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When students turn teachers

The key to getting children to read may be in the hands of their peers, writes Kristie Kellahan.

The key to getting children to read may be in the hands of their peers, writes Kristie Kellahan.

It's no secret that young people benefit from the experience of being read to on a regular basis. For stressed, busy parents it can seem that reading to their kids is one more chore to fit into an already jam-packed schedule. The answer may be for kids to help other kids.

The Smith Family and Optus are behind the national student2student mobile literacy program, an initiative designed to improve students' reading and confidence.

The program matches 8-12-year-olds with reading buddies at least a couple of years older who have been given coaching on how to help their peers improve their reading skills. Cash-strapped students in the program who don't have access to a landline are offered an Optus mobile phone so they can read aloud to each other.

The students typically connect with each other twice a week for 18 weeks. Results so far have been impressive: the reading age of 82 per cent of participants improved at the end of the 18-week reading program, and 90 per cent of parents said the program helped their child feel better about themselves.

David Finnerty is principal of Hampton Park Secondary College, where 20 students are participating in the program.

He says the program has been successful because students are learning from their peers.

"Adults, no matter how you flavour it, remain authority figures to younger students and this, of itself, becomes a potential inhibitor to learning," he says. "With peers as mentor-tutors, it enables and develops a confidence in reading and in use of language that breaks down some of the barriers to learning that may have been present for the young learner, and significantly, creates for them an understanding that it is OK to read." Finnerty says because the program is conducted in the evenings and over the phone, it markedly removes the potential stigma of students being seen to "fail" by their class peers as they develop their knowledge of vocabulary and language through reading. "Essentially, it gives them permission to 'fail' and supports them in learning from that 'failure' as they grow in confidence, understanding and competence in their reading journey," he says.

Finnerty goes on to say that when kids hear another person reading, they become aware of the structure of the language that they are hearing and will often read along.

"This builds confidence and capacity in students to apply their newfound reading skills across the full range of scholarly achievement as well as in their social, emotional and psychological development," Finnerty says.

The program provides win-win results, both for the young mentors and mentees. "Both sets of students - the learner and the peer mentor - are more confident in their use of language and in their reading," Finnerty says.

"Our younger students enjoy seeing the love of books so readily evidenced by our older students and therefore quickly develop a sense that it is OK to read. For our older students, it has provided them with a real experience of building capacity in others that could stay with them for a lifetime."

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