More famous than The Beatles?

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The city of Liverpool is renowned worldwide for its soccer team, Liverpool FC, the ferry across the Mersey and The Beatles. A project launched in 2014 sets out to make Liverpool famous for something else entirely. Liverpool: a city of readers aims to transform Liverpool into the UK’s foremost reading city.

I chatted about Liverpool: a city of readers with Councillor Lana Orr, Liverpool City Council, and shared reading legend Jane Davis, Director of the Reader Organisation. Later in the morning, Jane took me on a guided tour of the Reader Organisation’s headquarters in Calderstone’s Park, Liverpool.

Liverpool: a city of readers

The program aims to inspire the current generation of children to have a lifelong love of reading. It is a partnership between Liverpool City Council, The Reader Organisation and Liverpool Learning – an organisation representing the schools in Liverpool. Mayor Joe Anderson set up an education commission to look at education standards in Liverpool. He was looking for a new, creative approach. One of the main things the commission emphasised was that children who read for pleasure are much more likely to have success in later life.

The Mayor’s endorsement means that Liverpool: a city of readers is high on the city’s political agenda. The project works well because of the three key partners. Lana’s role is key critical. She brings the partners together and keeps their eyes on the common goal of fostering a love of reading in the city’s children.

When the project was first proposed, there was talk of having a Year of Reading for Liverpool. Jane strongly advised against this. She believes that if you have one year of reading, when it’s over politicians move on to the next thing. Encouraging a love of books should happen every year. Evaluation of each stage of the program is ongoing.

Jane also believes that encouraging reading should be city-wide and, rather than being a separate program, it should be integrated into other cultural events and social services. At each step of the program, children and parents are encouraged to join their local library.

Some key successes so far

1. A ‘Readerthon’ kick-started the project. People sent in videos of themselves reading aloud their favourite book extract or poem. These were upload to the Liverpool: a city of readers YouTube channel.

2. Give us 5 for reading. Participants are encouraged to contribute in fives: read aloud for 5 minutes every day; donate £5; record yourself reading aloud for 5 minutes; donate 5 books.

3. The Liverpool schools Love to read project involved schools from all over the city. Mosspits School created cosy reading spots in their building and playground; St Gregory’s Primary now have a special ‘Read all about it’ newsletter, detailing the school’s fun reading activities across each term.

4. Family support services work with volunteers who go into homes to read aloud to children. The volunteer leaves a rucksack of books in the home and encourages all members of the family to read the books and act as ‘reading role models’ for the children.

5. As part of the Giant Spectacular festival last year, giant puppets were put to bed in a park. The giants had a bedtime storytime and free copies of the BFG by Roald Dahl were handed out to families.

The Reader Organisation

Jane Davis took me on a special tour of The Reader Organisation’s new home in Calderstone’s Mansion, a former stately home. The property consists of a beautiful park, stables (currently the admin offices) and a cafe. The shared reading groups are held in the mansion house. A ‘Story Barn’ will open later in the British summer, a new home for children’s activities based on books and reading.

Jane is the founder of The Reader Organisation. Its main role is to run the ‘Read to Lead’ program that trains shared reading facilitators. Jane pioneered the practice of shared reading in the late 90s. It involves people coming together for weekly sessions to listen to literary stories and poems read aloud by a facilitator. The philosophy is that anyone can relate to literature in a shared reading context.

I spoke to Chris and Megg who run the volunteer program, a three-year Big Lottery funded project. Volunteers are closely mentored through the ‘Read to Lead’ training and then they run shared reading programs, either in elderly care homes or in housebound people’s homes.

The Reader Organisation currently has 120 volunteers. It runs four volunteer training programs a year, training 12 people at a time. Megg told me that the volunteer program’s benefits are two-fold: the people in carehomes experience the benefits of bibliotherapy and the volunteers – often vulnerable adults themselves – grow in confidence and self-esteem.

As I was about to leave Calderstone’s, a shared reading group was wrapping up. Beth, the group facilitator, said that members of the group usually continue chatting about their book in the cafe long after the session has concluded. Beth works in communications for The Reader Organisation but every Monday morning she facilitates an open shared reading group for anyone in the community who wants to drop in.

Beth told me, with great enthusiasm, ‘It’s the perfect start to my week.’

Can you think of possibilities to collaborate with Melbourne in the future?

1. Video link ups, connecting shared reading groups in Melbourne and Liverpool
2. Liverpool has already worked closely with the train network and the ferries. They have given away free quick reads for commuters. A reading program to link Liverpool’s and Melbourne’s commuters could work very well.
3. Liverpool has a significant Somali migrant population. We could link up Somali families in Melbourne with those in Liverpool, via shared reading.
4. This would require considerable funding:
In 2010, in collaboration with the State Library of Victoria, The Reader Organisation ran a Read to Lead program for a select few Victorian library staff. The Reader Organisation now have highly-developed train-the-trainer and volunteer programs. If they were to come to Melbourne again, they could run these sessions for Victorians.

Name five Liverpool books you would recommend to Melbourne readers

The ragged trousered philanthropists Robert Tressell
The unforgotten coat Frank Cotterell Boyce (for children)
Redburn Herman Melville
Tuppence to cross the Mersey Helen Forrester
The Beatles lyrics: the songs of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr