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27 August 2015

A vision to see every child reading

A vision to see every child reading

Rachel Ellis, from West London, desires to see every child achieve a good level of literacy before secondary school. She is a volunteer support worker for Beanstalk, a national charity that recruits, trains and supports volunteers to provide one-to-one reading support in primary schools to children who have fallen behind with their reading. Lucy Cooper talks with Rachel Ellis...

“With a sizeable commute to the boroughs of Brent and Barnet on which I focus, I’m usually out of the door early and on the train to arrive at a school before 9am. I spend my travel time going through the plan for the day or, yes, reading – authors such as John Stott or CS Lewis, or maybe a novel like Les Miserables. I love reading, but for me it is not so much about passing on a hobby but more about passing on an essential life skill.

Visiting the volunteers in the schools is one of the best parts of my job and I do that most mornings. This support meeting is a chance to check up on them, but in reality it is just a welcome opportunity for me to praise and encourage them. Children can be a bit thankless so just pointing out how far the pupils have progressed is uplifting. We talk about anything that might make their work even more effective and address any difficulties. I observe a session and remind them what a great and important job they are doing.

Reading support offers a second chance to children who have often missed their first chance at learning to read in the classroom, for whatever reason. Sometimes pupils have given up on themselves, have no home support or their confidence has plummeted.

One-to-one reading support is about investing in them and showing they are worthy of time and effort, and for Christians, because they are worth something to God. If the children are disrespectful or muck around, you give them another chance to be respectful and keep learning. I think of it as a
relationship of grace. This morning I sat with a boy who has come on in leaps and bounds with his reading. We played snap at the end of the session and I had that moment when I said “Ooh I’m playing snap with an 8-year-old and this is my job… how exciting!”

Last week I was with a girl who suffered neglect when tiny and she wasn’t taught to sit up so her muscles hadn’t formed properly. At the start of the year she was finding it difficult to sit, hold a pen or write more than single words. Now she has just finished a whole story for the head teacher.

Her volunteer had encouraged her a little every week, and her muscles had got stronger along with her confidence. Late morning I will meet with our school contact, usually the head teacher or special needs co-ordinator for an update.

After lunch I will go to the office in North Finchley. Beanstalk was founded in 1972 by Magistrate Susan Belgrave who noticed that a lot of the young people coming through her courts had really low levels of literacy. If a teenager is still not reading well; the last thing they will do is engage with school work. Illiteracy is associated with truancy, exclusion and later possible unemployment or even prison. That is why it is vital to address problems before they get to that stage, before they leave primary school.

Beanstalk started with seven volunteers and it has now hit 3,000 UK wide. I will deal with emails, paperwork, arrange more school visits and look for ways to attract even more volunteers.

I might analyse results and measure levels of progress of children while at the office. 

We tend to work with children who for the last year or two didn’t make any progress at all. On average they will make two sublevels of progress which means they move from stagnating to catching up with their peers. The teachers often comment that improved reading has changed behaviour and the attitude toward learning.

All this began for me at university. I heard that 11 per cent of children were not reading well enough to access what is going on in the classroom and I knew I wanted to make a difference and offer love and grace to struggling children. I began tutoring and learning how to teach reading and spelling. Later, working with teenagers in Harrow was great, but I was always thinking, if they are reading at the level of a 10 or 8-year-old at 16, why wasn’t this picked up when they were 10? Volunteering just for an hour and a half a week is one small but vital way Christians can meet local needs and give back to the community. 

When I get back home for the evening I love going along to my community choir to sing my heart out. We sing world music and it’s so fun. I enjoy being part of All Souls Langham Place too. There’s little time that I am not thinking about how Beanstalk can expand and how we could recruit more volunteers because we urgently need more. Please get in touch if you want to change a child’s life.”


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