Reading Friends uncovers the power of inclusive reading at Portsmouth Libraries

Portsmouth Libraries have been hosting Reading Friends sessions in their branches since 2021. In the last year, they helped 1,492 people to connect with each other over 1,588 times in a variety of one to one and group Reading Friends sessions.

In 2023, Portsmouth Libraries were successful in their application to The Reading Agency to receive funding as part of an Ulverscroft Foundation funded project, allowing them to develop their current Reading Friends offer to people living with a vision impairment.

Services available for people who are blind and partially sighted

Portsmouth Libraries offer resources to people experiencing sight loss and deterioration including large print books, talking books and e-audio books, as well as a newsletter which is available in large print, email, audio and braille. They also offer a wide range of vision impairment services, including a telephone advice line, braille services (including a transcription service, Braille tuition, a Kurzweil text to Braille translator and a Braille printer), computer training alongside reading groups – including talks, demonstrations, signposting and discussion groups on books hosted on MP3s.

We spoke to Julie Duffy, Visual Impairment Officer and Claire Liddell, Service Development Manager, at Portsmouth Libraries to understand the difference attending one of these Reading Friends sessions can make. Their feedback has been summarised below.  

As part of her role, Julie Duffy offers braille translations to library members and visitors, manages the newsletter for people who are blind and partially sighted, supports with computer training and leads Reading Friends groups. The groups offer participants the chance to read and discuss books provided in CD or MP3 format.

Julie is also registered as blind, which she explains plays a large part in not only being able to empathise with people who are blind and partially sighted, but also in forming relationships built on trust with the people she works with. As part of Reading Friends, the group sessions offer a regular time and space for members to form connections with Julie and each other.

“People often say to me: ‘when I get depressed about my sight, I think about you. And then I think, you know, I can do it.’ And that’s very humbling.”

“I understand that loss of independence. For example, for people who drive, it’s a real issue. Then there’s reading books, that’s the other issue. I had one chap, who was seriously depressed, and I got him involved in the computer service. He had had poor sight all his life and he pretended that he hadn’t, which is a very common thing for people to do. When I taught him Braille and we read through a book, he said to me that’s the first time I’ve ever read a book in my life. He was 40 years old.”

Providing individualised social and emotional support

Julie explained that what people find most helpful can be social or emotional support, information on how to manage specific aspects of daily life, resources or signposting. The Reading Friends groups offer a space for staff and volunteers to get to know and learn about individual members, for members to form connections based on shared experiences and to feel supported with any barriers they might experience on a day-to-day basis.

“Sometimes people don’t know how to manage things, but when there’s other people there, they don’t feel so alone and they can chat about how other people manage things.”

Sight loss or degeneration can have a huge impact, and Portsmouth Libraries ensure that they are able to provide the appropriate level of support by embedding training in their service, supporting volunteers, providing emotional support and signposting to specialist services where relevant.

“We offer visual impairment training, so that staff are aware of how they’ve got to help people to get around.”

Both Julie Duffy and Clare Liddell pointed to the need for public libraries offering services to people who are blind and partially sighted to understand the needs of their audiences, the distress that some people may experience and how to support them.

“Any library authority needs to be ready for these kinds of communications when working with people with visual impairment.”

Consulting with people with lived experience

Portsmouth Libraries consult with audiences who experience sight loss and degeneration to understand more about the people they work with.

“We ask the groups what they want. We have Social Services, the sensory team and the hospital referring us to people. Then we ask the individuals for their opinion and what they find helpful. It’s about dialogue.”

Julie Duffy is also responsible for building several relationships with other local organisations and Portsmouth City Council, who come to Portsmouth Libraries and speak with the members of her groups to better be able to service their needs. Julie explained that once she had initiated conversations, local organisations were usually very responsive and would notify her and the groups of any planned works or changes that might impact their day-to-day living.

“It’s quite well known within the city council that if they’re doing new schemes and things such as road closures or whatever they come and talk to us about it.”

Developing and extending activities

During 2023 to 2024, Portsmouth Libraries are using the Ulverscroft Foundation funding to develop their offer. They plan to source further stock for people who are blind and partially sighted, including new spoken word and large print titles, create and promote uptake of a new Reading Friends group located in the north of Portsmouth and develop a programme of events for the groups, including author visits.

“Hopefully, we will be able to get people out of their homes because, since Covid, people have been scared to come out and it’s giving them a reason to do so.”

Read more about the impact of Reading Friends across the UK here
(image shows Julie with her service dog, Spencer)

Teachers Reading Challenge 2022: living and breathing reading in South Ayshire

Photo of three children reading a book. The middle child is wearing school uniform.

In January 2023, The Reading Agency spoke to Ashley G., a primary teacher working with P6/7 pupils in South Ayrshire about her experience of taking part in the Teachers’ Reading Challenge. Ashley G. took part in both 2021 and 2022, reading well over the number of books she had set herself to read and gaining two silver badges in both years of the Challenge. We spoke to Ashley about how she translated her own love of reading into pedagogical practice, expanded her knowledge of children’s and young people’s texts and embedded reading for pleasure across her whole school as a result of taking part in the Challenge.

Although always having been an avid reader, Ashley explained that translating this into her own work with children only truly became a priority following her discovery of the Teachers’ Reading Challenge.

‘This has been a game changer for me as a teacher. This led me to research Reading for Pleasure, book training sessions on it and complete the Open University badged course. All of this sparked something in me and I’ve spent the last year working on initiatives in school to promote a Reading for Pleasure culture and reading a ridiculous number of children’s books!’

Since first taking part in 2021, Ashley has embedded a variety of initiatives in her school aimed at engaging children in reading for pleasure. These include taking the children to the mobile library every month (when it is scheduled to visit the village) and liaising with South Ayrshire Library Services to provide every child with a mobile library ticket and access to ebooks and audiobooks through the Libby app (online library service).

‘The children can access Libby at school and at home and it is now a well-used and well-loved resource. Access to Libby has also helped to tackle barriers to reading for some of our pupils who were experiencing difficulty reading books at their interest level and were being put off reading by this. Furthermore, for pupils where they don’t have access to a lot of books at home (as long as they have access to a technological device at home eg. phone, tablet, laptop) this free app provides an opportunity for them to read or listen to a wide selection of modern children’s books at home without cost implications for parents which is so important. Money should never be a barrier to children’s reading, and I feel this is even more important currently given the cost-of-living crisis we are all experiencing.’

Another initiative is running a Reading for Pleasure session for the whole school every Friday afternoon, where students can read in a quiet room or participate in shared reading and book talk with their peers. The school has also hosted family ‘Booknic’ events inviting parents, carers and other family members into the school to read together, building an awareness amongst children and young people of reading as something that everyone can take part in and enjoy, both at home, at school and elsewhere.

‘Engaging the children in school has been going well as it’s a small school and because they get the enthusiasm from staff they are all responding well, even children who are reluctant readers.  Engaging families can be more difficult as we appreciate time demands on parents can make it difficult for them to find time to read with their children.  We invited them in for a Booknic back in October which was well attended and received positive feedback from parents and we ran one again the week of World Book Day.  In our infant class we have just started sending home a RfP [Reading for Pleasure] bookbag for the weekend with a little hot chocolate and mini marshmallow pack and requesting a little photo uploaded to Seesaw with potentially a little review of the book/books or their child’s thoughts on it and we will monitor engagement of this. (…)  Next step I’d like to explore inviting parents to come when the mobile library is at the school to choose a book with their child.’

By expanding her knowledge and reading more of the recently published and trending literature that pupils were interested in themselves, Ashley was better able to engage in book talk and was more confident in recommending texts to pupils. As part of a broader approach to diversifying both hers and others’ knowledge of children’s and young people’s texts, Ashley has also started an Open University Teachers’ Reading Group in South Ayrshire, got the school involved in a Diversifying Reading project with Oxford University Press and joined a Racial Literacy Working Group.

‘I adored reading as a child and when I had my own children I wanted them to have that same love of reading but as they grew older and we moved on to reading chapter books I would choose books I had enjoyed reading at their age and came to realise they just weren’t enjoying them as much as I had. So I knew I had to do some research to ensure they maintained their love of reading. That was why when I saw the Teachers’ Summer Reading Challenge I signed up straight away. I also joined Twitter and started following accounts suggested for children’s literature (which I would highly recommend), visited libraries and charity shops and sourced different types of books from different authors and with a variety of characters.(…) I now feel really confident recommending books to pupils throughout the school and they often read the same ones I have and we chat about them. Class novel choices have also been improved due to my knowledge of current authors and the children have really engaged in the books they’ve chosen from my selection.’

When asked about the best new title she had discovered as part of the Challenge and why it resonated, Ashley selected two texts with main characters that reflected different life experiences, pointing to the importance of representation within children and young people’s literature.

‘Amari and the Night Brothers’ because it’s an exciting, fantasy adventure book where the main character is a black girl. So often in this genre the girl is a side character, but instead here was a great female main character which was so refreshing. Also, although it’s a small village school I work in we have a very diverse pupil group and I loved the fact this book included a wide variety of characters with good representation of other ethnicities. This book and its sequel ‘Amari and the Great Game’ have been so popular in my class and we’re now eagerly awaiting the third book which is due to be published in September this year.’

‘Another was Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe, as the main character had eczema. I would have loved to have read a book that featured a character with eczema when I was growing up as I suffered quite badly with eczema myself. Most of the years I was in primary school I was admitted to hospital for a week or so to get it back under control.  So I feel this book would have been comforting for my younger self to have read, and it would have been helpful for educating other children on eczema. I always felt really aware of how my skin looked to others at school and (like in the book) some children were nasty about it.’

Ashley also told us about how the Teachers’ Reading Challenge had informed her work with pupils with different reading levels, providing her with the confidence and the resources through which to engage more reluctant readers.

‘One pupil told me that I wouldn’t be able to find books they would enjoy, but I managed eventually. The first I found that he enjoyed was ‘The Humiliations of Welton Blake’ by Alex Wheatle and that then gave me an idea of the types of books he was likely to enjoy. I researched websites for recommendations ‘if you liked this book/author you might enjoy…’ and I took to Twitter asking for recommendations from others too. Eventually I came across Anthony McGowan’s ‘The Truth of Things’ (which includes three novellas). I ordered my own copy, read it and gave him my copy. The student has now read all three novellas, followed it up with the fourth instalment ‘Lark’ and has recommended them to another student in my class who has now also read all three novellas and is currently reading ‘Lark’. I have now sourced similar novels by a different author for them to try to ensure I maintain their current level of enthusiasm.’

‘Other more reluctant readers have really enjoyed the ‘Dog Man’ series and ‘The Bad Guys’ series we recently purchased for our school library. One pupil in particular has really engaged with graphic novels and has read every book we have in these series and researched to find out if there were any more she hasn’t read yet for us to purchase. She has also enjoyed the ‘Smile, Sisters and Guts’ set by Raina Telgemeier and is currently enjoying ‘When Stars are Scattered’ by Victoria Jamieson (on my recommendation). She now feels so passionate about reading she takes books out to the playground, constantly requests more daily reading time and has shared her book recommendations in whole school assemblies (at her request!).’

For other professionals working in the education and literacy sectors who might be feeling uninspired, Ashley recommended reading up on new and relevant texts through Twitter, signing up for The Open University’s newsletter (which often details relevant free training and webinars), joining one of the Open University’s Teachers’ Reading Groups (TRG), joining the Teachers’ Summer Reading Challenge and reading and logging as many books as possible. Ultimately though, Ashley explained that engaging children in reading hinged on being a reading role model herself – translating her love of reading into the classroom:

‘By expanding your knowledge of children and young people’s literature you’ll gain the confidence to do this (…) It’s really helped my pupils knowing how much I love reading. We’re a small school, with about 70 pupils, and I’ve taught the vast majority of the pupils at this point (…) There are two Mrs G’s at my school and they refer to me as Mrs G. the book teacher! They know I live and breathe reading and many of them are beginning to do so too.’

When asked about future plans, Ashley explained she would be taking part in the Teachers’ Reading Challenge in 2023 and was already exploring ideas for examples of pedagogical practice to submit to The Open University so as to gain her Gold badge.

The Summer Reading Challenge and Libraries: Abeeha, Ariba and Aamna’s story Story

We believe reading transforms lives. This Libraries Week, we’re looking at how libraries play a key role in encouraging children to read. We went to Abraham Moss Library in Manchester to hear from children and their families how the Summer Reading Challenge has empowered their reading.

Abeeha’s Story

4 year-old Abeeha lives with her mother, Noreena. This is her first year taking part in the Challenge.

How many books have you read this year and what have you been reading?
Abeeha: Five books already. I’ve read all sorts.

And have you always used the library regularly?
Noreena: Before, I’d go to the town centre to Central Library, because during that time this library was closed. So, when I found out this library had opened, we came right away.
We came inside and she chose her books and Abeeha said, “I want to take part in the Summer Reading Challenge,” because she loves to read. She chooses her own books and she’s read seven this summer.

What has taking part given you as a parent over the summer?
Noreena: You know, sometimes in the summer vacations, the parents still need to do some work so it can be a big challenge for parents. But I focus on her activities, her sports and her books. She just reads herself or I read story and she listens. But now we’ve started the Summer Reading Challenge there is big improvement. She now sees the pictures and makes a story in her mind.

So you see a difference in her imagination?
Noreena: Yeah. When I ask her about the books, she’ll tell me about the shapes and colours and starts making her own stories from the pictures. It’s a big improvement.

Ariba and Aamna’s story

Ariba, Aamna and Faisal live with their mother Aisha in Cheetham Hill.

Is this your first year doing the Summer Reading Challenge? What do you think about the theme this year?
Aisha: They’ve been taking part every summer for about four or five years now, ever since they started reading.
Aamna: I like the theme because sports is fun and good for getting people to read.

And what do you like about being in the library?
Ariba: I like being in the library because there’s lots of books and there’s fun activities that I can do. I get to come and read new books. I love reading and I love being challenged.
Aisha: My children, they love reading. Because of Covid, they closed the bigger library and they were very upset, because the smaller library a lot less books. When this library [Abraham Moss Library] opened, they were so excited to come the first day and they were like, “yay, new books!”

The Summer Reading Challenge actually helped them a lot to stay motivated because they know they’re going to get the certificate if you read a set amount of books.
Aamna is so excited to get the certificate and the medal. Every year she gets it, but every single time she gets new one, she gets more excited. Even though she has loads of medals at home. But every year is a different year.

Has the Challenge helped them to try new kinds of books?
Aisha: Yes, it helps them to try different books. They try small books and big books and then review them – some they find very boring and others they say are amazing. It challenges them.

Each year the Summer Reading Challenge motivates over 700,000 children of all abilities to read for enjoyment over the summer holidays. If you would like to support us in helping more children to discover the joy of reading, you can donate here.

Share your reading group story

What impact does being in a reading group or book club have on you? Does it make you read more, or try different types of books? At The Reading Agency, we want to encourage reading groups to become active members of our reading community.

We want to hear from you! Share your reading group story with us by 28 August and you’ll be entered to win a prize of £100 of National Book Tokens for your reading group.

We also want to hear about your experiences of using Reading Groups for Everyone. If there’s something that you’d like to see from us, or if you’ve taken part in a Read & Review offer from the noticeboard, this is your opportunity to share your thoughts with us so that we can continue to provide the best support, resources and opportunity for your group.

Fill in a short survey to share your responses and be entered into the prize draw.

Reading during the school holidays really does make a difference!

Over 12 million books borrowed as part of Summer Reading Challenge 2022

As part of World Book Day, The Reading Agency has published findings from an Arts Council England-funded independent evaluation of the 2022 science-themed, Summer Reading Challenge.

The Summer Reading Challenge is run in partnership between The Reading Agency and UK public libraries. Children’s reading can ‘dip’ during the long summer holidays. The Challenge helps get children into libraries each year to keep up their reading enjoyment and confidence, encouraging children aged 4 to 11 to read books during the long summer holiday. In 2022, The Reading Agency saw 723,184 children engaging in over 95% of library authorities across the UK.

The research explored areas including the impact on reading engagement and behaviours and the impact on wellbeing. Participation in the Summer Reading Challenge was found to result in statistically significant change for children who took part compared with those who did not: reading more books, enjoying reading more, and feeling more confident in their reading ability. Participating children and teachers reported several positive impacts on children’s reading engagement and behaviours. Most felt that children were more likely to read after participating in the Challenge because:

  • The Challenge helped them to find books they enjoyed
  • Reading more regularly over the summer increased some children’s reading confidence as they were able to develop their vocabulary and practice reading aloud
  • Children were also inspired to write their own stories and share recommendations with others
  • Children were motivated by rewards and incentives

In the 2022 evaluation, over half of those surveyed stated that their children felt better about themselves through taking part in the Challenge and 75% had improved their reading skills. The annual evaluation findings for 2022 provide overwhelming evidence to suggest that librarians and volunteers engaged in delivering the Challenge played an instrumental part in motivating children to read. 67% of parent/carers strongly agreed or agreed that, because of taking part in the Summer Reading Challenge they used the library more as a family (including digital use and e-lending).

In 2022 the Challenge saw 132,223 new library members which was a 40% increase from pre-pandemic total in 2019 with a total of 12,777,143 books, including eBooks and audio titles, issued through libraries over the summer! Children reported visiting the library as part of the Challenge an exciting opportunity to find new books, going to the library enabled children to identify and pick up new books that they wanted to read.

The Arts Council funded research also found that the Challenge had several positive impacts on children’s wellbeing, providing them with a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and reducing the impact of negative or challenging feelings. Children reported a range of positive impacts of the Summer Reading Challenge, and reading more generally, on their wellbeing, including:

Reduced feelings of stress and an increased sense of calmness – many children noted that reading helped them to feel calm and to improve their capacity to manage challenging emotions.

  • Happiness and excitement when reading new books or about new topics
  • A feeling of pride and sense of accomplishment – some children attributed this feeling to tackling difficult books such as chapter books or long books with advanced vocabulary.
  • Developing imagination and creativity through reading – more broadly, reading sparked children’s imagination, as many reported being absorbed in the books they read while completing the Challenge.

One year 6 pupil who took part said: “I like reading a lot, my vocabulary has improved, [I’ve] started to read more books than I used to.”

One Year 4 pupil who took part said: “I love to read because when you get stressed or angry it just helps you to calm down.”

In 2022, library coordinators gifted an additional 67,996 packs to families living with disadvantage, further bolstering the reach and engagement of the Challenge. Libraries worked with a wide range of local organisations to reach specific groups and individuals, increasing engagement with the Challenge and enabling equal opportunity of access. Resources translated into home languages were produced to support public libraries with these targeted activities, events and promotions. In 2022, in response to the large number of Ukrainian children arriving in the UK, three key downloadable Summer Reading Challenge resources were translated into Ukrainian to support Ukrainian families in their area to take part in the Challenge and engage with their local library service.

The Summer Reading Challenge 2022 reach and impact infographic is available to download here.

The Reading Agency

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