It's not rocket science - Just Read!

7 August 2020

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 8 August 2020 and was re-published in the Weekly Parent Newsletter on 14 August 2020.

Every parent I know would like their child to be an avid reader. Who doesn’t want their child to have better vocabulary, comprehension, writing, general knowledge, conceptual ability and even, in the case of reading fiction, greater empathy and better interpersonal skills?

But making that aspiration a reality is hard, and getting harder.
“In Year 5, she was a bookworm. In Year 7, she started to spend more time on screens than in books. By Year 9, she was only reading prescribed texts for school.”

If this story is familiar to you, that’s because you (and your child) are not alone. As children move into teenage years they encounter a perfect storm of distractions: they have more access to screens, greater independence, increasing reliance on social media. So by the age of 15, 60% of boys and 40% of girls in the OECD read “only if I have to”. The statistics are little better in Australia, and are getting worse.

Public discussion of literacy typically focuses on teaching children how to read but too often ignores the next vital phase: developing life-long reading habits. Yet this is the heart of the problem for the majority of Australian students for whom the decline in regular reading begins in upper primary and then accelerates through high school and beyond.

As the teachers on our Literacy Committee at Queenwood delved into this problem, it became obvious to us that this trend has to be addressed, and as a matter of urgency.

The first issue we tackled was the problem described by Professor Margaret Merga as ‘orphaned responsibility’ for reading – when neither parents nor schools take active steps to promote leisure reading. Whilst many primary schools allocate ten minutes a day to Drop Everything And Read (DEAR), this is almost unheard of in secondary schools – yet this is where the greatest drop-off occurs. This is also when parents tend to withdraw from active supervision, no longer reading aloud or sharing books and reading with their children in the same way.

At Queenwood, we restructured the timetable this year to create a designated time each day when everyone from Kindergarten to Year 12 pauses to ‘Just Read’. The program was carefully designed to reflect the research:

  • Just Read time is for leisure reading, not catching up on school texts (even novels). This signals that reading is not merely something mandated by a prescribed curriculum and begins to establish a broader habit.

  • The focus is on fiction. Non-fiction is great, but the greatest improvements in growth and learning are with fiction.

  • Modelling is important, so teachers also have to down tools (no marking or checking emails) to read with their students. Even the reception and office staff pick up a novel and a beautiful hush settles over the school.

  • We read for 20 minutes in silence. Anything less than 15 minutes is too short to develop reading stamina, and even those students who believed they couldn’t concentrate in silence find that they quickly adapt.

  • Everyone reads from a book, not a screen. The human brain reads more fluently and with better comprehension from paper and, more practically, the temptation to do something other than read on a digital device is avoided.

The impact of Just Read was immediate – and beyond our wildest expectations. Within six weeks, parents were reporting radical change. 90% said their children were enjoying the program and 60% said their children were reading more. 76% said the reading habits of the whole family had improved. Their comments had a streak of wonder: “It has brought forward months or years of reading development. She actually wants to pick up a book and read.” All of us were surprised by the speed of the change: “We always tried to support them to read at home and it was mostly a challenge. In such a short time this has changed. They are now eager readers.”

An unexpected side effect of taking time out to read every day was the boost to wellbeing for both staff and students. When we asked parents about the effect of Just Read, 86% reported a positive impact. “Our daughter has been struggling with the step up to Year 7 in a new school. She says she looks forward to the reading time as she can decompress.” Teachers reported that younger students were significantly calmer and seemed better able to manage daily stresses and social interactions. Even when learning moved off campus during lockdown, the Just Read period offered invaluable refreshment to break up long days spent learning through screens. Large numbers of parents have also improved their reading habits as a result of the program.

The experience for the students has been remarkably simple. Just read. Every day.

Like anything else, difficulties are overcome with practice and reading becomes more fun as you get better at it. In just 20 minutes a day, students of all ages acquired new fluency and, best of all, were enticed and beguiled into an imaginative world.

They started taking their Just Read books home so they could continue the story on the bus or at bedtime. They started wandering through school with their noses in a book. Borrowing rates in the library shot up 400%. Their book choices became more diverse and had stronger literary content because, after a while of reading for an hour or more a week, simpler texts became less satisfying.

A strong reading culture has also been underpinned by features less obvious to students. Posters everywhere advertise what specific teachers are currently reading and curious students start conversations about these titles. In weekly Wellbeing periods, students share what they are reading in Book Talks. The librarians are fielding more requests for multiple copies of a book, which only happens when students get so excited they want to share their books with their friends. Our student advisory committee for Just Read is giving us regular feedback and the school corridors are dotted with books which can be pulled off the shelves by those who need quick access to a good book.

There is more to do. These programs must be embedded over the longer term to have full effect. Many families have reported that their reading and book habits at home have improved but this also needs to be sustained. The initial data and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive but we are working with Professor Merga to ensure there is a rigorous, long-term evaluation of the program, which can be used by other schools as a basis for their own programs – and then think of the possibilities!

This is a low-to-no-cost intervention which supports learning in every subject and improves the wellbeing of students, staff and families. It is life-enhancing and liberating. Best of all, our students will reap the benefit – and the pleasure – throughout their lives.

Note: For parents looking for expert explanation and practical advice, we recommend Willingham, D.T. (2015). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Suggested book list

Top reads for Lower Secondary
Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier*
Shift by Em Bailey
The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick
The Yield by Tara June Winch*
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro*
* For more advanced readers

Top reads for Upper Primary 
Lenny's Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee
His Name Was Walter by Emily Rodda
The Year the Maps Changed by Danielle Binks
Nevermoor series by Jessica Townsend
The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldbery Sloan
Words on Fire by Jennifer Nielsen
Wonder by RJ Palacio
Half Magic by Edward Eager
The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger