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Bags of books

The Shared Beginnings project helps parents discover how to spark their children's interest in reading. Carolyn O'Grady reports

Twelve women are gathered round a large table crammed with catalogues, strips of cardboard, scissors, glue, coloured pens and other materials.

They are absorbed in cutting and pasting pictures and materials on to cardboard. Later, these will be put into transparent sandwich bags to keep them safe from small, sticky fingers, and tied together with ribbon. The result will be "baggie books" for their children, whose happy squeals carry through the walls from the creche next door.

The session is taking place in Southwark, in property owned by the Peabody Housing Trust, one of London's biggest housing associations. The women are taking part in Shared Beginnings, a Reading is Fundamental (RIF) initiative which, after a successful pilot, is now available across Britain. RIF is part of the National Literacy Trust and helps children and young people from birth to 19 years old to realise their potential by motivating them to read.

Working with volunteers, it delivers targeted literacy projects that promote the fun of reading and the benefits to families of having books at home. It works in partnership with a range of organisations, including community groups and housing associations, and is offered to children free of charge. Some of its courses are also aimed at parents and other carers.

An 11-week course of 22 hours, Shared Beginnings is designed to give parents and carers of children aged up to four the skills and self-confidence to take an active role in developing their children's language and literacy through play, making and using books and taking advantage of local community resources.

An independent evaluation of the pilot scheme by the Sheffield University team of Professor Peter Hannon and Dr Kath Hirst found it helped "parents develop the confidence and skills to engage more fully in their children's language development", and in book-related and other literacy and language initiatives.

The Peabody Housing Trust course is run by teacher Sue Morgan, and she says it "links well with the foundation stage". Apart from making "baggie", "lift-a-flap" and "touch-and-feel" books, it involves constructing simple musical instruments and visiting a library "to see what they've got for children and parents and also to investigate services like homework clubs, the internet and storytelling," says Sue.

Participants also make a nursery rhyme collage and learn how to tell stories inspired by everyday objects, and they put together a "my week" book of photographs of people that the child knows well and pictures of their routine activities. "An important thing about the making sessions is that you can find almost all the items that we use in the home," says Sue.

The final session takes place some time later and takes the form of a follow-up, evaluation or celebration day.

One of the mothers is Tsehay Fanta, whose first child is now 20 months old.

After the baggie book sessions, she takes her book filled with pictures into the creche to watch as he enthusiastically looks through it and points to the pictures and objects it contains. This is Tsehay's second week, and she is enjoying it; "I wouldn't have known what to do if I hadn't come. I don't know if I'm doing things for my baby that are right."

Another mother, Marie Atkins, has two children aged three and six. She's thinking of looking for a job and would like to work with children. Her book is on the theme of food, and she hopes to get her son, whom she describes as "a fussy eater", interested in a larger range of food. She says the project has "given me inspiration and a lot more enthusiasm to do things with the kids, especially in the holidays".

Reading is Fundamental, UK, National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJTel: 020 7828

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