How to get the best out of a reading group

As group leader you do not need to be an expert or assume the role of teacher. Your job is to gently guide the discussion and to make sure that everyone who wants to speak gets the chance to do so.

Your aim is to motivate and inspire the group so that they want to read. You’re showing them that books aren’t just stories: they look at life’s truths and enable readers to learn about themselves.

Below are some hints and tips for running a reading group.


Reading the book

  • If you have really unconfident readers in your group, you could read out loud and ask them to follow in their own copies.

  • Less confident readers may find it helpful to take it in turns to read short extracts from the book out loud. Ask for volunteers; don’t put pressure on anyone to read out loud if they don’t want to. Agree how much each person will read so that no one gets the limelight while others get left out.

  • More confident readers may prefer to read the book before the group meets. Ask them not to read further ahead than the allotted chapters so that they don’t spoil the story and discussion for others in the group.

  • If the meaning of a word needs explaining, which may happen more often if there are ESOL speakers in your group, try asking other members of the group to explain so that they don’t get bored or feel left out.

Using the questions included in the book

  • Once you have read a chapter, you can use the ‘what do you think?’ questions to get the discussion started. The questions included are only suggestions: if a question doesn’t engage the groups’ attention, move on, if you or someone in the group has different, interesting discussion point, talk about that instead; don’t feel you need to discuss every question.

  • New readers may find it more difficult than experienced readers to empathize with the characters in the book. Encourage them to imagine how the characters feel, ask them to put themselves in the characters’ shoes – what would they do next; how would they react; how would they feel?

  • New readers may find it more difficult to predict what will happen next in the story. Encourage them to look for clues in the text and to think about what may happen next.

  • Some of the questions encourage readers to reflect on their personal experiences. Thoughtful conversation is great but no one should share information or views that may make them vulnerable either inside or outside of the group.

  • Remember that participants may not have advanced reading skills, but they will know that life is complicated and that right and wrong are not always easy to separate.

  • Remember that this is a reading group, not a therapy session.


Facilitating a good discussion

  • Act professionally: speak to and treat prisoners in a positive, affirming and friendly way with clear boundaries in place.

  • Try and keep the discussion moving at a good pace so that participants don’t get bored.

  • Encourage an atmosphere of politeness and mutual respect. Only one person should talk at once.

  • If necessary, remind everyone that it’s possible to disagree with someone respectfully without ridiculing or belittling them.

  • Encourage participants to really listen – not just to wait for their turn to speak – and to engage with other points of view. 

  • Try not to let more articulate speakers dominate the group: everyone should have a turn to talk.

  • Don’t put anyone on the spot or force them to contribute to group discussions.

  • Be prepared for group members to arrive late, leave early and to miss sessions. Ask someone in the group to quickly bring them up to speed but don’t go over everything again or the rest of the group will get bored.



You may like to start the session with an ‘icebreaker’ so that participants can start getting to know each other and get used to talking and listening in the group. Below are some ideas.

Ask a question, not related to the book, that has no right or wrong answer, e.g.:

  • Would you sell your sense of humour for a million pounds?

  • If the answer is ‘I did it once, with a fish’, what was the question?

  • Which is more important, being right or being nice?

Ask each member of the group to answer a simple question, e.g.:

  • What food do you never want to eat again?

  • What’s the funniest film you’ve ever seen?

  • If you were an animal, what animal would you be?

  • If you could hold the world record in anything you wanted, what would it be?


  • Please complete the group leader’s feedback form and ask participants to complete the readers’ feedback form during the last reading group session.

  • If participants do not wish to write feedback down, please ask them the questions and write down their feedback yourself.


General guidelines for working in prisons

When leading a reading group you should follow all guidelines for working with prisoners that are issued by your work place or voluntary organisation. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • You must report a prisoner who says or writes something that indicates that: 1) they plan to harm themselves or others, 2) there is a case of suspected or potential abuse and/or 3) they plan to take action that will result in a breach of security.

  • If you have any concerns about the safety of a child you must report it.

  • Never pass on prisoner information to others or share any information about prisoners that might identify them.

  • Take nothing into prison: follow all the regulations about what can and cannot be taken into prison.

  • Take nothing out of prison: never take out a message, a letter, a gift or any item given to you by a prisoner for someone else.

  • Act in a professional way with all prisoners: you cannot become ‘friends’ in the normal sense of the word and you must not start a relationship with a prisoner.

  • Do not give out any information that can assist a prisoner to trace you.  Never give a prisoner your home address or telephone or mobile number.

  • Follow all security orders when within the prison.