Literature and the literary scene are often associated with bigger cities in Australia; however, children living and studying in regional and rural towns benefit just as much (if not more) from literacy programmes.

When you think of literature in Australia, cities like Melbourne and Sydney come to mind. With ample opportunities to pursue literary passions – publishing houses, writer’s programmes, prizes and competitions all within reach – it’s no wonder that bigger cities take the cake. Not literally, but literarily.

But when it comes to education in rural Australian towns, and more specifically reading and writing, children should have an equal playing field. After all, the power of storytelling knows no boundaries.

The power of literacy in schools

Reading is known to have almost only positive benefits – we are willing to overlook the risk of worsened eyesight in favour of such advantages as improved cognitive abilities, a heightened sense of empathy, lowered heart rates, and an overall happier, more well-rounded life.

Similarly, writing as a creative outlet is also considered to be healthy and good for the brain – it requires focusing of attention, planning and forethought, organisation of one's thinking, and reflective thought, among other positive abilities. It is then no surprise to think about how reading and writing might affect other areas of our lives – and how literacy from a young age shapes our way of thinking and being.

As past president of the International Literacy Association (ILA) Bernadette Dwyer points out, “literacy is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, and community engagement.” But where does literacy start? At school!

Children’s competency in comprehension begins even before starting school, but the programmes they encounter in their primary education have a significant effect on their literacy skills going forward. The power of this skill – of understanding and effectively using written language – has numerous benefits. On an individual level, it results in higher self-esteem, better problem-solving and decision-making skills, as well as developing independence and socialisation. On a societal level, it results in economic growth, reduced poverty and crime, and increased civic engagement.

Reading, writing, and literacy in general can therefore hugely contribute to the success of not only people as individuals, but entire communities and societies. But what is the difference between literary capabilities in urban and rural Australia?

Literacy levels in regional Australia

The past few decades have seen numerous research done on and around the levels of education and, within that, literary comprehension in rural versus metro Australia. While these findings are showing slight improvements over the years, there is still a great divide between the reading and writing skills of those children studying in regional and urban areas. 

Various papers written on the topic show that there is a positive correlation between the size and type of a community and the reading performance shown by its school children – with villages showing the lowest reading performance on average, and large cities showing the highest. Not only does this have a detrimental effect on the potential career opportunities and progression of people growing up rurally, but more importantly, low literacy levels often result in poor health outcomes long-term, including higher rates of hospitalisation and more frequent medical visits.

A lack of robust literary programmes in these rural areas can leave children unequipped both in their education and their health – not to mention the waste of potential that could emerge from these regional towns.

What can we do to support the development of school children living rurally?

Storyfest’s regional literacy programme

Storyfest’s mission is to inspire young people and families through all forms of storytelling – creating a positive impact and influence on individual’s lives and across the community. As part of this mission and in an effort to bring the power of storytelling to regional Australia as well, Storyfest has been developing a literacy programme aimed at the empowerment of school children in their relationship with books.

The programme, called ‘Storyfest Out West’, will consist of a two-day writer's festival in Longreach, delivering a series of literary experiences along with workshops and opportunities for budding readers and writers alike.

Taking Storyfest to regional Australia will help local children and their families acquaint themselves and intentionally interact with the literary world – by hosting workshops, interactive author events, and selling books of course, Storyfest hopes to not only spark a new interest, but to provide a means for a sustained, beneficial practice in literature for rural children.

As a part of the development of Storyfest Out West, the organisation is accepting donations, with an annual fundraiser, the Storyfest Soirée raising money specifically for this cause. Storyfest Soirée, presented by Thread Capital Partners, is billed to be a highlight on the Gold Coast calendar. To find out more about the event and how you can help us reach children and their families in rural Australia, click here.

While we have a long way to go when it comes to rural literacy programmes in Australia, Storyfest Out West is a great place to begin. Considering that time and time again research confirms that students from urban schools outperform students from rural and regional schools in reading and writing, bringing books and literature to rural Australia as part of the programme will set locals up with the foundations for improved literacy and a love of storytelling. These in turn will lead to all those benefits we love books for: empathy, curiosity, independence, creativity. But most importantly, healthy children who become healthy adults as part of a healthy society. That’s why rural literacy programmes are so important.

To find out more about how you can help Storyfest with our vision of positively affecting and inspiring a diverse audience of students and families, find out more here.