If you’re interested in real-life case studies of Book Therapy’s own clients who have benefitted from some of the techniques mentioned here (poetry therapy, literary journaling, letter-writing) as well as memoir and novel therapy across individual, group and children’s bibliotherapy, feel free to check out our short guide “Bibliotherapy: Reader Stories” or our Online Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health Course.
Bibliotherapy Techniques - What Are They and Do They Work?
Posted by Bijal Shah on
A lot of the value that comes from the therapeutic reading process, is often unquantifiable given the private and intimate not to mention subjective experience of the reader yet we have the likes of Dr Kelda Green and her experiments on Therapeutic Reading that have shown us strong evidence of the therapeutic power of reading as part of her 2020 dissertation at the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society.
Dr Kelda Green’s experiments focused on creating a space for readers to engage with a work of literature on their own personal terms, in a private setting where they were able to reflect on the text without it feeling like a purely academic exercise — i.e. by giving readers full autonomy and the unstructuredness that make therapy sessions in traditional therapist settings successful.
Secondly, the experiments gave readers a way to capture the impact that the reading of certain texts and poetry had on them through open enquiry and a stream of consciousness approach. This free flow meant that they were not pressured to conform to any standard of documenting evidence or measuring the experience to a pre-calibrated scale that might not capture their experience wholly. Her experiments have been influenced by I.A. Richard’s Practical Criticism (1929) which was the first large-scale experiment in psychology conducted to discover how real readers, understand, interpret and evaluate literary texts. Here we discuss three effective bibliotherapy techniques that have seen success amongst readers and that we use here at Book Therapy through our online Bibliotherapy course and our Bibliotherapy Sessions.
Technique 1: Poetry Vs a News Article
The first was the effectiveness of poetry compared to a BBC news article. The poetry used was Wordsworth’s passages two and three of “The Ruined Cottage” from The Excursion Book, while the BBC news article focused on the deterioration of a woman’s mental health after her husband never returned from World War II on the suicide of an elderly poppy seller who suffered from depression and low mood and specifically. Both were designed to explore the sadness and despair two women felt in later life. The results of the study illustrated that reading poetry can ‘trigger greater levels of emotional focus, attentiveness and imagination than reading a news article.’ The unfamiliarity of the poetry, compared to the news article which was written, in a familiar, easy-to-understand language, also meant that the poetry demanded more attentive, considered reading. The poetry also evoked feelings of emotional connection and access to inner thoughts and feelings. This is in contrast to the news article, which often led the reader astray into the inconsequential details of the factual narrative. Plus, readers had opinions about the news article and were generally unemotional whereas they were more emotionally connected to the poet/writer with the poems; readers were unable to make the emotional links with the news article as they were with the poetry. It was the poem’s ability to lead the reader into the realms of their own imagination that was really the differentiating factor. This ability was noticeably absent from the news article which was unable to provide this kind of access. It was ‘not knowing the meaning’ of the poetry that led them to determine a meaning and thereby connect with their own interior thoughts and feelings that made all the difference.
With the news article, the certainty of the facts did not lead to imaginative and therefore emotional thinking. As part of the study, Dr Kelda Green also noted that more active reading meant a heightened emotional focus on the text which led to even greater active reading, encouraging more imaginative exploration of feelings and reflection. Essentially a self-perpetuating cycle, poetry therapy was far more effective than a news article and the clear leader in this study.
Peter Leyland in his paper, The Companionship of Books also discusses a study he carried out using poetry therapy called “Reading Can Enhance Our Lives” in collaboration with the Leicester Ageing Together project. Some of the conclusions drawn by participants included the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, the poetry also provided novel ways of looking at things that might not have been obvious beforehand. Lastly poetry had the capacity to make someone who felt that they belonged nowhere, feel as though they belonged somewhere. If you’re interested in Poetry Therapy or the use of poetry as a therapeutic medium you might be interested in our literary guide “The Power of Poetry As Therapy”. You might also find our online Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health course helpful.
Technique 2: Literary Journaling or Diary-Assisted Reading
Green’s second experiment required participants to keep a daily diary where for 30 minutes every day each participant would reflect on their reading of the 1009-line poem Wordsworth poem, “The Ruined Cottage”, writing down anything that was important or interesting for them. Two weeks later, participants shared and discussed their reflections with Green.
Reflective writing has been shown to improve mood and well-being — particularly the work of James Pennebaker whose substantial research has shown that reflecting on our thoughts and feelings through writing has resulted in a reduced number of visits to the doctor’s, improved medical markers of health and higher grades.
In Green's experiments, this form of diary-assisted review (which also included video-assisted review) of how reading helped the participants, brought the reading experience to life. Some participants found that the poetry stimulated memories or that they found a sincere connection with the writing / poet /subject, and they reported experiencing a feeling of being understood or empathised with. Some participants reported the poetry making them feel less alone and that the poem was like ‘a true friend’. The poem was also supportive in that the poem provided ‘a rich and complex language for articulating feelings that they had ‘no words for’’.
For some the poetry offered new ways of looking at the world, shifting perspective and even offering new language and words to explore their feelings with, shifting habitual patterns that were not serving them. And for others the experiences of the characters in the poem reminded them of their own parallel experiences, e.g. the grief in The Ruined Cottage, reminded one participant of his own loss and encouraged him to confront his own grief, which he had been avoiding for a while, using the diary and the poem. The latter two tools offering readers a therapeutic space.
Dr Kelda Green found that the poetry enabled participants to access and explore their inner, emotional lives and shift their thinking towards more healthier patterns of thought. The ability of poetry to shift readers to different points in time (i.e. the past) allowed them to access unconscious or unexpected parts of themselves, which might have previously been buried. And the additional requirement to reflect/write about this experience, meant that they were processing any associated grief, pain and trauma that might have previously been stuck. At Book Therapy, we call this technique ‘literary journaling’ and if you are interested in learning more about this, you might find this article helpful. You might also find our literary journals, Book Therapy’s “My Book Journal” and “365 Book Journaling Ideas for Every Day of the Year” useful.
Technique 3: Letter writing to characters within prose or to the author
In this study, Dr Kelda Green required participants to read George Eliot’s Silas Marner and write a series of imaginative letters to the characters within the novel and the author. Participants were required to write two letters: (i) one to a character in Silas Marner and (ii) one written from the perspective of the character back to the participant. The choice of writing letters as opposed to other techniques, is that it reduces ‘self-exposure’ or ‘self-consciousness’ since you are writing from the perspective of someone else whilst still encouraging you to explore your inner thoughts and feelings using your own creative faculty. The technique also encourages focused reading and expansive reflection. Plus, letter writing is an established therapeutic practice.
One of the objectives of this study was to work out whether by reading and writing about other characters, could the reader internalise the psychological lessons, experience and wisdom of the character in the novel. The results of the study showed that participants were able to get out of their own heads and into somebody else’s mind through the reading and writing process. Readers were then able to look at themselves through the eyes of another character, whilst also still holding their own perspectives of themselves. This complex form of shifting and imagining multiple perspectives, which previously may not have been available to them, not only enables a sense of safety but also more exploratory, deeper thinking and allows for new ways of understanding each other. The results supported the view that reading can promote self-therapy and healing.
You might also enjoy the following articles:
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And also our online course:
Bibliotherapy, Literature & Mental Health
A big hello and thank you for reading! Passionate about literature, psychology, and life I launched Book Therapy as an alternative form of therapy using the power of literature. I train mental health professionals, librarians, teachers as well as readers on using bibliotherapy in their own work through our online Bibliotherapy, Literature and Mental Health course. We also curate reading lists/personalised book prescriptions for clients based on their individual needs. This is our signature personalised reading service.
You can also check out Book Therapy’s other free reading lists and A- Z of book prescriptions (covering both fiction and non-fiction). These suggest books based on your existing life situation (e.g. anxiety, job change, relationship heartache) as well as interests (e.g memoir, historical fiction, non-fiction, crime etc). There’s also a Children’s A — Z of Book Prescriptions. Feel free to check out the blog for more literary gems. There’s also a post on my personal story of how I entered the world of bibliotherapy and book curation.
In this role, I have had the opportunity to publish a book called The Happiness Mindset, and write various literary essays and pieces for newspapers and magazines. I have undertaken bibliotherapy workshops for The United Nations, various libraries in New York and corporate organisations in the UK and US. My book recommendations have featured in the Guardian, Marie Claire, NBC News, Asian Voice, New York Observer, Sydney Telegraph and various other publications. If you are a parent you might enjoy a podcast I’ve recorded with speech and language therapist Sunita Shah on Raising A Reader & Storyteller. And if you’d like to connect, email me at email@example.com or www.booktherapy.io.
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