Reading buddies help bridge gap during school shutdowns

Stormii-lee has been writing lots of stories lately, and her mother couldn't be prouder.

The 10-year-old has struggled with reading for some time, but this year, despite school shutdowns in Victoria, her confidence in reading has soared.

A program connecting disadvantaged children with older reading buddies had made a huge difference, her mother Krystal Baker said.

Krystal Baker with her daughter Stormii-lee, whose reading has been improved by a peer-to-peer reading program. Credit:Paul Jeffers

Previously, Stormii wasn't confident enough to read in front of other people, and would second-guess herself, Miss Baker said.

"But since the reading program, she's happier and more confident to read things out," she said. "She'll come to me with a newsletter and say, 'Hey Mum', and read out whatever it says."

Like many Victorian students, Stormii has struggled to maintain enthusiasm during remote learning and has missed out on the social interaction of school.

But when school finishes for the day, the grade 4 student is ready for her reading session.

"It's not a parent or an adult that's telling her that she's doing well; it's another child similar to her own age that is encouraging her," said Miss Baker.

"When she's not interacting with any other children but her brother and sister, to be able to have a call with another child and chat to her, I think it's the best thing at the moment."

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino told a parliamentary hearing into the state government’s response to COVID-19 recently that he was considering a program of small group tutoring sessions in term four and next year to help students catch up.

The Grattan Institute has praised the plan, saying it was “very likely disadvantaged students will have learnt nothing or even fallen further behind where they were in term one” – even at schools where remote learning has been delivered reasonably well.

The Smith Family's peer-to-peer reading program seeks to reduce the large reading gap between the lowest and highest socio-economic students.

Research shows strong literacy and numeracy skills boost study results, employability, earnings and social participation.

Similarly, a 2014 study for the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities argued that peer-to-peer mentoring needed to be better recognised as a form of student leadership.

Now in its 20th year, the Student2Student program matches students in grades 3 to 8 assessed as being up to two years behind in their reading development with reading buddies with good literacy skills who are least two years older than the student.

The participants receive an identical book pack from the charity, and speak on the phone two or three times a week for at least 20 minutes over 18 weeks.

Last year, 480 Victorian students participated in the program, although numbers have dropped because of COVID-19.

Asked why she enjoyed the program, Stormii said: "Because I don't just read one book and I can read more than one.

"I've been writing a Halloween story. Three kids went trick or treating and then they got lost."

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