Jane has been a Beanstalk reading helper for three and a half years in the Canterbury district. In this article she encapsulates her Beanstalk experiences...

Privilege, Keys, Focus, Stamina, Confidence and Enjoyment

Privilege may seem an odd idea to start with, but I’m someone who was employed in education all my working life and it wasn’t long before I realised that with Beanstalk I was able to do something that I’d never had to the chance to do before. That’s to help individual children twice a week for half an hour each session. And to enjoy reading and activities that aren’t prescribed by curriculum expectations. Teachers don’t have the opportunity to do that and nor do the majority of teaching assistants.

It’s a bit daunting when you start out as a Beanstalk reading helper, you’ve had your training and you’ve got your box of tricks but you have to meet and get to know three children. Some are interested in what’s on offer, others aren’t. One of my first youngsters was a monosyllabic Year 4 boy who showed no interest in the reading activities and games on offer or even just having a chat. After a couple of sessions I managed to tease out from him that he liked playing chess. So I brought in some chess pieces and we started to play mini games as half of each session. …. He was better than me at it! The deal was the other half of the session would be reading activities. I’d found the Key to getting him engaged. By the end of the year he was happily choosing and talking about books and I had to enjoy share reading the whole of Wimpy Kid.

Half hour sessions can be quite long for some youngsters and it can be tough for them to focus, particularly when other things are happening in an open working area. That’s particularly the case for the ones I call the bouncing Tiggers or the little owls who can turn their heads almost all the way round.

Often other children passing through come over for a ‘chat’ to see what we are doing and want to join in, which actually makes the Beanstalk youngster feel special in a positive way.

A strength with Beanstalk sessions is being able to break them down into different activities to keep children focused for the whole time. Gradually I encourage them to build up the amount of our time that is focused on texts that are developing reading for enjoyment and meaning. At the end of each reading slot we count how many pages they’ve read, then they put it on their own bar graph (choice of felt tip colour becomes very important!) so they get to see their building achievement. As a Beanstalk reading helper mainly I’ve supported youngsters in Years 2 to 4. Children who usually know basic words and can read short simple sentences. But now comes the next challenge, for them to develop reading stamina. I choose to ‘share read’ with the youngsters…… most often a ‘this page for you and the next one for me' process. Because we’re participating in the activity together we can share the listening, reviewing, predicting and understanding of the text quite informally in a conversational way. Even the most competent readers still like me to take an occasional turn at reading so they can listen and enjoy the story. There’s always great excitement about getting to the stage of reading mini chapter books. I recall a WOW moment when a proud Year 2 Tigger read a whole mini chapter book in a session refusing to allow any help from me.

We sign up to be Beanstalk reading helpers but I reckon much of our impact is to help our youngsters build confidence in themselves and their own worth. It’s great to see their confidence in reading skills growing but also their general confidence to make choices and decisions and have a voice in how our sessions work. As our working rapport grows over time a conversational confidence grows and becomes a give and take of views and ideas. So we have lots of chats about things which matter to them and of course birthday parties and who’s friends with who in the playground!

I make every effort for the youngsters who have been assigned to me gain enjoyment from our sessions. I try to pick up on what interests them, so, for instance, if they’re keen on drawing we might make mini cartoon books related to our book characters and their situations. And five minutes at the end of the session creating doodle creatures is currently the carrot for one youngster to have a good go at the reading activities.

But the enjoyment isn’t just for the children. I get pleasure from sharing the time and activities with them and making sure they are happily busy and gaining confidence in being readers.

By Jane Nelson

If you would like to find how you could help primary school children in your area become more confident and able readers, please visit our volunteering page