One School's Bold Plan To Get Teenagers Reading

12 January 2020

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 12 January 2020. 

Elizabeth Stone's high school students love books. But when the Queenwood principal asks them to name those books, they often cite novels they read in primary school – the Harry Potter series, or the works of comedian David Walliams.

"It's rare for them to say, 'I don't like books," she said. "They have fond memories, but [their reading] has stagnated. All of the data is telling us this; depending on which study you look at, 30-40 per cent of 15-year-olds have just stopped reading."

With the school's own research showing almost a third of year 7 and 9 girls read for pleasure less than once a week, there was a "sense of urgency" to stem the decline, Ms Stone said. So from next year, the whole school will spend 20 minutes a day reading for pleasure.

In the senior school, where Ms Stone believes the need is most acute, girls will down pens and pick up books at midday. They must read fiction, so no graphic novels, non-fiction, or books from their class reading list will be allowed.

Junior school students will also participate, although in younger years the type of reading will be adapted to suit the age group. "The idea is quite common in primary settings, but we think it's very unusual to be doing this at secondary level," Ms Stone said.

The Sustained Silent Reading initiative will be followed over two years by education lecturer Margaret Merga from Edith Cowan University. The research project is being funded by a grant from the Association of Independent Schools NSW.

"If it bears fruit, the power of this as a zero cost intervention to improve literacy and learning across every area of the curriculum is profound," said Ms Stone.

Students often limited their reading to books prescribed by school or social media, but research showed that reading on screens encouraged skim reading and a surface engagement with issues, Ms Stone said.

Studies also identified "orphaned responsibility" for reading, where neither schools nor families took active steps to promote it. "To engage deeply, creatively and with extended focus, they have to keep reading," said Ms Stone.

"If they have stopped reading quality material, it becomes too hard for it to be enjoyable. It's no different from physical fitness; if you stop exercising, then no matter how much you used to enjoy playing netball, it becomes less fun because you are so unfit."

Reading fiction was key to students' vocabulary, and their knowledge of the world, said Ms Stone. Encouraging them to take a break from learning to read for pleasure in the middle of the day would also be "powerful for their wellbeing".

Dr Merga said silent reading could build literacy skills as well as motivation to read. "For some children, this may be the only reading for pleasure they do," she said.

"It is important that young people do not associate reading as something purely done for the purpose of assessment. Research suggests that the reading of fiction books is particularly associated with benefit, and it may also play an important role in fostering empathy in young people.”