“Miss Anderson is very famous for being in plays,” says Julia Douëtil. “You know when you’re in a school play, or a nativity play? She’s really, really good at that.”
Seven-year-old Florence nods. “I hadn’t heard of her," she says. "But I know she works in a couple of grown-up movies. So now I’m excited.”
Gillian Anderson – Scully in the X-Files, Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, Stella Gibson in The Fall (pictured), among other grown-up roles – is at the UCL Institute of Education, in London, in order to hear Florence and her classmate, seven-year-old Liam, read out loud.
Her visit forms part of Read Aloud week, joining other celebrities, such as footballer Gareth Bale and children’s illustrator Quentin Blake, listening to children read. The children chosen have all previously struggled with reading and are graduates of the Reading Recovery programme, which offers primary schoolchildren up to 20 weeks of one-on-one literacy tuition.
Ms Douëtil, director of the national Reading Recovery programme, says that the aim of Read Aloud week is to draw attention to the achievements of children such as Florence and Liam, pupils at William Tyndale primary in the North London borough of Islington.
“In the past, these are children who would have gone on to fail and to be renowned in the school as the difficult children,” she says. “We want them to be renowned in the school as the successful children.”
Both Liam and Florence were given one-on-one reading sessions with Peggy Ashton, William Tyndale’s Reading Recovery teacher.
Liam, Ms Ashton says, was barely able to read when he began the sessions. Now, his reading age is higher than his chronological age. “They just needed that little extra push and they just flew,” she says. “Some of them just need that one-to-one and the scales come off. It’s amazing.”
As Gillian Anderson arrives in the building, Ms Douëtil attempts to explain to Florence and Liam quite how impressed they should be. “She must be very brave, when she’s in a big theatre, with hundreds of people watching,” she says. “Do you want to be an actor when you grow up?”
“No,” says Florence. "I want to be a hairdresser.”
Unlike her pupils, however, Ms Ashton has a very clear idea who Anderson is. “I’m probably more excited than the children,” she says. “My husband gave me strict orders not to gush at her.”
Then Anderson arrives. Liam is busy reading; Ms Douëtil has to summon him over to say “hello”. The two children show her the books they have chosen to read.
Liam has brought Town Mouse and Country Mouse. Florence has brought a book called Owl Babies. “Oh!” says Anderson. “I love that book. My mum is a birder and she has binoculars around her neck all the time.”
Florence reads fluently and with expression. At the end of the book, Anderson gives her a hug. Liam, too, reads enthusiastically and is hugged in turn.
“Books are so exciting,” Anderson tells the children. “They can be your friend. You can take them around the world and they can take you to different worlds. But sometimes it takes a while to learn that.”
After photographs with the children – and a flushing Ms Ashton – Anderson talks more about why she feels it is so important to support such projects. “It doesn’t take that much to literally change a person’s life,” she says. “As a result of the work that these children have had, they will have opportunities in her life that they simply would not have had, if they hadn’t been able to read and comprehend at the right level.
“To find someone like their teacher – clearly they adore her. She’s worked hard, and they’ve worked hard with her, and it’s making such an extraordinary contribution to these children’s lives. They will never forget her.”
Ms Ashton, meanwhile, has had her own unforgettable moment. “I feel very privileged,” she says, smiling. “She’s so high-profile. It just gives you some validation for what you do, really.”
Find out more about Reading Recovery here.
Catch-up lessons are going down – 21 September 2012
Effect of Reading Recovery is long term, study finds – 8 January 2010
Reading Recovery passes with distinction – 28 August 2009