Guest Blog from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Helping children to get more from their reading

I loved reading when I was a boy. Books fed my imagination and I lived the adventures I was reading about. The magic of a good story is something I still hope to create myself as a writer one day, but for the time being I’ve tried to pass on that love of stories to my own children – and I’ve been volunteering for the York Cares Right to Read scheme.

Once a fortnight, I spend an hour at a local primary school, listening to children reading. I usually see six or seven kids each time I go, and there’s always a real mix of personalities and abilities, which is what keeps it interesting and makes it fun. Sometimes, I don’t need to do anything much – just give the child my attention, or a little encouragement. Other times, they need some help with tricky words, or someone to help them make sense of what’s happening in the book they’re reading. Some of the Dr Who comic book storylines have proved pretty challenging, even for me!

With that range of personalities and abilities comes a huge variation in how much the kids enjoy reading. Last week, I was taken aback when an unassuming little girl sat in front of me holding Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. As she eloquently and effortlessly interpreted Dickens’ difficult prose, clearly loving it, I must confess I got a lump in my throat. It made me remember why I want to be a writer myself.

At the other end of the book-loving scale, one girl I see quite often will do anything to try and avoid reading. One week, she tried to get away with just reading the page numbers. Another time, she was reading a book about places to visit in the UK – or rather, trying to get away with not reading it. She spent a good five minutes flicking through the book, deciding which page she wanted to read. I eventually convinced her to read a page about the coast. It was clear she couldn’t have cared less, so I tried to engage her in conversation about it. The conversation went like this:

Me: What’s this, in this picture?
Child: Don’t know.
Me: It’s an otter. See this word here, next to the picture? That says ‘otter’.
Child: Don’t like otters.
Me: Really? Oh, I thought he was cute.
Child: No. Don’t like it.
Me: Oh well, they probably smell of fish or something.
Child: Yeah.

That encounter, too, made me realise why children’s books are important. OK, so that otter might not have inspired my reluctant reader, but I’m convinced that something else would – it’s just a question of finding the right subject and presenting it in a way that unlocks her imagination or makes her laugh. For my own son, there was something about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books that suddenly made him want to read.

Another girl told me she didn’t like reading, but I asked her to give it a go, then she sat and read her book beautifully. In fact, she wanted to read more than we’d planned. It was a rewarding moment for me when I was able to tell her how well she’d done, and to see that she enjoyed reading a lot more than she thought she did.

All the kids – regardless of their age, ability or interests – deserve encouragement and some quality time with someone who will listen to them reading, and Right to Read volunteers help to make that happen. Of course their teachers listen to them too, but volunteers help to fill the gaps when their time and attention is stretched. We can help children to get more from their reading, and that’s why I do it.

Becoming a Right to Read volunteer is pretty straightforward. You go to a training session run by York Cares, complete a DBS check, you’re assigned a school (you can choose whereabouts you want to volunteer), then you have a short induction at the school.

Paul Brook, Content Manager, Joseph Rowntree Foundation