Hands up if you want to read” – Several eager hands shot up, followed by several more, obviously encouraged by the response from their peers. This was my fifth week as a volunteer reading mentor at Chapel Allerton primary school, and I was amazed at the difference five weeks had made. During my first week of the programme, I was met with apprehension from the Year 5 pupils I was working with. They eyed me cautiously, gaze flickering towards their teacher, their peers, back to me. As the weeks went by, apprehension was replaced with the kind of curiosity you would expect from a 10 year old. “Are you going to be here every day?” “Are you a teacher?” “How old are you?” And so on.
Let Leeds Read is a programme set up by Leeds Beckett University and the Students’ Union. Its aim is simple, to give more children in Leeds and surrounding areas the opportunity to read and develop their literacy skills, whilst providing an opportunity for university students to get involved in a worthwhile volunteering program. Cara McCosh, Senior Projects Officer for Volunteering, Study Abroad and Exchanges at Leeds Beckett spoke to me about the idea behind the project: “Let Leeds Read provides rewarding volunteering opportunities for students in a school environment. This reading project, working with local primary schools surrounding the university campuses, enables student volunteers to work one on one with children listening to them read with the aim of increasing their reading age over a 10 week period.”
The Let Leeds Read programme is going into its third year, and looks set to be just as successful in 2015 as it has been previously. Assistant Head teacher and Literacy leader at the school, Samantha Heal, took the time to share with me her beliefs about the importance of individual reading time within schools. “One-to-one reading, especially for those children whose parents have literacy problems, speak English as an additional language, or are just too busy, is an important part of the reading provision at school. Benefits include; time to read to an adult and discuss yourself as a reader, increased fluency and the opportunity to develop expression and confidence. For children who do not receive good support at home, it is vital.” Unfortunately for many schools in and around the city centre, putting this one to one reading time into practice internally isn’t as easy as Samantha would hope. “We aim to hear these children read every day if we can, but staff capacity to do this is not always possible so volunteers really help.” Samantha’s passion for developing thorough literacy skills in her pupils is evident. She encourages reading volunteers to ask pupils to summarize their story so far in order to develop comprehension skills, pupils are encouraged to read a range of genres and also to vary between fiction and non-fiction, ensuring a thorough and wide knowledge of literacy.
During my time as a reading volunteer I can acknowledge the importance of enjoying reading. The well-stocked and meticulously organised library space at Chapel Allerton primary school, with its comfortable seating and calm atmosphere encourages reading for enjoyment as much as it is possible to do so. I read in this environment with children at various stages of reading ability and with every new reader I ask the same question: “Do you enjoy reading?”. I receive a hesitant shrug or an embarrassed head shake from a small handful of pupils, though none of these are pupils at the top end of the ability spectrum. By encouraging pupils to regard reading as a fun experience in a comfortable atmosphere, Chapel Allerton school and many other schools involved in the program are going a long way towards improving pupils’ general attitude towards reading.
But is Let Leeds Read helping?
As previously mentioned, the project is only going into its third year. However, the response from Leeds Beckett students has been incredible and as a volunteer for Let Leeds Read myself, I can say that it is one of the most rewarding programmes I have been involved in. For only one hour a week you have the opportunity to contribute to and support the development of pupils’ literacy skills and to develop skills of your own too. Rebekah Redford, a student at Leeds Beckett and a Let Leeds Read volunteer, firmly believes in the programme. “It’s a really nice feeling knowing that we’re helping pupils at the school and it’s also beneficial to us as volunteers. We learn to deal with new situations and to develop our patience and understanding with the pupils. The teachers are so welcoming and grateful for the help, as it gives them more chance to have one on one time with their pupils too.” However, as Sam Heal told me, it isn’t always easy to immediately see the impact that these programmes are having. “Measuring impact of initiatives like these is tricky as obviously quality first teaching, specific interventions and other initiatives will all be working away to improve levels.” Thankfully, she believes that the pupils at Chapel Allerton are responding enthusiastically to the programme and she strongly encourages reading volunteers to build relationships with the children beyond their reading, to establish a sense of friendship and trust. I personally encourage anyone to get involved in Let Leeds Read or similar projects within their own Students’ Union. Knowing that the work you are doing in your spare time is potentially developing a child’s ability for future success is an amazing feeling and I know that my passion for this campaign will undoubtedly stretch beyond the length of the ten week program. I, for one, will be volunteering again this coming year- will you?
The Let Leeds Read programme starts on the 5th October and the deadline to apply is the 14th September 2015. Please email Emily Stevenson – firstname.lastname@example.org – for an application form.