Beanstalk – lighting the fire of literacy in children

Support: Joanna Sholem of Beanstalk helps Kenzo French (Jeremy Selwyn)The ability to read well is so fundamental to success of any kind, yet too many children in this country, through no fault of their own, are held back by poor reading.

The OECD regularly surveys member countries (basically the world’s most developed countries) in terms of skills, which includes assessing levels of literacy. The report on the UK makes sobering reading, not least it shows that: England is the only country where 16-24 year olds have lower literacy and numeracy skills than 55-65 year-olds; and, overall the literacy of these youngsters are ranked 22nd out of the twenty four OECD countries. Now, given that the vast majority of skills and capabilities rely on reading and writing that it is a real shocker.

Not only other skills, but almost any form of participation in society requires literacy. Not least, with so many services and applications now online, gone are the days where one could rely on speaking to somebody to get what you need (thereby avoiding the need to read or write). Inability to read or write properly thus leads directly to social exclusion. Indeed the OECD report states: “England and Northern Ireland show one of the strongest associations between socio-economic background and literacy proficiency among young people and among the broader population of 16-65 year-olds. However, unlike most other countries, this association is stronger among young people than among the overall adult population”. What that means is the problems of social exclusion are only going to get worse unless something changes.

Sadly social exclusion is a real issue in the UK for many people. Obviously, the first point to make is that the poor levels of children’s literacy reflects pressures in education and local authority funding specifically including services like libraries alongside staff numbers. However, there are many other factors. Poverty is clearly another major one. There are though other causes. The UK is a highly multi-cultural society with many people having arrived from other countries going on to bring up children here. Clearly in many cases any issues with literacy will be exacerbated by English not being the first language. Indeed there are many cases of children assisting adults to engage in society because they, the children, have better English and literacy skills than their parents.

One key point resulting from this is that external help is definitely required, because, with the best will in the world, if the parents do not have appropriate levels of English literacy, for whatever reason, how can they help their own children to do better at reading and writing.

This issue of children’s literacy is not something that has happened overnight, and many people are now addressing this critical issue. Indeed this was recognised, amongst others, by Susan Belgrave in 1973 who, following a trip to New York where she saw a volunteering reading scheme in Harlem, set up Volunteer Reading Help (VRH) in the UK. Over forty years later they are now “Beanstalk”.

In the last school year Beanstalk helped over 11,000 children across England in almost 1,400 schools through the help of nearly 3,100 reading helpers. They also now partner with many organisations from Save The Children to the National Literacy Forum in order to further their core aim of ensuring an increase in children’s literacy in this country. Their work is fabulous, not least as the vast majority of it is done by volunteers who are the bedrock of the scheme as the reading helpers for all these children.

It makes a real difference, not just, of course, to individual children’s lives, but also to whole communities. Social exclusion and associated issues that particularly disadvantaged communities have, can be turned around, and addressing children’s literacy has proven important as part of that.  A case in point is Angell Town in Brixton (South London) where in the local primary school half the roll are eligible for free school meals and eighty per cent speak a foreign language at home. Having been a very deprived area with the help of the Evening Standard’s “The Estate we’re in” campaign, a core element of which was Beanstalk, there has been a steady improvement over the last year. The Rev Rosemarie Mallett, chairwoman of governors and parish priest, said: “The school has returned and the community feels the centre of the estate is back up and running instead of being an empty black hole. It has given the estate a sense of anchor and stability.”

Beanstalk goes from strength to strength – see more at their website here:

If you are passionate about reading and stories, perhaps if you are ever tempted to volunteer, being a reading helper might be right for you, letting you pass on your love of reading to the next generations.


Source: OECD “Survey of adult skills – first results – England and Northern Ireland (UK)

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