Reading Gladiators

The story behind Just Imagine’s new scheme to encourage high attaining readers. It’s 8.00 midweek in early July.

It’s the day of the final Reading

Gladiators challenge in Barking and Dagenham. Team Gladiator arrives at Beam Primary in Barking and Dagenham armed with a cornucopia of art materials, sand timers, quizzes and certificates ready for a day of reading related challenges. A shiny new trophy is proudly displayed at the front of the hall. The winning team will be taking it back to their school. Two bright red directors’ chairs with the word ‘Judge’ are placed at the side of the room. Children from the host school are keen to help organise equipment and soon everything is set.

At 9.30 children from eight local schools start to arrive with their teachers. They are buzzing with excitement as they have been counting down to this final head-to-head since the beginning of the year. As they arrive, they are handed secret ballot papers to vote for their favourite book. The result will be announced at the end of the day’s activities. But before the announcement there are three group tasks to be completed involving art, drama and knowledge. All the challenges days have had a party atmosphere but today is a little bit special, it’s guest judge, Christopher William Hill’s birthday, so a chocolate cake and candles have featured in the day’s preparations (the children are sworn to secrecy).

This final celebration is the culmination of a year-long programme designed to encourage adventurous reading choices, develop sustained reading and ‘stamina’, support depth of reading and of course, to promote reading for pleasure.

The idea for Reading Gladiators arose out of a two-year project undertaken by Just Imagine to identify and develop the best approaches for supporting the higher attaining readers in the junior and lower secondary years. And to consider ways in which these approaches can impact on all children’s reading. One of the surprises uncovered by the initial auditing was that even the high flying readers tended to make restricted reading choices which didn’t venture much further than the most popular books. Of course children’s reading preferences are to be respected, but it quickly became apparent that in schools where there was no dedicated librarian or knowledgeable teacher, the opportunity to develop ‘risky reading’ at a crucial time when reading identities are forming was severely restricted.

Reading Gladiators is designed to address this. The programme combines a book club style approach, an emphasis on high quality dialogue, and a carefully curated collection of books organised to take children on a ‘reading journey’. Eight books are read over the course of eight months. Typically, the books read at the beginning are plot driven but there is a move to more reflective reading that the Gladiators themselves recognised as opening up new reading worlds that they wouldn’t have accessed, if they had been left to their own devices. It was exciting to see that these powerful reads were overwhelmingly the children’s favourites when votes were counted. Polly Ho Yen’s Boy in the Tower was the runaway winner in all regions with Sonya Hartnett’s The Silver Donkey and Kate di Camillo’s Flora and Ulysses jointly taking the second place.

There’s a competitive element to Reading Gladiators, with a series of mini-challenges set through the year, all designed to encourage deeper reading. The prizes are always reading related, with books and visits from the authors being typical rewards. Just Imagine director Nikki Gamble says, ‘If we get it right then the reading is its own reward. We didn’t want to promote the message that you read in order to have some extrinsic reward, such as a shopping voucher.’ And although competition is a motivator the model is derived from the sporting tournament with collaboration, co-operation and teamwork being valued. Gladiator groups share updates with each other via the Reading Gladiators website, where they can see what other children in their region are doing but also look at groups in other parts of the UK.

4 Books for Keeps No.220 September 2016

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