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Literacy charity appeals for volunteers as it prepares for Hackney expansion

Bookmark sends volunteers into schools to help children who are struggling to read.
Photograph: Bookmark

Bookmark, a new charity that wants “every child to read”, is starting up its literacy programme in Hackney.

This initiative couldn’t come at a better time; the borough, and the country as a whole, has a huge childhood illiteracy problem.

According to Bookmark, last year, in an average class, nine children in the UK left primary school unable to read to their expected level.

An inability to read, or even just an inability to read competently, has far-reaching consequences.

The modern world is set up around reading; people are expected to understand text messages, road names, medicine packets and more.

Those who can’t participate are often left feeling lost and excluded.

The Oxford Language Report has drawn a link between children who come into contact with more words on a daily basis – in other words, children with a higher vocabulary – and a reduced risk of adult mental health issues.

The World Literacy Foundation claims low literacy costs the UK economy £36 billion every year.

Safe to say, it’s a big issue.

That’s where Bookmark comes in.

The charity sends volunteers into local schools to practice reading with children who are struggling.

Volunteers can use an app to arrange 30-minute sessions at a time that suits them.
Photograph: Bookmark

Volunteers are trained to follow the charity’s process – 10 minutes with their classroom reading book, 10 minutes with a book of their choice (to develop a reader identity) and 10 minutes playing literacy games.

It’s a tried and tested method, supporting five– to eight-year-olds through these key developmental years.

Nasreen joined Bookmark last term, helping a child at a school near Shoreditch: “The impact of the reading sessions on my reader has been tremendous. She began to read complex sentences and comprehend a story.

“When she came across a new word, and learnt the meaning of that word, the spark and curiosity on her face made me feel proud!”

Bookmark aims to recruit a varied pool of local volunteers, all of whom are trained and vetted.

So far, they’ve seen interest from employees of their corporate donors, retirees and freelancers. This serves a dual purpose; not only do volunteers improve children’s literacy, they also expand the pupil’s worldview.

Children may never have met a freelancer or an older person before.

Most charities struggle to find and retain helpers, but Bookmark’s use of an accessible app makes it easier.

Volunteers can arrange half-hour sessions at a time that works for them.

As Bookmark’s Hackney community manager Claire Bourke puts it, they are “using tech to cleverly address a social issue”.

The charity has just started working with its first Hackney school, with plans to roll out across the borough.

And Bookmark is certainly set up for expansion.

In two years, it has gone from one pilot scheme in Camden to 35 schools all over London. It even has plans to spread out beyond the capital in 2021.

It offers five free programmes to every school that signs up and, more often than not, this transforms into a long-term partnership.

Each session costs just £1 per child.

Bookmark’s chief executive Kitty Higgins said: “We are so pleased to be working in Hackney, training local residents to support the children in their community to read.

“Reading is so much more than just enjoying books. It is absolutely essential skill for succeeding in education and employment.”

Higgins is hoping that more local people will volunteer so the charity can “ensure children here are not held back by lacking such a fundamental skill”.

For more information, including how to volunteer, head to

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