How to volunteer with a reading charity in Britain

From teaching literacy in prisons to bringing books to vulnerable children's homes, here are some ways you can volunteer to spread the joy of reading.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin
There are plenty of reading charities that offer opportunities to volunteer. Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

Never has there been a more important time to spread the joy of reading. Almost nine million adults are functionally illiterate in the United Kingdom, meaning they have a reading age of 11 or below, according to the National Literacy Trust, while children's reading levels are the lowest the charity has ever recorded. 

And the coronavirus crisis has done anything but help. With libraries, bookshops, schools and reading initiatives being forced to close for most of the summer, while charities have faced the tightest squeeze in memory, reading resources for those who need them most have plummeted. 

But there is a silver lining. Since the lockdown began, volunteering in the UK has soared as more than ten million Brits answered the call to help the nation's most vulnerable. 

It goes without saying that, at Penguin, we believe reading is the most important skill a person can have. The ability to read enables children to discover new worlds, learn about themselves, others and the past. In adults, it can transform lives (The Literacy Trust says that 60% of prisoners in the UK "have difficulties in basic literacy skills").

So, if you would like to lend your support to reading charities in the UK, whether in prisons or with disadvantaged families stuck at home, here are some of the places with whom you can volunteer. 

The Children's Literacy Charity

What: The Children's Literacy Charity is an independent charity that works with schools and communities to give disadvantaged children the literacy skills for a better chance in life. To this end, they set up Literacy Labs in schools and community centres to provide a dedicated space away from the main classroom where children who are struggling with literacy can get one-to-one help with a trained tutor.

How you can help: The labs are split into two parts. First children spend 30 minutes working one-to-one with a literacy tutor to address their needs, then another 30 minutes with a volunteer, reading stories and sharing games. The charity provides training to all its volunteers, and expects a minimum of one session a month during school term-time, on Saturdays or after school hours.  

The Shannon Trust

What: The Shannon Trust is a pioneering prison literacy charity, which grew from the unlikely correspondence between a Sussex farmer and a prison lifer, dedicated to helping prisoners across the UK improve their reading. Through the charity's Reading Plan peer-mentoring programme it encourages, supports and trains prisoners who can read to help those who struggle.

How you can help: They accept volunteers “from all walks of life” who are passionate about reading, no formal qualifications needed. Having attended two training workshops to learn the basics, you'll be assigned a prison where you'll help “unlock the power of reading” by offering advice, guidance and support to prison staff and mentors. Typically volunteers give seven to 14 hours a month, spread over two to four days.

The Doorstep Library

What: The Doorstep Llibrary is a charity that sends volunteers into the most deprived areas of London to introduce children up to the age of 11 to the joys of reading.

How you can help: Volunteers travel in pairs – each with a backpack full of books and two small stools to sit on – to the homes of five disadvantaged families every a week. There, you'll read stories and lend books (which you swap the following week), while engaging with parents on the life-changing power of reading to children. “Our volunteers don’t just read stories though; they do the silly voices, hand pick the books, and give special recommendations,” says the charity. “By making it fun first, we get to watch children transform into budding readers and we love parents to get stuck into the sessions too.”

Give a Book

What: Give a Book is a UK charity works with prisons, schools and with disadvantaged children to promote “books and the pleasure of reading in the hardest places”. Their many projects include providing books for school reading groups, mother and baby units in prisons, mobile libraries and more.

How you can help: Organisers say they always need volunteers to help with reading groups, family days (in prisons and schools) and other events, as well as with the packaging and distribution of books for its projects.

Coram Beanstork

What: Coram Beanstalk recruits, trains and supports volunteers to provide one-to-one literacy support to children, from three to 13 years old, who have fallen behind with their reading. The charity's main goals are: improving children's reading, inspiring confidence in their own ability, and increasing their enjoyment of reading.

How you can help: Each Coram Beanstalk reading helper works with an average of three children, providing consistent support on a weekly basis, for a whole school year. Together, they read, play games and have book-based conversations. To apply, visit the website.

Read Foundation

What: The UK-based Read Foundation specialises in sustainable and emergency education for refugees and internally displaced children around the world. It has projects in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Gambia, Yemen and Pakistan.

How you can help: They offer a range of volunteering opportunities, from administration to events, coordination, fundraising and marketing. For more information, check out the website.

Books Abroad

What: Books Abroad is a Scottish charity which supports education in developing countries across the world by redistributing second hand books and e-readers.

How you can help: Volunteers who can travel to the organisation's headquarters in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, can help by sorting, selecting, listing and packing books to support the charities projects abroad. But for anyone who'd like to help from further afield, you can donate your unwanted books to be redistributed to the charity's network of schools around the world.

The Book Trust

What: The Book Trust is the UK's largest children's reading charity, dedicated to inspiring children to read. Each year, the charity says, it reaches 3.9 million children across the UK with books, reading courses and support via its network of children’s centres, schools, libraries and health professionals.

How you can help: You can donate through the charity's website, regularly or as a one off, or organise your own fundraising events (they can help with ideas), or visit the website for volunteering opportunities.

First Story

What: As England's leading creative writing charity for young people, First Story pairs professional writers with secondary schools in low-income communities, where they work with students and teachers in a bid to develop young people’s creativity, confidence, and writing skills.

How you can help: You can volunteer to help core staff in the charity's London office, including programme, communications and fundraising administration. It also relies on volunteers to help deliver the charity's annual Young Writers’ Festival, held in Cambridge every December, as well as other region-specific events in Yorkshire, the East Midlands or London.


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