“If you’re reading this blog to be told what books to choose for your child, I’m sorry, I can’t do that. ” – Rachel.
Rachel writes from literacy charity Beanstalk and is our guest blogger.
Tidy Books supports Beanstalk, the national literacy charity which places volunteers in schools to read one to one with children who’ve fallen behind with their reading. Our recent competition was designed to help Beanstalk create a reading corner and help volunteers encourage a reluctant child to fall in love with books. Rachel tells us how the reading volunteers work their magic…
Only someone who knows your child can do that. That’s why our volunteers begin by getting to know their children using games, discussions and, yes, books. Books like ‘Charlie Cook’s Favourite Book’ by Julia Donaldson, ‘You Choose’ by Pipps Goodhart and ‘ABC UK‘ by James Dunn. Once you’ve begun to know the child, you can begin to choose their book.
One of our volunteers was allocated to a child who was one of twin sisters. “She can read well but she lives in her sister’s shadow” the teacher told him. He chose ‘Double Act’, a Jacqueline Wilson novel in which a shy twin finds her voice. It wasn’t necessary for the volunteer to spell out the similarities between the fictional Garnet and the girl reading about her. He simply introduced the right book and watched it work its magic.
In Allan Bennet’s ‘The History Boys’, a teacher tells his pupil “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” This empathy drives adults to read, and by choosing a book with which a child can empathise, you enable a child to experience that too.
The books you choose give the child a message about you
Lots of the children our volunteers see can’t tell us what sort of books they like. They don’t have the vocabulary to categorise genres and can’t call to mind any hobbies or interests, so asking multiple choice questions leads to disjointed conclusions like “So you’d like a book about Chelsea FC, Romans and magic?!” But don’t give up. Imagine the message you give to the child when you return with ‘Frankie versus the Rowdy Romans‘ by Frank Lampard! You’ve listened to the child. You’ve puzzled over their words, sought recommendations from wizened book people and been on a quest to your local bookshop or library or Beanstalk reading corner and returned with something precious: a book just for that child. Now they have incontrovertible proof that they matter to you.
There is a Beanstalk legend about a particularly well-to-do volunteer – the sort of lady who reads ‘The Lady’ – you know the sort I mean. She was allocated a boy who was interested in one thing: wrestling. The next day when she popped into the corner shop she gave the friendly news agent the shock of his career by calmly requesting her copy of ‘The Lady’ and a WWF magazine: (“no sir, not World Wildlife Fund, World Wrestling Federation!”) You can imagine the effect it had on the chid. He spent half an hour twice a week teaching his volunteer all about wrestling, barely noticing how his reading became more fluent week by week. By going out of your way to choose a book which is personal to the child, you send them a message that they matter.
The books you choose give the child a message about your relationship
Much of what children do in schools is compulsory, and rightly so; it prevents gaps in their learning and develops their work ethic. But in order to instil a love of reading for pleasure we offer something tangibly different to work. That’s why many Beanstalk volunteers begin their session by spreading out anything from three to twenty books across the table. “What do you want to read today?” they ask.
In their first session together, one volunteer used a multiple choice personality quiz to get to know her child. ‘Are you a Horrid Henry or a Perfect Peter?’ asked the title. The child smiled when he read the answers about pulling pranks, but consistently chose the options which revealed him to be a compliant ‘Perfect Peter’ type. For the next several months of reading together, the child was allowed to choose the books and games himself. Even when he stumbled over a word the volunteer told him what a great effort he’d made and helped him work it out correctly. One day he chose the Horrid Henry book and turned back to the quiz. This time his answers were different. Knowing now that there was no risk of judgement or criticism from his volunteer, he expressed a mischievous sense of humour more like Henry’s than Peter’s! By offering a choice of appropriate books, the volunteer had given the child the message that, regardless of is choices, she would accept him unconditionally.
Beanstalk volunteers see children who have never experienced the empathy of reading, never had someone take the time to choose a book just for them or never been given the unconditional freedom to choose a book themselves. The right book is important because of the messages it gives, whether a child is receiving those messages for the first or the millionth time. And that will be much easier when books on offer are displayed in a logical, original and stylish way.
Rachel provides support and advice to Beanstalk reading volunteers, who in turn deliver tailored, ‘one-to-one’ sessions to hundreds of children in primary schools across London.
Thank you to everyone who entered our recent competition with Beanstalk to win a Tidy Books Bookcase and help Beanstalk create a reading corner for their reading volunteers. We couldn’t have done it without you!