By Rachel Ellis, Volunteer Coordinator for London North West.

As a Volunteer Coordinator for Beanstalk, I work with around 100 reading helpers in 50 schools across the London boroughs of Brent (where Wembley is) and Barnet (where Hampstead Heath is).

On an average day I’ll leave home in Ealing around 8am to get the train to a school. On the way I catch up on emails and education news and dip into a good novel. When I arrive at the school I sign in and meet the volunteer I’ll be visiting. They tell me a little about the children they work with, what books and activities have engaged them and what they’ve found difficult and I give them any new books and games they’ve asked for.

For a shy child, I’ll introduce myself and explain that I’m not there to assess them, then sit back and take a ‘fly on the wall’ approach. A more outgoing child will often invite me to join in the game they’re playing so I know they’re comfortable having an extra adult in the room. After the first session there’s a brief moment for me to highlight something positive about the session, such as how much the child enjoyed it, before the next child arrives.

I’m often struck by how different the three children are. A lively chatty boy who wants to spend the full 30 minutes talking about Power Rangers might be followed by a quiet girl who only comes out of her shell gradually as her reading helper builds a conversation out of the little comments she makes. Or a weak reader working on putting sounds together to decode each word might precede a strong reader who is practicing comprehension skills by speculating about the motives of a character in their book.

After all three sessions I talk with the reading helper about their experiences. Most reading helpers don’t have a background in education, but by following their instincts they pick up on some expert techniques. I explain the benefits of the specific ways they help the children, such as how prompting a child to correct themselves teaches them independence. Sometimes I suggest new ideas I’ve picked up on from reading educational research or from other reading helpers. One of the best ideas I’ve seen is replacing noughts and crosses with ‘b’s and ‘d’s to help a child who struggled to differentiate between similar letters.

One of my favourite parts of the job is hearing reading helpers’ stories about how they came to volunteer with Beanstalk. For some of the reading helpers I’ve spoken to Beanstalk is about passing a love of books on to the next generation, or ensuring the workers of the future have the skills they need, or making education as accessible to children from disadvantaged backgrounds as everyone else.

Mid-morning I visit our school contact. This is often the special educational needs coordinator or another member of non-teaching staff who coordinates provision for children falling behind. They are always full of praise for the reading helpers and tell me what a difference their help has made. Often this has been most evident in the children’s reading skills but we also see benefits to their behaviour, attitude and self-confidence too.

After visiting the school I take the bus back to the North West London office in Finchley. I’m usually brimming with positive things to say about the sessions I’ve just seen and I put this feedback in an email to the reading helper because people tend to cringe if you give them that much praise face-to-face! I include any ideas we’ve talked about and the school contact’s comments.

After a working lunch I spend the afternoon arranging future visits and offering support to reading helpers. They phone me for advice about behavioural or educational issues, or for help liaising with the school to give the children the best service we can.

I also arrange events to give the reading helpers a chance to share their experiences. Different people prefer different sorts of events so we invite them to small group discussions, social coffee mornings and large scale training. For example, when several reading helpers told me they were least confident working with children who have English as an Additional Language, I invited a specialist to run a training session for them. Local events can be a great opportunity to engage with the community by gathering people in a coffee shop or library, while area-wide events allow reading helpers to meet new people and hear from more prominent speakers.

I like to be busy so when my office day ends around 5pm I stay in London. I belong to Park Life Singers – a community choir in Queen’s Park - and All Souls Church on Oxford Street. On the evenings when I’m not there I meet friends for drinks or go to the National Theatre or the Old Vic for last minute tickets to a play.