6th June 2019

The first couple of times I wondered whether I was up to the job.

Anxious S asked me at least a dozen times, ‘What’s that noise?’ He was very interested in water and clanging pipes but not in the book in front of him. He also kept trying to head off back to his classroom. Blue-eyed B, I realised, has some minor speech issues and isn’t always easy to understand. He traced his finger along the page like an expert reader, but whatever he was trying to convince me he was reading, I know for certain it wasn’t the story in front of him. He, too, couldn’t wait to get away. 

A couple of months down the line and S has forgotten his worries and sprints across the playground in the direction of our special corridor that houses the book box as though he can’t wait to get there. He still can’t pronounce his letters but he enjoys pointing out things in the books and his interest is growing. B is improving every week, thanks to his teachers, not me, and as a result his focus is, too. My third five year old has been happy from the start so the challenge is more about giving her the confidence to understand how well she’s coming along. With all three there’s lots of laughing and joking as well as getting down to serious business.

As a professional editor, novelist and journalist I have always been a prolific reader and writer, but I give credit for my ability and delight in reading at a young age to someone who was barely literate herself. My well-off parents could afford a housekeeper. Her name was Gladys, and in her spare time she would sit and read with me for hours so that by the time I was five I was a fluent reader myself and her own skills had improved as well.

Literacy is not a privilege, it’s an essential life skill. If children fall behind when they’re little it’s harder to catch up later.

For many children, including those I read with, English is not their first language and may not be spoken much at home. And with both parents in the majority of families today likely to be working, often there’s simply not the time to encourage children with their reading. 

The work that Coram Beanstalk does is really important. For volunteers like me, it’s a joy.

Written by Linda Kelsey, a Coram beanstalk reading helper in London.

Find out more about how you can become a reading helper in your local area.