School Improvement Episode 33: Reading engagement in rural schools

This podcast from Teacher is supported by the Australian Volunteers Program. Are you interested in supporting communities overseas? Become a remote volunteer. Visit to learn more.

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell. In this episode of School Improvement, we’re taking you to a school in rural New South Wales where they’ve seen students in Years 5 to 9 read 12 books a year, and a 40 per cent increase in male students reading beyond their assigned texts.

It’s all because of the reading culture they’ve developed and Head of Middle School and English teacher Alex Wharton has had a key role in this. He’s been named a Commonwealth Bank Teaching Fellow this year for his work, and he joins me in today’s episode to discuss what they’ve implemented at Carinya Christian School to see more students pick up novels to read in their spare time. Alex shares some fantastic insights in this episode, so let’s jump straight in and hear first a little bit about the school context.

Alex Wharton: My name’s Alex and my role is Head of Middle School at Carinya Christian School in Gunnedah. So geographically, for listeners around Australia or perhaps the world, we’re about six hours northwest of Sydney, driving. Based in a rural town, our families and our schools families predominately come from mining and agricultural backgrounds and relatively low SES with our student population being about 20 per cent First Nations students and about 10 per cent from non-English speaking backgrounds. So, relatively diverse for our own culture.

Carinya is actually an Aboriginal world meaning ‘happy home’. And I think that really describes our school community feel in the fact that we are a Prep to Year 9 school and I’ve been there for a couple of years now. And I was actually responsible for leading the school from Year 7 up into secondary. So for many years Carinya in Gunnedah was just a K-6 school, but at the last couple of years we’ve been expanding into secondary – we’ve got Year 9 for the first time this year – and we’re busily programming and planning for Year 10 next year as well.

So lots that I love about my role. In particular I’m looking after the Years 5-8 program and so, yeah, that kind of upper-primary, traditionally early secondary, and really wanting students to look back – I’ve kind of got this vision of students looking back on their time at school and thinking, yeah, those years in particular were a real highlight for them socially, emotionally, academically, and yeah really making school and the richest experience it can be in particular.

Dominique Russell: Fantastic. And so obviously a big part of your work must be the Middle School Teaching and Learning Framework that you’ve developed with the year levels that you’re working with quite closely – and we know that you work quite closely with literacy and reading as well – so was it developed specifically for that, or was it broader than that?

AW: Yeah absolutely. So it’s kind of a Middle School Literacy Teaching and Learning Framework in particular, with a focus on literacy recognising that core aspect and that life skill. Which, you know, we often talk about all teachers being teachers of literacy in their own way and in their own professional key learning area and I think that’s really true.

And being a subject specialist myself, being an English teacher (and I was a Head Teacher before my current role), I really value that ability for literacy to underpin good writing, good reading, good textual engagement, as well as for our students as learners to be able to engage and access a variety of texts.

And so bringing all of that expertise and recognising that in a rural context, literacy gaps in student learning and achievement was a significant area for growth for our students. And particularly students who came in traditionally in Year 7 there’s often a big of an academic dip and gap which research backs up, just as that transition to high school takes place – so really wanting to map what are the key learning expectations for students?

And so with this particular teaching and learning framework that I’ve been working on now, it’s really focused on personalised learning. So being a smaller school really affords us the opportunity to get to know our students really, really well.

And some ways that we do that is through really quite explicit instruction – so we use a variety of things from explicit teaching to writing frameworks (something like ALARM, you or your listeners might be familiar with, which is a thinking and learning matrix). We also use ACARA, the Australian Curriculum, the literacy and numeracy learning progressions which is really tracking where a student should be at in terms of their particular literacy and numeracy skills – and again, having smaller class sizes, really knowing our students well in our particular context, being based in a rural community where we work so closely with our families and partner with our parents and school community, provides that opportunity for really deep learning experiences. And so we’re able to map and track student progress, which is really important.

When we think about mixed ability classes as well, we often have a lower end of students and we use what’s called a MacqLit program which is an explicit and systematic reading intervention program for students that struggle as kind of low-progress readers, and so really wanting to work with them to address gaps that they might be experiencing in their literacy learning. And then on the top end of a mixed ability class, we are really focusing on enrichment, on extension, and we use a whole range of different tools to do that, that range from kind of national writing competitions. And Gunnedah where I am is the home of the Dorothea Mackellar poetry awards, the national poetry competition, which we are really keen on supporting, and so really wanting to push that.

And then kind of our work on a daily basis as an English teacher, and with my colleagues, is really also kind of using our literature circles program, which we’ll talk about a little bit later, and some standardised assessments such as the ACER PAT test for example, and South Australian Spelling Test. And using our own professional judgement as teachers and triangulating that, I guess, with what we’re seeing in the classroom and with some standardised assessment to really be able to map and move students forward so that they can be really, really engaged students of English and literacy in particular as they progress through their years of schooling.

DR: Yeah fantastic. And so was this all implemented, this framework, when you expanded the school from primary to secondary school and how long ago was that?

AW: That’s right. So we’ve been on this journey just for a couple of years now so it’s still so exciting and so much of what we do as teaching professionals is regularly reflect on our practice. So we expanded into Year 7 in 2020 and that was really when the kind of genesis of the project came. And actually it came by doing some action research and thinking, okay, what are the needs of our students? Where are they coming from? Different schools and different backgrounds. And then working with colleagues to really put this in place and really kind of refine it and move forward and we’ve been able to do that for the last couple of years and we’ve got some great goals at school ahead that we’re working towards together.

DR: Brilliant. And so one thing that I found particularly fantastic is that you’re encouraging your students in Years 5-9 to read around 12 books a year, or to have a goal of reading that many books a year. And you’ve mentioned that you’ve got quite a close-knit school community there, so why was it important for you to be encouraging of reading this many books, particularly for students in this age bracket?

AW: Yeah absolutely. Well I think it’s a real need in our particular school, a kind of rural, agricultural community, thinking about our own demographic and kind of socio-economic status and area and the fact that we have lots of students that are really hands on, that like to do lots of things that perhaps after school, they go and help out on the farm, help our with their family, they’re active with their livestock and animals, and that’s a real reality for so many of our families.

And I think the flipside of that is, well, what role does literacy, and reading in particular, play? And thinking about the needs of our school community and perhaps those gaps, which we’ve kind of acknowledged earlier. And it’s not just kind of our rural communities, but I think all schools around Australia and indeed the world, are wrestling in the age of TV that’s on demand, of the time and pressures around social media and the screen, that the urgent and willing need to pick up a book for enjoyment is being often squeezed out of a picture. And so, you know, if we look at contemporary research, we’re seeing less and less students – particularly teenagers in that secondary age range and age bracket – picking up books to read in their spare time and I really think well what we’re trying to do, is literacy is just so, so key for life, isn’t it? It’s really the gateway to all careers and all opportunities for success.

And with these so many competing pressures for time, even more so should we be valuing the written word and the role of literature to engage with, to have a personal response with, and that’s certainly what we’ve seen some of the impacts of this wide reading literature circles program on our students. So it is very much a real need for our community, but that’s also shared in a much bigger picture as well.

DR: And so on a real practical level then, in terms of actually encouraging the students to read that often, is it something that is led really by the English department at your school, or is it really a whole school effort? And how many students are actually starting to achieve that? Has it been very successful?

AW: Yeah absolutely. First and foremost it is led by the English teachers, so myself and my colleagues. What’s really exciting though, it’s not just the responsibility – so we’re kind of almost the facilitators of this, so it’s really spread into a much wider whole school approach. And when we can get real kind of momentum and traction, of course, is when we’re working together across faculties with other colleagues, with parents, and across different schools – so you have junior school (K-4), obviously with our middle school, and then looking at the senior school for Years 9 and 10 and upwards.

And I also don’t think it should only be the responsibility of the English department. So with that kind of facilitator role, we are opening up the conversation to work with parents and involve them. So in the school newsletters for example, we might include our own book suggestions – of things that – ‘holidays are coming up, these are some books you might like to explore with your son and daughter’. You know, some Christmas recommendations for your family.

And it’s also got real traction – which is so exciting to share that it’s even led to projects like a whole-staff book club where we’ve had teachers be able to choose books that they’re interested in reading, reading it over the summer, coming back and sharing. And they range from professional, pedagogy textbooks, to novels, to non-fiction texts. And that culture of whole-school reading has really made some transformative impacts in our particular school community.

And I think what kind of underpins all of this is that wanting to move away from reading as a perception of being an academic, joyless task to one that’s actually very satisfying, that brings joy, that’s of an interest and indeed, dare I say, a hobby. That when students are faced with an opportunity of a bit of spare time, that they actually have that urge to read because they want to. And that’s come through collaboration and working with our parent community and fellow colleagues as well.

Coming up, Alex shares what novels have proved to be most popular with students. But first, here’s a quick message from our sponsor.

You’re listening to a podcast from Teacher magazine, supported by the Australian Volunteers Program. Did you know The Australian Volunteers Program is looking for teachers to support communities overseas? You can become a remote volunteer and help support positive change in developing countries. There are lots of education assignments now online. Visit to find the right volunteer assignment for you.

DR: I think something that I’m interested in too is how the texts are chosen by the students? You’ve mentioned there that you do give recommendations for families through the newsletter, but particularly for this age group in Year 5 to Year 9 when perhaps you might be getting new students coming in to begin at the school in Year 7 if that’s something that happens at Carinya. How are you able to really meet each student where they’re at in their interest level but also in the texts that are actually suitable for them?

AW: Yeah, it’s a real opportunity I think to get to know your students quite quickly and your learners by kind of having those conversations about perhaps what have they read in the past, what books do they enjoy, but not kind of then just making judgement calls on that, but then saying, ‘okay well here are some opportunities for you to challenge yourself, to expand your horizons’.

So these texts are chosen on an age and stage appropriate base. And, you know, our classrooms’ full with mixed abilities like I said and acknowledged before. And so that opportunity for students, often in groups of three or four, to choose a text themselves, so there’s that sense of voice and choice in the program, that they like the look of that particular book, they like the look of the cover, they like the sound of the blurb. I try not to influence their decisions too much and really just kind of give them opportunities. There might be eight different texts to choose from, for example, and they’ll kind of put a voting system together.

And so for them to have that voice and choice and opportunity to read for a couple of weeks, to get together with some other students to read and discuss – and they’ve got particular roles in the literature circles program where they might be asking questions, they might be reflecting on character and plot, they might be making connections with their own world.

And that ability to see the whole range of human emotions on display, always kind of fuses the discussion in the classroom and out of the classroom for students as they do find their way in the world. And that’s what adolescence is so characterised [by] isn’t it?

And that sense of self and searching and identity and how precious and special. We have that now as adults and as educators that we’re able to look back and say this book really shaped me and had an impact on me. And for our students in these particular years to be able to explore different styles and types of literature.

How would we go about choosing them? Well we’re always after new book recommendations. We’re always, kind of looking and reading ourselves as teachers and recommending, and that’s such an important part of it, to always be leading by example.

We have a real passion for focusing on Australian texts in particular, and I think that’s really important for, yeah, to kind of have that nature of representation. And in particular focusing on own voices authors and texts. So texts that are authentic, so thinking about First Nations and Indigenous literature. For our student population, to see themselves represented in book selection is really important, because it gives that authenticity. It gives that representation of voice that they can connect with.

And so always thinking about that and seeking to read ourselves, to share reading recommendations. And it’s really contagious – we’ve had such great success with this of increased borrowing from the library, increased student engagement and yeah, a whole range of positive flow on effects in classrooms across the school.

DR: In terms of the opportunities that students are given to work in these literacy circles, how often does that occur?

AW: Yeah the way I do it in my classroom is every Wednesday students get together for about 10 or 15 minutes at the start of the lesson where they get in their groups with other students who are reading their particular text. They discuss it, like I said, they’ll often will have different roles. And from there, it’s kind of a part of their homework and their reading, but as well as that they often go above and beyond because they’re so engaged in their texts.

And about a four-week rotation period, so as they’re journeying through it and working through their own reading goals, they often return them to our kind of literature circles library where they then have the opportunity to read and to borrow again. And students will recommend other books to each other, and it’s the most exciting thing when they say, ‘hey, I saw you read that book, you might be really interested in this one, I’ve heard it’s really good’, or I might have seen the movie. And it’s that opportunity to say well it’s not just a thing that we do in school.

And so we’ve seen this kind of wider cultural shift. And if we think about my school in the country, I’ve got students travelling on buses for up to an hour from their farms out of town and from neighbouring little villages and we’ve seen students come to school with their books still in hand and say ‘Sir, do you mind if I just finish this chapter, I’m just really, really engaged in it’. Or in the playground even, students wanting to sit there and read their books because they’ve got that passion and that urge and that excitement and enthusiasm. And that sends a tangible, visible message to other students, to other teachers, to parents walking by and that’s just such an exciting thing.

DR: You’ve certainly developed such a good reading culture there, that sounds fantastic. I’m interested if there have been any novels or texts in particular that have proved to be very popular with the students?

AW: Absolutely. It’s really interesting looking back now. So I think there’s certainly the kind of the traditional classics, so more traditional texts that are quite well established that students really respond well to and certainly connect with. And I’m thinking things in our literature circles program like Lord of the Flies, The Secret Garden, Of Mice and Men, students really connect with and find that sense of characterisation and links with their own world.

And then as well as that you’ve got more contemporary texts, such as I’m thinking, The Maze Runner series, the Divergent series, Hunger Games of course, even Anh Do’s Happiest Refugee. And it’s these texts that are contemporary that they might know of that have had collaborations perhaps with films before that piques their curiosity. And they’re often these dystopian texts in particular, these contemporary dystopian texts, are often the first to go with students being drawn to. Which is quite an interesting reflection on their interests and reading kind of captured attention.

DR: And something else I read was that you’ve seen about a 40 per cent increase in male students, in particular, reading beyond their assigned texts. Was this something that was a surprise for you, or was it something you were explicitly aiming to improve?

AW: Yeah absolutely it is such an exciting thing if you think about the nature of research in particular with boys and reading and boys and literacy, and often the media will pick up this kind of lagging behind females. And for myself being a male English teacher, and my colleague at my school who I am teaching English with is also a male. I think the nature of a positive male role models who are reading who are talking about the impact of literature on their lives, that emotional response and connection is quite powerful.

But even more so I think in our farming and mining, agricultural rural community I think that increase in reading that we’ve seen with more male students reading, going to the library, talking about the nature and impact of their texts has certainly just been this wonderful and exciting sort of flow on effect. Because it’s opened up more conversations about identity, about self. And it’s having really, really, exciting positive flow on effects. That students are seeing themselves in different ways and opening up new hobbies and new doors that perhaps were traditionally not as accessible to them. So that is just such a wonderful bonus and we want to keep seeing that excited growth and interest.

DR: Absolutely. I thought something just finally to ask you, I mean I know we have clearly seen throughout this conversation that the students have responded so positively to this program, but do you have any pieces of student feedback that you’d like to share or that you’ve received recently?

AW: Absolutely. So I think anything that we do we’re always looking to do better and of course student voice is absolutely key to that. So you have student voice in the program in terms of students actually choosing texts, and I think that’s one form of feedback – to see what’s being selected there and what’s not in terms of student choice. And when they select their text, we get them to vote as well in a preferential system. So not everyone can always get their first preference, but if they don’t get it the first time they can certainly get it the second time.

But more so than that, we’re seeing really exciting engagement with organisations like the Children’s Book Council of Australia. And that’s got an older readers category, for example, which is really focusing on young adult literature. And what we’re seeing with that is students’ kind of searching those websites on their own initiative and saying ‘what’s been shortlisted, what’s been recommended as a notable text, how can I expand my own reading?’ off their own bat. And that sort of feedback and conversations is so exciting and has also led for some opportunities for us to develop student book reviewers and students who are reading to share that, to write book reviews, to present book reviews in different formats and I think that piece of feedback of students going above and beyond on their own initiative.

And students are so capable, aren’t they? They continue to amaze us as educators every day and it’s one of the best parts of our job that we get to work with such exciting and dynamic young people. And I think that form of feedback of them off their own bat going to research and review contemporary fiction for their own interests, for that of their peer’s benefit, really sends quite a powerful meaning and at the end of the day as an educational leader, how fantastic and blessed are we to have the best job in the world that’s shaping young minds and helping these young people on such a powerful and exciting journey ahead of them…

…I’d just encourage your listeners to keep reading. I think it’s just so important, the nature of teaching and reflective practice is so linked with that. And really good leaders and teachers are readers. And so whether that’s professional reading, whether it’s short clips perhaps through the ACER newsletter, something that I always look out for in my inbox, including these podcast transcripts, podcast recordings, and I think that’s just a starting point to a much wider conversation about the role of literature in our schools. Whether that be staff book clubs, whether that be student book clubs and student literature and literacy programs to be really for the betterment of society as we keep working together in education.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed this episode from our School Improvement series, we have dozens of episodes freely available in our archives, which you can find on Apple podcasts, Spotify and SoundCloud. You can also find the full transcripts for all of our podcast episodes at our website, To stay up-to-date with our new episodes, be sure to subscribe to our podcast.

You’ve been listening to a podcast from Teacher, supported by the Australian Volunteers Program. Are you interested in supporting communities overseas? Become a remote volunteer. Visit to learn more.

Alex Wharton says ‘for our student population, to see themselves being represented in book selection is really important, because it gives that authenticity. It gives that representation of voice that they can connect with’. Reflect on how you are addressing this in your own school context. Do you have a diverse range of books available for students to borrow?

An important part of Carinya Christian School’s reading culture is the involvement of all staff, which has led to a staff book club. Is this something that could be considered for staff at your school?