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The perfect listener

THE EXCITEMENT builds as she enters the room. They are barely able to contain themselves, sitting on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting to discover who will be chosen today.

"Can I go, sir? Please can I go?" half the class cries in unison. Gerard Van Hecke scans his Year Fours quickly and immediately picks six pupils. The reason for such enthusiasm is, perhaps surprisingly, reading practice with Audrey Knights. Competition for places is fierce.

One morning a week, half a dozen of nine-year-olds at St George's Church of EnglandPrimary School in Salford are treated to help from "a reading friend" thanks to the food distribution giant, Booker Fitch.

The company teamed up with the school after an approach by the Salford Business Education Partnership. Now three of its staff from the administration department help children to improve their reading at the nearby school.

Once in the reading room Audrey and her six pupils gather in a circle and turn to page 49 of Alexander McCall Smith's The Perfect Hamburger, a story about a man who desperately needs to revive his ailing business.

The pupils are mixed-ability readers, with reading ages that vary between seven years five months and twelve years six months, but the school believes an assorted group is the most beneficial. Each child takes it in turn to read a page of the book and then listens to the others. Even Audrey gets a turn. "We take our time and we don't rush. There are no prizes for the person who finishes their page first," warns Audrey as they open their books.

"I like reading but I get stuck on some of the words," says nine-year-old Chantelle Simister before she attempts her page.

When pupils get stuck on words such as "helpings" or "entranced" Audrey is patient. She makes them break it up and tells them to say it slowly. If they still find it impossible to pronounce she will read the word loudly and make them repeat it. The children read mainly as if they do not understand the book, but when Audrey asks them questions, it is obvious they have grasped it perfectly.

"What did Mr Octavius take from his pocket?" she asks.

"A handkerchief," they cry simultaneously.

Audrey became a reading volunteer after her boss, Steven Andrew, asked if anyone was interested in helping children at the local school. She had heard from a friend that parents often do not have the time to practise with their children so she felt it would be a good idea. The scheme started six months ago and so far Mr Andrew, the head of administration, is very happy with it.

Salford BEP is wants as assessment of the scheme's success to reach the company and the relationship between Booker and St George's is growing. "The school has offered us use of their playing fields and we have offered our factory to help pupils studying food hygiene. They have adopted a company and we have adopted a school," says Mr Andrew.

"At first, when the reading scheme was proposed, we were concerned about whether it would place a strain on our resources but we wanted to be involved in the community and it does not cost us a lot to do it."

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