News and views My reading helper story: chapter one By Robin Lustig, a Beanstalk trained reading helper, journalist and blogger Micky* and I had our last reading session the other day, and he had written me a note. 'Thank you, Robin, you helped with words, also I learned words and spell more words. I will miss you.' Micky is eight and English is not his first language. When we started reading Horrid Henry and the Abominable Snowman together, it took a good couple of weeks before he could get his tongue round 'abominable'. I wrote it down on a piece of paper for him and told him to practise before he went to sleep. You should have seen the grin on his face when he finally managed it. I regard being a voluntary Beanstalk reading helper mainly as a way to persuade the children I work with that (a) reading can be fun, and (b) that they can do it. I treat words as if they are toys -- Micky, for example, loved playing with my letter tiles (a bit like Scrabble tiles, but without the numbers) to change one word into another. Take the word 'though'. Add a 't' at the end and it becomes 'thought'. Take the 't' away but add an 'r' and you've got 'through'. He'd laugh at the absurdity of English spelling rules. 'It's crazy!' he would say. Sarah* is autistic and for the first two terms we worked together she never once looked at me. We sat side by side at our little table as she stared at her book and tried, not very successfully, to make sense of the words on the page. Eventually, she came to trust me enough for me to ask what kind of book she might like me to get for her. 'A Disney book,' she said, so I got her a copy of 101 Dalmatians. I was lucky; it was one of her favourites, and she had watched the film countless times. She knew the story backwards, and before we knew it, she was reading words like 'Colonel' and 'Cruella de Vil'. Now she's galloping through books at such speed that I am constantly having to remind her to slow down for the full stops. At my interview before I was taken on as a reading helper, I was asked to imagine what my life might have been like if I hadn't been able to read. I'm not usually lost for words, but I was stumped -- and it reminded me that without basic literacy skills, no child can have even a chance of a fulfilling adulthood. Jamie* is nine, big for his age, immensely affectionate to adults but finds being with children of his own age a real challenge. He hates being told what to do and is highly manipulative. Every activity we do together is the result of endless negotiation. If I suggest that he tries to read three lines, he'll suggest two lines, and then after he's done one, he'll say 'I've changed my mind. You do the next one.' We play endless games of Snap together, and he always wins. He would win even if he didn't cheat -- his reactions are at least 10 times faster than mine -- but he cheats anyway. 'It's fun,' he shrugs. Somehow, though, he is learning to read. There's now a real chance that by the time he goes to secondary school, he'll have reached a literacy level sufficient to help him survive. If it happens, it will be a huge reward. For him -- and for me. Being a Beanstalk reading helper and seeing the change in the children I support is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done and it’s a pleasure to be involved. I’d encourage anyone who has the time to apply to become a reading helper too! *All names have been changed to protect the identity of the children.