Tag Archives: Royal Commonwealth Society

Pupils perform at International Literacy Day celebrations in Kenya

Spreading the joy of reading across the world

At London Book Fair, our Head of Programmes Samantha Thomas-Chuula joined Cheltenham Festivals’ Education Director Ali Mawle and The Royal Commonwealth Society Africa’s Regional Youth Coordinator Gideon Commey on a panel discussing the transformative effect that reading for pleasure can have on disadvantaged communities – and how to introduce more people to the joy of reading.

Here, we share some of the key takeaways from their conversation which was led by Jake Hope, Chair of the Youth Libraries Group.


Reading promotion panel
L-R Ali Mawle, Samantha Thomas-Chuula, Gideon Commey and Jake Hope

A love of reading in children and young people can be ignited by a love of reading in their teachers

Cheltenham Festivals’ innovative Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils scheme particularly targets communities where fewer children have reading role models at home. To overcome this challenge, the scheme gives teachers the skills and tools to become reading role models in the classroom. It creates networks of teachers’ reading groups, giving teachers the time and space to discuss the books they are reading. The idea is to ignite (or reignite) a love for books and reading in the teachers – which in turn impacts the children they teach.

Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils at Linden School
A teacher and pupils from Linden School discuss a book as part of the Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils scheme

It is not enough to just have books available – people need to know they are there and why they are useful.

When Book Aid International’s partners in Africa hold International Literacy Day celebrations, they invite people from all sections of the community to attend so they can see what the library and its books make possible, changing perceptions about reading and the library. Parents learn how they can support their children with reading, teachers are introduced to the fact that they can bring their class for reading activities. Libraries often report an increase in usage after these events.

Writing can also promote reading.

Reading plays a key part in entrants’ preparations for the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition. Young people are encouraged by their teachers to read more to improve their writing skills before they write their entry for the competition. In addition, taking part in the competition often increases young people’s determination to succeed and as a result, they are often more motivated to read.

The impact of giving the right book to the right child can be life changing.

Through Cheltenham Festivals’ Reading Teachers, Reading Pupils scheme, a pupil who was at risk of exclusion was introduced by his teacher to a book they thought he would enjoy and he was hooked! Today, he is still in school and has set up a lunchtime reading club with friends.

Reading aloud
A pupils reads aloud to her class in Ghana

Books and reading can empower young people to drive change.

The current generation of young people in Africa (where 60% of people are under 25) are a vibrant constituency who are working for change. In Ghana, many young people are setting up their own initiatives to give more people access to books. They are building libraries, creating mobile libraries, developing reading apps as well as simply visiting villages with books. Young people are realising how books have empowered them and are now seeking to give that same opportunity to more people.

Reading promotion events can empower librarians.

Reading promotion events not only change communities’ perceptions about the local library but the librarians that run them too. Local children point librarians out to their parents, teachers consult them for advice. This has a knock on effect – feeling more valued, librarians become more confident and approach their work with more creativity and innovation.


School pupils taking part in Kate Greenaway Shadowing
Every year, pupils in schools across the world read and discuss the books on the Carnegie and Greenaway Medal shortlists

Showing people the benefits of books and reading can bring change in various sections of a community.

As a result of attending reading promotion events or taking part in reading-focussed programmes, schools are setting up their own school libraries and asking their local libraries for help and advice; teachers are using books in their classrooms in new ways and libraries are even attracting additional funding from local government.

Do One Thing!

Everyone can Do One Thing, however small, to help promote reading in their community. Here are a few ideas:

  • Integrate books and reading into what you are already doing. If you’re a teacher, make your lessons more fun with books. If you hold an event, get local authors involved.
  • Get reading with children! There are many organisations that you can volunteer with such as Beanstalk.
  • Hold a ‘bookraise’ on Facebook in which people who have books they no longer need can pleage and donate them. Collect the books and distribute them to people and schools you identify as needing books.

We would like to thank Ali, Gideon and Jake for participating in the panel with us. You can find out more about Reading Teachers=Reading Pupils here, the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition here and the Youth Libraries Group here.


Ghanaian village

Gideon’s story

Meet Gideon Commey, Royal Commonwealth Society Africa’s Regional Youth Coordinator. Gideon grew up in rural Ghana attending a school with no access to books other than the textbook his teacher used in class. Today, he is studying for an MSc at University College London. He hopes to one day become a research activist advising the Ghanaian government on environmental policies.

Gideon believes in the power of books and he will be sharing some of his personal insights and experiences at our London Book Fair seminar discussing the transformative power that books can have on disadvantaged communities. He talked to us about how books helped him get to where he is today and how he believes books and initiatives like the RCS’s Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition can help change the lives of more young people across the world.


Gideon Commey
Gideon in our warehouse

I grew up in a village in Ghana, in the Brong Ahafo region which is more than 12 hours journey from Accra the capital city. All my basic education was in the village and I never got any books to read. Just a textbook in school and even then you don’t get hold of it– the teacher just teaches you from it. So you don’t read anything apart from the notes you take in class.

It is difficult for children growing up in the villages in Ghana. Even if a kid gets into school, a lot of schools are under-resourced – few learning materials, teachers who live too far away to travel to school every day. Yet they are supposed to write the same school examinations as children who are in the best schools. And how do you compete with them? You can’t, you are limited. Without reading something extra, you can’t do anything. Thousands of people [in Ghana] are limited because they can’t crack a book open.


Market in Accra
A market in Accra

How did things change for you?

My dad got transferred to Accra when I was about to enter high school. Because he was an Anglican Priest, he got me into an Anglican school called Adisadel College. I probably also got in because I performed well in the Basic Education Certificate Examination which I wrote in a local school in Accra. And that was the first time I was able to read a book. The first book I read from cover to cover was Things Fall Apart and I was almost 16.

I struggled for the three years that I was in that school because I didn’t have any foundation to build on – there was some basic things that I didn’t know. Even English construction. But I had an interest in books – I wanted to really know more. So I began to fall in love with books. Then, when I graduated and I went to the University of Ghana, that was where my life really changed because we had a huge library. You could spend hours reading.

Then, when I graduated and I went to the University of Ghana, that was where my life really changed because we had a huge library. You could spend hours reading.

It was amazing and I think that’s what shaped my life.

I had a very transforming experience in 2007– I went to Keta, a community in the Volta Region of Ghana and I saw sea level rise as a result of climate change. The sea had taken away a lot of housing but I didn’t understand the phenomenon. I came back to university to do some research on it and watched Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. That really inspired me to do something about the situation.

I read a lot of books and they transformed my thinking.

I founded the Ghana Youth Environment Movement to advocate on environmental sustainability and empower other young people with the tools to take action on behalf of the environment. I would say that was the vehicle of gaining a scholarship to study here in the UK because the scholarship was based on impact you have had in your local community, not just academic performance. It amazes me sometimes because of where I’ve come from. And it’s just because of reading books and getting to know more.

It amazes me sometimes because of where I’ve come from. And it’s just because of reading books and getting to know more.

Where do you think you would be now if you hadn’t had that opportunity to learn and read when you were younger?

Without books, today I’d probably be a hawker somewhere who thinks I am at the mercy of any political decision that happens around me, I can’t change anything. The hopelessness. Because I wouldn’t see beyond the walls of my environment, I’ll be stuck within that small space.

But books are universal. If you are able to grab it in a village in Ghana and somebody grabs it New York or London, you are on the same level. So they are really transforming.

As part of your role as RCS Africa’s Regional Youth Coordinator, you encourage young people to take part in the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition. What difference do you see the competition –and books – making in the lives of young people in Ghana today?

I think the essay competition is a really very powerful tool. Before, all the entries in Ghana were from international schools. Last year was a breakthrough from us because some schools from the villages participated and they won prizes so that shows you the potential there. If they are getting the resources, they can compete with the best schools anywhere in the world.

I feel that these are the kids we want to get to in the villages [with the essay competition] because when those kids begin to read books it changes their world view, it empowers them. That kid may have no electricity at home, no opportunity to read the news or even listen to the radio but a book can give them the passion, the power, the ability to dream, at least about the solution to their problems and for me, that’s a good step.

That’s what the essay competition can do – it gets the opportunity out there for these children and motivates them.

What hopes do you have for their futures, especially those in rural communities?

I basically put myself in their shoes; how I went through the system. I don’t expect it to be easy for them but I think you use a very important word – hope. In the mist of uncertainty, it is the most important asset. The kids studying in international schools in Ghana are no better than village kids so I have very high aspirations for them. They want to become pilots, they want to become doctors, because that’s what they’ve read in books and they know it is possible. If I have been able to come from that background, then any kid anywhere that gets a little support can do the same. They will make it with hope, but we need to give them the opportunity to overcome their challenges and that is what things like the essay competition and access to books can do.

The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition is open to any young person aged 18 or under living in a Commonwealth country. Entries for this year’s competition close on 1st June. To find out more about the competition and how to enter, click here.

Thanks to the support of players of People’s Postcode Lottery, we’re expanding our work in Ghana – providing more books for children across the country like Gideon. Player have provided £1.85m for our cause so far – and we cannot thank them enough for their support! Find out more

Header image: photo by Lapping on Pixabay.


London Book Fair seminar

Join us at London Book Fair!

Cheltenham Festivals and Book Aid International join forces to show the transformative power of reading in London Book Fair seminar.

If you’re heading to London Book Fair in March, don’t miss our seminar with Cheltenham Festivals’ Education team:

Sharing the transformative power of reading for pleasure in disadvantaged communities

When: 14:30 – 15:30, Thursday 14th March
Where: High Street Theatre

Our Head of Programmes Samantha Thomas-Chuula and Cheltenham Festivals’ Director of Education, Ali Mawle will be joined by the Regional Youth Coordinator for the Royal Commonwealth Society Africa, Gideon Commey. Together they will discuss practical ways that people and organisations in the broader book industry and beyond can work together to overcome the barriers to reading that exist in disadvantaged communities.

Chaired by reading development and children’s books consultant Jake Hope, the panel will share first-hand experiences as they will look at how reading promotion in all its forms from literature festivals and prestigious book awards to school reading initiatives and library book clubs, can keep reading for pleasure on a nation’s agenda and give more people and communities access to the transformational power of books.

For more information, visit the London Book Fair website.