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Push to expand indigenous reading

A Canberra initiative to get indigenous children reading by giving them a Kindle has proved a success and should be implemented across the country, according to indigenous academic Marcia Langton.

The Indigenous Reading Project is the idea of Canberra public servant Daniel Billing, who believed indigenous children would be excited by reading if they were given a Kindle.

It was also a cheap and effective way to provide quality and level-specific literature to children who did not have ready access to a library and whose literacy levels, on average, lag several years behind their non-indigenous classmates.

Mr Billing and his friends raised enough funding to trial a 20-student pilot program which ran in 2012 and which returned impressive improvements in all but one student, while another three left the program when they moved communities.

The idea has a unique twist.

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As a condition of receiving a Kindle, students commit to measurably improving their reading and comprehension. If they succeed, they keep the Kindle as a reward, but if they don't the Kindle is returned, just like a library book.

Public support for the program - which was a charity singled out for a $10,000 donation at last year's Parliamentary Mid-Winter Ball - allowed it to expand to offer Kindles to 105 students last year.

Mr Billing said the latest results were hugely encouraging and suggested the approach was breaking through long-standing literacy barriers for indigenous students.

Having delivered Kindles to indigenous students in 22 city-based schools, 60 regional schools and 23 remote communities, 89 students ''made significant, measurable improvements in terms of their effort and achievement levels,'' Mr Billing said.

The average amount of time spent reading improved 102 per cent, fluency test scores improved 24 per cent and comprehension test scores improved 57 per cent.

''Based on these test scores we have given 89 students a Kindle of their own. These students now have a cheap and simple way to access e-books and it's a well-deserved reward for hard work and achievement,'' Mr Billing said.

Professor Langton, who is Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne and who has become patron of the Indigenous Reading Project, said the success of the program lay in its simplicity. ''Children yearn to read when they are introduced to the world of books,'' she said. ''Children in low-income families do not, as a rule, have books at home nor live in an environment in which reading books is the norm. The IRP's introduction of the Kindle as reward for regular reading addresses both these issues.

''I would like to see the program supported by state, territory and federal governments. (It) would complement both the Direct Instruction and ABCedarian approaches and contribute to improved outcomes.

''The recently published NAPLAN results should be a wake-up call to educators. Indigenous children are still falling behind in many parts of the nation and this need not be the case. Along with strategies to ensure that indigenous children attend school and attend at normal rates, we need successful interventions like the Indigenous Reading Project to close the education gaps in the low socioeconomic communities.''

Mr Billing said one of the most significant findings to come out of the results was that ''bush kids did the same and even better on some measures than regional and urban kids''. ''This is confirmation to us that our approach can work regardless of where the student lives,'' he said.

''We really strive to understand and explain the impact of our work. For us this means establishing baseline results and then testing to see if we have made an impact. Testing and data analysis is a central part of our approach.''

He attributed the program's success to selecting the right children to participate - those whose results were poor but who possessed the capacity for hard work.

He noted 10 students failed to complete the program last year, some moving schools, or simply giving up. A further six students made no measurable improvement in terms of their effort or achievement levels.

''We've looked at the individual circumstances of each of these kids and the common theme is that they didn't put the time in and so the results did not follow,'' Mr Billing said. ''At the end of the day we are not a welfare program. We reward effort and achievement and we think that it is important to reinforce that message with the students, teachers and parents we work with.''

The Indigenous Reading Project is now seeking to raise $200,000 to fund its expansion over the next two years.

For $3.50 a week or $15 a month, anyone can sponsor a child at irp.org.au.