Being a Beanstalk Reader

beanstalkGive a Book recently had a lovely conversation with Jill Pay, one the trustees of the wonderful Beanstalk. Jill is also a volunteer with them and told us about the experience of being one their readers.

Jill took it up 4 years ago because she wanted to give something back. Passionate about books and reading, she knew from her own experience and that of her children and grandsons the great joy and importance of reading. Her desire to do something coincided with The Standard’s excellent ‘Get London Reading’ campaign and the matter was settled. She started at St Mary’s School in Battersea and has been going there regularly ever since.

Jill did the 2 days training that Beanstalk requires all their readers to do. In it you’re given ideas on how to run your reading sessions, the importance of playing games with the children and how to choose those games, you learn about child protection and your own as well, you’re told of the importance of focus and concentration and also– perhaps most importantly of all– you’re given the unsettling, even frightening, experience of what it feels like not being able to read. You’re shown a page of incomprehensible hieroglyphics and asked, simply, to decode it. Imagine that.


The Beanstalk reading sessions are child centred—the child chooses the books, the games and leads the session, guided by their reading helper.

Each volunteer commits to going to a school twice a week, seeing their 3 children, one to one. There is great importance given to this continuity, reliability, consistency — of the child having the undivided attention of a non-judgmental adult.

Jill told us about one girl whom she’d helped through years 4,5 and 6 who could read technically but initially she couldn’t concentrate. She had a limited attention span and could never finish things. Now she’s gone on to secondary school confident, capable and an excellent reader. A lot of the children Jill sees are good technical readers but can’t do the decoding that leads to comprehension. Some have English as a second language so have scant help for their reading at home. Or there is no culture of reading and books at home.  Some of the children have never had a bedtime story.

Beanstalk volunteers are not teachers, they have no reading method although it is helpful to understand the methods that the children are taught. They try to see things from the child’s eye view, and to build that child’s confidence as much as anything. We asked if the experience of being a Beanstalk reading helper was rewarding for the volunteer as well as for the child and Jill said “Yes, it is totally rewarding to see the children develop and sometimes you see the light go on..”

She ended our conversation by recommending this poem by Julia Donaldson:

I Opened a Book and in I Strode

I opened a book and in I strode.
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
my town and my world behind me.

I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,
I’ve swallowed the magic potion.
I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king
and dived in a bottomless ocean.

I opened a book and made some friends.
I shared their tears and laughter
and followed their road with its bumps and bends
to the happily ever after.

I finished my book and out I came.
The cloak can no longer hide me.
My chair and my house are just the same, but …
I have a book inside me

If you’d like to find out more about becoming a Beanstalk reading helper too please call 020 7729 4087 or visit


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