Oliver Cross: Helping teenagers to read can be rewarding but tricky

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THIS WEEK, for the first time in living memory, somebody decided I had experience worth passing on.

I have worked for some time (‘some time’ being a phrase I use when I have forgotten what time, exactly) as a volunteer at the City of Leeds secondary school, reading with recently-arrived immigrant children to try and help them catch up with their English.

Now 11 new volunteers, most of them from Business in the Community, are about to start the same job and I’ve agreed to give them a short talk and answer their questions, even though my general attitude to question-and-answer sessions, if I’m the answerer rather than the questioner, is to retreat to the back of the room and say not a word.

I will tell them that the reading sessions are rewarding if dealing with children who want to learn, which is almost all of them, and frustrating if dealing with children who don’t, which is, I suppose, the story of teaching, although I never confuse myself with a teacher. I’m not trained enough for that; all I can do is offer children, usually aged between 11 and 14, my undivided attention and hope that helps them to edge their way into the English-speaking world.

Some might think that this is a misplaced effort on the grounds that Britain has too many immigrants – that immigration, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, encourages low wages, which are welcomed by the National Farmers’ Union and cheapskate employers but don’t do the rest of us much good.

But trying to help recently-arrived immigrant children to settle in and become educated above a level which would qualify them to pick cabbages in Lincolnshire has little to do with politics.

The children I read with have been dragged, mostly without having any say in the matter, half-way across the world to a place where few people speak their language. I can’t tell whether they’re homesick or happy to find themselves living a city which they may never have previously heard of, but I think it would be wrong not to want to help them, particularly if, as is the case with almost all the children I read with, they want to be helped.

They seem to be as adaptable to new situations as global capitalism expects them to be and (with a few exceptions, obviously) are as pleasant and polite as British-born teenagers sometimes aren’t. Mostly, it’s a delight to see them reaching a stage where they can perform at school as well as a native-born English speaker, because skilled workers, in a sensibly-run economy, are never wasted whatever their origins.

But a note of warning to the new reading volunteers; you will not know, until you’ve tried it, the pitfalls of explaining things to people who don’t have English as their first language.

Last week, for example, I came across the word daffodil while reading with an Arabic-speaking girl who looked totally baffled. I explained that daffodils were very common yellowish English flowers and that she could see them by the sides of the road and in all parks and gardens.

Then, while walking back from the reading session, I realised that the daffodils were fading fast while thousands of dandelions had come into flower all at once – “Continuous as the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way,” as William Wordsworth put, referring to daffodils rather then dandelions, although I think he got things back-to-front.

Anyway, I will have to explain to my reading-pupil at our next session that dandelions aren’t daffodils. This is how voluntary work gets you into interesting corners.

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