Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Hollywood helps kids to read

Desperate bid to boost literacy levels by screening blockbusters with subtitles at schools

Lower decile school pupils are being shown blockbusters in class, in a desperate bid to boost their literacy levels.
Lower decile school pupils are being shown blockbusters in class, in a desperate bid to boost their literacy levels.

School children are being taught how to read and write by watching Hollywood blockbusters with subtitles.

Lower decile school pupils as young as 9 are being shown the movies in class, in a desperate bid to boost their literacy levels.

The radical programme is returning dramatic results, especially for Maori and Pasifika kids who previously showed no interest in books.

"It keeps them at school rather than being truant," says Faye Parkhill, a University of Canterbury education researcher behind the project.

Films such as The Last of the Mohicans, Whale Rider, Hook, Charlotte's Web and The Adventures of Tintin are making a big difference in engagement and enjoyment, particularly in South Auckland, she said.

Each selected movie is based on a classic children's book or story.

"In all cases, their progress is significant," she said.

"The most exciting thing is the sustainability. It's getting kids reading, and six months on, they're still reading. The more they read, the better they get."

Researchers say using subtitled popular children's movies increases reading mileage and fosters comprehension and fluency in reading.

Tailored literacy programmes go with each subtitled film, Ms Parkhill says.

The kids watch 10 to 20 minutes at a time, before pausing the movie and doing an activity on what they've just read.

Dictionaries are used to look up unusual words, and games are based around words.

Children often want to read the corresponding book once they've seen the film, Ms Parkhill said.

"It's not about just sitting there passively watching subtitles while a movie is being played," she says.

"Instead, the moving image is interwoven with activities that target specific literacy skills.

"Students love it. For Maori and Pasifika I think it's the moving image that's so powerful - they're reading it, they're seeing it, they're hearing it, so there's the multi-sensory input which I think is making the difference."

A large Auckland intermediate school, with 800 pupils, is involved in the project, along with five decile 1 or decile 1A schools in Hawkes Bay and others in Christchurch.

While the researchers don't advocate using popular film with subtitles to become the sole focus in literacy programmes for struggling students, results to date show it is worth further investigation, Ms Parkhill said.

She would like to see it rolled out to other schools across the country.

The New Zealand Educational Institute agrees.

"Anything that engages children and encourages or motivates them in an interest in the printed word is a really good strategy," says national president Judith Nowotarski.

Literacy is not all about the printed word.

Children who are struggling with literacy are often making more of a connection with visual aids.

The Ministry of Education said it is important for schools to engage students in a wide range of opportunities to support comprehension and fluency to keep them engaged in the learning.

"We welcome any initiative that does this," a spokeswoman said.

Worth reading

Bridge to Terabithia
Charlotte's Web
Race to Witch Mountain
The Adventures of Tintin
The Wizard of Oz
Whale Rider
The Seeker
The Last of the Mohicans
The Boy in Striped Pyjamas
The Golden Compass
The Tale of Despereaux


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