Where are they now? Daniel Billing getting hundreds of Indigenous kids reading

Where are they now? Daniel Billing getting hundreds of Indigenous kids reading

When Daniel Billing came up with the idea of giving Indigenous kids a Kindle to spark their interest in reading, he trialled it on 20 students including Canberra sixth-grader Yulcailia Hoolihan-Mongta.

That was four years ago.

Indigenous Reading Project participant Yulcaila Hoolihan-Mongta, 15, with the project's founder Daniel Billing.

Indigenous Reading Project participant Yulcaila Hoolihan-Mongta, 15, with the project's founder Daniel Billing.Credit:Graham Tidy

This year, Mr Billing's Indigenous Reading Project has received more than 1000 applications from across the country and has progressed to include a library of more than 2000 e-books which students can access via the cloud – ensuring they have access to new material as their love of reading grows.

And Yulcailia can still be found most nights happily reading on her Kindle.


Mr Billing said he always had faith his idea would work in encouraging struggling students to read, and he has been delighted by the assessment results he receives each year showing the program's consistent success in improving literacy outcomes.

As a bureaucrat working in the federal Education Department, specialising in student engagement and Indigenous education, Mr Billing has long had an in-depth knowledge about intractable problems in Indigenous literacy results.

It was the purchase of a home Kindle more than seven years ago which sparked his idea to take action to help close the gap.

Noticing how his then seven-year-old intuitively and enthusiastically took to the electronic reading device, Mr Billing funded a small pilot to give Kindles to Indigenous students in an effort to boost their interest in reading.

But his plan had a twist. As a condition of receiving a Kindle, students committed to measurably improving their reading and comprehension. If they succeeded, they kept the Kindle as a reward. If they didn't, the Kindle was returned, just like a library book.

Gathering a small group of friends and supporters, Mr Billing founded the Indigenous Reading Project.

In the trial, participants' reading time more than doubled and literacy testing showed marked improvements after 12 weeks with a Kindle.

Forrest Primary School student Yulcailia gained a year's worth of reading ability over that time, with her mum Hayley reporting that the Kindle opened a new door for her daughter.

Now nearly 15, Yulcailia is heading into year 10 at Telopea Park School this year.

She still regularly reads books on her Kindle and says she finds it more convenient to read than paperbacks.

Taking part in the program had made a difference to her confidence levels.

"It helped me feel differently about school. Before I didn't like to read at all, but now I do."

Her mother praised the program for "doing something different which works" and said she wished more Indigenous students had access to it.

So far, 441 Indigenous students from communities across Australia have successfully completed the e-literacy program.

Last year the program placed 200 tablets with Indigenous kids in about 90 schools and 172 out of 200 students successfully completed the program – getting to keep their tablets.

Their average amount of time spent reading was improved by 110 per cent, while their reading fluency and comprehension test scores improved by 30 per cent.

Mr Billing said the program had been heavily oversubscribed and if the program had greater donations it could expand. It costs $200 to sponsor a child and provide a Kindle.

"That's about the price of a coffee each week," Mr Billing said.

The program receives no government funding and functions with the support of volunteers and donations from the community and the private sector. Last year it won the NAIDOC Award for Organisation of the Year.

Mr Billing said the Indigenous Reading Project continued to look for a long-term funding partner to develop and grow.

"My goal is simply to reach more students. Last year we received almost 1000 applications for students across Australia but we were only able to support 200 kids.

"The bottom line is that we need a reliable income stream in order to grow."

Professor Marcia Langton, chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, is patron of the Indigenous Reading Project.

"I've been watching this little organisation now for three years. In that time they've managed to engage with and raise the literacy standards of over 400 students from communities all over Australia," she said.

"They have a smart, innovative approach that leverages new technology to help our youngsters attain the essential reading skills they desperately need.

"Remarkably this has been achieved without one cent of government funding. What is abundantly clear to me is that this approach is low cost, effective and scalable. I urge governments and the business community to look closely at what Indigenous Reading Project are doing and to back them."

Emma Macdonald is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times.

Most Viewed in National