26 August 2022

Why we volunteer - Dianne Rowney and Kirsty Robb from Royal London

We caught up with two of Royal London's team of Chapter One online reading volunteers, Dianne Rowney and Kirsty Robb, to find out how they had enjoyed their first year with the programme

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Dianne has been at Royal London for 30 years, and leads a team in the company’s Edinburgh office whereas Kirsty, a Change Practice Manager, has been with the company for just two-and-a-half years and is based in Alderleigh Park, Macclesfield. Kirsty has moved around different companies in her career, mainly in the financial services sector. Despite their different locations and career paths, the pair have found that volunteering with Chapter One has offered them and other Royal London colleagues something to bond over and a real boost to their working week.

Why did you volunteer for Chapter One?

I was looking for something a bit different. I wanted to do something worthwhile, something that I was interested in and that would be almost a kind of break. I've got a lot of nieces, nephews and godchildren and I've always been the one that buys them books and reads with them. So I thought Chapter One could work well for me and it's well organised. It was limited to half an hour a week and it fell in with our Royal London volunteering days. Once I got started there was absolutely no looking back!

I've always loved having the opportunity to give back. I'm dyslexic, but I love reading and I always remember the time and patience people had with me, like my parents and one particular teacher, in helping me to learn to read when I was getting frustrated as a child. With Chapter One, the children aren't dyslexic, they just need a bit of extra help, but I know how much that extra support helped me and I wanted to be able to do that for somebody else.

Tell us about the children you have been reading with

I’m now reading with two children, a girl and a boy. I was initially reading with just the little girl, but it was going so well and I could see the difference it was making to her, so when an opportunity came up for a second student, I put myself forward. My first student was quiet at the beginning and then she started to become so much more open, much more confident. Sometimes she just wants to talk and to ask about me. She’s like, “You're from Scotland. What is Scotland? What does it look like?” Lots of questions, which means that you can help broaden her horizons.

Having two children has also allowed me to understand the different levels children can work at. It helped my awareness of when you can push them a wee bit more, when to hold back. So I could give the first child a wee bit more of a difficult story and I could see how she’d really like that. If I said to her “We're moving up a level, we're going to orange this week” she was so excited and then every week she’d ask, “Am I still on orange?” She was so excited and so keen! And she was also keen on me giving feedback to her teacher. That was really important to her. So I made sure after every session that I messaged the teacher about what we had been doing and some of the key things that my little girl had said or did during the session, for example some big words that she had used.

The little girl I read with this year was a little bit different to Dianne’s in that she remained quite shy. Later on she opened up a little, but generally there was always a bit less interaction. She loved the stories, loved reading, loved showing off what she could do on flashcards, which was fantastic! She loved the stickers you could send through as well. They were brilliant! Her progress wasn’t necessarily as dramatic as with Dianne’s first child, but it was definitely there. She went from really struggling with some words to being able to pronounce some. I think her family background meant that there were also challenges around different ways of pronouncing English words when you're not a native English speaker. For example, she would always pronounce any words that ended in e with a long e sound. So ‘like' became ‘lick-ee’. It meant that I was grateful we weren't on video a lot of the time because her pronunciation changed the meaning of certain words and you can't laugh, you can't giggle, but sometimes it's hard not to!

I focused on just really encouraging her and she really enjoyed our sessions and started telling me how much she loved reading. She started practising reading with her little sister and reading at home - it was really good to hear her enthusiasm! Like Dianne, I always sent a little note to the teacher after our sessions saying what she had struggled with, what seemed better, what wasn’t so good. I only got a response from the teacher the first time I did that but I figured teachers are busy people, so I carried on providing the information because it only took me a couple of minutes at the end of a session. I loved the whole experience and would recommend it to anyone.

Now that you’ve completed your first year, can you share any good tips for new volunteers?

  • Find a quiet place

Find somewhere to do your sessions where you're not going to be interrupted, or feel self-conscious about saying things out loud or whatever. One of the things that I started doing with my child was asking her to read a sentence first and then I would read it back to her. She really liked that and I when I did special voices for different characters. I think she was able to hear the words pronounced differently from when she was at home and that’s been helpful to her. I probably wouldn’t have done that if I was sitting surrounded by colleagues in the change department!

  • Don’t worry if you have strong accent

An issue for me and one of the other volunteers here in Edinburgh was that we both have very broad Scottish accents and we were worried that the children would struggle to try and understand what we're saying! But it wasn’t a problem. My girl would go, “Sorry, what did you say?” and just got used to hearing and adjusting to English being spoken with a different accent.

  • Experiment and be led by your child

I wasn’t nervous about reading with a child but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it. I think the Chapter One practice area is really good; being able to go on the platform and have a go and look at some of the books, flash cards and games was very useful. I would use it to see if my child would be able to go to the next level by doing part of the trial session at that higher level. My first child really liked the Word Sort game on the platform even though it was obvious that she was just picking a colour and not really understanding it. But I thought to myself, “Never mind, we'll go with it” and I would try to make up for her not understanding by reading the words back to her and talking about what was in the boxes. And then one week the penny suddenly dropped and from then on she was on fire! She would look at the words and immediately knew exactly where they had to go and she would start joking with me saying, “I tricked you!” It was a fantastic moment. It’s important to take time to know your student and what really makes them tick.

My reader had trouble understanding the concept of a lot of the games, perhaps because she’d never played things like Three in a Row before. So we stuck to the games that worked rather than getting frustrated. And we read lots of stories together. She loved picking the stories and would tell me if we were reading one about NASA how she might be an astronaut when she’s older, and things like that. I loved the diversity in the stories. Whether you like space, gardening, cats or dogs, or fish, it was all there and it was really cool. A big change from the old Ladybird books!

I tried to be aware of jumping in too soon to correct my pupils if I knew they were struggling with a word. If they got through a paragraph and they had got only one or two words wrong, I just let it go because a lot of the time jumping in can actually put them off if you’re not careful. Sometimes I would just say to them, “That was really good or funny, wasn’t it?” which gave me the excuse to read the passage back to them. And then the next time we read the story together, I would notice that they had listened to me and would be able to say the word or words correctly.

  • Dealing with your pupil being distracted or unenthusiastic

An important part of being a Chapter One reading volunteer is gauging the situation. I remember the training telling us not to worry if we were met with a lack of enthusiasm during a reading session; don’t take it personally. That is very true because I noticed there were maybe one or two sessions when my student’s mind seemed to be elsewhere. I messaged the teacher to tell her my little girl seemed a little distracted and she told me that there had been a change to the class timetable and our reading slot now clashed with gardening which my student loved. So I changed the slot and it was better again. I did change sessions around quite a bit and it was okay; you've just got to be a bit flexible.

Also, I came to realise that my child loved being challenged. If I said to her things like “Well, now, would you like to try some difficult words?” Oh, my word! That was it! If she was a bit unsettled in a session I would say to her, “I think it would be really good if I could tell your teacher today that you read all that book yourself and it's 13 pages.” She’d say, “Yes! Yes!” So tactics like that would help her get back into the mindset and move to the next level.

Sometimes there might have been something more exciting going on in the classroom or my child’s mood might have been low. We might do 20 minutes and then she'd tell me her ears are sore from the headset so I’d say, “Okay, no problem, see you next week!” And I agree with Dianne - I'd never go in and correct her. It would always be me re-reading something back to her to inject a sense of fun and she really responded to that.

  • Worrying about saying the wrong thing and safeguarding

I was nervous about the safeguarding side of things, meaning that I was very cautious about asking my child too much or the wrong thing. But again, as you go along you get used to your child and are led by them. My child went to Arabic school on a Sunday, so she talked about that, and she talked about her teacher. And she asked me what religion I was and what did that mean? And I thought, well, that's okay because it's just widening her horizons if I talk about that. And one day she told me an Arabic poem and other days she talked about her upcoming birthday and her bike, or asked to see my garden because I had told her in response to a story we read together that I grew peas in my garden.

If my child asked me questions, I would very happily answer them, but I would never ask her anything directly. Sometimes things just came off of the back of the story we were reading and I came to know that she has a mum and a sister and I think she has a brother, who she kept mentioning occasionally, and a cat whose name I couldn't pronounce which she thought was hilarious!

  • Tech troubleshooting

I did have one session where I had problems connecting and the Chapter One help desk was absolutely fantastic and got me back into our reading session straight away. We only had about a few minutes left anyway, and I said to my child, “Sorry about that, speak to you next week, the computer wasn't feeling well.”

  • Dealing with classroom noise

A couple of times I really struggled to hear my student because of background classroom noise and we became quite frustrated. I got round it by asking her to read me a story (even though I couldn’t really hear her all that well) and then reading it back to her. It took the frustration away.

  • Scheduling time and sharing your volunteering experiences with colleagues

I would always block out 10 minutes before and after my 30 minute reading session just so I could be sure I was ready. I'm very conscious that, unlike when you're having work meetings and you can sometimes be a bit late, I didn't want my child to think I'm going to be late or I'm not going to turn up.

I did exactly the same. I didn't necessarily block out time afterwards but definitely beforehand. Talking to other colleagues who volunteer with the programme, we all agree that we will move anything, but not Chapter One! I would sometimes use the 10 minutes prep for a coffee break and flip through some stories on the platform to prepare for the session, particularly if I was moving my child up a level. It was a nice brain break to think through how I would approach our session.

There’s another colleague of ours, Ingrid, who is signed up with Chapter One. The three of us agree it's the best half hour of our weeks. It’s really fun! We realise the value of sharing the experience with colleagues and being able to say, “Have you tried this, have you tried that?”

Chapter One is always the first thing that we end up talking about! Kirsty and I meet regularly and we always share our Chapter One experiences with each other and it's the same with the one or two that I know in the office here in Edinburgh as well.

  • Don’t underestimate the impact you have on a child’s life…

At the beginning you think, can half an hour a week really make a significant difference? You don't want to waste time - neither the child's nor yours - but then as soon as you start you're like, wow, it really does make a difference! That half hour is so powerful.

  • … nor the impact it can have on your life and wellbeing

I knew I really wanted to volunteer for Chapter One when it came up but I didn’t appreciate how much I would get out of it personally. Yes, you're going in and you're helping support a child with their reading, but don't be surprised if you actually come away and think, “Oh, my word! I got so much out of that!” It really is a two-way thing.

  • Have fun!

In professional life there's a lot of us that will spend a lot of time worrying “Am I doing the right thing? Is this okay? Am I an expert?” To the child you’re reading with, you're always going to be an expert. They're going to love whatever you do with them and whether you just play games one week, or maybe you can't remember how to play a game, they don't mind, they're not going to notice, they don't care. Just relax and have fun and feel free to use the Chapter One resources as fits you and the child.

How can companies get involved with Chapter One?

Chapter One’s virtual, time-efficient, flexible model for volunteering will enhance your company’s employee value proposition, whilst fulfilling CSR or social value commitments around education, social mobility and inclusion. Employees can:

- volunteer online directly from their desks with no travel

- make a direct impact on the lives of disadvantaged children

- support local communities across the UK

- improve their own well-being by helping others

- reconnect with your company’s social purpose

If you’re interested in joining us, we’d love to hear from you! You’ll find out who we currently work with on our partners’ page. You can contact us here or email sarah.taylor@chapterone.org.