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What is Reading Sparks?

Reading Sparks harnesses the creative power of reading to engage families with STEM activities (science, technology, engineering and maths) and build science confidence in communities living in deprived parts of England.  

The project is delivered by The Reading Agency in partnership with public libraries with funding from Arts Council England and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). 

How it works

As part of the Reading Sparks pilot, library partners gave reading and STEM book and activity boxes to families particularly disadvantaged by the pandemic. Using supporting resources, they worked with young people in different settings to develop positive, confidence-building reading and STEM activities for young people aged 14-18. Working with library staff and youth workers, participants designed new digital and in-person reading and science activities for families with children aged 4-11. 

Thanks to continued support from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Reading Sparks is now entering phase 2, where libraries will offer sessions of their choice and design to the groups they wish to work with,  using our exciting, engaging resources.  

If you have any questions about Reading Sparks or how your library service can get involved, please get in touch.

Our evaluation shows that Reading Sparks builds confidence and engagement with STEM among children, young people and families and demonstrates the important role that creativity and reading play in sparking engagement with a wide range of subjects and topics.   

Following the successful pilot (and subsequent national roll-out) in 2021-2022, The Reading Agency is now developing its future Reading Sparks engagement activity for use by library services and other stakeholders.  

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Reading for pleasure is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education 

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1 in 4 children don’t reach the expected level of reading by the age of 11

If you have a Reading Sparks subscription you can access supporting resources here:

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Latest News

Reading Sparks brings exciting STEM events to Portsmouth

We spoke with Patricia Garrett from Portsmouth Library Service to learn about accomplishments and difficulties faced when bringing Reading Sparks to young people in the area.

How have you been delivering Reading Sparks in your library?

Firstly, packs were displayed and available for loan in libraries embedded in areas of greatest deprivation in Portsmouth. These libraries were Paulsgrove, Central, North End, Southsea and Carnegie libraries. To ensure that these packs remained in these communities, we didn’t allow these packs to be reserved or requested.

Secondly, we approached local agencies who had contact with families from disadvantaged backgrounds. Not only was this to raise awareness that packs were available, but also in the hope that they would help get packs into relevant homes, as we were aware only having packs in libraries could be a barrier. All organisations were pleased to hear about the project, but only a small handful felt they could take responsibility for pack distribution or had means to communicate the project with their service users.

Organisations that agreed to distribute information to families via newsletters or similar included teams that work with foster families/looked after children/residential units, HAF providers and food banks. An email was also sent to all families who hold leisure cards, which are available to people on means tested benefits and entitles residents to discounts at Portsmouth City Council facilities. A mother that ran a private Facebook network for parents who home school their children also agreed to post about the availability of Reading Sparks packs.

There were some organisations that agreed to take packs and distribute them directly to their service users, and in some cases retrieve them as well:

1. Portsmouth’s Children’s Social Care: Social workers agreed to take packs out to families on monthly visits, and then collect them on a return visit. Whilst this partnership was initially a positive step forward and squarely met the aims of the project, ultimately only 3 packs were ever delivered to families, and these were never returned. Perhaps social workers were too overwhelmed to think about the project or families were too troubled to complete the activities.
2. Abri Housing Association: Outreach workers agreed to distribute packs at their Free Grub Clubs during the school holidays, and then collect packs a week later. Free Grub Clubs were for children eligible for free school meals.
3. Adventure playgrounds: These playgrounds are in areas with high levels of social housing. Youth workers agreed to take packs that were available for gifting and distribute to children.
4. Portsmouth Family Welfare Association: The Portsmouth Welfare Association provides household items, clothing, starter packs for new mums and food for anyone in desperate need. They’re based at Carnegie Library and agreed to hold a few packs to give out, encouraging families to return them to the library on their next visit.

We had hoped to engage with schools and other organisations, but unfortunately we found that we kept losing our packs. At one point almost half were long overdue, making further distribution outside libraries inadvisable. We sent letters out to families requesting their return and got a poor response – in fact, those parents who did return packs had assumed they were gifts. We also concluded that some packs had been taken from libraries without being issued to library cards – perhaps because they didn’t look like traditional library loan items.

Have you been collaborating with any other organisations with Reading Sparks?

Other organisations we’ve worked closely with included:

1. Portsmouth City Council’s Youth Service: The staff at the Charles Dickens Centre provided help with the youth element of the project. This Centre lies within Charles Dickens ward, one of the most deprived districts in the city. In 2021 during a Friday evening youth club, they ran science activities suggested by an organisation called Sublime Science, and also found two young people to help us devise an in-library activity at Southsea Library.
2. Portsmouth’s School Library Service: The SLS provide library services to schools in Portsmouth and beyond, and they have good links with schools. They helped find schools to attend a Konnie Huq visit to Portsmouth Central Library in May 2022. In October 2022, they helped arrange both schools for Christopher Edge to visit and a school to host a STEAM ‘Go fly your kite’ workshop.

How has this partnership supported the library and other participants?

The partnership with the Youth Service has helped us reach young people from disadvantaged backgrounds which otherwise wouldn’t have been involved. The Youth team are familiar faces and are trusted by young people.

The School Library Service already has close links with schools. It can be very difficult to approach schools ‘cold’ and get a response, but using the SLS network made the process of arranging STEM activities in schools so straightforward.

What have the young people, families and library staff gained from taking part in Reading Sparks?

The Reading Sparks project has transformed our capacity to offer enhanced STEM activities in libraries. The budget to develop an exciting and varied science event programme has boosted attendance at in-library events (much to the pleasure of library staff) and enhanced the Summer Reading Challenge Winner’s event we hold every September at Southsea Castle. This year, CBBC presenter and Youtuber Stefan Gates gave 2 incredible science shows based on his show ‘Fartology’: an irreverent and family focussed look at the human body.

All the events we’ve put on have been booked up very quickly and received rave reviews on feedback forms. Many parents have commented that their children love science and these events have fed that passion while also providing opportunities that just weren’t available without having to pay or travel long distances.

Some of our partner organisations have benefited from the partnership, too. Abri Housing Association, for example, helped us distribute free Quick Read books to their residents as part of another Reading Agency initiative.

The Youth team at the Charles Dickens Centre have also benefitted as we have arranged for them to host the Space Odyssey mobile planetarium during October 2022 half-term. As well as offering sessions to families generally, the team will be promoting the event to young people in this most deprived area who have probably never been to a planetarium or met an astronomer.

Do you have any standout stories from your participants?

Rather than stand out stories, this project has attracted some lovely and appreciative comments from families.

June 2022: Sciencey Slime workshop at Southsea Library. This workshop was co-devised by the young volunteer helping with the project. In this workshop, the children learnt how to make different kinds of slime.

“Thanks for a great session today. Our daughter had so much fun!”

May 2022: Maths and magic with Dr. Matt Pritchard. Dr. Pritchard is a magician and science communicator who delivered a magic show with some maths facts thrown in.

“Informative. It took my breath away. An amazing hour.”
“Great event, I look forward to the next!”

March 2022: Sublime science workshop at Southsea Library. Sublime Science delivered a hands-on workshop that demonstrated science experiments.

“Great session. They loved it”
“This was a great event and fantastic that it was free”

September 2022: Zoolab Animal Explorer workshop. In this session children were taught about and got the opportunity to handle exotic animals such as snakes and tarantulas.

“An amazing event enjoyed by everyone.”
“Please run similar events. It was fantastic for the children and they learnt a lot.”

How does Reading Sparks engage young people in reading and STEM? Why is this important?

In the Portsmouth project, the young persons element was undeveloped. We didn’t have existing youth groups in libraries, so were starting from scratch. Our Youth Service partner managed to find two young people to volunteer for the project, but ultimately only one stayed with us to help plan and deliver the slime workshop.

We do, however, have plans to work with Seekers Create, a local organisation that has expressed interest in Reading Sparks. Seekers are a creative social enterprise who work with young people to plan, design and create heritage trails for the community to enjoy. Their brief will be to work with young people to develop an activity for younger children based on one of the Reading Sparks packs. This activity will then be run with younger children either in a library or school. Seekers will create a video which explores this process and the resultant activity.

After this point we should be in a better position to directly address this question, but it would stand to reason that the Reading Sparks project ethos of developing an interest in science via reading is important because reading provides a gateway to exploring specific scientific themes in an accessible way, slightly removed from a school curriculum-based teaching approach. This then gives young people the chance to disseminate this learning to a younger audience in their own way, thus embedding the knowledge.

How would you like to grow the project and your partnerships in future?

It’s become very clear that STEM activities are highly sought after by families and get booked up very quickly. We will be looking to providing more science related activities post project, budget permitting. Our partnerships with the Youth Service and the School Library Service will help reach audiences that might not necessarily use libraries regularly.

The Reading Agency

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