Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Tips & Games for Reading Helpers

Last year I became a reading helper for Beanstalk, a charity which works at improving literacy in primary schools. The seed was sown three years previous when I read about the Evening Standard's literacy campaign. 

At the time I felt the required minimum of three hours a week sounded too much. In my post Emily and the Beanstalk I share my reasons for finally going ahead with volunteering.

I read with three children aged 9 and 10 years old. At first I felt I needed to prepare before every session, but now I'm much more confident and trust our box of materials to find stimulating reading and plenty to talk about.

Over the course of my first couple of terms, I've discovered a few things that work with the children I'm helping. I thought I'd share them:

A Game for the Distracted Reader

One of the children I read with was always distracted and none of the books held her interest. To be honest, I didn't blame her. So many of the books were dull and some quite depressing. Suspecting that she was quite clever, and only fidgeting because she wasn't being motivated enough, I devised a game that, to my surprise and delight, she instantly loved.

What you need: Scrabble letters, dice (optional), timer (optional)

I wrote a list of 12 challenges e.g. Find a synonym of angry, Name an Animal beginning with D, Give me an adjective to describe a bedroom, An adverb to describe how Mr Johnson ran... 

Then she would roll the dice, I would read out the challenge and she had to come up with a word and spell it out in scrabble letters. She loved trying to think of the word which would use the most letters. When the pieces had run out and she was left with lots of random words, she then had to make up a silly story using those words as she returned the letters to the scrabble bag.

A Book for the Upset Reader

I rotate the reading sessions and do my best to avoid taking the children out of sports or dance, or anything they might love. Unfortunately one day I didn't have much choice. The child was quite upset and I felt awful. Luckily I'd picked up a joke book from the last Beanstalk Book Swap and so I started reading that to her. 

Soon enough she took the book from me and started reading them out herself. She even started telling me jokes from memory. It was a relief to see her smile. 

It's a mistake to think reading only counts when there's a 'proper book' involved. Whether it's Top Trump cards, the back of a cereal box or The Hobbit it all counts as reading.

A Play for the Reluctant Reader

If a child's not very interested in reading books then I've found plays are the way forward. You can download them at twopageplays.com

At first the child looked unimpressed when I brought out A Gift from Winklesea. She chose the parts she would read and we began. When I put on an exaggerated voice, she followed suit and we really got into the story. We read for fifteen solid minutes without taking a break and I was so chuffed when she said, 'that was fun!' The good thing about reading plays together is the child has to keep focused so they don't miss their part. We shouldn't be afraid to be a bit silly sometimes!

Popular Books

I was quite shocked at how many miserable books there were for 9-10 year olds in my box of books. I expect they are written so that kids learn about the 'real' world. Well, when I read novels, I want to be transported into a different world, to imagine, to savour, to laugh... Here are just some that have done that for the kids I've been reading with. 


To find out more about Beanstalk, visit their website. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Lessons from the Writing Journey: Chill Out

After three months working on a novel, with 75,000 words already written, the agent phones up to say she doesn't like it. 

I'm on reception, temping at an osteopathic clinic. It seems inappropriate to sob in front of the waiting patients so I schedule a breakdown for any time after 5.30pm. As breakdowns go it's a quiet one. Just a couple of beers and a bath filled with my own tears.             

On the scale of things, three months isn't all that long to spend on a novel. That I contemplated giving up writing altogether probably sounds like an overreaction. But of course I wasn't focusing on the last three month, was I? I was looking back at 19 years of wanting to make it as a novelist. I was thinking of the three other novels stored on my computer which had never seen the light of day. The mind is very good at turning a slight obstacle into a mountain of epic proportions.
Despite my inner turmoil, I couldn't help thinking that I'd invested too much effort and energy to just give it up. I was also worried that if I did I'd always feel like I'd failed. What I needed to do was dig into my reserve of stamina and charge ahead. If other writers had managed to get published and make half a living out of doing what they loved then so could I.
By the following day I'd given up the idea of giving up and was focused on trying to come up with a new idea. But I was so anxious about not having an idea that I couldn't possibly think of one. I felt sick to my stomach. Having stamina is a fat lot of good if you've got no decent ideas.
When I met the assistant agent for a coffee and a debrief, I had nothing concrete to tell her. 
"Apart from writing, how have you been?" she said brightly.
That drew a blank. Apart from writing... what had I done?
It was a bit of a wake up call. What was I supposed to write about if all I did was write? I had to enjoy myself a bit more. I had to go out and see things.
As soon as I relaxed, two things happened.
First, I got a new idea.
Second, I got sick.
Our bodies are very clever, aren't they? I think mine just wanted to make sure I stayed away from the computer so the idea could germinate a little longer. I'm excited about it now, but to save me some grief I'm going to wait until I hear my agent's thoughts. 

In the mean time, I won't be stressing. As soon as the next triangle of sunshine falls across the living room carpet, I'm going to stretch out across it and pretend I'm on holiday. 


Saturday, 8 February 2014

Blogging and Social Networking Workshop - 8th March

My next Blogging and Social Networking Workshop is now only a month away!

When: Saturday 8th March
Time: 10.30am - 3.00pm
How much:£45.00
Where: London, SE1

It's an intensive workshop packed with tips on how to set up your blog,  develop its identity, promote it using social networks, gain a readership, keep it interesting and also, importantly, what to avoid. 

Here are some Twitter Testimonials about my last workshop:

BLOG SPOTLIGHT: The Reluctant Perfectionist

Helen Barbour came to a workshop in November 2012 and began her blog The Reluctant Perfectionist soon after. 

Peter Gettins Photography
What's your blog about? The Reluctant Perfectionist is a blog about my experiences of having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

How long have you been blogging? Since 8 April 2013 – so far I’ve managed weekly posts, on a Monday, and hope to continue with that regularity. 

What made you start? Originally this was a means to an end, in that I wanted to raise my profile as a writer: obsessive-compulsive disorder is a theme in my – as yet – unpublished novel. However, I quickly began to enjoy blogging in its right and the positive feedback from readers has encouraged me immensely. 

What have been the benefits of blogging for you? I love playing with words (aka writing!) and blogging is a way to hone those skills. I’ve also found the experience extremely rewarding, as many readers have contacted me to say they have found my posts interesting and/or helpful – from strangers as far afield as India and the States, to an old schoolfriend, whose grown-up son has been diagnosed with OCD. 

What has been your most popular post to date? My post, Natural Born Worrier, about anxiety, which I think is something most people can relate to – though perhaps not in such an extreme form as I experience it (OCD is an anxiety disorder). 

Have you got a blog highlight? I was recently approached by a magazine based in Mumbai, India, who were looking for someone to write an article about OCD for them and had come across me via my blog. I was thrilled to be asked and am expecting the article to be published in March.


This workshop will pose the questions you should ask before you begin your blog and offer all the information you need to get started.  If you've been meaning to start a blog for a long time, why put it off any longer? Come along for a friendly, fun and informative workshop!

Book your place via Paypal (£45.00) or for more information check out my Blog Workshop Page.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Calls to Action - Get Your Blog to Work!

Blog posts can take ages to write which makes it a little demoralising when they don't get any response. 

But have you ever read back one of those posts which has failed to elicit a single comment, and considered what comment you might have left?

When I look at my past Shop Girl Diaries posts, it's obvious why I wasn't inundated with comments. I was sharing amusing anecdotes about my Mum's shop. I wasn't writing anything topical or controversial. Neither was I posing any questions or inviting readers to share their thoughts.

It might be your type of blog isn't going to get lots of comments, but there are other calls to action which could be worth incorporating in your posts. 

Common Calls to Action:

Comment on this: If getting comments is your priority then you need to choose a subject that people will have an opinion on or an emotional reaction to. It might just be 'I know exactly what you mean!' - sharing experiences which readers can relate to can lead to great interaction. Ask questions in your blogs to invite comments.  

Further reading: Blog posts can take a long time to write and are often only aired once. To give them extra life, leave a link to a past post your readers might be interested in at the end of your new posts. Make your links neat by just displaying the title of the posts, rather than the whole http:// link.

Follow me on: You may want to build up your following on other social networks like Twitter or Facebook. Make it easy by adding a badge connecting them to that social network. Add an incentive by telling them what they can expect from following you on a different network (e.g. regular updates, more information, special offers, pictures etc)
Subscribe to Mailing List: It's easy to set up a mailing list with Mailchimp, and if Facebook and Twitter ever crash, you'll be relieved you did! Mailchimp will generate a code for you to add at the end of your blog (in the html section) which will display a subscription bar for readers to enter their email. Of course, once you've built up a mailing list, you will need to write a newsletter!

Buy this: If you have a product or offer a service related to your post, then why not add the information at the end? If your readers reach the end of the post, they might just be interested in additional information.

Too many calls to action can be off putting so best to choose just one you think most relevant!


My next Blogging and Social Networking Workshop is on: 
Saturday 8th March 
More information on my Workshop Page