Family reading groups are gradually increasing throughout the country. A group may originate in a public library or in a school but the aim is the same: to provide an opportunity for parents, teachers, librarians and children to get together and talk about books they have read.
Shirley Bush, a school librarian in a middle school in Buckinghamshire, describes how her group operates.
What is a family reading group? Basically it is a group which meets on a regular basis to choose, read and discuss books which are supplied by the library. It is made up of children at a school, their parents, brothers and sisters, as well as any interested teachers and sometimes librarians from the local library.
How did I start my group? First I went to the local library who gave me all the support, guidance and help I required. The school library service agreed to supply the books for the venture. I also contacted the United Kingdom Reading Association who have produced a leaflet about starting a group.
The initial spade work completed, I then, with my headmaster’s support, sent out a letter to all parents of our school. The letter explained what family reading groups were, said we hoped to form one and described how it would benefit the children. The response, though not overwhelming, was sufficient for an inaugural meeting to be arranged.
At the initial meeting, we (by now my headmaster, some colleagues and a librarian friend who had experience of working with this age group were all involved) talked of our aims and discussed the practicalities of the venture. A very important decision was how often to meet. The group decided on the first Thursday evening of each month. We felt a regular time was important and would aid regular attendance. After question-time and over coffee, families chose the books they hoped to read during the month before the next meeting. They could choose from twelve titles of which we had multiple copies. The reading levels varied from picture books to young teenage. There was also time to browse amongst a display we had mounted of newly published books which we hoped would whet appetites for the months to come.
A month later, the group reassembled with the books they had read. For discussion we divided the group into smaller units where we felt everyone was more likely to contribute. Each group had a leader who quickly found out which of the twelve titles had been read by the group and they got the discussion going.
Group leaders had previously talked together about the way to handle this and the sort of questions to raise in order to get ideas flowing. For example, who liked the book, which was their favourite character, did the book have a good ending, why had the family decided to take the book originally – was it because of its title, dust-jacket, pictures, a favourite author or subject? We agreed that after talking about the books it would be a good idea to have a more general discussion about what people thought of the group, ideas for improvements, how children felt about their parents reading the books, etc. All this would help us plan future meetings.
Discussions were followed by refreshments and a time to return books and to select new ones. So emerged our way of working over the months which were to follow. The selection of new books gradually moved to before the meeting and families would arrive early to enable them to have the best selection. With each month which passed I discovered the children were gaining confidence in discussing books they had read, both parents and children were more selective about books which were chosen and certainly everyone was better acquainted with current children’s literature. The informal coffee time proved very worthwhile as we all got to know each other better and book-centred discussions often continued amongst groups of parents and groups of children.
Some meetings were completely different. A visit from a local author, a film by the United Kingdom Reading Association, parties for our birthday, and Christmas at which we had a fancy dress parade of book characters: all were popular.
After each meeting I compile a list of books we have just read and their details and circulate it to group members. In this way families can follow up any books they have become interested in through the discussions or feel they would like to buy for themselves. I return the used collection to the library and under guidance select a new one. I try to read all the books from the current collection; this is a huge task but it is a useful way of keeping abreast of new material and old favourites. It means that when I have money to spend for the school library I only have to open my file on family reading books to get details of those favourites to buy.
One disappointment about the group was that the number of Dads attending declined, although we always had a few faithfuls. At the start of each school year the group was advertised to the new intake and we always gained new members. Often, those who had left in the previous July continued to come to meetings for the first year of their secondary education.
Among all the things I have done as a librarian, this group has been the most rewarding. It has given me a great deal of pleasure and an insight into the responses of children – and their parents – which has been invaluable. I’d recommend anyone to try it.
The UKRA leaflet How to Run Family Reading Groups by Cecilia Obrist (1978) is available from Mrs Clark, United Kingdom Reading Association, Edge Hill College of Higher Education, St Helens Road, Ormskirk, Lancashire (Tel: 0695 77505), price 45p including postage.