Volunteering: Reading Comes Roaring Home

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Taken from Read More Live More (a 2008 National Year of Reading Publication) published in February 2008. Written by A M Poppy, Volunteer Reading Help Communications Manager.

Volunteer Reading Help (VRH) is a national charity that helps disadvantaged children develop a love of reading and learning. The charity does this by recruiting and training volunteers to work with children aged six to 11 who find reading a challenge and may need extra support and mentoring. A new training programme from VRH brings confidence and materials to parents and carers who want to help children to read. A M Poppy, VRH communications manager, describes the programme and how it can support the National Year of Reading.

If you are faced with parents and volunteers brimming with good intentions towards children, but needing more support in their efforts to help, a solution is now easily to hand.

A bespoke training course for people who want to help children learn to read is available across England from Volunteer Reading Help, the country’s largest volunteer literacy charity. ROAR (Reach Out and Read) has been piloted in Leeds with Sure Start participants and proved a great success. One individual said: “Good practical suggestions and helpful materials to use at home.”

“We tailor the session to suit the needs of the participants,” says Lesley Sharp, a ROAR trainer. “The best part is showing them how much fun learning can be. So we use exercises, games, and group discussion. Then we let the participants reflect on how they can use the same techniques with their children.”

ROAR is based on extensive experience. For nearly 35 years VRH has been training volunteers, placing them in primary schools, and providing them with ongoing support. In that time, the volunteers have boosted the literacy and self-esteem of nearly 100,000 children who were in danger of falling through the net.

The participants most appreciate the variety of ways they learn to encourage children to read. They also value learning about appropriate books, games and activities to make reading enjoyable.

“Teaching children is easy when you know how,” says Lesley. “But at first it can be hard to imagine not being able to read so people can’t identify with the child’s problem and don’t know the ways into the solution.”

ROAR presents participants with puzzles that remind them how it feels not to be able to read and shows them ways to solve the problems. These exercises also remind the participants of the importance of building confidence in making progress. Other modules tackle issues such as using games, libraries, and overcoming problems associated with poor English and poor communication skills.

“You know it’s worked when the participants say that overall they’re more confident now in helping their children,” says Lesley. “It’s all very worthwhile.”

There are so many reasons for being a reading helper it’s hard to know where to start. Working with a child who is obviously enjoying the exclusive experience of having an adult, who is not their carer or teacher, playing games, talking to them, and revealing a whole new world through reading to them is hugely rewarding. This is especially true if they don’t have an extended family. Being the envy of the other children in the class helps them to gain confidence and is enormously flattering! I am not alone in feeling like this – there’s one woman I know, who says that being a volunteer reading helper is the most satisfying thing she’s ever done:

I approached VRH initially as a result of working as a magistrate in youth courts where the literacy levels of defendants were often strikingly poor. I hoped that working with pre-teens might help to nip offending in the bud. I go into my local primary school twice a week for an hour and a half and chat, play games, and read with three children over a year. I find out something new every time I go in, about the culture and life of the young people, which is a huge bonus – you never stop learning.

Volunteering in this way also anchors me in my community. I sometimes bump into my children and their families in the local shops, and they always say, “hello miss”. There’s one child who used to walk past my house on his way to the library, which thrilled me – I’d be in my front room and he would wave.

I build a relationship with the children; I learn about their lives and I tell them about my family life. I discover what makes them laugh, what they’re interested in, and I feel valued too. One of my volunteer colleagues says she’d almost pay to do it, it’s such fun.

Then there’s the bonus of when the teacher tells me that one of the children’s reading has been assessed and they have made a three-year improvement in the one year since we started. It’s all so rewarding. The only downside is when the children move on to secondary school, and our meetings stop - but that’s what growing up is all about. At least I know I have done what I can to make secondary school a good experience.

By A M Poppy

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