by Jill Borgiss and Emma Mactaggart
‘It takes a village to raise a child and it takes a child to inspire a village’
The research is shocking. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS) revealed that Australian language, literacy and numeracy levels have shown little improvement in the decade since the 1996 International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS).
Approximately 7 million Australian adults (46 per cent) had literacy scores below the minimum level needed to function fully in life and work and 7.9 million (53 per cent) had numeracy scores below the minimum needed.
These two statistics really worry Emma Mactaggart, founder of Child Writes and Boogie Books. Emma wants to change things up, and as a result is launching ‘International Read to Me Day’ this March.
“Literacy is a gateway skill for us all. If you can’t read you get left behind in so many ways. This has a major impact on your opportunities in life. Reading and writing create social connection and this creates opportunity for all; this is key to Australia’s future success. We can all help children with their reading and I want to encourage children to ask you to help through dedicating a special day to this all round the world” She wants to change the dynamic and empower children to ask for more support, not just from their birth family but also from their community.
Marking a day when kids can ask to be read to is a key part of this strategy. A recent study analysed by researchers at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research backs up Emma’s belief about the the power of being read to. Professor Guyonne Kalb wanted to test whether it was the reading itself that lead to better outcomes or if there were other factors.
“No matter what else we tested for the results show that being read to is the single most important factor. Children of 4 – 5 years old who are read to 3-4 times a week have reading ages 6 months ahead of children read to once or twice a week. Reading to children nearly every day almost doubles their progress to one year ahead of the group.”
Professor Kalb is more used to working with dry economic data and so this project with the Victorian education authority was a welcome change for her, she holds up the colourful fold out flyer produced to publicise the work, it has lovely illustrations highlighting that we can all find the time.
“None of my other reports have been so popular,” she laughs, “the findings are compelling, reading to kids is the difference that makes the difference and this important life skill is key for individuals but also for future economic growth.”
To get this improvement in reading and a benefit in other key skills the ‘reading to’ needs to happen early. This is why Emma wants to support children to master reading and then to give them a platform to speak to Australia from.
Meeting her in the Café Go! in Geelong, Emma, instantly recognizable from her website, smaller in stature but larger in life. Emma is a blonde, petite woman of 46. Pure energy wrapped up in a dark oversized waterproof, it is pouring with rain, and she greets me with a big smile.
Emma is on a mission, “I am passionate about books and the power of the printed word” she says,“My mission is offer children the megaphone they need, to give them a voice through using books to express themselves.”
Technology, luck and pure drive have helped her to become the largest publisher of children’s books written by children on Amazon. What started as a personal passion transformed into a ‘calling’ as she got involved helping young people to read and to write through her workshops and now through her foundation, Child Writes.
“A turning point for me was when I read ‘Towards a better future’ a report published by the National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN). The part that resonated for me was the simple fact that a community that listens to its children clearly shows that it values its children and as a result keeps them safer. Children need the opportunity to ‘speak up’ and being published is a powerful platform to stand on. To be able to get to this point a child needs to be able to read and write, and being read to starts the journey to literacy”.
A Queenslander, born and bred, Emma talks enthusiastically about her own upbringing, “People matter in places like Toowoomba, children are everybody’s responsibility and child rearing is supported by a community. I want children to benefit like I did from the world of books. NAPCAN is clear that children really need to be visible and heard; they need a community around them to do this.”
The annual National Child Writes competition offers children an opportunity to create and publish their own book. Emma is clear that this is about so much more than writing and illustrating a book, “This is a real process with planning, deadlines and creativity and youngsters learn to communicate, priorities, cope with stress – all kinds of skills that empower them to do just about anything in the future. Being published is very powerful; it changes how people respond to you and your ideas. You can broadcast your ideas once they are in print, and people are more likely to listen.”
Abby Johnstone, the illustrator for the winning 2014 competition winner Mitten the Kitten said this about her experience, “I feel proud of my self. I know that not many 12 year-old girls in the world have the opportunity to publish their own book. I feel very lucky. To know that I worked hard and now I am published is really amazing. I’m really proud of what we have done.”
Hundreds of children have taken part in the annual Child Writes competition each year and Emma wants to use ‘International Read to Me Day’ as a way of connecting young people around the world to each other and to their communities.
“We all know it takes a village to raise a child, but it often takes a child to inspire a village into action. It is time to listen to that one child!”
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Contact Jill Borgiss at email@example.com.