Rugby League and reading aren’t often mentioned in the same sentence, but one ACU academic is combining them with impressive results. Caitlin Ganter spoke to Suzan Hirsch about boys, books and ball sports.
If Spiderman taught reading as well as web-slinging, children would be more likely to listen in class. Heroes play an important part in a child’s development, and as role models they can influence values and behaviours.
However children generally don’t see real-life heroes providing practical inspiration or hands-on guidance. Instead, they tend to be fictional characters or television stars who almost certainly aren’t focusing on areas such as education.
When ACU lecturer and boys’ education and literacy expert Suzan Hirsch found that primary school-aged boys were often disengaged in literacy, she had an ingenious idea.
"My data indicated many boys were not only underperforming in literacy, but were also disengaged with reading," Suzan said. "Both boys and girls tended to see reading as a ‘girls’ activity’, and the majority of their reading role models were female."
Suzan’s research found primary school students were more likely to have female teachers, and more females than males as readers at home. She also noted the majority of students identified sportsmen, particularly rugby league players as their ‘hero’, and believed they didn’t like or need to read.
"At this point I started a reading mentoring program with the Manly Sea Eagles called Sea Eagles Reads, with the aim of shifting the negative attitudes about reading by using the students’ self-identified heroes."
The program assigned a first-grade rugby league player as the class reading mentor to work with the same students every week over an entire school term. They shared their reading habits, read with the students and set reading challenges.
Each week the Reading Captain brought a surprise player into the classroom, allowing students to meet more than 10 players during the term.
Sea Eagles Reads ran as a five-year trial in 13 primary schools – and was a huge success. The change in perception that males and sportsmen do not read increased voluntary student reading, and better engagement with reading at school.
"The program was so successful I approached the NRL with an idea to reach more schools. Recognising that not all schools have access to clubs or players, and not all clubs would be invested in a program such as Sea Eagles Reads, I devised the Rugby League Reads project."
Rugby League Reads uses NRL players as role models for reading in primary schools, and provides quality rugby league-focused magazines linked to the English syllabus. In 2010, 11 schools and 230 classes – 660 students in Years 3-6, and 107 teachers – took part in the project.
The main purpose of the magazine was to feature Reading Captains from every NRL club promoting reading, sharing their reading journey and habits, recommending books, setting challenges for students and sharing their passion and need for reading.
"The Reading Captains promote high-profile rugby league players as readers and also provide high-quality resources for teachers," Suzan said.
"All 16 clubs are featured in the magazines and all clubs have a Reading Captain."
Teachers reported that 78 per cent of male students and 25 per cent of female students were more motivated to read in the classroom when using the resources, and 60 per cent said they read more at home and at school as a result of the Reading Captains.
Suzan plans to release three glossy magazines each year – the first issue for 2011 is out now. In 2010, more than 70,000 copies of the magazine were printed, and each release sold out within two weeks.
"Both literary and factual texts from the NSW English syllabus are included for each NRL club, so teachers can use the texts as samples for reading or writing as they follow the correct syllabus structure," Suzan said. "The interest in rugby league and the magazine layout entices the students."
Rugby League Reads resources have positively influenced 85 per cent of participating males who were reluctant to read. Ninety per cent of students who took part wanted to continue their involvement.