Literacy in lockdown

Dr Doug Van Belle from the University’s School of English, Film, Theatre, Media Studies, and Art History spent his lockdown helping create a read-a-long novel, helping kids across the world keep up with their reading skills during the pandemic.

The Kahutahuta book cover
The cover of The Kahutahuta

Along with voice actor Debbie Fish, Dr Van Belle has created a read-a-long version of his novel The Kahutahuta.

“My wife, a primary school teacher, was struggling to find online reading resources for her students that weren’t American,” Dr Van Belle says. “To help address that problem, I went to create an electronic version of The Kahutahuta so she’d have something Kiwi to share with her students.”

Originally, Dr Van Belle had planned to just create an electronic version of the book, but when he sat down to work on it he decided to try something more ambitious.

“A teacher who used the novel in her classroom had told me how she used it as a read-a-long, where she read it to the class while the students followed along in their own copies of the book,” Dr Van Belle says. “That seemed like it could be a good resource for parents at home with their children during lockdown—with a recorded read-a-long they could take a bit of a break, and give the kids a break from them, while still giving them something educational and entertaining.”

Putting together the read-a-long turned out to be more challenging than expected, however.

“It turned out I just couldn’t do it,” Dr Van Belle says. “Legally I could—I had reserved all the rights, and the FundABook reading and literacy charity was happy to put their stamp of approval on it. But my reading really wasn’t up to scratch.”

Through a local voice actor Dr Van Belle knew, he was able to connect with professional voice actor Debbie Fish, who volunteered to do the reading. Dr Van Belle then combined her reading with high resolution images of the pages so kids could view the pages and listen to the reading at the same time.

“Debbie did an amazing job at reading, and she probably saved us several days of work because she knew exactly what questions to ask before we got started,” Dr Van Belle says. “Combining the audio she’d created with high resolution images of the pages turned out to be a lot more work than I expected, but in many ways, the work was a nice distraction.”

“This was a great project to be part of over lockdown,” Debbie says. “Reading The Kahutahuta was the perfect way to contribute something worthwhile to kids and parents facing homeschooling, have a project to focus on in lockdown, and test out our new home recording booth as well.”

Dr Van Belle says he found life in lockdown to be a surprising challenge.

“The actual lockdown part wasn’t too bad, because I could easily keep working from home, but because so much of my research is on disaster risk reduction policy and the politics of disaster response I have found it difficult to deal with the mental stress.

The FundABook foundations of the US and New Zealand have made the Kahutahuta read-along available free of charge on YouTube.