18 February 2019

Poetry By Heart

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Jon Cheetham, English teacher, describes his ITL research into the impact on wellbeing of reading poetry aloud

‘Our research began as a VSU project in September 2018. The service activity is called ‘Poetry by Heart’ and currently involves five students who visit care-homes for the elderly in Sevenoaks once a week to read poems and to talk to the residents.

There is a tremendous pleasure to reading aloud, for both the reader and for the listener; it creates real connections between people and literature. Based on the Dalai Lama’s wisdom that compassion is a vital life-skill which positively benefits those who practice it in the service of others, we want to explore whether engaging in this compassionate activity has improving effects on the students’ personal wellbeing.

In interviews and written reflections, the students have talked about how uplifted they feel after spending an hour engaging in reading and conversation with people with very different experiences of life from their own. The students also describe how exhausting and challenging it is to sustain a conversation with someone who has very limited powers of communication or seriously impaired recall. The students frequently find themselves in a situation where their patience, resourcefulness and their empathy are challenged. When the conversation runs dry, they look for another poem and read on.

The Shared Reading model, developed by The Reader Organisation, provides a really practical methodology for this kind of reading aloud and we will explore this in more detail in the coming weeks and months.  At the heart of their group based reading model, is a kind and supportive community of readers, which is what we hope to develop in Sevenoaks.

As well as running Shared Reading groups for the student volunteer readers from Sevenoaks School, we hope to recruit and to train more Leader Readers to run reading groups in libraries and in partner schools, so that we can carry out more meaningful research into the ways in which enjoying reading and literature can improve student wellbeing’.

Further reading 

Billington, J., Dowrick, C., Hamer, A., Robinson, J., and Williams, C. (2010) An investigation into the therapeutic benefits of reading in relation to depression and wellbeing. Liverpool Health Inequalities Research Institute. Available online

Centre for Research into Reading Information and Lingustic Systems (2012) A literature-based intervention for older people living with dementia. University of Liverpool. Available online

Davis, P., Magee, F., Koleva, K., Tangeras, T.M., Hill, E., Baker, H., Crane, L. (2017) What literature can do. The Readers Shared Reading Groups in Communities in South London. University of Liverpool / Guys and St Thomas Charity. Available online 

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