“Reading Helps” – motivating children to get into good books

Photo: Jana Šustová

Reading Helps is a long-running project founded by businessman Martin Roman to counter worsening reading skills among children and youths in the Czech Republic registered in a past International Student Assessment (which compared the results of 34 countries). Children who complete books recommended by a special jury gain credit to go to charities of their choice. The project has raised millions to help - teaching kids not only a love of reading but also showing how they can contribute to a better society.

Tereza Skácalová,  photo: Jan Velinger
I spoke to media representative Tereza Skácalová about the endeavor.

“The project was launched in April of 2011 and it has been running since. Next year will be the fifth anniversary. The main idea is to teach children to read more as well as the charity principle.”

Getting children to read is more and more of an issue – my understanding is that the project was a direct reaction to an existing study…

“It was. International tests confirmed that there were problems when it came to reading among Czech kids, there were problems with comprehension and the aim of the project is to change that. The idea was to get children to read more and spend less time playing video games or on social networks.”

How is the project funded every cycle?

“The funds – 10 million crowns – are donated by initiator and businessman Martin Roman and these serve to provide for the running of the project as well as to fund charities that are chosen. Only over the last academic year, the kids donated more than 6.6 million crowns in funds among the charities?”

How does the project work? How do you get them to read and what comes after?

“It boils down to three words: register, read and donate. Kids from the ages of six to 18 can take part. First they register online, then choose a book from among recommended titles and then take a test of four questions testing whether they really read the title in question. The questions aren’t easy and are designed to show whether a child has realty read the book or not. If they succeed, they get 50 crowns in credit which they can donate to a charity of their choice.”

“[The children] are part of the process – it is not just a matter of pressing a donate button. We are trying to teach kids empathy for others and I think this kind of thing, this social capital, is a cornerstone of a healthy society.”

What are some of the books and who makes the decision what children read?

“The books are chosen very carefully. We have a jury responsible for the list. One part are books which are required reading, for example, in schools, while some titles are recreational. We have experts, teachers and writers who choose 120 books in each category and the lists of titles are updated regularly. Some are classics.”

Who are some of the people on the jury?

“They are our ambassadors and they are people like Zdeněk Svěrák, Jiří Dědeček, Alena Ježková, Martin Roman, and there are also teachers from schools and a broad number of people who, while not on the jury, help us.”

To bring some of those names closer for some of our readers, Zdeněk Svěrák is a highly-respected screenwriter and director, co-creator of the character Jára Cimrman and a former educator himself… I suppose this kind of project gets invaluable input from these kinds of ambassadors – they have all invested in this – and you can’t really have this kind of a project with them, can you…

“Maybe you could but it certainly would not be the same. What is important is that they understand and are fully behind then goal and agree with it. And that means a lot.”

To come back to the questions that children are asked, how tough are they?

“They are fairly difficult. They show whether someone has really read it. If they enjoyed a book and read thoroughly, they will know the answers but you can’t without having gotten deeply into its pages.”

What kind of feedback has the project had?

Photo: Jana Šustová
“Those who are helped by the project are very grateful, and it is very touching. Many send pictures. For those reading, the biggest feedback is that the number of readers is constantly growing.”

How many readers have there been up until now?

“We will soon reach the milestone of 200,000 and together they have divided 36 million crowns among hundreds of charities.”

They have a choice where they send their credit…

“That’s right. There is a current list of ten charities on the website and this is what I like: though this project kids learn about what is going on around them. They learn about some of the problems that people face. They are part of the process – it is not just a matter of pressing a donate button. We are trying to teach kids empathy for others and I think this kind of thing, this social capital, is a cornerstone of a healthy society.”

What are some of the charities helped?

“There are charities helping the handicapped, children living in difficult conditions in Africa, as well as a fund drive to raise money for a 16-year-old, Terezka, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. So the help is varied but is always needed. Some of the people are in very difficult circumstances and their stories are painful.”

How can one keep track of how the project is going?

“The easiest way is to follow us online or even better for your child to sign up and take part.”

Next year will be the fifth anniversary: are any big events planned?

“It boils down to three words: register, read, donate.

“The 5th anniversary will be a big one but we are keeping special events secret for now although we have some nice things planned. Events we did in the past included a Winter Reading Bazar, where kids were encouraged to donate books they loved so that other children could also read them and share the experience.

To come back to the other reason for the project, improving reading: the next International Student Assessment is set to take place in 2018 and we hope that this time Czech children will score better, also thanks to this project.”