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Daniel Billing’s light bulb moment came in the form of his then seven-year-old son, Luka. The ACU social work graduate was inspired to get Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids excited about books and improve their literacy rates when he saw how reluctant reader Luka first responded to using a mobile device.
“He started out just being fascinated by the technology, before becoming more absorbed in reading actual stories,” Daniel said. “I thought, we’ve got to try using technology as a way of connecting kids to the power of storytelling.” From this small idea, the Indigenous Reading Project (IRP) was born.
In 2015, only 31 per cent of Indigenous kids from remote communities met the national minimum standard for reading, compared to 93 per cent of non-Indigenous children.
Inspired to turn this around, Daniel’s not for-profit literacy program loans Indigenous kids their own Android tablet with access to the IRP cloud-based library, which is filled with more than 1,000 carefully curated e-books.
With a helping hand from teachers across Australia, the young participants’ reading progress is monitored closely and if they improve, the tablet is theirs to keep, otherwise it’s handed back like a regular library book and given to another child.
“We can see the number of books they’re borrowing and how often they’re borrowing. We can even see how many pages they’re turning in each book,” Daniel said. “Plus, we get feedback from their parents, teachers, and the kids themselves. We reinforce to the kids that this is an achievement program. They know they have to put in the work if they want to succeed.”
Go places you can’t go, meet people you can’t meet
Like Daniel’s own son, reading didn’t come easily to him as a kid. “I grew up in a working-class family in rural Queensland. There wasn’t a lot of reading going on at home and I wasn’t the greatest school student,” he said. “I started reading books when I was about 18. I remember it was such a leap forward for me when I discovered all sorts of things about the wider world through reading that I couldn’t learn at home or where I lived.
“With books, you go places you can’t go and you meet people you can’t meet. You just realise there’s so much more than your immediate environment and that’s a really powerful thing.”
IRP is now seeing big results. “When they start, most of the kids are reading for less than an hour a week. On average, the kids bump up their reading time by 110 per cent,” Daniel said. “For some, that might be from one to two hours a week. This might not sound like a lot, but for a below average, reluctant reader, that’s a big achievement. Some kids find a new confidence with their reading abilities and it changes their whole attitude, not just to reading, but to their self-worth at school. They start to see themselves as capable learners, rather than being at the margins of the classroom.”
Spread the word
Daniel has high hopes for IRP and is aiming to introduce even more kids to the program.
“I would love for us to build the biggest children’s digital library in the country and I want us to be supporting more than 1,000 kids on a permanent basis,” he said. “Our method is a proven one. We’ve done it with almost 900 kids now and we know it can work.”
Daniel said that running IRP as a voluntary organisation without secure funding was difficult, but the satisfaction of helping so many kids made it worthwhile.
“Talking to parents after their kid has had a breakthrough or thinking about what the program might mean for a family that’s never had a child at university or has difficult family circumstances is quite moving,” he said.
“Having literacy bedded down means that child will have a chance to progress through school and make their way in the world and not get locked in a cycle of disadvantage, that’s the biggest thing.
“It is unbelievable seeing a kid just grow and take off when everything around you is saying it’s too expensive, it won’t work, this is going to fail. I still get really excited about what we do.”
While he didn’t know just how much work would be involved when he first started IRP, Daniel said he had no regrets. “If you’ve got a unique and special idea, don’t be frightened to test it out. If you believe in something, you should be absolutely fearless in pursuing it.”
Winning the 2017 ACU Alumni Community Engagement Award was a welcome surprise for Daniel. “Being acknowledged for your work motivates you to keep going and it helps shine a light on what you’re doing,” he said. “I’m not the sort of person who’d nominate themselves for an award, I’m a get-stuff-done guy. But it’s important to acknowledge these awards and I’m very humbled and very proud to have gone to ACU.”
Daniel Billing studied social work at ACU. Learn more about the Indigenous Reading Project.