At the root of all learning is self-esteem – children in touch with their own strength and ability and confident enough to make mistakes without seeing themselves as failing. Judy Taylor Hough explains how Volunteer Reading Help provides children with reading difficulties with one-to-one experiences of being valued and included as they share books with their volunteer helper.
‘No! It’s much too difficult for me!’ is the familiar reaction to almost any book that is opened at my first meeting with the somewhat apprehensive six-year-old I have taken out of the classroom, ‘for reading’. But what often attracts attention is the lid of my now rather well-worn suitcase of books and games, where the initials V R H are outlined uncertainly in green sticky tape. ‘What’s that mean?’ can be a useful ice-breaker and my explanation that V R H stands for Volunteer Reading Help leads on to discussion about the meaning of the words. It often comes as a surprise to the children of inner London that someone might do something for someone else without getting paid for it.
The first sentence of the Handbook that is given to all Volunteer Reading Helpers sums up well the function of VRH. ‘The aim of Volunteer Reading Help is to provide relaxed adult help for those children who do not find reading easy or who lack confidence in their own ability.’ In other words, those who elect to give their time to this remarkable organisation do not teach children to read, for they are well aware that this is the prerogative of the teacher, the trained expert. Their aim is to help to build in each child the awareness of self-esteem, to enable the child to experience the joy of success and, above all, to show that books and reading can be not only a source of interest but also a source of great pleasure.
The volunteers, both men and women, range in age from eighteen to eighty and come from diverse backgrounds – banking, nursing, public transport, telephone operations, publishing, parenting, even teaching. No formal qualifications are required but each prospective VRH is rigorously interviewed and, if accepted, given a short training course before being assigned to a school, preferably near their home. Armed with a suitcase containing twenty-four carefully selected books and four games provided by their branch headquarters, the VRH is supported with further training, support group meetings, book exchanges, visits during the term and with newsletters.
Having committed themselves to the task for at least one year, a VRH works with each child individually, the same three children on every visit, going into school twice a week for three half-hour sessions. As the reading sessions must be held outside the classroom and no child may be taken off the school premises, it has been known for a school to be faced with a logistical problem which was only solved by bringing a previously-believed abandoned stockroom back into use.
How VRH Came About
At the end of 1998 it will be twenty-five years since the first Volunteer Reading Helpers started work, seven of them in two London junior schools, and today there are over fourteen hundred volunteers in primary schools as far apart as Yorkshire and Dorset. Like a number of other successful charitable organisations VRH was the brainchild of one inspired woman. As a governor of a London comprehensive school in the 1970s, Susan Belgrave was confronted with the problem of those children who had reached the age for secondary education without being able to read, a situation which presented almost unsurmountable difficulties for the child and which frequently led to truancy. Susan Belgrave stated her concerns at the time in an interview with Elaine Moss: ‘Children don’t go to school because they can’t face what is going on there. They can’t read, so they don’t understand what they’re supposed to do. They miss a day and then they miss two days…’ She was convinced that the reading problem must be tackled in the primary school, with the then seemingly wild idea of providing one-to-one support for those children who were experiencing difficulties. Already hardpressed class teachers could not possibly be expected to manage such a thing themselves on a regular basis, so it must be provided by others.
In those days the Inner London Education Authority was responsible for education in the capital and in 1973 the Staff Inspector for Primary Education, Vivian Pape, was persuaded by Susan Belgrave to give his permission for a two-year trial of her idea in the recently established North Kensington Project Area. The scheme was run entirely from her home and by the end of the following year there were twenty-eight VRHs working in seven schools in three London Project Areas. By 1975 the ILEA were providing rooms for meetings and training and paying for a few hours’ secretarial help, but it was not until 1980, when there were over one hundred volunteers, that VRH was able to move its administration out of Susan Belgrave’s home and into ILEA office space. Several Trusts helped to fund day-to-day expenses and to pay the salary of a part-time Organising Secretary. That same year VRH became a registered charity and Lady Plowden and Peter Newsam became its first Patrons.
Today Volunteer Reading Help is supported by the DfEE, by schools, charitable trusts, private and public companies and by a growing number of Local Education Authorities. Lady Plowden and Sir Peter Newsam have been joined as Patrons by Sir John Milne, Sir Claus Moser, Lady Rees-Mogg, Prunella Scales and Sir Stephen Tumim. There is a national office in central London, with a staff of nine co-ordinating the work of twenty-eight branches throughout the country. There are 1,412 Volunteers helping 4,236 children and the numbers are growing every year.
Every Child is Individual
Although every VRH has attended similar training courses and uses the books and games that come from the same carefully chosen resource, it is up to each one to awaken the child’s interest in the written word in his or her own way. My own experience over seven years in an Inner London school has shown me that there is nothing gained by having any set plan or trying to keep to a timetable.
I started working with three ten-year-olds who were in that last, desperate year before secondary school, with the threat of never catching up hanging over them. I soon discovered that one child could, in fact, read quite well, but took little interest in the mechanics of it and failed to see what the point was. He was a keen footballer and a whizz on the computer, so writing a footballing story together, followed by him giving me a lesson on the computer made a good start. Then one day Stephen told me he was being taken on a family visit to Gloucester, a place he had never heard of and knew nothing about. So, on my next visit, I brought in a map. It took quite a long time for him to find Gloucester in the index, and then to solve how the map reference worked, but then we followed the route to Gloucester from central London, first by rail and then by road (‘All those red lines look like things coming out of a heart,’ was one comment). After we had read The Tailor of Gloucester and I had recited ‘Doctor Foster’, the trip was beginning to take on quite a different aspect.
Another ten-year-old was quite a different matter. She knew her letters and a number of words had somehow been retained in her mind but what Tracey really needed was someone to take an interest in her, someone who would read to her and share books with her. We had a marvellous time with fairy stories of the Cinderella kind and with playing games – for which you had to ‘read’ the rules before you could start. A few weeks later I met Tracey’s Mum at the school fair and asked her if she could possibly spend some time each evening reading with her daughter. As soon as I had said it I realised that my suggestion was a lost cause. Tracey’s Mum couldn’t read, either.
A Matter of Confidence
I now work with six- to seven-year-olds and with them it is largely a matter of confidence. To discover their reading level I start with something very simple like How Do I Put It On? by Shigeo Watanabe or Duck by David Lloyd, both books they find funny. We then progress through all the favourites in the suitcase, with Babar proving a recent unexpected success, the character being familiar from television, and the introduction to the French setting and the purchase of shirts with separate collars, bowler hats and spats being source for endless discussion.
I also find doing crosswords of considerable help. Appearing to be a game, a crossword involves both reading and writing skills and is probably the child’s first encounter with lateral thinking. Once the clue has been deciphered, it never fails to come as a surprise that there is yet a further stage to go. Last term we made our own alphabet book, upper and lower case letters, four words for each letter, chosen, drawn and captioned by the one whose turn it was that day. We cheated only with Xx, choosing words like ‘axe’ and ‘box’ and highlighting the x in the caption. Making a book also gave me the opportunity to introduce book-making terminology, for as well as a cover we had to ensure that there were decorated endpapers, a proper title page and a dedication.
VRH has proved not only of benefit to the children who are chosen to receive help; it also gives a sense of being needed and a good deal of pleasure to the adults who take part. One VRH wrote about just how she felt: ‘To share in a small way in the blossoming of a child who is not a relative or a friend – a process in which good teachers are involved all the time – seems a rare privilege.’
Judy Taylor Hough is Chair of the Inner London branch of Volunteer Reading Help. For further information contact Volunteer Reading Help, Room 438, High Holborn House, 49/51 Bedford Row, London WC1V 6RL (Tel:/Fax: 0171 404 6204).