K.O.A.L.A Awards promotes children’s reading choice

by Professor Alyson Simpson, educator at the University of Sydney, and members of the KOALA committee.

The Kids Own Australian Literature (KOALA) Awards is a volunteer association that supports children’s reading choice. Founded in 1986 the awards aim to promote the enjoyment and critical appreciation of Australian literature by involving young readers from NSW in in the process of selecting their favourite books through nominating and voting processes. The awards give recognition to Australian authors and illustrators.

The first awards ceremony was held at Taronga Zoo in 1987 and the awards have run continuously ever since. The award categories now include picture books, fiction for younger readers, fiction for older readers and fiction for Years 7-9. KOALA has online voting through the KOALA website. KOALA also has a blog, and maintains a social media presence through its Facebook page and Twitter handle.

Children’s choice: Why is choice so important?

KOALA is a great example of student centred learning. Giving children choice about what they read is a crucial strategy that ‘encourages personal agency, supports the emergence of critical appreciation, seeds literary behaviours, and improves literacy skills’ (ILA, 2018, p.8). Because greater engagement with learning, increased confidence in reading and better learning outcomes are associated with free reading choice, teachers and librarians have a responsibility to build reading for pleasure into children’s experience with books (Cremin, 2014).

Children’s choice awards like KOALA are a valuable corollary to the testing culture that ‘dominates so much of a child’s reading life’ (Chiariello, 2018, p.10). This premise is strongly upheld by results for Australia in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) study (Thomson et al., 2016). The results show that the more opportunities students have for extended, free choice reading, the steeper the engagement with books becomes, resulting in more productive learning outcomes.

The use of literature to promote student motivation and engagement requires careful support from teachers who commit to creating a culture of reading in their classrooms (Cremin, 2014). Studies show the benefits of children’s choice are far ranging when incorporated into a structured approach to reading for pleasure (Safford, 2014). This makes KOALA a valuable pedagogic resource.

How does KOALA address English syllabus outcomes?

The Australian curriculum requires teachers to provide opportunities for students to ‘engage with a variety of texts for enjoyment’ (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2018). The value of establishing reading for pleasure underpins the NSW K-10 English syllabus (BOS NSW, 2012, p13). The KOALA Awards helps students achieve positive reading outcomes because the nomination and voting processes promote and encourage an active engagement in, discussion of, as well as a love of reading for pleasure.

For example, the objective, outcomes and content for Early Stage 1 and Stage 3 include:

KOALA Syllabus Outcomes

Why take part in KOALA?

A survey of international book awards noted that KOALA is ‘democratic in nature’ (Day, 2018), supporting student agency.

Teacher librarians and teachers are quite vocal in their support for KOALA. Typical comments remark on how the KOALA Awards:

  • gives students an opportunity to respond to literature, developing their own opinions about books and sharing recommendations with peers
  • supports development of ability to discuss and differentiate between different types of literature
  • exposes students to quality children’s literature
  • encourages students to develop critical appreciation through the experience of making a critical judgement
  • assists all students achieve their English outcomes because they read, review, discuss, think about, compare and ultimately enjoy great stories
  • helps students make their reading experiences and pleasures their own.

As one librarian states, ‘unlike book awards that are judged by adults such as the Newberry, Caldecott, CBCA, and others, children’s choice awards are judged by children. Children’s choice awards, like KOALA in NSW and the SMARTIES in the UK, demonstrate the passionate enthusiasm of young readers involved in a voting process that results in nominated books winning highly valued awards’.

The data collected over the last six years consistently shows that KOALA helps to introduce students to books they might not have otherwise read. Students often say it’s hard to know which books to read (Simpson, 2008) and note how important peer reviews are to them. That is why they find the KOALA shortlist so helpful as they discover new authors.

Authors and illustrators love KOALA too. One of the KOALA legends, Bob Graham, writes: ‘Somebody once said: reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. The KOALA Awards encourage reading, and young minds to be exercised (let off the lead and raced around the park, even). Please support these awards – they deserve it.’

How does KOALA run?

Joining KOALA is easy. Schools, public libraries, organisations and individuals can become friends of KOALA. The membership form can be mailed to KOALA at PO Box 279 Annandale NSW 2038 or emailed to contact@koalansw.org.au

Term 1 is nomination time

In Term 1, students nominate for book titles to go onto the short list. To help teachers advertise the awards category posters, nominating post it notes, video interviews with authors, and links to author websites are made available on the KOALA website. Teacher librarians make displays using all sorts of KOALA materials.

KOALA display

Selection criteria for nomination.

  • The book must be Australian.
  • The book must have been published in the last ten years.
  • The book must not be a previous winner.
  • Nominations must be for a specific title, for example, Selby Surfs not Selby books.
  • Students may nominate up to four titles.

Forming the shortlist – KOALA nominations are pooled with interstate partners such as YABBA and KROC to create a national shortlist with 4 categories. Members can download category shortlist posters, receive shortlist stickers for book covers and an invitation to awards day.

Terms 2 and 3 are for reading, enjoyment and voting

KOALA provides lots of resources on its website to encourage voting. There is an online voting portal through Survey monkey. Other resources include downloadable voting slips, advice on voting strategies, and results spreadsheets. The official REAL (Reading and Enjoying Australian Literature) poster is designed each year by a featured Australian illustrator that shows images of all the books shortlisted that year.

Term 4 is when KOALA celebrates

In Term 4, the KOALA Awards Day is held at a school venue. It is a very special day when students meet authors and illustrators, and authors and illustrators meet their fans. All the authors and illustrators give a short speech and, every year, a feature illustrator creates an image live on stage during the awards ceremony so students can watch the process from start to end. A lucky school is given the artwork to take home. Students report that KOALA Awards Day is one of their favourite events of the year.

KOALA NSW in KOALA Awards Day Preview (2 mins 35 secs) provides some highlights of past Award days.

In 2019, the awards will be held on Wednesday 13 November at Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Primary School in North Strathfield, Sydney.

Strategies to encourage students’ nominations

To encourage nominations teacher librarians use strategies including:

  • demonstrating the nomination process
  • displaying library circulation records to help students recognise the most popular Australian titles
  • providing resources for nominating near displays of KOALA books
  • showcasing previous winners of CBCA and KOALA to prompt comparison
  • discussing favourite Australian books with groups of students
  • showing students ways of identifying Australian books and authors
  • providing teachers a bulk loan of Australian books to read to their class
  • giving students a KOALA bookmark or I Love Reading sticker for nominating
  • creating an online survey of student opinions with fields for evaluative comments
  • creating KOALA displays or Kahoot! quizzes.

I love reading

Get students reading

Teachers use a range of strategies from simple to complex to encourage students to read books on the shortlist including:

  • reading the KOALA titles and discussing authors’ writing styles
  • adding KOALA titles to Premier’s Reading Challenge logs to broaden the genre base
  • asking students to rank the first lines of KOALA books in order of most enticing to read and persuade a listener that their choice should win
  • playing guess the book using the first lines of KOALA books to compare narrative orientations and write alternatives
  • studying publishers’ book trailers, noting the impact of multimodal resources to introduce story boarding
  • exploring shortlisted author and illustrator websites with students as preparation for an author study
  • analysing book covers to explore how the illustrative design foreshadows the plot.

Students experiment with technology for deep engagement

To encourage deep engagement with the KOALA books they have read, students can be invited to experiment creatively with technology. The following list has suggestions for encouraging student engagement.

  • Book trailers – students can use software such as Animoto, Microsoft Sway, iMovie book trailers or Claymation to create simple book trailers for titles they have read. This process helps them develop new literacy skills as they adapt monomodal print text into multimodal compositions. NB: The use of storyboard planning in the early stages is recommended.
  • Game based learning – working in pairs, students create Kahoot quiz to share their knowledge about a book. They then share game online to increase others’ motivation and engagement with the shortlisted books.
  • Coding – students can use software such as Minecraft Education Edition and Code Connection or Scratch to explore different viewpoints by creating story settings and characters with simple animation.
  • Blogging – sites such as Kidblog, SeeSaw and BlogEd/Blogger are suitable for students to set up a blog where they can post book recommendations. This activity promotes the use of critical and persuasive language.
  • Recording – students can create podcasts of read alouds to share with younger students or students struggling with their reading. This process supports reading fluency and encourages comprehension as correct intonation depends on understanding the text.
  • Interviewing – students, in the role of journalists preparing KOALA Awards Day news reports, can use Scratch Junior on iPads/ or Scratch Offline Editor on PCs to create question and answers for authors.
  • Sliding books – students can experiment by writing alternative endings or prequels to a book they have read. This work depends on deep understanding of plot development in order to provide a logical extension of the original.
  • Shelfies – students take a photo of themselves with a favourite KOALA book and post it to a protected class intranet Face+Book profile page to update reading status. This task encourages students to make use of simple digital skills to create a dynamic reading journal. The journals can be shared with others for the purpose of commentary and feedback.

KOALA’s children’s choice awards, underpinned by the ethos of by kids for kids, not only gives students agency as they learn that their opinions matter, but also offers them opportunities to read across a wide variety of literature. Involvement with KOALA can contribute to the establishment of lifelong, independent reading habits. Explore the website and find out what it offers.

Interested in becoming a KOALA member? It’s easy or email: contact@koalansw.org.au

References and further reading

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (2018). English: Rationale.

Board of Studies New South Wales (BOS NSW). (2012). English K-10 syllabus. © Board of Studies NSW for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales, 201.

Chiariello, E. (2018). Be their advocate: Children’s rights to read and our responsibilities to protect them. Literacy Today, September/October 2018, 8-10.

Cremin, T. (2014). The UKLA projects: Teachers as readers and building communities of readers. In T. Cremin, M. Mottram, F. M. Collins, S. Powell and K. Safford, Building communities of engaged readers: Reading for pleasure (pp. 89-107). New York, NY: Routledge.

Day, K. (2018). Prizing balance: an exploration of world children's literature.

International Literacy Association (2018). The case for children’s right to read. Newark, DE: International Literacy Association.

KOALA NSW. (2017). KOALA Awards Day preview. [Video file].

Safford, K. (2014). Reading for pleasure pedagogy. In T. Cremin, M. Mottram, F. M. Collins, S. Powell and K. Safford, Building communities of engaged readers: Reading for pleasure (pp. 89-107). New York, NY: Routledge.

Simpson, A. (2008). Reading under the covers: Helping children to choose books. Sydney: Primary English Teachers Association Australia (PETAA).

Thomson, S., Hillman, K., Schmid, M., Rodrigues, S., & Fullarton J. (2016). Reporting Australia’s results: PIRLS 2016. ACER Research.

How to cite this article – Simpson, A. (2019). K.O.A.L.A. Awards promotes children’s reading choice. Scan, 38(6).

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