How one Sydney school got students reading in the social media age

Like many of her friends,year 10 student Penny Jin used to love reading when she was in primary school.

But a busy schedule and change in priorities meant her love of books slowly waned.

Year 10 Queenwood students Penny Jin and Lucy Colquhoun-Thomson with their books at the school’s library.

Year 10 Queenwood students Penny Jin and Lucy Colquhoun-Thomson with their books at the school’s library.James Alcock

That changed over the past two years after her school,Queenwood School for Girls in Mosman,introduced a mandatory 20 minutes of reading for all 900 students at the same time every day,regardless of what class they were in.

“Then last year when we were in lockdown and I also started reading in my own time before I went to bed,” Penny said.

Head of library Gabrielle Mace said the school launched the Just Read program after noticing a clear decline in students’ leisure reading habits,which she attributes in part to social media and access to technology.

“We went to our principal and said,‘If we are going to turn them back into readers we need to find time in the school day’,” she said. “You can imagine,everyone wants time in the school day,so I had to put together a really strong case as to why this would be a good thing.”

Now two years into the program,Mace said the results were undeniable.

“We’ve become a culture that celebrates reading,our school culture has changed,” she said. “It’s not some girls are readers and some aren’t,every single girl reads here every single day.”

The project,funded by a grant from the Association of Independent Schools NSW,was guided by education lecturer Margaret Merga from Edith Cowan University and included surveys of staff and students.

The recently released final report,which captured data over 12 months,showed the percentage of students who disliked reading silently fell from 13.5 per cent to 9.8 per cent,while library borrowing went up by 300 per cent in the junior school and 30 per cent in the senior school.

Vocabulary improved on average for students in all grades except one,with the greatest improvement for students in the lowest quartile. Eighty-five per cent of staff “agreed” or “strongly agreed” students had benefited.

Principal Elizabeth Stone said the key to the program’s success was its consistent implementation and teachers avoiding the temptation to use the 20 minutes for any other task than reading.

“So the principle of it was not hard to convince anyone of,but the execution of it was the challenge,” she said.

Stone said Just Read had increased incidental conversations among staff and students about books while reading as a habit became less “nerdy”.

“The decline in leisure reading which used to happen in the mid-teens is now creeping down into primary years and that is clearly in my view the effect of devices;children are getting phones at younger and younger ages,” she said.

Year 10 student Lucy Colquhoun-Thomson has for the first time started to enjoy books and thinks it’s also helped her schoolwork.

“I’m not really a big reader so I struggled with the program when it started but the librarians here have helped me find books that I enjoy reading and also authors so that’s helped me a lot,” she said.

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Daniella White is the education reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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