Doorstep Library is a charity that sends out teams of volunteers to read stories to children in low-income areas. I talked to Emily at DL about the challenges they face, the books they read and the difference their volunteers make.
Why is it important for children to read outside of school?
It is important to separate reading for pleasure from academic work. Children too often connect books with something challenging that they ‘have to do’ for school, and therefore miss out on the excitement and imagination that stories can bring. Encouraging reading outside of school – particularly of the books that they want to read – shows them that books can be fun, enjoyable, and can open up new worlds they never thought existed.
Also, when children start reading for the sake of reading itself, they are naturally practising, which will then support their school work.
What are the challenges in terms of other distractions? What are books competing with for kids’ attention?
Modern life is full of distractions and stimulations, particularly with technology. A lot of the children we visit have never thought to pick up a book for pleasure as they would rather be on their computer or watching TV. Even very young children are learning how to use iPads before they understand how a book works. These challenges are not insurmountable, but more promotion of books is needed now than in the past. It’s not that children don’t like books anymore, but with so many more competing pastimes, they are just not always aware of the pleasure they can bring.
We work in disadvantaged areas, so many of the families we visit are on a low income. This creates other challenges. When a parent is stressed or overworked, they can have little time or energy left to encourage their child to read or share a story with them. Parents are the biggest influence on a child’s development, but for many families reading together is not something they are able to prioritise.
How do you make sure reading doesn’t feel like too much of a chore, or more schoolwork?
We offer the children a wide range of books from conventional novels and storybooks to factual books, joke books and comics. We show children that there is something for everyone in the world of books. If you have an interest in Space – a book can nurture this. If you find a thick chapter book daunting – try a comic book instead. We ask the children what they want us to bring and do our best to fulfil their wishes, even if it means buying the requested book especially. This makes children feel confident in their own choices and listened to.
We are careful to let the child lead the reading sessions – if they don’t fancy a story one week, we’ll just swap books. If they are too tired to read out loud to us, we’ll offer to read to them. We want to make sure that our visits, and therefore books and reading, are associated with something fun. For the very little ones, regular interaction and conversation around a story book normalises reading from a young age, so hopefully it will feel much less like a chore when they do start school.
The charity relies on volunteers, but how much of what you do is about enabling parents outside of these sessions?
A big part of what we do includes involving the parents in the reading sessions. We find ways to engage with them and encourage them to stay in the room or join in. We talk to them about the books their children are reading and their progress. We are just volunteers who like reading with children – not teachers, not experts. We want to show parents that anyone can do this, and what’s more, it’s a hugely enjoyable experience and an important bonding time with their child.
Parents can also observe our volunteers interacting with the children – asking them questions, talking about the story, counting objects on a page – which helps them not to expect their child to necessarily sit down and quietly concentrate on an entire story. They can make the story up or just talk about the pictures. Many of the parents we visit do this already, but there are those who don’t know how to go about reading with their child in a rewarding way – perhaps they were never read to as a child, perhaps they don’t feel they have the time, perhaps they aren’t confident with their own literacy. We show them by example that the sharing of a book in any capacity is a valuable and enjoyable experience.
Any particular books you and the volunteers have had a great reaction to?
So many! Anything by Julia Donaldson or Nick Sharratt are winners with most children. For the older children, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, and books by Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo are always popular.
We have recently discovered an author called Hervé Tullet who creates very unique and interactive books. Volunteers delight in reading Press Here with children – there’s a page where you’re told to press a painted dot, then you turn over the page, and find it’s changed colour. Or you shake the book and find on the following page that the dots have fallen out of alignment. The reactions from children as young as 3 up to those as old as 11 – and even our volunteers – have been of wonder and excitement.
Go to www.doorsteplibrary.org.uk to learn more about Doorstep Library and watch a short video about the work they do.