Helping children learn to read with Beanstalk

Posted on the 1st June 2018

I remember the exact moment I stumbled across Beanstalk. Sitting on a bus, flicking through the Evening Standard, I read about a campaign to encourage Londoners to help primary school children learn to read. I remember thinking that it sounded fun, worthwhile and the sort of thing I’d love doing, but my full-time job in the BBC prevented me from doing anything else in the day.

It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I’d left the BBC to go freelance, after 15 years as a national news producer, that I found myself with the luxury of free time during the day. I’d forgotten the name of the charity by that stage so sent a speculative email to my local primary school offering help with reading, but never heard back.

I eventually searched online, found Beanstalk, and within a couple of months – after an application form, checks, an interview and a short training course – I was placed in a nearby primary.

The training was an eye-opener. Although I love kids, have two godchildren and see my friends’ young children frequently, I’d never really considered the process of learning to read and how difficult it can be. I was lucky to have been brought up in a household surrounded by books and newspapers – and by parents who loved and encouraged reading – but many children don’t have that start.

I was lucky to have been brought up in a household surrounded by books and newspapers - and by parents who loved and encouraged reading - but many children don’t have that start.

Reading for pleasure

My first group of readers were seven-year-olds, all delightful but struggling in different ways. For one, the slightest thing, even a tiny insect on the other side of the room would distract her, which was often amusing but sometimes hard to control; another needed practice with basic vocabulary; while one has low confidence.

Choosing books with them was a real pleasure – seeing their faces light up when we found a book on a subject they loved like cats or cars – was immensely rewarding. It was in those first months I discovered the key was to find out what their interests and passions were and to show them how much more ‘expert’ they could become if they could read about it. One of the girls loved chocolate so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the obvious choice. I don’t know who was more excited actually, me or her.

I don’t know who was more excited actually, me or her.

To sugar the reading pill, each half-hour session with a child is split into 20 minutes reading, and 10 minutes of games. It’s fair to say they look forward immensely to those last 10 minutes. It could be cards, Connect 4, noughts and crosses or Scrabble. Unless they’re missing a PE session, the joy on their faces is unbridled.

My latest group of children – this time Year 4 – are also delightful and again all need help in different ways. One was just not interested in reading. However, once I found a book on wild animals (his favourite subject) he was much more enthusiastic. It was lovely to watch. At our last session, he’d got so far through the thick book we were reading that he asked if he could take it away to show his teacher how far he’d managed to read on his own. It was hard not to feel like a proud parent.

It was hard not to feel like a proud parent.

I can honestly say that volunteering with Beanstalk has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I’ve ever done. It’s easy to see the enormous difference it makes to the children – I just wish there were more of us to go around.

If you want to volunteer, email: info@beanstalkcharity.org.uk or call: 08345 450 0307.

Visit: www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk

Sarah Deech

Sarah is a volunteer with the charity Beanstalk.

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