How Communities Can Encourage Reading

How Communities Can Encourage Reading

Encouraging children to read for pleasure is not just for schools or parents and carers. When the wider community becomes actively involved, the benefits can be immense. Lindsey Barley, a deputy head teacher in East Lothian and champion of three community reading projects, shares her experiences of bringing the community together to encourage reading.

It all began five years ago with Dunbar Reads Together, a project based around the largest primary school in Scotland. I approached organisations who work with children and families, asking for help in two specific areas. Firstly, for help as Reading Champions to support individual children within their organisation who might not have another adult to read with. This led to rugby coaches reading with individuals after training sessions, Rainbow leaders sharing books with some of their children and the swimming club supporting members of the swim team. Volunteers from churches, the library service and staff within school, including our janitor, ensured no school child lacked support and encouragement from another adult when it came to reading.

My second request was more ethereal – I needed help to create a reading culture in the town. None of us knew exactly what a reading culture would look like, but everyone was very enthusiastic. So began a wonderful and exciting journey. The Rotary Club donated a sofa which was placed on the High Street on Saturdays so people could sit and read. The swimming pool hosted underwater reading sessions! East Coast trains donated a prize for children who wrote poems about reading, displaying the winning entries on posters throughout their network. The Brownies and the Rainbows all worked for their Reading Badges.

As a key part of the project, children earned the right to wear a lanyard with a card detailing the book they were currently enjoying. All our supporters in the community wore a lanyard too, and these stimulated natural discussions about books and reading that became powerful tools. Children expect teachers and parents to “nag” them to read, but suddenly the cool sports coaches were wearing lanyards and discussing books. In the local pizza restaurant, chip shop and coffee shops, waiters were chatting to children, and others, about what they were reading. The children were amazed and began to think about reading as an enjoyable experience rather than as a necessary requirement. Adults commented that they were reading more as they discussed recommendations from friends’ lanyards.

Working with local book groups, I encouraged everyone in the town to read one of three titles over the year: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Billionaire Boy by David Walliams or The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. We purchased copies to leave at locations around town and the library experienced high demand. People were encouraged to comment on the books on social media.

We installed reading shelves at doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, cafés, the train station and the swimming pool, filled with donated books to read and pass on. 

In this way a reading culture was developed in Dunbar. More people were reading and more people were talking about books. There was measurable positive impact in school with the P7 reading attainment rising by 12.5% in that year. 

Repeating the project in Tranent with nine schools including the secondary school, the community again responded with enthusiasm and energy. As well as adapting many of the previous ideas, adults came into schools to facilitate lunchtime reading sessions and schools joined together to hear visiting authors. We also created a beautiful patchwork quilt to represent all the books read.

This year, Reading is Braw took place in Musselburgh, Wallyford and Whitecraig with over three thousand children. From pop-up libraries to “book bombing” sessions, a reading mile to a flash reading mob, the support was phenomenal.

Creating community-wide involvement in reading is not an easy task, but the impact can be huge, whether from full-scale projects like these or taking the first steps in motivating young people to read for pleasure.  Shared vision and enthusiasm for supporting our young people can and does change lives.

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