The YEP is on a mission to get leeds reading by recruiting 40 new volunteers to support youngsters in the city’s primary schools. reporter DEBBIE LEIGH joined a training session to find out what’s involved.
As someone who has loved reading for as long as I can remember, it was difficult for me to imagine how it must feel to look at a page and not understand what was written on it.
But a simple training exercise with children’s literacy charity Beanstalk transported me to that position in a flash.
The national organisation recruits, trains and supports volunteers to work in primary schools with pupils who have fallen behind with their reading.
And the Yorkshire Evening Post has joined forces with Beanstalk in a bid to save the city’s youngsters from lives blighted by illiteracy.
Last year, more than 1,000 of the city’s 11-year-olds did not reach the expected reading standard and hundreds joined high school with the reading skills of a seven-year-old.
Most teachers don’t have the time to provide one-to-one support for those that are slipping behind, but a small army of Leeds volunteers is doing what it can to make a difference.
I joined a training session with a group of YEP readers who have applied to become Beanstalk volunteers as a result of our Get Leeds Reading campaign.
Presented with three lines of bizarre hieroglyph-type symbols, we all stared at the page, baffled as to how we were supposed to translate it.
I felt confused, frustrated and inclined to switch off because we had been presented with what appeared to be an impossible task.
Yvonne Sinclair, Beanstalk’s northern regional manager, then allowed us to look at the picture of a pirate ship on the bottom of the page and encouraged us to use that image as a clue to what the text might be about.
Her little hint opened my eyes and suddenly I could identify a six-letter word as “pirate” and from there, locate those letters in other words.
She kept us motivated by promising a chocolate biscuit for the first person to decode it.
And she kept us focused by dishing out praise and clues – “look at the picture again, use your knowledge about pirates, sound out the word”.
The sense of satisfaction, once the text was decoded, was enormous. And of course, scoffing my reward made the struggle even more worthwhile.
The exercise was a really effective way to demonstrate the simple techniques that can be used to keep youngsters interested and help them to succeed.
Yvonne is keen to point out that Beanstalk reading sessions are child-led. The volunteers ask what they want to do and which books they would like to read – giving them a sense of empowerment as well as highlighting the difference between their usual studies and these sessions, which take place away from the classroom.
Yvonne, who has been training volunteers for seven years, said: “It’s not just reading – we are talking, listening, playing games.”
She added: “Every child has the ability to achieve. We just have to find that key to open up that door.”
While the ultimate aim is to improve literacy, the sessions also help to build self-esteem. Youngsters who find reading a challenge are often failing at most subjects and have low confidence.
A quick “diversity statistics” quiz highlighted common misconceptions about education and immigration. Many people assume that children who fall behind with their reading come from poor backgrounds, speak English as a second language or have parents who simply don’t bother to read with them.
But barriers to literacy can range from hearing problems to sight problems, lack of sleep, lack of reading materials at home, busy parents and illiterate parents.
What becomes clear from the training session is that what Beanstalk offers is far more sophisticated than your average parent-reader scheme.
Each volunteer undergoes two days’ training to provide them with the skills, knowledge and confidence to run their 30-minute one-to-one sessions.
Grandfather Geoff Day, of East Ardsley, said it had opened his eyes: “I just thought you go into school and help children to read – but there’s a lot more to it. There was a lot of good information given to us to equip us to go and do the job.”
Our next task was to read out a paragraph of words written backwards.
After stuttering and stumbling my way through it, I realised my energy had been so focused on the mechanics of deciphering each word that the overall meaning of the text had eluded me. Plus sounding out each word was so tiring, I felt drained by the effort.
It was easy to see how children with literacy problems quickly lose patience and come to the conclusion “reading is boring”. Even the most beautiful prose would seem insipid if every word was a struggle.
The exercise emphasised the importance of re-reading sentences to ensure children understand their meaning and therefore experience the pleasure that reading can bring
It cleverly gave us a clearer understanding of the problems faced by youngsters and the emotions accompanying them.
In a bid to excite youngsters about reading each child is provided with a personalised box containing books and games specifically tailored to their interests. So whether they’re into fairies, horses or football, Beanstalk will provide resources they can relate to.
Yvonne said: “Whatever the child wants, we will try and get.”
She added: “One helper took washing machine brochures in because the child wanted to be a washing machine mechanic.”
Sue Fallon, from Shadwell, knows how well this can work. Her son wasn’t excited by reading but when he discovered comics, his attitude changed.
“I got him these Match of the Day comics so he didn’t actually feel like he was reading.
It was about finding what was interesting to him.”
My brief glimpse into Beanstalk’s training process filled me with confidence that each of our Get Leeds Reading recruits will be well prepared before entering the classroom – and the city’s children will be getting the best one-to-one support available.
What are we asking?
We are looking for 40 YEP readers to become volunteers with our campaign partner Beanstalk.
What is Beanstalk?
A charity providing one-to-one reading support in deprived primary schools.
Who can apply?
Any adult who is literate. All volunteers will be interviewed by Beanstalk and must pass a Criminal Records Bureau check. You will be fully trained by Beanstalk.
How much time will it take?
A 90-minute session twice a week between 9am and 3pm during term time for a year. You will read with three children. Schools will be near your home or office.
How do you volunteer?
Go to: www.beanstalkcharity.org.uk/news-and-media/get-leeds-reading-campaign or ring Beanstalk on 0113 815 1744 or 0845 450 0316.