Leveling Up Independent Reading

By Alex Corbitt, Middle School English Teacher

Fostering a strong culture of reading in the classroom is one of the greatest challenges a teacher can undertake. My first few years as an English teacher were fraught with frustration. My classroom library was barren, my students had little access to culturally diverse books, and my planning hardly granted students choice in the texts they read. As I gradually remedied these shortcomings my frustrations waned; books were flying off the shelves! Then, a new realization hit me: students weren’t finishing the books they started! How could I inspire more reading endurance in my kids? That’s when I turned my attention to video games.

Teenagers have four basic needs for survival: food, water, shelter, and video games. Whether we like it or not, our students are fluent in Playstation, Xbox, and Nintendo. How, then, do we leverage this this prior knowledge in academic spaces? Gamification could be our answer. Gamification is the integration of game qualities into an activity. In my case, I needed to find a way to make independent reading more like a game.

Role-playing games such as World of Warcraft and Skyrim center around completing quests, gaining experience points, and “leveling up” into exceedingly powerful characters. Gamers recognize that it takes time and effort to strengthen their characters. I’ve never met a gamer that was embarrassed that their character was weak and inexperienced at the onset of a game. Similarly, I need my students to realize that discerning readers gain proficiency over time through hard work and practice. I want my students to level up in the classroom!

To gamify reading I created a class set of five colorful bookmarks. Each bookmark signifies an exceedingly prestigious reading level: Reading Apprentice, Reading Knight, Reading Ninja, Reading Master, and Reading Titan. Students level up and earn new bookmarks as they complete more books. To reach Reading Titan, for example, students must read 20 books from September to June (two per month). Each bookmark comes with corresponding “power ups” such as: “you can borrow two classroom library books at a time,” “you can recommend books to the class during a lesson,” or “you may keep a classroom library book at the end of the year.” Note that these power ups all reinforce a love and passion for reading. I never want my students to read more in pursuit of candy or a pizza party.

Now my students complete more books. They proudly sport their bookmarks as a celebration of their hard work. Their self-concept as “readers” has solidified and all of a sudden… reading a lot is pretty cool! Perhaps most importantly, our classroom community recognizes that becoming a skilled reader requires practice and endurance.

In order to fight the dragon at the end of a game you need to raid a lot of dungeons and save a lot of cities. In order to become a Reading Titan you need to read every night and let wondrous stories permeate your dreams.

Alex Corbitt is a middle school English teacher in The Bronx, New York. His work focuses on socio-emotional learning, gamification, education technology, and literacy. He loves learning from other teachers and he regularly presents at conferences around the United States. He tweets at @Alex_Corbitt and blogs at alexcorbitt.com.

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