Helping kids get literate for life

I love this quote:

Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend.  Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.   Groucho Marx

Words, books and reading have been – and still are – an essential part of my life.

I can’t remember there being a time when I couldn’t read. Obviously I had to learn to read when I was a small child but I have no recall of how I learned and could read and write to some extent before I started infant school at the age of five. H.G. Wells described this process beautifully:

I had just taken to reading.  I had just discovered the art of leaving my body to sit impassive in a crumpled up attitude in a chair or sofa, while I wandered over the hills and far away in novel company and new scenes…  My world began to expand very rapidly,… the reading habit had got me securely.  

So it’s shocking to find out that 1 in 5 children in England (and 1 in 4 in London) left primary school last year struggling to read.

Here’s another worrying statistic. According to the National Literacy Trust in its report Literacy: State of the Nation, a quarter of children and young people do not recognise a link between reading and success.

Prompted by the Evening Standard’s ‘Get London Reading Campaign’ which was launched back in May, I applied to be a volunteer with Volunteer Reading Help (VRH) – a charity that aims to transform the lives of children by giving them the gift of reading.  For the past 38 years, VRH has been training and supporting volunteers to help young children who struggle with their reading.  And it has an impressive track record – in 2010, 96% of the children VRH worked with improved their confidence in reading.

The Get London Reading Campaign generated a huge response from Londoners. More than 1,000 people (including me) contacted VRH to offer their services as a reading helper. Businesses and individuals, from Google to the Duchess of Cornwall, also responded with generous donations to fund the training of volunteers. (For every £500 donated, a school matches this to fund training for one VRH volunteer.)

Last week I completed a two-day training course run by VRH London North West branch. I was one of 14 potential volunteers. Each of us hopes to be placed with a local school sometime in November.  Once there, we’ll work with three struggling child readers twice a week in half-hour sessions for at least two school terms.

Image courtesy of VRH

Can lives be transformed and enhanced by reading? Of course they can. It’s a no-brainer. That’s why it’s crucial that children who are struggling to learn to read are given that little bit of extra help so their confidence grows and they can begin a lifelong passion for reading.

As my two daughters were growing up we must have read thousands of books to them. It’s no coincidence that they love to read. I’m hoping that I can pass on my love of words and reading to the school children I’ll be allocated to.

The prospect is daunting and exciting in equal measure. But as one long-serving VRH volunteer told us last week: “Don’t be scared. You’ll love it, because you can really make a difference.”

If you’re interested in becoming a VRH volunteer then click here.

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