in our custom made mobile bus which travels across Northern Ireland delivering Reading Rooms in remote rural areas.
The Reading Rooms offer our participants the opportunity to read high quality literature which is carefully selected by our Literary Guide. Part of the process of selection is based on feedback that the volunteers give following each session which helps us compile the literary materials accordingly. The selections include classics as well as contemporary literature, folktales and fairy stories, international and translated works as well as work by local authors.
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The volunteers who deliver on the programme undergo free training with our bespoke Open College Network accredited course in Facilitation Skills for Shared Reading Level 2. The volunteers undergo shared reading practice as part of the course and shadow experienced volunteers and staff and are mentored before being given their own group. They are further supported with additional training according to the needs of the programme as well as monthly meetings and support and review sessions. But it’s not all work as they enjoy invitations to bi-annual celebrations and other special events too.
The Reading Rooms programme operates across Northern Ireland engaging with older people and from 26 September we are celebrating Positive Ageing Week ending on with 1st October which marks International Older People’s Day. Reading Rooms will be held in community centres, day care centres and residential care homes in Derry/Londonderry, Belfast and Mid Ulster.
From 06 October we will then enter into Positive Ageing Month in Belfast where we will host four special older people events in partnership with Eason’s Bookshop. These are mainly open events for older people not attached to any group or centre.
To find more information on the Reading Rooms or to follow us please link into:
Sinead Devine career has been based in developing community arts, arts education and training for over twenty five years. She began her career in the Orchard Gallery in 1990, where she ran the Education programme for the TSWA 4 Cities Project. Since then she has established and developed award winning programmes supporting marginalised groups as well as coordinating international exchange projects.
Sinead joined the Verbal’s Reading Rooms programme in 2014 and has developed a bespoke training programme for volunteers. She oversees Reading Rooms for older people.
 “Personhood is the standing or status bestowed on one human being, by others, in the connect of human relationships and social being” (Kitwood,1997).