Doorstep Library: Words Take You Places

by | Oct 5, 2023 | IBBYLink Autumn 2022

Henrietta (Henri) Yoxall

Are you sitting comfortably – good – then let’s begin …

Doorstep Library is a community-focused charity dedicated to bringing the magic of books and the joy of reading directly into the homes of children who need our support. With one in four 11 year olds leaving primary school unable to read or write properly, we recruit and train home and online reading volunteers to go into some of the most disadvantaged areas of London, and beyond, to help introduce young children (aged 0–11 years) to the pleasure and benefits of reading.

Enjoying a picture book. Copyright © 2022 Doorstep Library.

The charity began as a pilot project back in 2008, coordinated by the anti-poverty NGO ATD Fourth World, run by Agnes Paroissien and funded by Hammersmith and Fulham Council. In October 2010 Doorstep Library was officially born with just one project and a small team of reading volunteers. Fourteen years later we now run 20 reading projects, across five London boroughs. We work with over 145 reading volunteers who visit 300 families and share books and stories with over 550 children. We also have a long waiting list of families who need our support and are working hard to train up more reading volunteers to help us meet the ever-growing demand.

Why we’re needed

Our work is concentrated in areas where we know opportunities for reading are restricted – there may be limited access to books in the home, or language barriers may be preventing parents or caregivers from being able to provide additional reading support to the children in their care.

Helping a beginner reader. Copyright © 2022 Paul Yule.

By the final year of compulsory schooling, the reading skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are on average almost three years behind those from the most affluent homes. We also know that the pandemic accelerated that educational inequality at an alarming rate – in the summer of 2020, only 43% of disadvantaged pupils in primary school had met age-related expectations for reading, compared to 63% of their more affluent peers (Juniper Education, 2021).

Over and above the socioeconomic circumstance of the parents or caregivers, strong predictors of children’s secondary school achievement are seen in home learning environments where the parenting behaviours encourage their natural curiosity. In other words, parental involvement has a marked effect on a child’s literacy. In order to help a child discover the world of reading, they need inspiring stories, interaction and encouragement from a supportive caregiver, and a positive home learning environment. Whilst these may seem like simple requirements for many, almost 25% of 11 year olds in the UK’s poorest families have fewer than ten books in their home (National Literacy Trust, Children’s Book Ownership, 2019), and 28% of parents say they are too busy to share a bedtime story with their children (Booktrust, 2019).

At Doorstep Library we work to ‘level the playing field’ for children, who are increasingly overtaken academically by their more affluent peers, by encouraging whole families to read together for pleasure from a young age. Unlike other literacy interventions supporting children in school or community settings, our simple but effective model provides weekly in-the-home support to introduce reading to the entire family.

Following the illustrations. Copyright © 2022 Paul Yule.

We ensure children have access to books and equip them with essential literacy skills, a love of reading, and the confidence to thrive at home, at school, and in their future lives.

‘The only way I learnt how to read was because of Doorstep Library. It makes me really happy that Doorstep Library exists. I would never like reading, now I do. Thank you!’ (Doorstep Library child)

What we do

We recruit and train reading volunteers to go directly into homes in some of London’s most disadvantaged areas, to bring the magic and joy of reading to children and families there. Equipped with two little reading stools and a backpack brimming with books, our volunteers are right there ready to help and inspire. Our unique home-based service, whether in person or online, enables us to find the most appropriate books for every child we visit and build a relationship with the whole family. We use books to fuel children’s natural love of stories, fire their imaginations and encourage their appreciation of reading.

Our goal is to help children develop the self-confidence and essential skills they need to access all the opportunities that will come their way in life. We also empower parents/carers to create and maintain a supportive environment by signposting them to local services and community support. Our projects not only improve literacy but also increase family wellbeing and bonding.

Reading together. Copyright © 2022 Paul Yule.

Alongside our traditional in-person reading sessions we now have an Online Reading Corner. This enables us to run online reading visits for families who are referred to us, through schools, children’s centres or other organisations, ensuring that we can meet the needs of even more families. In this scenario families are gifted books through the post and share e-books with the volunteers during the visit. This new service has enabled us to reach out to families, even during the pandemic, bringing the magic of books and reading directly into homes and helping those children who are most in need.

Our volunteers

Our volunteers are incredibly special and we couldn’t do what we do without them. Our volunteers go out in pairs, or meet online, for one night a week during term time. In this way they get to know the families they visit. Whatever the motivation for volunteering, our volunteers all tell us that one of the main reasons they love volunteering with us is because of the relationships they build with the families. With the range of families each volunteer sees weekly, no two visits are ever the same. In one visit they might be playing peek-a-boo and reading touch-and-feel books with a two year old or doing their best scary dinosaur voice. Whereas in another visit, they could be helping a nine-year-old child to build their confidence reading aloud and discussing what the story is about.

Being a Doorstep Library Reading Volunteer doesn’t just mean you are bringing books into someone’s life. You are actually bringing knowledge of distant planets and faraway galaxies. You are inviting wizards and witches and tigers to tea, and you are creating magical moments of bonding between children and their parents as they share a story or two before bedtime. As a Doorstep Library Volunteer, you are there to show the fun that can be had from reading. You don’t have to give tests or assess progress. It’s all about the enjoyment of seeing where words will take the children you visit. (Doorstep Library Volunteer)

Doorstep Library Reading Volunteers also work to empower and equip parents with the skills they need to encourage their children to enjoy reading for pleasure in the home. Volunteers leave books behind for families to share in between visits, inspiring the whole family to spend time reading together.

In many cases our volunteers befriend the families and are warmly welcomed into their lives. They are there to lend a listening ear, to offer support, to have a friendly chat with parents and caregivers.

A volunteer equipped with two reading stools and a backpack of books, visiting a home. Copyright © 2022 Doorstep Library.

Having reached out and established a trusted link with the family, Doorstep Library is able to help families form bonds with the wider community through our signposting of local services. Books and reading form the basis of a contract of trust – it gives us a valuable platform to help fill in social gaps and forge community bonds that might otherwise be lost. Of course volunteering locally is also a huge benefit to the volunteers themselves and we know that 98% of them say they feel more connected to their local community.

At Doorstep Library we don’t just bring books and share stories, we also encourage family bonding and community engagement. We aren’t there for a quick fix. We visit families for as long as we’re needed and that’s how we know we’re creating change that will last a lifetime. (Katie Bareham, Doorstep Library CEO)

What works best

At Doorstep Library we believe in children having fun. Children who read for pleasure in the home and families that share reading together, are proven to have better mental health and general wellbeing. We also know that books can help children to process emotions and to identify with the world around them.

We provide a broad range of diverse titles, featuring characters from a variety of backgrounds and situations, for volunteers to choose from. We know that reading books with identifiable characters helps to create empathy and foster aspiration. Children become more aware of the richness and vastness of the world, which opens their eyes to other cultures, backgrounds and life experiences.

We often get feedback from our volunteers about children who are delighted to see characters that resemble them:

‘That hair’s like my hair!’ Aryam is a reluctant reader, but books with characters that resemble her never fail to spark interest. We continue to search for books that will elicit those wonderful words from her . . . ‘That looks like me!’ (Doorstep Library Volunteer)

To support this need for diversity and stories children can relate to, we also write blogs and produce lists of book recommendations on varying topics including:

For all of us at Doorstep Library we believe that words really do take you places and that our interaction with every child is the start of a journey. We know our impact is long lasting and, for us, the ‘happy ever after’ is when we know the power of literacy and the joy of reading are helping a child change their own story for good.

Every story shared is a story changed.

Further Information

To find out more about Doorstep Library’s work, see:

We currently have a long waiting list of families who are desperate for a visit from our reading volunteers, either in person or online– if you are interested in joining our volunteer team, see:



Henrietta (Henri) Yoxall is Head of Marketing and Communications at Doorstep Library. She is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, as well as being a qualified secondary school English teacher. She is passionate about ensuring every child’s right to education and learning and has worked within the charity sector with a focus on children’s education and skills for many years. Previous roles include Director of Marketing and Communications at Booktrust and Director of Marketing and Communications at the Institute of Imagination.