As the Copywright Agency’s Reading Australia Fellow for 2021-22, a key focus of Edwina West’s project, Combating Aliteracy with Australian Literature, is helping young readers choose books they will love to read.

Can you tell us a little more about the project you are working on?

Over the past few decades ‘aliteracy’—defined as the state
in which the skill to read has been acquired, but not the will—is affecting society at large. Unfortunately, it’s clear that growing numbers of young people simply no longer prioritise reading for enjoyment.

My project is based around how a more flexible, diverse approach to representations of Australia and Australians in Children’s and Young Adult literature may be a way to remedy student aliteracy. However, this is only half of the project.

It doesn’t matter how many amazing Australian texts exist for young people if they don’t know how to find something they will enjoy.

For this reason, I am looking at how teachers and teacher librarians
can help students develop strong choosing strategies when selecting reading material of their own.

Choosing strategies can be explicitly taught to students, helping them overcome the initial hurdle of knowing what to look for. I want to explore the strategies used around text selection, and how this could be strengthened with a specific approach towards Australian literature.

My plan is to develop a toolkit for educators and librarians based on the outcome of my research.

...growing numbers of young people no longer prioritise reading for enjoyment...

In your opinion, what’s the leading reason for aliteracy in Australian students?

Young people, just like adults, have so many different things competing for their attention in this day and age. The influence of digital devices and social media cannot be ignored—reduction in attention and the links to reading fluency and pleasure are well documented. It’s a complex problem that needs to be approached from multiple angles.

Is the current trend localised to the younger generation, or are the effects broader than that?

While my project looks at young people, there is existing research that clearly indicates that adults also read less that they did in previous generations.

What major benefits do you see for students who do read for enjoyment?

Teachers know the implicit relationship between reading and increased educational outcomes. This trend has also been well documented. Some research has even indicated that reading enjoyment more strongly correlates with children’s educational success than their socio-economic status.

More important than educational outcomes (in my opinion), reading also helps develop an individual’s social responsibility and empathy— something that we need more than ever in this day and age!

What’s the most important thing that educators can do right now to reverse the current aliteracy trend?

The great news is that there are lots of things that can be done to try and combat aliteracy. I am hoping to help make some of these strategies more available and accessible to teachers as a result of my project. One key tactic is developing and strengthening partnerships between school and home to ensure a strong unified message and approach. Many school libraries and teacher librarians (mine included) are outstanding at this!

If you could give one piece of advice to students who want to improve their literacy skills, what would it be?

I am sure you aren’t surprised to hear that it is ‘READ!’... but more importantly, to actively consider what you like to read.

So often I ask students what type of books they like and they find it difficult to answer (or they default to what they liked to read in Year 5... when they are in Year 10!).

Reading should never be a chore, and if it is then you are unlikely
to make reading a habit. It’s almost about being more mindful choosers and readers.

Why do you think it matters whether students read books by Australian authors and about Australian stories?

I think it is very important to expose students to diverse representations of Australia and Australians in the literature they read. My belief is that young people will read more if the stories they read represent them and their experiences.

...It’s about being more mindful choosers and readers...

What kinds of books can educators expect to find in your bank of YA fiction?

I am intentionally restricting the list to contemporary books from the past three or four years.

Teachers are well aware of the seminal Aussie stories (some
of which they may have read in school themselves), but teachers are time-poor and sometimes need help finding new texts.

I often think about my first year of teaching and how I taught the same Aussie novel to Year 9 that I, myself, had studied in English in Year 9!

Can you tell us about the resources you’re developing to help with book selection? What will they look like, and how can they be accessed?

I am really conscious of making sure the resources I create are about reading for pleasure rather than the academic teaching of texts. I am hoping that I can create resources to explicitly teach ‘choosing strategies’ in the classroom that students are able to use in their day-to-day lives.

I view the explicit teaching of choosing strategies as a form of the metacognitive skills that we try so hard to cultivate in our students.

At this stage they will be set out as lesson plans and I am working with Reading Australia to find the best way for teachers and teacher librarians to access these.

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